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date: 17 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

The history of Muslim populations in Russia and other former republics of the Soviet Union is long and varied. In a Pew–Templeton poll conducted in Russia in 2010, 10 percent of respondents stated that their religion was Islam, while Muslims also make up a majority of the population in six post-Soviet republics: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Muslims have long lived in regions across Russia, with far-flung communities ranging from distant outposts of Siberia to western cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more Muslims in the Russian Empire than there were in Iran or the Ottoman Empire, the two largest independent Muslim-majority states in the world at the time.

Historically, the Muslim communities of Russia have been concentrated in four main regions: the Volga–Ural region in central Russia, the Crimea, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. While Muslim communities across former Soviet space share both differences and similarities with one another with regard to language and religious practices, their respective relations with the various Russian states that have existed over the years have varied. Moreover, Russian and Soviet policymaking toward all of these communities has shifted considerably from one era, and one ruler, to another. Throughout the imperial and Soviet eras, and extending into the post-Soviet era up to the present day, therefore, the existence of variations with regard to both era and region remains one of the most enduring legacies of Muslim–state interactions.

Muslims in Russia vary by traditions, language, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and practices, and with respect to their historical interactions with the Russian state. The four historically Muslim-inhabited regions were incorporated into the Russian state at different points during its imperial history, often under quite sharply contrasting sets of conditions. Today most, but not all, Muslims in Russia and the rest of the former USSR are Sunni, although the manner and degree to which religion is practiced varies greatly among both communities and individuals. With respect to language, Muslim communities in Russia have traditionally been dominated demographically by Turkic speakers, although it should be noted that most Turkic languages are not mutually comprehensible in spoken form. In the North Caucasus and Tajikistan, the most widely spoken indigenous languages are not Turkic, although in these areas there are Turkic-speaking minorities.

Another important feature of Muslim–state interactions in Russia is their connection to Muslims and Muslim-majority states beyond Russia’s borders. Throughout the imperial era, Russia’s foreign policymaking vis-à-vis the Ottoman Empire and Iran was often intimately connected to domestic policymaking toward Muslim communities inside Russia. While this was a less pronounced feature of Moscow’s foreign policymaking during the Soviet era, in the post-Soviet era, policymaking toward Muslims domestically has once again become more closely linked to Russia’s foreign policy goals.

Keywords: Islam, Muslims, Russia, USSR, Volga-Ural, Crimea, Caucasus, Central Asia

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