Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Putin’s Repression of Islam Both Similar to and Different from Stalin’s, Two Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 31 – As Putin adopts an ever more authoritarian approach, many are seeking information about the similarities and differences between his actions and those of his predecessors, Stalin in particular. Two experts offer their insights into this question with regard to the Kremlin’s approach to Islam and Muslims.

            Islam Tohlu, the head of the Crimean Tatar Cultural Center in Lviv, says that the underlying similarity is that both under Stalin and now under Putin, Moscow views Muslims as “second class citizens,” people it may exploit on occasion but both fundamentally distrusts and opposes (

            The major difference, the specialist on Islam says, is that “in Soviet times, Orthodox Christians were persecuted even more” and now are allies and even instigators of Kremlin policy against Muslims. Tohlu says that in fact the ROC MP has been given “a green light” to go after Muslims.

            Another difference is this: in Soviet times, Moscow persecuted Muslim leaders in the first instance and sought to isolate them from the Islamic world. Now, because of the rise of the Internet, the Russian authorities have gone after Muslims as a whole, relying on certain “pocket” Muslim leaders and attacking other leaders and the laity who remain authentic Muslims.

            But a major similarity, Tohlu continues, is that the Kremlin seeks to exploit Muslims in Russia for its foreign policy goals, especially if it feels itself to be in a weak position. That was true in the 1920s and is true again since the start of Putin’s expanded war in Ukraine in February 2022.

            A second expert, Kharun Sidorov, a specialist on ethnicity and nationality at Prague’s Charles University, broadly agrees with his Lviv counterpart; but he stresses that “the essence of the policy of the Russian state toward Muslims “has never changed,” even if Moscow’s tactics have on occasion.

            Moscow’s “strategy,” he says, “is the global neutralization of the Islamic factor, a strategy of de-Islamization and assimilation on the whole of the Muslim population and in particular the elimination of Islam as an effective roadblock on the path to such assimilation” because Islam’s values are incompatible with the domestic policies of Russian rulers since imperial times.

            “At the beginning of the 20th century,” Sidorov says, “educatd Russian Muslims were part of a single intellectual space of the general Islamic umma. That was true even of local imams,” who if not always trained abroad were in close contact with Muslims elsewhere. That was a challenge to the tsars that the tsars lacked the power to do much about.

            After the Bolsheviks took power, however, they “radically solved this problem” because of the iron curtain that went up around the USSR and by means of “mass repressions and the introduction of a single state totalitarian ideology,” although even then they exploited Muslims when the Soviet leadership felt the need.

            Just how radical the anti-Muslim nature of the Putin regime is was highlighted a few years ago when Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam in Russia with close ties to the Russian security agencies, laid out a program for the destruction of Islam in the Russian Federation ( and

            Putin has been carrying Silantyev’s program point by point, although the Kremlin leader is not above seeking to use Muslim leaders within Russia to gain support in his conflict with the West. But such propagandistic moves haven’t changed the real state of the Muslim community inside the Russian Federation. It remains bleakly repressive.

            And there are even signs that this policy has become even more negative since the start of Putin’s expanded war in Ukraine. Muslim institutions have been closed, and the sentences handed down in the cases of Muslims have become even more draconian than they were and more than those given to non-Muslims charged with similar invented crimes.

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