Russia: Moscow's Modern Muslim Experience – In Context

Moscow's growing Muslim population exemplifies the modern experience of Russia's ethnic and religious minorities amid the backdrop of historical events that have molded the Russian perception of outsiders and thus influence modern societal and governmental policies towards them.

Founded in the 9th century, Novgorod is home to one of the country's most sacred sites – a monument entitled, “1,000 Years of Russia.” During WWII, the city fell to Hitler's armies and plans were made to dissemble the monument and haul it back to Germany, before the Soviet Army triumphantly retook Novgorod in 1944.

Millennium of Russia Monument in Novgorod. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Centuries before Nazi Germany, Mongol armies occupied Russia for over 200 years, until Ivan III (“The Great”) denied Khan Ahmed his tribute in 1476. This meant that while Western Europe was experiencing the unprecedented cultural and scientific growth of the Renaissance, Russia was beholden to stifling foreign oppression.

LJ user crazypinguin, in a comment to a post that has nothing to do with the subject matter of this text, wrote [ru] about the disparity in the 2012 ratios – Christian Churches: Practicing Christians to that of Mosques: Practicing Muslims in Moscow:

[…] By the end of the year 2010 in Moscow there were 837 churches in the service of the Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchy. However, only in 271 of these church were services conducted. […]

In Moscow as of Jan. 1, 2012, there were 11,629,116 people, and of these, 91.65 percent are Russian (as of 2002, though). That means there are 10.5 million Russians. Of these, only 2 million (if you believe [an Orthodox Christian online portal]) are Russian Orthodox Christians – meaning they go to church at least once a year. […] In reality, however, only about 1-1.5 percent of the general population are active church members […] and for each church there are 2,500 parishioners.

By comparison, there are six mosques in Moscow. The number of Muslims is about 10 percent, considering that they take a more active role in church life. This means there are a million Muslims in Moscow. Six mosques. 150,000 parishioners [per mosque]. Even if only 1 percent [of the Muslim population of Moscow] attend services regularly, the figure remains at 15,000 people per mosque. […]


Moscow Cathedral Mosque under reconstruction in 2009. Photo by Macs24 (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Central Asian Peoples Blog elaborated on the hardships Moscow's Muslim population faces, as it urged readers to pray for those from their region who had emigrated to the city in search of economic opportunities:

Please pray for the many Central Asians who leave their families and their home countries while they go to work in Moscow. They are not usually welcomed there. Many of them are harassed and discriminated against. Even though they are working in a land that proclaims Christianity, they very seldom hear or see the Good News.

As the snow fills the streets and sidewalks of Moscow it is usually scraped off as soon as it hits the ground. Each morning people are awoken by the sounds of metal against the asphalt sidewalks. This noise is created by a band of street cleaners, most of whom are Central Asians. Most of these men have left their homes in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and some other CA countries. They are in Moscow to make money in order to send back to their families. These men work twelve or more hours a day, seven days a week. The only thanks they receive for their hard work is a small paycheck and harassment by the local authorities because of their skin color. As they work in Moscow many of them are lonely, missing their families and looking for purpose in life.

A Central Asian migrant worker walks down the street in Moscow. Photo by Veronica Khokhlova, used with permission.

My blog included a joke which provides insight into how xenophobia fits into the ancient and complex Russian culture:

“Two foreigners once stood in Red Square in Moscow looking up at the Kremlin and they were in awe. They wanted to be Russian and to be everything Russians are so they asked an elderly Russian man how they could in fact become Russian. The man told them to climb up and touch the red star on top of one of the Kremlin's turrets and he said they would then be transformed instantly into two Russian men.

So the men climbed up the turret and the first man touched the star and he was transformed instantly. He could write love poetry like Pushkin and symphonies like Tchaikovsky, he could dance and fight and feel as deeply as any Russian could.

A moment later, the second man asked the first if he could have a hand up so he too could touch the star and become Russian. The first man then kicked him in the teeth and said, ‘Get the hell out of here, you foreign trash!'”


Islam in Europe Blog provided excerpts from a Feb. 2012 Interfax article entitled, “Moscow: High-Ranking Interior Ministry Officials Suspected of Extortion from Muslim Community,” in an effort to illustrate the governmental hazards Moscow minorities face in addition to societal ones:

Federal Security Service officials have submitted to the Prosecutor General's Office materials stating that several high-ranking officials from the Interior Ministry's Main Department for the Prevention of Extremism extorted a large amount of money from a Moscow Muslim community, Kommersant daily reports.

“The Federal Security Service officers obtained information that a major extortion incident had occurred in the Moscow Lefortovsky market before the New year holidays. According to that information, a group of police officers went to the market under the pretext of an inspection, suspended the market's operation and demanded 1 million rubles from traders for permission to resume work,” Kommersant writes.


According to Kommersant, the police said they were checking reports stating that there was an illegal extremist center disguised as a prayer room at the market, which was visited by Muslim traders and Tajik workers from nearby construction sites.

LJ user denisapozhnikov attempted to counter Western criticism of religious intolerance in Russia by citing several examples of peaceful coexistence and asserting that the United States would benefit from introspection of its own policies regarding civil liberties:

A United States commission on freedom of religion asked the White House to pay “special attention” to issues of religious freedoms in Russia. […]

It's probably true that Islamic rights are violated in Chechnya, where there is the largest mosque in Europe, or in Moscow, where only last year eight new plots were allotted for construction of mosques, or in [the blogger's native town of Ivanovo], where […] during all municipal events special squares are given to diasporas to present their traditions, including those that are religious in nature; maybe Hindus are repressed, but there are Hindu communities in all big cities and they carry out traditional festivities in public areas celebrating Krishna; or Judaism, when the Chief Rabbi of Russia is often invited to high-level summits. Or maybe it's the other way around, that the rights of Christians are violated?! […]

Maybe these problems aren't in Russia, but in the US, which points blame away from itself? And maybe in the US the number of mosques is growing, but let's not forget that every now and then [these buildings] are threatened to be blown up.


So do not believe, friends, this Western propaganda.


Finally, Russia Blog's Yuri Mamchur gave readers hope and provided evidence of long-term multicultural understanding in a Nov. 2011 post entitled, “170,000 Celebrate Muslim Holiday Kurban Bayram in Moscow Streets”:

Today, more than 170,000 Muslims celebrated the important Muslim holiday Kurban Bayram. Russian nationalists were predicting an ethnic mayhem, terrorist explosions, and racial clashes. However, the celebrations were peaceful and joyful. In one of the Moscow's mosques along the festivities were attended by 80,000 people! Even though the Moscow police was prepared for extraordinary situations, the officers were impressed with the smooth flow of events. The successful and peaceful celebration, amid troubling nationalistic tensions in the Russian society, is an important statement that Russia's peaceful Muslims and Christian can coexist, just like they have for the past 500 years.

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