Russians can't escape Muslim history

Long, complicated relationship persists

War On Terrorism

The World

November 01, 2001|By Will Englund | 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.

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