Russia’s ambivalent Muslim heritage
The Putin government’s focus on violence demonstrates that Russia hasn’t learned from its long history of engagement with Islam. The Chechen War is not part of some Clash of Civilisations, but a retreat to a colonial policy that failed
On his recent visit to Brussels, Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned European leaders and journalists alike with his comments about the Islamic desire to establish a global Caliphate. Sensational in his rhetoric, Putin presents Russia’s brutal war against the Chechens as his country’s contribution to the international war against Islamist terrorism. But is it really?
Russia’s attempts to subdue the Chechen insurrection are but another bloody chapter in a two hundred year colonial policy that began with Russia’s subjugation of Caucasian mountain peoples in a cruel war that lasted for thirty years. This war lingered and flared well into the early Soviet era and, in 1944, the entire Chechen population was forcibly deported to Central Asia.
Fifty years later, President Yeltsin resumed the war when Chechens made a new bid for independence. So, from a historic perspective, it is more appropriate to compare today’s Chechen war with the other great wars of the era of de-colonisation, particularly the bloody French war in Algeria, than it is to view it as a “Clash of Civilisations” or a war on terror.
All the while, the fighting and ruined cities of Chechnya cast a shadow on the otherwise much more complex encounter of Russia with the Islamic world. Indeed, the Chechens are only a fraction of the 13 million Muslims who live in Russia — nine per cent of the total population.
But simultaneous with its attempts to crush the Chechen rebellion, Russia has pursued a very different path in its relations with the Volga Tatars and Bashkirs, who live in their own republics in the Volga-Ural area. In the early 1990s, Yeltsin concluded bilateral agreements with those republics, conceding extensive autonomy to Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Although restoration of centralised political power in the Kremlin has marked Putin’s presidency, Moscow and the two Muslim-dominated Russian republics still adhere to the Yeltsin-era bargain.
The ambivalent relationship between Russia and its Muslims is deeply rooted in history. Russia conquered Muslim territories in the Volga-Ural area, Caucasus and Central Asia, and brutally suppressed any resistance. However, after loyalty was secured, the government adopted a more pragmatic policy. Until the mid 19th century, sedentary Muslim elites were co-opted into the imperial aristocracy, just as, in the 20th century, national communist elites were absorbed into the Soviet nomenclatura.
Indeed, Russia’s contacts with the Muslim world go back thousands of years and were rooted in a tradition of tolerance. With a few short-lived exceptions, Russia’s imperial government did not support Orthodox evangelism. Forced conversion was unknown and Russia’s policy with regard to Muslims was guided primarily by the political and economic interests of the state.
After the Revolution, Soviet policy preserved the most important aspects of the old imperial approach. To be sure, the Communists tried to repress Islam as a religion — as they tried to repress all religions. But the Soviets encouraged the development of nations based on ethnic identity — Stalin, it is to be recalled, fancied himself a theorist of nationalities — and the ethnic identity of Soviet Muslims derived largely from their Islamic culture. In this sense, the Soviets helped keep Islam alive.
What few people realise is that, overall, the history of Russian-Muslim relations stand in sharp contrast with the policy pursued by most West European governments over the centuries — policies have been rooted in anti-Islamic stereotypes since the Middle Ages. In Spain and Sicily, Muslims were discriminated against, forcibly baptised, and expelled since the 15th century. Five hundred years of warfare against the Ottomans also helped to fuel anti-Islamic prejudices and intolerance. Indeed, whenever Russia (as in the first half of the 18th century) or the Soviet Union (in the late 1920s and 1930s) combated Islam, its rulers pointed to the western example.
The policy toward the Muslims pursued by the Russian Empire, by contrast, largely preserved ethnic and religious communities. This pragmatism has mostly been preserved to this day. Reverting to the imperial Russian tradition, Boris Yeltsin, as the first president of an independent Russian nation-state, sought realistic solutions for the Muslim republics that desired autonomy or, as Chechnya, independence. This tolerant posture gave way to war in Chechnya in 1994, but the armistice of 1996, which de facto recognised Chechnya’s independence, gave rise to new hopes of a better future.
In 1999 Yeltsin and Putin, his then prime minister, resumed combat. The Chechen war was exploited in Putin’s presidential election campaign and, after September 11, 2001, Putin has tried to legitimise his intransigence by presenting the war in Chechnya as Russia’s contribution to its emerging partnership with the US in the war against terrorism.
With the Soviet Union’s disintegration, Russia and the West lost the enemy each had seen in the other. Both deem Islam the new enemy, one held in common. What they fail to see is that Islam is not a homogenous entity and that today’s conflicts do not have religious or “civilising” causes, but are rooted in political, social and economic reasons. Indeed, many Islamic movements are largely a reaction to former or still existing colonial dependence.
The Putin government’s focus on violence demonstrates that Russia hasn’t learned from its long history of engagement with Islam. The Chechen War is not part of some Clash of Civilisations, but a retreat to a colonial policy that failed. _ DT-PS
Andreas Kappeler is Director of the Institute for East European History, University of Vienna. He is the author of, among other books, “The Russian Multi Ethnic Empire”