Fears of Islamic terrorism permeate Russian history. In the nineteenth century, Russian novelists wrote books about Russian officers fighting Islamic warriors in the Caucasus (such as Hadji Murat by Lev Tolstoy). The Russian soldier fights the Islamic warrior, the one struggling to protect the Christian civilization, the other determined to eradicate it.
Now Russia has quickly replaced the United States as the number one enemy of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadist groups motivated by the violent and puritan salafist ideology. Recent Middle Eastern Russian interventions, including those in Syria and Libya, have raised Russia to the status of the main target of the Jihadists. Everywhere it has intervened abroad, Russia seems to have been always moved by a deep fear of Islam. Putin said to CBS’ Charlie Rose that the “most important” reason why Russia came to war in Syria was the “threat of their return.” “They” are the 7,000 Russian Muslims who fought for the Caliphate.
Some Russian experts, including Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center and Roman Silantiev of the Ministry of Justice, estimate that there are thousands of Salafist prayer groups in Russia nowadays, with Islam spreading practically in all regions of Russia, including Siberia and even in the Far East. Russia has also an internal demographic fear. A recent report by the Jamestown Foundation entitled “How Islam Will Change Russia” explained this challenge very well: given the demographic changes, Muslims will represent from one-third to half of the Russian population by 2050.
In addition to adventurism in Muslim countries, Russian forces have embarked on a massive counter-insurgency campaign against Islamic militants in its own soil. The jihadists were responsible for major attacks on Russian soil, including the hostage crisis at Moscow’s theater in 2002, the siege in Beslan in 2004, the bombings in Moscow in 2010, and the suicide Attack at the Domodedovo Airport in 2011, to name just a few. And the Russian ambassador in Istanbul was murdered in an art gallery.
During the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, Russia pursued a scorched-earth policy to destroy everything in sight. The blitz of the Red Army in Afghanistan was to prevent the contagion of Khomeini’s Islamic fundamentalism. When Communism collapsed, the leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, wrote a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, the first message the Iranian leader sent to a foreign head of state. Khomeini invited the head of the most atheistic state of the world to convert to Islam. Khomeini also pulled out a new planisphere published in Tehran, which divided the world into three areas: black for the “great Satan”, the US, red for the “pagan Russia” and its domains, and green for the Islamic Republic that represents the will of Allah.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin asked Ukraine to remain in union with Russia. “We can not have a situation,” Yeltsin said, “where Russia and Belarus would have two votes as Slavic states against five for Islamic states.” Russia has always justified its interventions in foreign policy with Christian religious rhetoric. As in the war in Kosovo, when the Christian Orthodox imagery launched the myth of Kosovo Polje, where in 1329 Christian Serbs fought against the Turkish-Ottoman invaders, in which the Serb forces, three times less numerous, lost valiantly and marked the Serbian national collective memory. The tumultuous Caucasian scenario is dominated by the clash between Orthodox Christianity and Islam. In Yugoslavia, the Russians supported the Christian Serbs in the war against Bosnian Muslims. In Cyprus, the Russians have defended the Greek-Christian part. The same with Christian Armenia as a bulwark of Christianity against Islamic Turkey. The “third Rome” of the Tsars began proclaiming itself as the defender of Christians oppressed under Islam.
A copy of Kazan’s Icon of the Mother of God was just sent by the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate to a Christian parish in Syria. The back of the icon carries the inscription: “Gift of the Orthodox Church in the Ekaterinburg diocese in memory of the Russian soldiers who gave their lives in the ancient Syrian land.” Theologians of the Russian Orthodox Church base this myth on the expression Antemurale Christianitatis, the bulwark of Christianity dating back to the era of Turkish expansion in Europe. This vision is also embraced by many of Putin’s allies, the Visegrad-4 led by Viktor Orbán of Hungary.
This Russian Christian propaganda has certainly been influenced by the Soviet past. After 1917, the Soviet Union witnessed the greatest persecution of Christians since the time of Roman emperor Diocletian: 200,000 priests were killed and 41,000 churches were destroyed. A few days ago, the first Easter Mass was celebrated in the great Syrian city of Aleppo after its liberation. The New York Times explained that in addition to strategic and economic interests, a major reason to explain Russian support for Assad’s regime in Syria is the uncompromising position of the Orthodox Church. The Russian Patriarch Kirill evoked, in fact, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, with its endless “carcasses of defiled churches.”
“For a long time, we’ve been saying that Christians in the Middle East needed a protector,” the Canadian philosopher Mathieu Bock-Côté wrote in Le Figaro. “This has never been truer. But who is willing to play that role? France was, for many years. Over the past few years, Putin’s Russia has claimed that role, as if it was being called to take over as Europe renounces its Christian origins.”
This Russian campaign is aimed also at the West. “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have abandoned their roots, including Christian values,” said Putin. He closely followed the opposition to gay marriage in France and tensions over Muslim migrants in the European Union. Putin then launched a conservative offensive aimed at both Russians and the West. As the Wall Street Journal wrote, “Putin Depicts Russia as a Bulwark Against European Decadence.”
The burden is on the West to prove that it has a better way of life, that its society is not just a “decadent” stereotype, and it didn’t abandon the Eastern Christians under Islam. Otherwise, we cannot complain that Russian has filled that role.
Giulio Meotti, cultural editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author. He is the author of three books: A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel’s Victims of Terrorism (Encounter Books); J’Accuse: the Vatican Against Israel (Mantua Books), and La fine dell’Europa, about the Christian and demographic decline in Europe. He is a columnist at Arutz Sheva and his writings have appeared in publications including the Wall Street Journal, FrontPage, Commentary, and The Geller Report.
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