Tsars, Comrades and Prophets: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Islam in Russia and the Former Soviet Union

Term Paper 2009 10 Pages

Orientalism / Sinology - Islamic Studies


Short paper, Post-Soviet period

For almost a millennium Russia has interacted with Islam. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islam has had a considerable impact on the formation of a new Russian identity. The "ideological and cultural vacuum" generated by the enormous political change hampers the creation of this identity.[1] In the new liberty, formerly excluded and suppressed minorities strive for self-determination and recognition of their rights. The following study briefly depicts the new political situation. Further it analyzes the policies of the post-Soviet Russian Federation government and its consequences for Russian Muslims; it compares them with the policies of the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan. Using Turkey as a specific example, conclusions are drawn about the effects of this new socio-political climate on Russian Muslims.

The end of the Soviet Union did not result in economic and social prosperity. Russia's authoritarian and totalitarian past generated a weak civil society, which had, and still has great difficulties overcoming the breakup of the Soviet system. An economic and thus social crisis was the consequence, which provoked a decline in living standards, particularly noticeable among Russian Muslims. They represent a less developed, poorer social class in Russia and furthermore they never were recognized as equal citizens. This illustrates one out of many reasons for the "consolidation of Muslim's separate sense of identity" and their striving for autonomy or even independence. Another argument constituted the isolation from the rest of the Muslim community in the broadest sense. Suddenly, the new political situation permitted interactions with the outside world, which sometimes led to "a proliferation of unofficial Islamic organizations and illegal religious practices."[2]

The political contrast caused by the collapse was intensified by Yeltsin's initial libertine ruling. "He encouraged nationalist sentiments among the union republics" and "made concessions to non-Russian ethnic groups ... such as incorporating ... a provision guaranteeing the right of 'every people to self-determination in their chosen national state and national cultural form.'"[3] Political disputes, economic necessities and from the perestroika resulting decentralization are the main reasons for these concessions. However, after the initial confusion acquiesced, post-Soviet Russia attempted to recover their power by taking different approaches in the Muslim regions. First of all they sought to assert federal influence in the provinces by directly appointing regional officers, which resulted in a failure. Secondly, new constitutions should consolidate federal authority. In order to deal with the rise of nationalism in Muslim republics, Moscow established a system of power-sharing between the federal government and the single provinces, which was based on bilateral treaties. Initially the most Muslim republics sought cultural and administrative self-determination, which increasingly led to the endorsement of regional laws in contradiction of federal laws. This new political course also facilitated the rise of considerable inter-ethnic conflicts which reinforced independence aspirations and furthermore created a fertile territory for the ideas of Islamism.

In the end of the power-sharing negotiations, Chechnya was the only province which did not sign the Federation Treaty. Its strive for independence, combined with political disputes caused very high tensions and eventually resulted in the first Chechen War. In this case Yeltsin chose the use of military force as the appropriate federal policy. As Tatarstan, Dagestan, and other Muslim regions Islam played a central role in Chechnya, however only the Russian military intervention connected Islam to the regions' fight for independence. Subsequently Islam took hold in Chechen internal politics and it developed into a unifying and at the same time rebellious factor against the federal government. Shireen Hunter and Gordon Hahn both claim in their books that one of the consequences of the Chechen war was "the rise of Islamic extremism in Chechnya" and its spread in other parts of the North Caucasus.[4]


[1] Shireen Hunter, Islam in Russia: The Politics of Identity and Security, (London: M.E. Sharpe, 2004), 132.

[2] Hunter, Islam in Russia, 258.

[3] Hunter, Islam in Russia, 213, 214.

[4] Hunter, Islam in Russia, 228.


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Ben Gurion University
Tsars Comrades Prophets Historical Contemporary Perspectives Islam Russia Former Soviet Union



Title: Tsars, Comrades and Prophets: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Islam in Russia and the Former Soviet Union