Sunday, October 4, 2015

Few Russians Actively Support Religious Obscurantism Even When They Go Along with It, Kirillova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 4 – In his “Letter to Soviet Leaders,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn said they should be aware that in the event of a war with China, only a tiny fraction of the Soviet population would be willing to die on behalf of the idea that the sacred truth in Lenin’s writings was on one page rather than another.  “Only the very first will die for that,” he warned.

            Much the same thing is true now regarding Orthodox religious obscurantism in Russia, Kseniya Kirillova writes. No more than four percent of even active members of the Russian Orthodox Church support religious radicals, although most don’t protest because of the usual Russian assumption that this is the way things are (

            In an essay taking on the all-too-easy assumption of some Western writers that recent outbursts of Orthodox fundamentalism that have enjoyed at least the passive support of the Russian government point to the emergence of a new “dark ages” in Russia “hardly less than that of ‘the Islamic state.’”

            A major reason for that conclusion, Kirillova says, is that the attitudes of various groups within the Russian Orthodox Church, however much some in the Moscow Patriarchate or in the Kremlin might like them to be otherwise, are hardly inclined in the direction of “Orthodox fundamentalism.”

            First of all, there is within the Russian Orthodox Church a large stratum of “’intellectuals,’ people who came to the faith consciously, most often in Soviet years during repression or at the start of the free 1990s. The majority of them are part of the liberal intelligentsia of perestroika times.”

            They know about church doctrine, typically are well-educated and thus appalled by the current Kremlin ideology which although it cites religion frequently is anything but informed by Christianity.  Such people are to be found not only in the population at large, Kirillova points out, but also “among the clergy.”

            Second, there is another group of “’sincerely believing people,’” those who may not have significant education secular or religious but who are quite involved with church life in acts of mercy and providing assistance to those in need as church doctrine requires.  Such people typically avoid any contact with the state.

            And third, and in fact the majority consists of those “who go to church only on holidays, do not know the basic features of Christian teaching, and do not intend to change their lives to bring them into line with Orthodox doctrine. “For such people,” Kirillova says, “the official church plays approximately the same role today that the CPSU played” in Brezhnev’s times.

            Such people and they are very much part of the Putin majority do not take seriously the declarations of the hierarchs. They are loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church “when it, in their understanding, ‘defends Russian identity from the aggression of the spiritless West,’” and “they are really proud” when Church leaders talk about how exceptional Russia is.

            But that doesn’t mean that such people accept the ideas of Church radicals on gender roles or personal behavior. And their apparent support of the acts of vandalism by the radicals is not about shared “’religious feelings’” but “only because ‘this is how it must be,’” that is, that is how the state wants things to proceed.

            At the same time, Kirillova suggests that Aleksandr Rubtsov was correct when he observed that “now, the conflict of fundamentalism with the contemporary world has become a sign of the times,” and that Russia “is beginning to reproduce this conflict within itself” in often disturbing ways (

                The point here, of course, is that there is a real conflict in Russia as elsewhere, Kirillova says, adding that Moscow has an additional reason for not supporting Orthodox religious radicals.  By doing so, she says, it would be opening “a Pandora’s box” given the presence of other faiths and thus creating a disaster from which Russia would hardly be able to escape.

Gastarbeiters in Russia Contributing to Islamic Radicalism in Central Asia, Moscow Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 4 – Among the factors promoting Islamic radicalization in Central Asia, Rakhimbek Bobokhonov says, one of the most serious at present consist of the gastarbeiters from that region now in Russia, what happens in their families while they are away, and how they themselves behave after their return.

            In the course of a major study of the history of Islam in Central Asia, Bobokhonov, who is a senior scholar at the Center for Civilizaitonal and Regional Research of the Moscow Institute of Africa, says there are many indigenous reasons for Islamist radicalization but that gastarbeiters are playing an ever-increasing role (

            At the end of Soviet times and the beginning of the post-Soviet period, he argues, ignorance among the population about Islam, the result of Soviet anti-religious policies, left the peoples of Central Asia available for mobilization by radicals from abroad who came as missionaries and who offered training in other countries.

            Later, he says, the Islamists gained in numbers and influence because of the lack of any other channels for expressing their views or even solving personal problems like healthcare, given the authoritarian nature and weak development of public institutions in post-Soviet Central Asia.

            Over the last decade of so, outmigration from the region and especially from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan “also has an indirect relation to the process of Islamization of contemporary Central Asian societies” given the specific features of the gastarbeiter movement and its impact on members of migrant families left behind.

            In the summertime, Bobokhonov notes, “when many mmigrants leave for work in Russia, the number of parishioners in mosques throughout Central Asia is much reduced,” but that has consequences: “Many migrants from the region are rural residents who earlier strictly observed shariat norms at home.”

            “When [such people] come to Russia and find themselves in a secular urban milieu, they become even more religious.”  There are several reasons for this, the Moscow scholar says. Most of them work at large construction sites where Muslim groups are already functioning, and they have to become part of these to get along, especially “in the first months of their life abroad.”

