Islam and Russia; a complex history

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Islam and Russia; a complex history

By Silvio Marconi: Engineer and anthropologist, specialized in cooperation and development. He has authored, in Italian, several books mostly focused on ethnocultural syncretism.


Russia has been historically considered as the Orthodox Christian Church rampart and for many centuries Moscow has been represented as the “Third Rome”. This name derived from the fall of the “Second Rome”, Constantinople, to the Ottomans, in 1453; actually, Constantinople was called by its founder, Νέα Ῥώμη, Nea Rōmē, in Greek language (Nova Roma in Latin language) and was considered the Second Rome. Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, on May 29, 1453, and in the year 1472 the Great Prince of Moscow Ivan III Vasil’evic (1440-1505) married Zoe Palaiologina (1455-1503), who had changed her name to Sophia Palaiologina during her stay in Rome, where she escaped in 1460 from the Morea land, occupied by  Mehmet II’s troops. Sophia Palaiologina was the niece of the last Byzatine Emperor, Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos (1405-1453) and the Roman Pope Paul III offered her to Ivan III for a new marriage after the death of his first wife, Mary of Tuer in the year 1467, in order to try to promote the re-unification of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.

The Pope’s attempt failed: Sophia converted herself to Orthodox Christianity instead of being a re-unification actress with a great influence on Ivan II (the main actor of the Russia unifying process) she was never used to strengthen the relationship with the Pope.  Sophia was the daughter of Thomas Palaiologos, Despot of Morea, who was claiming the Constantinople throne, as Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos’ brother; consequently, when the Muslim conquest of Constantinople destroyed the power of the Palaiologos House of the Eastern Roman Empire, together with the Christian domain on that Empire, Sophia became the link between Constantinople and Moscow. Sophia introduced to the Moscow court the Constantinople ceremonies, creating the presuppositions of the idea that Moscow could be the “third Rome”; Ivan III, influenced by Sophia, started to proclaim himself as the Eastern Roman Emperor heir and Moscow as the “third Rome”; for the same reason he assumed the title of “czar” that means “Caesar, a direct heritage of the Roman Empire.

Ivan III was also the Russian sovereign that, in 1476, stopped to pay the tribute to the Islamicized Tatars and in 1480, pushed by the Russian aristocracy and some Orthodox bishops, he fought against the Khan Akhmat; in 1481 Khan Akhmat  was defeated by another Tatar fraction, the Nogai Horde, and that event was the end of the “Golden Horde. In the following year, Ivan III had the opportunity to defeat and temporarily transform in his vassal the Kazan Khanate, but he maintained peaceful relations with other Muslim powers, like the Ottoman Empire and the Crimea Khanate, that helped Ivan III during his wars against the Lithuanian Grand Duchy; in the year 1495 a Russian Embassy was created in the same Constantinople!

The complex relations between the Ivan III Russia and the different coeval Islamic powers can symbolize the complexity of the whole relations between Russia and Islam during this History. The Russian State had no Islamic roots; its birth as “Kievan Rus”, in the 9th century A.D., was the result of the fusion, on the Dnieper river banks, between some Viking tribes and the Slavic people. Those Vikings, ruled by Rjurik, around the year 880 took control of the Dnieper area, that was the crossroads of trade between the Southern regions linked to the Constantinople Empire and the Baltic-Scandinavian regions, mixed with the local Slav people, in a heathen society, developing trades, fur coats production, river sailing, forestry and agriculture. The Rus’ culture, during this first period, was influenced in many aspects (cults, architecture, customs, myths, etc.) by different sources, but not by  Christian or Muslim ones; in that culture, we could find Scandinavian elements but especially Slavic elements and these were the heritage of a mixing of factors coming from the proto-historic local cultures, the Scythian culture and the Siberian shamanic cultures, that can represent the link with the far Eastern proto-historic cultures, including the most ancient Northern China ones, and even the cultures of those people that, thousands of years before, had migrated to Northern America, through the Bering Strait. At the end of the 10th century, Vladimir, Prince of Rus’, became Christian; the Middle Age chronicle (all written by monks…) tried to explain this decision in different manners, underlining the crucial change of Vladimir’s life-style when he took that decision, abandoning for example, the practice of having five legitimate wives and lots of concubines. In one of the versions offered by those chronicles, it is reported that four representatives of different religions came to Vladimir (or they were invited by him): a Bulgarian Muslim, a German Catholic, a Khazar Jew and a Greek Orthodox and Vladimir asked them to dispute on their different faiths; really the “dispute among different faiths” is a typical rhetoric image, used both in  Constantinople and in  Muslim texts. The Orthodox representative won and Vladimir decided to convert himself to Orthodox Christianity.

