The Russian politics of multiculturalism

The relationship between religion and ethnicity on the one hand, and civic assimilation on the other, is far less harmonious than Putin’s magniloquence asserts.

Anna Alekseyeva
30 March 2015

Much has been made in the last several years of Vladimir Putin’s close alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). With charges of corruption, laundering, and a now infamous botched wristwatch Photoshop incident tarnishing the Church’s image, few would deny that this partnership is more about political expediency than genuine piety.

But while there is an ideological consensus between the Russian Church and the state, it does not necessarily lie in ecumenical doctrine. The central point at which Putin and the ROC converge is in their rejection of 'the liberal mode of civilisation,' as Patriarch Kirill writes in his manifesto Freedom and Responsibility: A Search for Harmony, in favour of ‘national culture and religious identity.’

Russia is a vast and diverse country, and in promoting a mode of governance rooted in cultural and religious identity, Putin’s nationalist ideology extends beyond the Russian Christian Orthodox demographic base. In his discourses, Putin has worked to cultivate an image of a multi-ethnic and multi-faith Russia. While the ROC certainly maintains a spotlight in the political arena, Putin has made a rhetorical effort to step away from the Church as the be-all-and-end-all of Russian identity, insisting that Russia’s strength lies in its cultural diversity. 

A Russian brand of Islam

To accommodate a multicultural national identity – one that is positioned at the juncture of Asia and Europe – Putin has elevated Islam alongside Russian Orthodox Christianity as one of the country’s two central religions. 

Putin has elevated Islam alongside Russian Orthodox Christianity as one of the country’s two central religions.

Approximately 20m Muslims live in Russia, comprising 14% of the population, and making Russia home to the largest Muslim population in Europe.

Not only has Putin defended Islam as historically indigenous to Russian culture, he has also sided with the proposition that Orthodox Christianity is closer to Islam than to Catholicism. While Western Protestants evince their liberal values through support of abortion and homosexuality, Putin has said, Islam and the ROC are bound in their deference to a traditional value system.

Represntatives of Russia's four 'traditional' relgions, Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism on National Unity Day in 2012

Represntatives of Russia's four 'traditional' relgions, Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism on National Unity Day in 2012

As one of Russia’s four traditional religions (alongside Judaism and Buddhism), Islam does get special status. The state has lent support to various Islamic institutions, including religious schools and an Islamic TV channel. 

Those religious authorities willing to cooperate with the state, such as Talgat Tajuddin, Russia’s Chief Mufti, maintain close relations with Putin. In the past, the bond between the state and Muslim leaders has at times even eclipsed – if only momentarily – its closeness with the ROC. When anti-government protesters gathered in Bolotnaya Square in 2011, Damir Mukhetdinov, deputy head of the Russian Muslims Religious Directorate, condemned protesters while representatives of the ROC maintained a more neutral stance.

But the brand of Islam that Russia promotes is tightly circumscribed. Dating back to imperial policy, the state has worked to dissociate Russia’s Muslims from transnational Islam, creating a domestic infrastructure of Islamic administration and leadership. Putin has denounced the import of Islamic practices like the wearing of the hijab, arguing that they are foreign to traditional Russian Islam. In 2012, the President sided with a ban on girls wearing headscarves to public schools in the Stavropol region. 

But the brand of Islam that Russia promotes is tightly circumscribed.

More troubling has been the government’s policy regarding religious extremism, which has fanned public fears by alleging widespread ‘Wahhabi’ threats, often based on little evidence. In the lead up to the Sochi Olympics, authorities conducted sweeping raids in Muslim places of worship in Moscow and St Petersburg, detaining hundreds of people.

The state’s tangled and contradictory relationship with the broader Russian Muslim community can be summed up in Putin’s policy towards the North Caucasus. There, full-scale war, which provided Putin with critical political capital early on in his presidency, was succeeded by government subsidies and a wholesale redevelopment of Grozny. 

Yet despite these fraught policies, the government has nonetheless maintained a rhetorical commitment to Russia as an ethnically inclusive state, even against the backdrop of growing tides of ethnic nationalism (a trend so oft remarked that it has become a platitude in contemporary analysis of Russia). In the aftermath of ethnic riots in 2010 in Moscow’s Manezh Square and in cities across Russia, Putin condemned the rioters’ xenophobic targeting of North Caucasians. ‘We are all children of the same country,’ he declared, ‘we have a common motherland. Russia has been a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic state.’  

Religion and foreign policy

While Putin’s words can be cast off as mere tokenism, his defence of ethnic and religious diversity is clearly part of a domestic and foreign policy agenda.

