Friday, January 25, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Muslim Groups Now Function in All But Three of Russia’s Federal Subjects

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 25 – Organized Muslim communities exist in 80 of the 83 subjects of the Russian Federation, the product of ethnic flows that began in Soviet times and have accelerated since and of an increased interest in religion more generally among the peoples of that country, according to an expert at the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of European Russia.

            In an article posted today on that MSD’s website, Akhmad Makharov, the head of the Directorate’s department for work with public organizations and migrants, says that this “new geography of Islam in Russia” means that Muslims are now to be found where they never were before (

            In Imperial times, he notes, most Muslims inside Russia lived in the North Caucasus or in the Middle Volga, although even then there were small communities elsewhere. But the movement of peoples under the Soviets meant many ended up far from their homelands. Indeed, he notes, “the Yamalo-Nenets district was popularly called the Tatar-Khokhlyatsky one.”
            But only at the end of Soviet times were most of them prepared to acknowledge their religious identity or seek to form their own bodies. And only in the 1990s did Muslims register these communities in large numbers in the Tyumen North, the Far East, Central Russia and the Northwest. (Some that registered at that time had existed as unregistered groups before then.)

            Unfortunately, the existence or non-existence of Muslim communities registered with the state does not tell the full story. Instead, it is a product of the attitudes of local officials, some of whom are prepared to register Islamic groups and others who are not. And studies show that in some places there are far more Muslim groups than the government acknowledges even now.

            Moreover, Makharov continues, it sometimes happens that the only registered Muslim community is in the oblast center, even though there are dozens of others located in the villages or smaller cities outside it. But despite these limitations, there is enough evidence to allow some conclusions about the nature of  “Islamic geography.”

            As of 2011, he says, there were only five federal subjects in which there were no registered Muslim groups: Pskov Oblast, Novgorod Oblast, the Nenets district, the Republic of Tuva, and the Chukotka Autonomous District. In two of them, Novgorod and Pskov, “despite the absence of registration, there nonetheless are [Muslim] communities.”

            That leaves three without any organized Islamic groups.  Chukotka is a region whose population is rapidly declining as people move south and west away from its harsh climate. Tuva is a republic where the majority of non-Tuvins left during the inter-ethnic clashes at the end of Soviet times. Neither is likely to have a Muslim community anytime soon.

             But the absence of a Muslim group in the Nenets District, is clearly “a temporary phenomenon,” Makharov argues.  That is because its extractive industries are growing and attracting ever more workers from the Middle Volga and the North Caucasus. These Muslims will soon form and register their own communities.

            Equally interesting, Makharov says, is that the city of Moscow is the fourth largest Muslim locale in the Russian Federation, with a Muslim population exceeding that of Chechnya and comparable with that of Tatarstan.  Daghestan still ranks first, Bashkortostan is second, Tatarstan is third, and Chechnya is fifth in terms of the number of Muslims.

            And this shift reflects a most interesting pattern: in the Russian Federation now, the more developed a region, the larger its Muslim population and the greater the number of its mosques, whereas “on the contrary, the more backward regions are characterized by the lowest level of development of Muslim communities or even their complete absence.”

            In sum, Makharov notes, “Islam is ceasing to be the periphery of the Russian state,” one situated only in a few “enclaves” and becoming a presence throughout the  country  That “naturally is reducing the tendency toward separatism,” but it also means that the Muslims seek a greater role in the Russian Federation as a whole.

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