Another version describes Vladimir sending some envoys abroad, to study the characteristics of the different faiths; at the end, the descriptions of the beauty of the Orthodox liturgy shocked Vladimir and convinced him to accept that faith. In both of the versions, Islam appears as one of the four considered religions, showing the existence of relations between the Rus’ and the Islamic lands, especially due to the trade.

The real reason of Vladimir’s conversion was a political and economic one: he wanted to strengthen the relations with the developed Constantinople Empire and, secondly, to be supported by the Christian merchants that were a strong social sector of his territory: for this reason he married Ann, the sister of the Constantinople Emperor Basileios II (958-1025), nicknamed the Bulgar Slayer (Boulgaroktonos). The Vladimir conversion year should be 988, but the Russian sources speaks of 3 baptisms of Vladimir: the first in Crimea, before marrying Princess Ann (an evident proof of the political sense both of that baptism and of that marriage…), the second in Kiev, in the Dnieper waters (as a collective baptism of Vladimir’s subjects) and the third in Vladimir’s palace with his main followers. Vladimir, after the baptism, called monks from Constantinople to convert his subjects, but also artists and architects that created the basis of the new Christian Rus’ landscape, in a difficult and slow process that reached the periphery of the territory only in 12-13th century and that never destroyed customs, legends, cults of the shamanic ancestral tradition, surviving in many Russian traditions, tales, decorations, etc.

The Tatars entered in the regions that we call now “Russia” in 1223; in 1236 the Volga Basin was conquered by the Tatars, in 1237 the Ryazan Principate was defeated and the village of Moscow conquered, in 1238 also the strong Vladimir-Suzdal Principate was occupied by the Tatars, in 1239 Tatars conquered the Don Basin and Crimea, while Novgorod was obliged to pay a tribute. In the year 1240, Kiev was destroyed by the Tatars, that continued their march towards the West (Poland, Bohemia, Hungary): a long period of Tatars domain started under the “Golden Horde Khanate”, having from the year 1242 a sort of capital in Saraj, near the town now known as Stalingrad/Volgograd.

It’s important to underline that the Tatar domain used indirect rule, giving the administrative task to local Russian noblemen obliged to collect heavy taxes to be paid to the Tatars and to give them military forces, and created local Tatar garrisons. During the Tatar rule, many Tatars became sedentary and mixed  with the Russian people and also in that first period the Tatars remained faithful to their Shamanism, with many elements similar to the shamanic substrate of the same Russian ancient culture.

Many revolts erupted against theTatar’s rule and in 1380 a Russian army defeated the Tatars at Kulikovo but the Tatar’s domain ended only in 1480. The long duration of the Tatar’s domain influenced deeply Russian history and culture; for example some towns, like Kiev, were destroyed and when they were rebuilt, never obtained more the same status, while some villages, like Moscow, grew up to a strong town, due to its new administrative role, its military importance and the creation of new services (like the Post service).

When the Tatars started their conquests, they were Mongols, with shamanic traditions, but their conquests included in their people especially Central-Asian tribes, mainly Islamicized; consequently the “Golden Horde” gradually converted to Islam; in 1277 Mengu Timur, Khan of the “Golden Horde”, converted to Islam for political reasons: creating an alliance with Mameluk against the Persian Ilkhanate  and in the following twenty years all the Tatars become Muslims. The Russian people were dominated by Muslim rule, but the Tatars never obliged their subjects to change their religions; in the Tatars “capital”, Sarai, Muslims, Animists, Jews, Catholics, Orthodox, Buddhists cohabitated. Consequently, the Tatars rule did not influence directly the Russian religion and the Orthodox priests were also exempted by any taxation, jointly with all the peasants of the religious properties, while an offence or a theft against a religious property or a clerk was punished by  death! Tatars, indirectly, supported the growing up of the power of the Orthodox Russian Church, in status, in political field, economically, institutionally.

