Muslim leaders today like to boast that Islam arrived in Russia before Christianity. Muslims brought their religion to Russia from the Arabian peninsula in the first centuries after Muhammad, long before the arrival of Christianity among the pagans on the Eurasian steppe. By the end of the first millennium, when the pagan prince of Kievan Rus’ converted to Byzantine Christianity, there were substantial Muslim communities in the Caucasus region between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, in the Volga River valley, and in Central Asia, the Urals, and Siberia. The Mongol hordes adopted Islam during their long occupation of Russia between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries, and many of their Tatar tribesmen remained there when the Golden Horde was pushed back to Mongolia.
As the Russian empire extended south and east by conquest, trade, and the collaboration of indigenous elites, its Muslim population steadily increased. The Muslims of the Crimea and the steppelands north of the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea were incorporated into the empire by Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century; the Caucasus itself was conquered in the early nineteenth century, although the Russians never really quelled the Muslim hill tribes of Daghestan and Chechnya; and beginning in the 1860s the Russian army pushed the empire’s frontier deep into the Kazakh steppe and Central Asia, subjugating rich and ancient centers of Islamic piety and scholarship in Tashkent, Kokand, Bukhara, and Samarkand. By the end of the nineteenth century there were more Muslims governed by the tsar than by the Ottoman sultan.
The encounter between Russia and the Muslim world has been perceived by most observers as a simple tale of imperial conquest and confrontation epitomized by Russia’s long and often brutal war with the Muslim rebels in Chechnya and Daghestan. (This is a conflict that goes back to the nineteenth century, when the Daghestani warlord Imam Shamil led the Muslim hill tribes of the northern Caucasus in a fierce campaign against the army of Tsar Nicholas I, who ruled between 1825 and 1855.) In this saga of resistance and suppression, Russia’s southern border represents a crucial front in the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and Christianity; the recent war in Chechnya is a return to the “natural state of conflict” between these religious traditions after the collapse of the artificial peace imposed by the Soviet regime.
But as Robert Crews reminds us in his scholarly and timely book For Prophet and Tsar, the conflict in Chechnya and other parts of the northern Caucasus was in fact unusual in a history of peaceful coexistence and collaboration between Russia and the Muslim world before 1917. The reign of Catherine the Great, which began in 1762, marked the first major expansion of the Russian empire into the Caucasus region. The Russian armies conquered Muslim territories and suppressed resistance; but imperial officials also managed to win the allegiance of Muslim subjects by making Islam and its attendant hierarchies (with clerics and legal scholars at the top …