Russia and the Islamic world: Dmitry Shlapentokh discusses a recent study by a leading American expert on Russia.

AuthorShlapentokh, Dmitry
PositionRobert Service's "Russia and Its Islamic World: From the Mongol Conquest to the Syrian Military Intervention" - Book review

RUSSIA AND ITS ISLAMIC WORLD: From the Mongol Conquest to the Syrian Military Intervention

Author: Robert Service

Published by: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 2017, 128pp, $19.95.

Robert Service is a well-known historian of modern Russia, who has spent most of his career in the United Kingdom and who is now a fellow at the Hoover Institution in California. His short book is aimed at providing a brief overview of Russia's dealings with the Islamic world from the Middle Ages to the present. Some of Service's observations are valid, and the book might serve as an introduction for those who have no knowledge of Russian Soviet or post-Soviet history. Still, even for these people, the book has little value, due to serious problems.

First, the author seems to have limited knowledge of his subject, and this has led him to missing important information. The second problem is Service's general views on the Soviet and post-Soviet regimes, and their implicit juxtaposition to the United States.

According to Service, the Golden Horde's conversion to Islam led to the first encounter with Islam. Service ignores an earlier, 9th century, encounter and the attempt then to convert Vladimir, the Prince of Kievan Rus', the medieval Slavic state with its capital in Kiev, to Islam. While Russian historians regard Kievan Rus' as the predecessor of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, present-day Ukrainian historians vehemently reject this notion. The story is not purely legend. Vladimir and the Kievan Rus' experienced the clear influence of the great Arab caliphate in the south, and evidence of trade between the Kievan Rus' and the Muslim South could be seen in the finding of Arab coins in Europe. While Russians' knowledge of Islam could well have preceded the Golden Horde's conversion to Islam, Russian exposure to Islam had increased dramatically, with Russia's transformation into a multi-ethnic empire, when many of the tsar's subjects were Muslims.

In 1532 Ivan IV conquered Kazan, and then Astrakhan. The population of the area, predominantly Muslim, became subjects of the tsar. Later, Russians took over the Muslim people of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russians were fascinated with Islam, as could be seen by the works of Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Leo Tolstoy. Russians, like other Europeans, 'portrayed their "Eastern" characters as wild and ruthless.'

Still, the image was not always negative. 'The same writers saw something magnificent in the mountain peoples, describing them as children of nature, existing almost in a state of divine grace.'

Of course, there was nothing new in this approach to the Muslim East. One could easily find the same views among representatives of European Romanticism. One should also remember here that while dealing with Europe, some Russian intellectuals, most notably representatives of Slavophilism, emphasise Russia's difference from Europe. The same intellectuals have quite different views when they approach Asia. Here, even Slavophiles saw natives in the context of the European paradigm. And this paradigm implied the duality of the image. On one hand, the natives were unruly and wild. On the other hand, they were...

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