BEARR Trust Annual Lecture 2010
Anatol Lieven, Professor of International Relations and Terrorism Studies at King’s College London, gave the Annual Lecture on May 25th 2010, on the subject of Russia and Islam.
It was appropriate that Anatol Lieven was introduced by Geoffrey Hosking, Patron of BEARR and Emeritus Professor of History at UCL SSEES, for he put the subject of ‘Russia and Islam’, one that seems a most pressing contemporary issue, into a historical framework stretching back at least one thousand years. The perspectives and insights afforded by this approach were fascinating, especially when Lieven drew comparisons between the experiences of Russia and Western Europe, in particular Great Britain.
Did a clear forecast or obvious policy prescriptions emerge? Judging by the searching questions put to Lieven at the end of the lecture, and his thoughtful replies, it is easier to understand the historical context than it is to predict the future. Both Britain and Russia have Muslims in senior positions in their governments; the question common to each country is whether these leaders will carry the moderate majority of their rapidly growing Muslim populations, or whether a radicalised minority will prevail. And Russia already has messy problems to deal with in the North Caucasus and, potentially, in former Republics where the Muslim population is the majority. Lieven’s predictions were more certain here: Russia has no choice but to remain in the North Caucasus for the long term, chipping away at corruption, relying on local division, and trying to consolidate loyalty where it can. As for former Republics, the last thing Russia wants to do is recreate the former Soviet Union – good relations with the new leaders, and negative influence, in the sense of keeping other countries at bay, are the objectives. Deep political control and financial commitments are to be avoided.
Several questions from the audience touched on the extent to which impressions of extreme racism in parts of Russia, often directed against people of North Caucasian and Central Asian appearance, can be generalised. Lieven, while warning that no country can be complacent about ‘skinhead racism’, felt that racial attitudes in Russia must be carefullyunpicked with reference to their historical roots. Racial intermixing has been a central feature of Russian life for so long that discrimination by appearance is difficult. Partly this reflects the fact that the Russian empire was land-based, making it harder to run on lines of racial exclusivity than the Western European sea-based empires. Russians have been inter- reacting with Muslims for more than one thousand years. The Tatars converted to Islam at about the same time that Russians converted to Orthodoxy, but the intermixing of the two groups gave rise to the observation ‘Scratch a Russian and find a Tatar’. The significant
presence of Tatars, as well as North Caucasians, in the Russian elite since the 16th century, when Ivan the Terrible switched from persecuting Muslims to more formal management of the relationship, has left a legacy of well-known names in Russian public life, such as Yusupov and Turgenev. Many converted to Orthodoxy to facilitate their rise in state service, but not always: Lieven’s own great-uncle had a Muslim commander in the Russian Guards, and in 1914 the Guards had Muslim as well as Christian clerics. Ethnic Russians often resented the recruitment of ‘outsiders’ (including Finns and Germans) by the Tsar, but never managed to block it.
Britain is learning to follow in Ivan the Terrible’s footsteps. He could be seen as a pioneer of the policy of engaging in formal, orderly partnerships with selected representatives of Islam, building up official bodies where they might not yet exist. These partners are intended to be the state’s allies in suppressing, or at least marginalising, informal and radical extremists. Britain is obliged to catch up in a hurry, and with greater adjustments to make, lacking Russia’s centuries of exposure to and assimilation of Muslims. The shock to Britain and other Western European countries is greater still for having to accommodate large numbers of people from more economically backward and socially conservative areas, a contrast with the urbanised and relatively well-off Volga Tatars. The reaction in Western Europe has been sharp: Lieven noted the Swiss referendum on the building of minarets, and commented that only the most extreme and marginalised of Russians would have shared that attitude.
So Russia has some advantages in its relationship with Islam compared to other Western European countries, but it also has disadvantages, notably in its intractable presence in the North Caucasus. It has, in Lieven’s view, no choice but to remain there, despite some popular feeling in Russia that the state would be stronger divested of the region. Russia willingly shuffled off responsibility for the Muslim-majority former republics in Central Asia when the Soviet Union dissolved, but there are still six autonomous republics within the country that have a Muslim majority, as well as many smaller territories. Withdrawing from the North Caucasus would cause chaos (memories of post- ’93 terrorism and banditry are still strong) and could risk inspiring thoughts of secession among Tatars in the Volga, the largest of the autonomous Muslim regions. Losing the Volga region would cut Russia off from the heartlands of industrial Europe.
Not that the Tatars, part of Russia for many centuries more than the North Caucasians, show signs of rebellion. Tatarstan is home to some interesting attempts to redefine the identity of Russia. A revisiting of old ideas that, according to Lieven, cover a spectrum from “mystical loopiness to banal pragmatism” has produced the ‘Eurasianism’ that has become the official ideology of Tatarstan and Kazakhstan, albeit a rather thin one. What does this mean? Eurasianism is an attempt to provide a cultural identity for people who feel partly European, but excluded from the mainstream, or who feel partly but not entirely Asian. It recognises that much Russian territory is in Asia, and that Asian traditions are alive in Russia. It has echoes of an old Russian resentment at being regarded as second-class Europeans. It
tries to answer a yearning for a leader and guide, and, for Muslims in the region, it is becoming a means of identifying a bridge to Europe that will differentiate them from poorer, backward Muslims elsewhere. As in Turkey, it is the search for an identity that bridges Europe and Asia and avoids being left on the periphery of economic development and political influence.
The Russian leadership has a slightly different, pragmatic concept of the relationship between Europe and Asia, based on the idea of Russia as a different sort of European country – the ‘Third West’. Lieven detected growing openness towards defining Russia as a multicultural society. The Orthodox church appreciates Islamic hostility towards America, source of many of the ‘sects’ that irritate the political and religious establishments, while moderate Muslims seek to defuse the importing of radicalism.
Russia’s strongest card in winning the loyalty of moderate Muslims, Lieven believed, is the cultural hegemony that follows from higher living standards – a factor in the liberation of women in the Central Asian republics, and something that encourages the needed migration of workers into Russia. It is possible that Russia may succeed in developing an accepted joint Russian-Muslim identity that excludes both ethnic Russian chauvinism and radical Islamism. But it is not a foregone conclusion that it will, and the greatest threat to this vision would be an intensification of terrorist activity in the North Caucasus.