Islam is the second largest religion in Russia and is the predominant religion of 28 ethnic groups in the Russian Federation. Estimates of the number of Muslims in Russia vary from 14.5 million to 20 million, and some Muslim leaders have said the number is actually closer to 23 million. If Russia’s Muslims number between 20-23 million (14-16% of the population), that means they are more numerous and constitute a greater share of the country’s population than in France (5-6 million Muslims and 8-10 percent of the population), Germany (3.4 million and 4 percent), Britain (1.6 million and almost 3 percent) or the Netherlands (almost 1 million and nearly 6 percent). In Moscow, the Muslim population is currently estimated to be between 1-1.5 million. Some Russian demographers predict that by 2020 one out of five Russians will be Muslim.
Islam’s Presence in Russia
Outside of Spain, where the Muslim presence ended when they were forced out of the country at the end of the fifteenth century, the 1300 years of Islam’s continuous existence within the current borders of Russia make it the oldest and largest Muslim nation. Russian Muslims can rightly claim that Islam arrived in what later became Russia before Orthodox Christianity. When Prince Vladimir baptized his Christian followers in 988, Muslim communities already existed along the Volga River and in the northern Caucasus. When the first Romanov tsar was crowned in 1613, several Muslim princes were among those who chose him.
As the Russian Empire expanded to the East, it conquered a series of regions where Islam was the dominant religion. The powerful khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan were conquered in the 16th century, Central Asia territories in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the largely Muslim Caucasus in the 19th century. This means that Russia’s Muslims live in two broad geographical areas of the country and these two regions have different relationships to their Slavic rulers. The first area is the Volga river basin and is made up of Tatars, Bashkir and Chuvash peoples. They have been an integral and inseparable part of the Russian state since the 16th century.
The second large Muslim population lives in the Caucasus in the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. They did not become part of Russia until the 19th century and have a long history of resisting Russian rule. The threat of the Republic of Chechnya becoming an independent Islamic state illustrates the difference between Muslims in this region and those living along the Volga who have a longer history as Russian citizens.
During the Soviet period, Muslims faced the same persecution as other religions. Their mosques were closed down, their religious leaders imprisoned, and their religious practices curtailed. Muslims in the Caucasus suffered brutal treatment at the hands of Joseph Stalin who ordered mass deportations of whole regions to Siberia because he believed they were collaborators with the Nazi invaders during World War II.
Post-1991 Policies Toward Russia’s Muslims
The radical decision by Mikhail Gorbachev to grant freedom of religion to Russians in the late 1980s, and the subsequent collapse of the USSR in 1991, dramatically improved the lives of Russia’s Muslim population. Under Soviet rule, many mosques were closed or turned into storage facilities and only 500 mosques were allowed to function on a greatly reduced basis. Since 1991, Russia now has more than 5,000 mosques, in many cases funded by co-religionists (mostly Sunni Muslims) in Middle East countries. The Islamic Cultural Center of Russia was opened in Moscow in 1991, and later the Russian Islam University was founded in Kazan.
Muslims in today’s Russia have never been freer. Islam has been officially recognized in the Russian constitution as one of the country’s four principal religions, along with Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism. In August 2003, Russia joined the Organization of Islamic States.
When Vladimir Putin was President of Russia, he repeatedly spoken about the need for respect among all the peoples and religions of multi-national Russia and has made religious tolerance a regular theme of presidential declarations. Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, surprised many when he attended a service at the city’s main mosque celebrating the Muslim feast of sacrifice and promised to provide more facilities for Moscow’s growing Muslim population.
The Challenges Russia Faces
The unsettled question of church-state relations in the Russian Federation will potentially have a huge impact on the Muslims in this country. If the Russian Orthodox Church once again becomes the state church of Russia, all other religions will become second-class and their religious communities will face numerous restrictions. What has not happened yet in Russia is a united effort on the part of other religions to pursue religious freedom for all beliefs – instead each religious faith is fighting for its own freedom.
The potential of fragmentation of the Russian Federation is a second issue that the Kremlin faces. If Chechnya is able to succeed and declare its independence, other Muslim regions in the Caucasus could follow suit, supported by funding from Sunni allies in the Middle East. The unraveling of the “soft underbelly” of Russia could become a serious challenge to the viability of the Russian state.
The third Muslim-related issue is one of basic demographic trends. Like most of Europe, Russian birth rates are declining and the working-age population is projected to shrink by 19 percent between 2005 and 2030, which creates the need to encourage immigration into Russia to bolster the declining work force. The influx of foreign workers, often Muslims, is taking place at the same time as the rapid expansion of the Muslim population because of high birth rates. This means that the percentage of the Muslim population in Russia is bound to increase significantly in the next few decades and how the nation’s leadership, as well as the leaders in Western Europe, will handle these profound shifts is still to be seen.