Paradoxically, we can consider the Tatars religious tolerance as one of the sources of the Czar’s religious tolerance, that seems to be contradictory with the very strong link between Czar and Orthodox Church in Russia. When in the year 1552 Ivan the Terrible conquered the Kazan Khanate, the Orthodox Church Macarius supposed that the Muslim people should be obliged to convert to  Christianity, but Ivan defended religious freedom and all the following Russian Czars (also if they were the “Christian Faith Defenders”) did the same, assuming officially that “The only God can be honored in different manners”. The Russian Empire practiced towards Muslims religious tolerance in exchange for  political loyalty and Catherina the Great also included Islamic entities within the framework of the Imperial institutions.

Moreover, the period of Tartar rule, with its contacts between Russia and Persia/Central Asia, influenced the Russian culture and art; for example, some techniques and models of decoration of the Orthodox Church objects and icons have a Persian origin

During the XIII century, many Arabic, Persian and Indian tales and books were translated into Russian, influencing Russian literature, art and culture for the following centuries. Other very important influences came into the Russian culture from Islamized lands during the Tatar’s domain; for example, the Russian churches  domes before the Tatars invasion were the round ones like in the other Christian countries, but after that invasion, in Russia (and in other countries of the Central Europe, including Austria), the domes have been built onion-shaped, influenced by a Persian model. Many existing traditional Russian decorations have their origin in the Persian flowered decorations, many traditional Russian weapons (like the sabers) and armors originated from Islamic weapons and armors and also some symbolic elements used until now in the army come from Central Asia or Mongolia models; this is the case of some decorative elements used by the Russian military musical bands, reproducing the cattle horns.

More, many traditional Russian foods have their origins in the contacts with the Islamic world, during and after the Tatars rule, and also the use of the tea as warm beverage was introduced in Russia during the Tatar’s domain, but the real diffusion of its use started many centuries after, in the 17th century, always from Asia, while only in the 19th century tea became the most popular warm beverage in Russia; anyway, until the 17th century, the main warm beverage in Russia was the sbiten’, a traditional beverage of the ancient Rus’, composed of water, honey and medicinal plants, prepared in the sbitennik, a metal giant pot including a tube with scorching stones and, more recently, burning coal: the ancestor of the samovar, invented in the 18th century.

The influence of the Islamic Tatars rule was very important in different fields, for example, many Russian words have a Turkish or Tatar origin: kaftan (long dress), karaul (sentinel), basmak (shoe), den’gi (money), Tovar (merchandise), etc. . . In any case, the assimilation of Russia to a “Tatar nation” is only one of the fake arguments used by russophobes and surely the Slavic culture, like the Central Asia ones, deeply influenced the Tatars, also because the “Golden Horde” created some employees to study the Russian language and culture. More, some uralo-finnic words of the Russian language have no origin from the Vikings time, but from the fact that a lot of people migrated to Northern regions to escape the Tatars rule and started to improve the influence of the uralo-finnic language and culture into the Russian one! Those migrations produced the inclusion of a Northern ethnical component in the Slavic one, while the mixed marriages with Tatars were characterized mainly by the education of the sons in the Russian culture and religion. Differently from other regions, in Russia the Islamization of the population didn’t happened in a significant dimension; on the contrary, when the “Golden Horde” started to be in crisis, many Tatars converted to the Orthodox Christianism and assumed Russian names!

Also the growing up of the local feudal absolutism and the crisis of the communitarian village democracy was not the direct consequence of the Tatars domain, like  modern russophobic heralds  want to show in their effort to demonstrate that Russian people are “Asian barbarians”,  but an indirect one, caused by the fall of a centralized Russian state unable to limit the will of the aristocratic local powers. We can also remember that, paradoxically, the centralized system of the czar autocracy is absolutely the opposite of the indirect rule of the Tatars Khan and its real sources are in the Constantinople institutions, while the special link between Russian Orthodox Church and Russian State has the same source: the Constantinople (and the Constantine) model!

During the Muslim Tatar rule, many Russian (but also Central Asia people, Jews and Chinese too!) were used as tax collectors, and those people, that became rich, were often the base of the expansion of the new Russian merchant class and, in some cases, of the new Russian aristocracy, also because the Tatar’s rule at Saraj sold aristocratic titles, like the tax collectors roles.

In the XIV century, the starting of the “Golden Horde” crisis obliged the Tatars to recognize more and more powers to some Russian entity; it was the case of the Grand Principality of Moscow, under Ivan I (1283-1340). This was the real re-birthing of a centralized Russian state, that became a reality under Ivan III in 1480.