Today, I am beginning a series of articles on the very complex topic of Russia and Islam, a topic which is mostly overlooked in the West or, when it is mentioned at all, is often completely misunderstood. I have been researching this fascinating topic for many months already and there is so much to say about it that I have decided to write a series of installments, each one covering one specific aspect of this topic. The nature of the current relationship and interaction between Russia and Islam is a very complex one, with spiritual, political, social, economic, historical and geostrategic aspects. Without already jumping to my conclusions, I will say that the dialectical relationship between Russia and Islam is, I believe, currently undergoing some profound and very dynamic changes which makes it impossible to confidently predict its future.
But first, it is important to stress here that Russia and Islam are not mutually opposite or mutually exclusive concepts. While relatively few ethnic Russians are Muslims, Russia has always been a multi-ethnic state, even when it was just a relatively small principality centered on the city of Kiev.
The word “Russian” in English is used to express two very different Russian concepts: the word “Russkii” means “Russian” as in “part of the Russian ethnicity or culture” and the words “Rossiiskii” which means “part of the country of Russia”. Likewise, when Russians speak of “Russkie” they mean the Russian ethnicity whereas when they speak of “Rossiiskie” they refer to the nation-state, to a geographical area. Take for instance the current Minister of Defense of Russia, Sergei Shoigu. He is an ethnic Tuvan through his father (and an ethnic Russian by his mother). If we ignore his maternal lineage, we could say that he is not a ethic Russian (“Russkii”) but he is a Russian national (“Rossiiskii”). By the way, Shoigu is not an Orthodox Christian, as most ethnic Russians, but a Buddhist. Likewise, Russia’s Minister of Internal Affairs between 2003 and 2011 was Rachid Nurgaliev, an ethnic Tatar, who was born as a Muslim but who eventually converted to the Orthodox faith. Again, he would be considered as a “Rossiianin” (Russian national) but not as a “Russkii”.
So while relatively few ethnic Russians are Muslims, there have always been many other (non-Russian) ethnic groups included in the Russian nation, including many Muslims, and these ethnic groups have often played a crucial role in Russian history. From the Vikings who founded the Kievian Rus’, to the (mostly Muslim) Mongols who helped Saint Alexander Nevsky defeat the Teutonic Knights of the Papist Northern Crusaders, to the two Chechen special forces battalions who spearheaded the Russian counter-offensive against the Georgian Army in the 08.08.08 war – non-Russians have always played an important role in Russia’s history and the existence of a fully legitimate historical “Russian Islam” cannot be denied. Put differently, if “Russkii Islam” is really a minor, almost private, phenomenon, “Rossiiskii Islam” is an phenomenon present throughout the 1000+ years of Russian history and an integral part of Russia’s identity.
This is particular important to keep in mind when one hears the mis-informed opinions of those who would have Russia as a part of the so-called “Western Christendom”. Let’s make something clear, the most frequent and meaningful form of interaction the Russian nation has had with Western Christianity was war. And every single one of these wars was a defensive war against a Western aggression.
It is true that a good part of the Russian Imperial nobility, which was often of Germanic ethnic extraction, and almost totally composed of active members of the Freemasonry, wanted Russia to become part of the Western civilization. However, this has always been a fashion only amongst wealthy elites, the already very westernized classes, what Marx would call the “superstructure” of Russia. The Russian Orthodox masses, however, were culturally far closer to their Muslim or Buddhist neighbors than to the westernized elites who took over the reigns of power in the 18th century under Tsar Peter I.
While before the 18th century nobody would seriously claim that Russia was part of the Western civilization, after the 18th century there has been an almost continuous effort made by certain members of the Russian upper classes to “modernize” Russia, which really meant *westernizing* it. From Tsar Peter I, to the Decembrist Freemasons, to the Kerensky regime, to the Eltsin years, Russian “Westernizers” never gave up their struggle to turn Russia into a Western state. I would even claim that the entire Soviet experiment was also an attempt to westernize Russia, albeit not along the usual Papist or Masonic models, but along a Marxist one. What all these models have in common is a visceral dislike for the real Russian culture and spirituality, and a obsessive desire to “turn Russia into Poland”. The perfect expression for this disdain/hatred for the Russian culture and nation can be found in the following words of Napoleon who said : “Grattez le Russe, et vous trouverez le Tartare‘’ (scratch a Russian and you find a Tartar). Coming from the “Masonic Emperor” who used the sanctuaries of the Russian Orthodox Churches as stables for his horses and who, out of spite, attempted to blow-up the entire Kremlin, these words reveal the roots of his real aversion for the Russian people.
In contrast, 500 years before the (mostly Muslim) Mongols who invaded Russia usually treated the Russian Church and the Orthodox clergy with utmost respect. Sure, they did not hesitate to burn down a monastery and kill everybody inside, but only if the monastery was used by Russian insurgents in their struggle against the invaders. And yes, some Mongols did force Russian princes to walk through their pagan “purification fire”, but these were not Muslim, but pagans. The undeniable fact is that when Russians were subjected to the Muslim yoke it was always far less cruel and barbaric than what the Papist, Masonic or Nazi invaders did every time they attempted to invade and subdue Russia. This is why there is no real anti-Islamic current in the Russian popular culture, at least not before the Soviet era which, unfortunately, fundamentally upset a delicate balance which had been reached before 1917.
In the past, westernizing forces saw themselves are “Europeans”, as opposed to “Asians”, and it is quite remarkable to see how these westernizing forces have become anti-Muslim nowadays (more about that later). While they wholeheartedly support the freedom to organize so-called “Gay pride” parades or the actions of “Pussy Riot” group, these Westernizing forces are categorically opposed to the right of young Muslim girls to wear a scarf on their heads while in school.
Frankly, I do not want to spend any more time discussing the pro-Western forces in Russia mainly because they really have been weakened to the point of representing less than 1 or 2 percent of the population by now. I have to mention these forces here, mostly as a leftover from almost 300 years of unsuccessful attempts to westernize Russia, but this is not were the “interesting stuff” is happening nowadays. Nowadays, it is the heated debates about Islam inside and amongst the various anti-Western or “patriotic” groups which is so interesting, and this will be the topic of a future installment. But next, we will need to look at the current spiritual condition of the majority of the Russian people.