            And while the migrants consist of many different nationalities, on arrival in Russian cities, they organize themselves less on that basis than on the basis of religion. That reduces the importance of ethnicity for them and increases that of religion, a trend that plays into the hands of Islamist radicals who maintain that faith takes precedence over national identity.

            Other facts of life in Russia also push Muslim gastarbeiters toward the Islam.  “Some migrants, while working in various cities of Russia and observing unemployment, alcoholism and drug use among the local population, become as a result more responsible themselves and more committed to their faith.”

            And other migrants who work in cities like Kazan, Ufa, and Yekaterinburg which have “major Muslim communities” and Muslim infrastructure assimilate to that and in doing so see their religious consciousness increase as a result, Bobokhonov continues.

            But there are other ways in which the gastarbeiter experience promotes Islamist radicalization, he says.  Gastarbeiters earn more money and thus are able to “acquire new communications technologies and use the Internet, video, and satellite antennas.” As a result, they visit varioius social sites and are drawn into Islamist conversations.

            A second and perhaps even more significant way in which gastarbeiters promote radicalization, he continues, is the impact their departure has on gender roles in Central Asian families.  With their husbands in Russia, Central Asian women are forced to assume “many traditional male obligations.”

            Among these are the religious education of children, something the traditionally more religious female part of the population may push even harder than did their husbands. And consequently, when Central Asian governments try to restrict mosque attendance, these women take their children to underground mosques whose mullahs are often far more radical.

            As a result of all these factors, “the Islamization of contemporary Central Asian society is consistently intensifying the role of political Islam,” something new everywhere in that region except Tajikistan and something the other governments have not yet figured out a way to effectively oppose.

Tatarstan’s First President Says Powers of Non-Russian Republics Can and Must be Expanded

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 4 – As he often did when he was president of Tatarstan, Mintimir Shaymiyev now in semi-retirement has spoken out in defense of the rights of Tatarstan and other non-Russian republics and very publicly argued that these rights must be expanded if the Russian Federation is to remain stable.

            In a ten-minute speech at the second inauguration of his successor Rustam Minnikhanov last month, Shaymiyev said to enormous applause that the residents of Tatarstan “like both the president himself and the title of the highest official of the republic,” a title that he says “unifies and strongly unifies us” (

                And the former president added in what some will see as a provocation: “I will tell you why: because this word isn’t subject to translation into Tatar or to Russian. That is where its force and authority lie!” – all the more so because he called on Tatars to “hold on” until the 100th anniversary of the republic in 2020.

            Shaymiyev said that the election of the republic’s president showed the way in which such votes can unify a people. Not only did rural residents overwhelmingly support the president, but residents of the capital, often the most skeptical of Tatars, backed him as well despite all the difficulties in the economy just now.

            This pattern, he continued, demonstrates that “the further strengthening of accord and mutual understanding in Tatarstan and on the whole in Russia society is passing the test of time.”

            “Particularly in the last 25 years after the adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty by our republic,” Shaymiyev said, “Tatarstan like all of Russia at the beginning of the perestroika years declared the broadening of its rights while at the same time taking responsibility for securing the stable development of the republic.”

            Tatarstan has passed that test, and “a little more than five years from now,” he continued, “we Tatarstantsy will mark an historic event – the centennial of the formation of Tatarstan and its statehood.”  Soviet constitutions defined it as an autonomous republic; the Russian one defines it “as a republic possessing state sovereignty on the basis of the delimitation of authority.”

            As federal relations are “perfected” and as “the democratization of Russian society” proceeds, Shaymiyev concluded, “we will constructively give new content to our statehood in the future.”

            In a commentary on this remarkable speech entitled “We Can,” Rashit Akhmetov, the editor of “Zvezda Povolzhya,” praises Shaymiyev’s words as a reflection of the aspirations of the people of Tatarstan and extends the former president’s ideas in important ways (“Zvezda Povolzhya,” no. 35 (763), October 1-7, 2015, p. 1).

            Noting the enthusiasm with which the former republic president’s words were greeted, Akhmetov asks: “How after these words could be liquidated the title of ‘president’ before January 1, 2016?  2.3 Million votes for Minnikhanov were votes for him and also for his position.”

            The agreements Shaymiyev reached with Moscow earlier mean that his successor must retain that title. Moreover, the Kazan editor says, even Putin has recognized this by saying that “preserving the title of president of Tatarstan is the right of the people of Tatarstan.”  Akhmetov notes that Putin did not say that this was the right of the Russian Duma.

            Given Russia’s current economic crisis, the editor of “Zvezda Povolzhya” continues, Moscow would be extremely foolish to talk about changing this title or taking power away from the non-Russian republics. Doing so would only destabilize the situation, something that neither Moscow nor the country can afford.

            In his lead article, Akhmetov makes one other noteworthy observation. He says that all the talk about the restoration of the monarchy in Russia is extremely dangerous because it could lead in Russia to “the restoration of the system of autocracy” and that in turn would involve the destruction of the non-Russian republics.

            Some may think otherwise, the editor acknowledges, but they should remember that, “as they have said in Russia,” they may “want better” but it would likely turn out “like always.”