Russia’s military campaign in Syria is front page news at the moment, so it is perhaps appropriate that this week my class ‘Russia and the West’ will be taking a break from the history of Russian-Western relations to take a look at Russia’s interactions with the rest of the world. What such a look reveals is that the historical relationship between Russia and non-European/non-Christian peoples has been somewhat different than that between Western Europe (and later also North America) and most of the rest of the world.
While the Muslim world was more advanced than Western Europe, Europeans don’t seem to have looked up to it as something to emulate. Rather it was for many centuries a civilization to be feared, and then once it ceased to be feared (roughly from the relief of the siege of Vienna in 1683 onwards) it became something to look down upon. As European power spread around the world in the era of colonialism, the West acquired a belief in its own superiority and others’ inferiority, which to some extent persists to this day and is reflected in the foreign policy obsession with spreading Western liberal democratic norms around the world.
Russia, by contrast, rarely saw the East in quite such negative colours. Although the great philosopher Vladimir Solovyov pronounced his fears about the ‘yellow peril’ which he believed would destroy Russia, on the whole Russians worried more about dangers coming from the West. After all, most of the great invasions which have ravaged Russia have come from that direction. The one exception is the Mongols, but despite the myth of the ‘Mongol yoke’, contemporary accounts of Mongol rule depict it as actually rather mild. Furthermore, Russian rulers, far from despising Mongol administration as inferior, regarded it as a model of power and efficiency to be copied. It is notable that Alexander Nevskii in the mid-13th century chose to make peace with the Mongols, but to fight the Germans. The Mongols, after all, only wanted tribute; the Teutonic Knights sought to forcibly convert others to Catholicism. Given a choice between conquest from the east or conquest from the west, the east looked preferable.
As for Islam, it didn’t threaten Russian Orthodoxy in the way that it was seen to threaten Roman Catholicism. There were relatively few contacts between the Muslim world and pre-Romanov Russia, but the few Russians who ventured into Islamic regions tended to be impressed by what they saw. An example was Afanasii Nikitin, whose account of his trip to Persia in the 1460s convinced many that he had converted to Islam. Once Russia expanded into Muslim territory following the conquest of Kazan in 1552, it showed little interest in converting Muslims to Orthodoxy. Numerous wars followed against the Ottoman Empire, but they were not obviously different in nature from those which Russia fought against European states. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 was justified by a veneer of civilizational discourse about saving Christians from the barbaric Turks, but even in that case the Russians were concerned only with ‘rescuing’ Bulgarians, not with ‘civilizing’ the Ottomans.
As David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye has shown, Pre-revolutionary Russian ‘Orientalism’ differed from its Western counterpart in that for the most part Russians never fully endorsed European ideas of racial superiority. Academics such as Aleksandr Kazem-Bek, Jozef Kowalewski, and Vladimir Vasilev argued that Russian rule would benefit the relatively backward territories which Russia conquered in the nineteenth century in the Caucasus and Central Asia, but at the same time noted that the backwardness was a product of historical circumstances and not of any racial inferiority. Eastern peoples in their eyes were just as capable as Western ones. Europeans, meanwhile, were every bit as barbaric as Muslims and Asians, as shown in Vasilii Vereshchagin’s 1868 pictures ‘After Success’ and ‘After Failure’, which suggest a degree of moral equivalency between Central Asian and European soldiers, each equally nonchalant about those killed in battle.
Having conquered a large amount of Muslim territory in Central Asia and the Caucasus in the 1860s and 1870s, the Russian Empire was ambivalent towards its Muslim subjects. On the one hand, the Empire viewed them with some suspicion, and didn’t treat them exactly as equals. On the other hand, it wasn’t interested in converting them to Orthodoxy and was willing to allow them exemptions from some of the demands made on other subjects, such as being conscripted into the army. Some officials regarded Muslims as a potential fifth column; others viewed them as being very loyal. During the First World War, for instance, the wife of the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Count Vorontsov-Dashkov, rejected a request that her charitable foundation provide support for Azeri refugees on the grounds that, ‘I know no Tatar (i.e. Muslim) refugees. I know only Tatar traitors.’ In contrast, Vorontsov-Dashkov’s successor, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, made a point of visiting the Sunni and Shia mosques in Tbilisi on the day of his arrival, later rejected plans to settle European refugees on Muslim land, and subsequently declared that, ‘One cannot doubt the firm bonds between the Caucasus’s Muslims and Russia.’
In the Soviet era Islam was, from a Marxist perspective, an oppressive ideology which required elimination. The Soviets therefore carried out a vigorous strategy of secularization. But they were equally hostile towards Christianity and all other religions. They did not single out Islam or portray it in a uniquely negative light. It is true that the top stratum of Soviet rulers came almost exclusively from the European parts of the USSR, and Soviet economic practices in Central Asia could in some respects be viewed as colonial in nature. In Soviet eyes, the relationship between Russians and Central Asians was something like that between a mother and her children – nurturing, but decidedly unequal. Nevertheless, from Khrushchev onwards, under the doctrine of korenizatsiia (which dictated that the national republics of the USSR should be governed by members of the nationality in question), the Communist Party did attempt to educate and promote local elites and allow for a degree of autonomy. The colonial model is not entirely appropriate.
In short, when one reviews the history of Russia’s relationship with the East in general, and with Islam in particular, it isn’t as negative as that of the West. There has been a little less hostility and fearfulness, a little less of a sense of superiority, and also a little more tolerance. This fits with the Slavophile view that I have described elsewhere, which contends that cultural diversity is desirable. It may help to explain why Russia, despite having conquered and to a degree exploited Muslim peoples in the past, today enjoys somewhat better (if far from perfect) relations with parts of the Muslim world than does the West.