Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Baltimore Sun
November 1, 2001
Russians can't escape Muslim history
Long, complicated relationship persists

By Will Englund
Sun Foreign Staff

MOSCOW - President Vladimir V. Putin, like President Bush, says his country is fighting terrorism and not Islam, but this is a place where neither Putin nor anyone else can escape history.

Russia has a long and complicated relationship with the Muslim world. Russians have lived under Muslim rule and have imposed their power on Muslims. Russian Orthodox and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries, each absorbing culture and ways of thought from the other, but each remaining distinct.

"We can see that Russia is a part of Europe, but one that has been irradiated by the East," says Robert Landa, a scholar at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "So there are contradictions which are permanent."

The Russians believe they understand Asiatic thinking better than other Europeans. Russians are struggling with an Asiatic revolt in Chechnya and are worried about the storm that is breaking in Central Asia. As they have for centuries past, Russians see themselves on the front lines of Europe, and they don't find it a reassuring place to be.

Imagine Putin standing in Red Square for a moment, with his back to the high Kremlin wall. Slightly off to his right is a raised circular platform, where in czarist times unlucky prisoners were beheaded - that was an idea that the Russians, who in their forest days practiced neither despotism nor capital punishment, borrowed from their Muslim neighbors.

Farther off to his right rise the magnificent swirls of St. Basil's Cathedral, built to celebrate Ivan the Terrible's victory over the Khan of Kazan and his Volga Tatars in 1552. For 250 years, the Tatars had extended their yoke over the princes of Muscovy, and when the Orthodox Russians finally turned the tables, nothing would do but to build the finest Russian church in the world.

So delighted were the Russians by their achievement that, to this day, many churches here feature a standard Orthodox cross with one slight addition - an upturned crescent at its base, Islam symbolically vanquished.

The Tatars, who still live along the Volga, are hardly less passionate. Last month, in their capital city of Kazan, a day of national mourning was marked. Between 1,000 and 2,000 people marched through the streets, grieving their defeat 449 years ago.

An old imperial flag was burned, and protesters called for the creation of an independent state of Tatarstan.

Shield of Christendom

But return for a moment to Red Square. If Putin looks straight ahead he'll see the beautiful century-old building of GUM, Moscow's fabulous arcade of shops. Shops selling French perfume and Italian leather goods, Swiss watches and Belgian chocolates - all that outpouring of European taste and luxury, which Russians have for generations been taught was able to develop for one simple reason. Through the centuries Russia was the shield of Christendom against Islam. Russia suffered, so that Europe could prosper and grow wealthy.

No one, of course, believes that today. But everyone knows about it.

"Let's not look into the dark past," says Valiulla Khazrat, the deputy mufti of Kazan. "Russia shouldn't be a shield but a place where civilizations meet, a place for dialogue. Russia can only benefit from that."

Russians and Muslims have mingled for nearly a millennium. Russians borrowed Tatar words for things they'd never dealt with before, such as money, taxes, watermelons and suitcases. Apparently the early Russians didn't wear trousers, either, because that's another word they adopted.

Before the 1917 revolution, Landa points out, 17 percent of the Russian aristocracy had Islamic roots. Scratch a Russian, the saying goes, and you'll find a Tatar underneath.

But the Tatars and their neighbors the Bashkirs aren't the only Muslims who figure in Russian history. There were constant wars with the Turks. In the 18th century, Russia absorbed the Crimea. A century later, it conquered first the fierce and violent nationalities of the Caucasus and then the exotic and equally violent emirs and horsemen of Central Asia.

Russians built a fortress city for themselves in the Caucasus, and they called it Grozny, which means "terrifying." Those later Russian expansionists sensed treachery all around them, and they've passed that outlook down through the generations.

'They respect force'

"In the Caucasus and Central Asia," says Vladimir Lutsenko, who served as a KGB officer in both places and could have been speaking for all who came before him, "what was the biggest problem? They don't understand half measures. They respect force."

Under the Soviets, Islam was regimented and co-opted almost as much as the Russian Church was. There was a single Islamic hierarchy for about 42 million Muslims. Today there are more branches and offshoots than anyone can keep track of in the 15 nations carved out of the Soviet Union.

According to government statistics, there are 14 million Muslims in Russia, but it is generally believed that there are closer to 20 million. That would give Russia an Islamic population nearly equal to Saudi Arabia's.

In 1980, Tatarstan could boast 90 mosques. Today it has more than 1,000. Russia has two different grand muftis; many Muslims are disillusioned with what they see as infighting and corruption in both camps and have been receptive to splinter groups.

The Russian government and the mainstream Islamic hierarchies are deeply concerned about this trend.

"This could be the means by which alien elements will penetrate our population," Mentimer Shaimiev, the president of the autonomous republic of Tatarstan, wrote in a recent article in Izvestia.

Part of the problem, says Khazrat, is that young Tatars have had a chance to be educated abroad for the first time and have brought radical interpretations of Islam home with them.

Vitaly Ponomaryov, head of the Central Asian section of the Memorial Human Rights Center, says another issue is that several hundred thousand Central Asians have moved to Russia in the past three years to escape the poverty and repression of their homelands.

With them, inevitably, have come some radicals. About 150 members of an underground international Islamic party called Hizb ut-Tahrir, which wants to establish a worldwide caliphate, have settled in Russia from Central Asia, Ponomaryov says. Quietly, he says, they are trying to recruit new members from among the local Muslim population in the Volga River cities of Samara and Kazan.

"Some members of Hizb ut-Tahrir said they are sure that even within their lifetimes Russia will become an Islamic state," Ponomaryov says.

"And then on top of that, quite a few religious activists are here on their own," he adds.

Russia feels vulnerable

There are, of course, plenty of Islamic radical and fringe groups throughout Europe and the United States, in some cases in far greater numbers than here. But Russia feels particularly vulnerable because of its long southern flank, the continuing war in the Caucasus, widespread poverty and the presence of so many Muslims in the heart of the country. Tatarstan is the northernmost Islamic region in the world, and it lies due east of Moscow.

Chechnya, to the south, has been an open door for mujahedeen from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Russians say, despite the sometimes clumsy efforts of the Russian army to cordon it off.

No visas are required for any citizen of the Central Asian republics, even though Uzbekistan, for one, is contending with an armed revolt. That may soon change. Russia has already trimmed the number of trains and planes connecting to Central Asia.

Now Russia has joined in giving moral support to the United States, though there is unease in Muslim areas and there have been public protests in Kazan.

Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the Russian general staff, has said that Russian regions bordering on Central Asia "are not safe." The Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service warned last month that acts of religious-based terrorism in Russia will likely increase in the next two years.

The Third Rome

Return once more to Red Square. Imagine that the clock in the Savior's Tower of the Kremlin has struck noon. Priests bustle in and out of the reconstructed Church of the Virgin off to the left, where old women patiently scrape drips of candle wax off the floor. If Putin turns to face the Kremlin, he can just see the golden dome of the Cathedral of the Assumption rising above the Italianate wall. Russians used to call Moscow the Third Rome, picking up the mantle of Christianity after the first Rome fell to the barbarians and the Second Rome, Byzantium, fell to the Muslim Turks.

This is a spot that stirs Russian hearts like no other.

"Our people lived through centuries of the horror of forced Christianization," says Khazrat, the moderate deputy mufti. "We as citizens of Russia naturally want Russia to be our homeland, as well. We don't want Russia to be only for the Orthodox. We want Muslims to be able to live comfortably here, and to be proud to live here."

Putin wouldn't disagree with that. But there's a history here, and it's inescapable.

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