In the 1990s, staking out its liminal position between the world’s major political groupings, Russia worked to develop a role as a mediator between the Muslim world and the West. Russia denounced American interventions in Iraq, pursued a ‘two track policy’ with Iran, contributing to its nuclear programme while maintaining dialogue with Washington; and engaged with Hamas leadership. More recently, in 2009, Medvedev asserted that Russia is ‘an organic part’ of the Muslim world, a sentiment that was reiterated by Putin, who argued that ‘our country is developing close and multifaceted relationships with the governments of the Muslim world.’ These declarations of unity have been borne out by Russia’s defence of the Syrian government, in which Putin has painted Russia as an apostle of international law. 

The government’s appeal to unity with the Muslim world also helps legitimise Russia’s eastward economic expansion.

The government’s appeal to unity with the Muslim world also helps legitimise Russia’s eastward economic expansion, which it has begun with the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union, a Slavic-Turkic alliance that will include Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. ‘Eurasian integration,’ argued Putin in his speech at the 2013 Valdai International Discussion Club, ‘is a chance for the entire post-Soviet space to become an independent centre for global development, rather than remaining on the outskirts of Europe and Asia.’

In the context of westward expansion, too, the rhetoric of inclusivity has played a role. Early in his speech after the annexation of Crimea, Putin emphasised that Crimea’s ‘unique blend’ of different cultures and traditions paralleled that of ‘Russia as a whole, where not a single ethnic group has been lost over the centuries.’ (Crimea’s Tatars, who have only relatively recently returned to the region after Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of their entire population in 1944, might have been sceptical of such claims.) 


Putin’s geopolitics positions Russia as a nation between East and West. When it comes to values and morality, however, Putin’s Russia is decidedly anti-Western.  

President Vladimir Putin meets with representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church.

President Vladimir Putin meets with representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This contrast is premised not only on the asserted distinction between Russia’s religions and Western Christianity, but on the very basic divergence between a religious Russia and a secular West. In the same 2013 Valdai speech, Putin lamented that ‘people in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation.’ Not so in Russia, where legislation passed in 2013 has penalised the promotion of ‘gay propaganda’ to minors and criminalised acts that insult people’s religious feelings (dubbed by many as the ‘Pussy Riot’ law). 

And while European secularism stifles multiculturalism, says Putin (or, at least establishes an ‘artificial’ multiculturalism, whatever that may mean), Russia preserves a rich concentration of ethnicities and languages unparallelled even by the land of immigrants itself, the United States.

The rhetorical middle ground

Such claims to multiculturalism and multi-confessionalism may be part of Putin’s attempt to position Russia as a preeminent civilisation, re-establishing the country as a moral and political centre of gravity, but the President makes sure to couple these claims with affirmations of national unity and patriotism.  

Careful to temper his endorsement of ethnic diversity, Putin has noted that ‘it is clearly impossible to identify oneself only through one’s ethnicity or religion.’ Instead, the President argued, ‘people must develop a civic identity on the basis of shared values, a patriotic consciousness, civic responsibility and solidarity …’ To this end, Putin has fondly referenced the enthusiasm with which Soviet Muslims and other ethnic groups defended their homeland during the Second World War ‘from the Brest fortress … to Berlin itself.’ References to the Soviet government’s mass deportations of many of these groups during the war didn’t make it into his speech. 

By singling out patriotism as one of the values that all of Russia’s traditional religions share – alongside justice, truth, and industriousness – Putin has attempted to reconcile ethnic and civic identity into a singular, pro-Russian allegiance. 

In reality, though, the relationship between religion and ethnicity on the one hand, and civic assimilation on the other, is far less harmonious than Putin’s magniloquence asserts. Take, for example, Russia’s new nationalities policy of 2012, which has been criticised from both sides of the aisle. Minority rights supporters argue that the policy undermines the status and autonomy of non-Russian nationalities. Russian nationalist groups, meanwhile, decry the new policy for removing references to the ‘state-forming role of the [ethnically] Russian people.’

A superficial commitment to diversity may have a certain strategic significance in projecting a vision of Russia as a resurgent counterpart to the West, capable of allying itself with Asia and the Middle East. However, this political stance will do little to appease domestic constituencies such as nationalists and non-Russian ethnic groups, who will feel betrayed by the government’s lack of commitment in either direction. 

On the foundational question of Russian national identity – to which sphere of the world does the country belong? – Putin has time and again staked out a rhetorical middle ground. Russia, according to Putin, is neither one nor the other: it is ‘a unique civilisation connecting East and West.’ In other words, Russia doesn’t have to choose sides. It seems, however, that there is some contradiction in this equivocation. Is it possible, after all, to be both part of the West and idiosyncratically distinct from it?

Image one: RIA Novosti/Aleskei Nikolsky. All rights reserved.

Image two: Kremlin.ru. Some rights reserved.

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