November 13th 2007 · Prague Watchdog / Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Russian and Muslim history

By Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh

By the time of Putin's presidency, the Russian state had consolidated its position and new ideology; and thus a new construction of Russian history was shaped following the usual pattern, where the new present usually leads to the creation of a new past.

This new ideology, at least on a semi-official level, is a construction that could be compared with that of the ideological construction of late Imperial Russia. Still, it has its own specific nature. While for most of the Westernized elite of the last years of Romanov rule Russia was a part of the European order, indicated above all by Russia’s alliance with France and England, the present-day Russian Westernized elite is not sure about this. Not just the USA but even Europe, for all of their attractiveness, are seen by some segments of the Russian middle class as alien or even hostile entities, despite all of the friendly gestures of Russians to fellow Europeans.

In this cautious vision of the West, Russian official ideology could well be seen in the context of the Slavophilism of the 19th century. However, contrary to the 19th century Slavophiles, present-day Russians ideologists see no friends among “brother” Slavs, as testified by the recent brush with pro-Russian Slavic Belorussians.

Still, despite the differences, elements of the ideology of the late imperial and late Stalin periods could easily be perceived in the ideological construction of the regime and, consequently, in its vision of the past. In this picture, Russia has always been a great nation, a mighty state, that protects/dominates numerous minorities, including those that historically professed Islam, who lived happily in the shadow of the broad wings of the Russian eagle.

This historical construction is increasingly challenged by Muslim intellectuals who have constructed their own vision of the present and the past, one which resonates among the Muslim masses. They, for a variety of reasons, are increasingly disinclined to be fused in the Russian melting pot. One of the major reasons why ethnic minorities and newcomers - and local Russians - do not usually see much difference between bona fide citizens of the Federation and foreign nationals who are not fused with ethnic Russians - is the endless harassment. Even those members who had not only lived in Russia but also in Moscow for generations have found themselves in trouble.

While deciding to have my shoes polished during one of my recent trips to Moscow, I encountered an Assyrian, a member of one of the small and little-known ethnic groups in Russia. The Russian Assyrians have historically been engaged in shoe polishing and repair for generations. A portly Assyrian woman complained to me that life for her and the entire Assyrian community became uneasy after the collapse of the USSR. Some of her complaints actually indicated that the Russian melting pot is still able to absorb some isolated groups of minorities. She said that Assyrians in Moscow were isolated. She said that their priest came from Iraq, but that local Assyrians could not understand him. And she ended her litany with a gloomy statement to the effect that God had punished them for the brutality of the past. The isolation of the small Assyrian community seems to be leading to the natural process of slow assimilation. She said that while she knew the language, her children and grandchildren were assimilating.

Although the Russian melting pot seems to be working, at least in the case of the small and isolated Assyrian community, it has still been unable completely to absorb the Assyrians and other small minorities, even when they become thoroughly Russified both culturally and linguistically. The reason for this is the endless harassment by ethnic Russians. Increasingly, even those ethnic minorities who speak Russian as their own language find it hard to avoid the notion that it is blood/race that really counts. The sense of alienation from ethnic Russians reinforces this mood among the various ethnic groups.They often have no sense of solidarity and frequently regard one another with suspicion. My Assyrian interlocutor complained that before the collapse of the USSR everyone was treated well; but now, she says, she is taken for Armenian, and harassed. She complains that she is a grassroots Muscovite and, thus, not just by law but even more by a sort of informal tradition, has a right to live in Moscow and not be treated as a newcomer from the Caucasus.

If even the natives and Russian-speaking minorities with no accent could be harassed, this was even more the case with those people who came from the ethnic enclaves of the Russian Federation, or what Russians call the "near abroad”, with their limited linguistic skills and clear differences from Russians in habits and culture. One of my Moscow market acquaintances of Turkic origin complained that Russians did not like them and accused them of all kinds of crimes. In some cases, the harassment turned to actual violence. A student from India whom I met in Ekaterinburg told me that he "loved” Russian culture: but he was beaten severely by skinheads and spent some time in hospital. He was also assaulted in Moscow, and he knew of several similar cases. The alienation from ethnic Russians is a powerful incentive for minorities, including those who profess Islam, to create their own alternative vision of history as the ideological framework for their conflict with Russians.

Alternative vision of history

The challenge to semi-official and official Russian history came about in a variety of ways. One of these interpretations, while implying that Muslims and Orthodox Russian, indeed, lived together for centuries, stressed that Muslims were not second fiddle. On the contrary, they played a crucial role in the creation of Russian/Eurasian civilizations. This reshaping of the past started with a reevaluation of the beginning of Russian history. In this interpretation, Russian history did not begin in Orthodox Kievan Russia but actually in Turkic Muslim Volga Bulgaria, with the ancestors of the Tatar people. It was the Bulgarians who faced the first onslaught of Mongols and thus reduced their destruction of the Slavic land on the West and Europe in general.

At the same time, in another interpretation - and, here, the Mongols re-emerge as a positive force - it was the Mongols/Tatars who destroyed the forces of the West that aimed to conquer Russia. It was the Mongols/Tatars who played the crucial role in defeating the “dog knights” in the Battle of Ice in 1242. The Golden Horde, the Tatar-Mongol empire that ruled over Russia for more than 200 years, was the umbrella that made it possible for Russia to flourish.

These ideologists harken back to the Eurasianist paradigm. Still, in this interpretation, there are certain unique elements. In this interpretation, the Tatars/Mongols, of course, actually became a civilizing and peculiarly europeanizing force. In fact, according to this paradigm, in future years both Bulgarians and Tatars/Mongols spread education, industry and tolerance, regardless of creed and ethnicity. The Tatars emerge here as Europeans on the outskirts of Europe, shedding a civilizing light on the backward, brutish, intolerant and - actually - Asiatic Russians who in their political culture manifested the worst elements of "Asiatism.” The Tatars and other Muslim peoples played a continuously crucial role in protecting Russia in upheavals and wars from the 17th century to the present day.

Another paradigm implies a different vision of Orthodox Russian/Muslim relations. This theory discards the notion of peaceful cooperation between them and emphasizes the Russians’ domination. In this paradigm, the benign nature of Russia’s actions was totally discarded. Instead of vicious Asiatics who fell upon the peaceful Russians, a popular theme among some nationalistic writers for a long time, it was the vicious Russians who fell upon the peaceful Muslims. This story began with Russia’s conquest of Kazan in 1552, evolved with the conquest of Siberia, and reached its climax in the 18th-19th centuries with the genocidal conquest of the Caucasus, where the Muslims were massacred en masse. The brutal tactics of the Soviet regime in this respect were simply a continuation of centuries-old tradition. The question is, of course, to what degree this intellectual construction penetrated the minds of the Russian minority masses. One can assume, at least from the anecdotal evidence, that this did indeed take place.


What is the practical implication of these different visions of the past and the present? It clearly indicates that deep problems exist: the conflict between Russians and the state's various ethnic minorities. It might well be argued that these problems could be ignored or marginalized, for they have always existed. Still, there is reason for concern. First, these conflicts/tensions could safely be ignored only if the state were to maintain its absolute authority and no crisis lay ahead. Secondly, even if the state maintained its grip over society and dealt quickly with occasional revolts, as in Kondopoga and Stavropol, the demographics - the increase of the proportion of minorities in the Russian population - could well lead to problems in the future, regardless of the viability of Russia. And for this reason the images of the past and, consequently, of the present, might be seen in hindsight as a sign of things to come.


Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University South Bend, USA, and a regular contributor to Prague Watchdog.


 · The ethnic riots in Stavropol (PW, 26.6. 2007)



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