Our story with Russia
We as Arabs have failed to get to know the Russian people, their culture, their history as well as their interests
Despite the zeal of some ultra-nationalist Russians who shun and ignore Soviet heritage, others still feel the USSR, the mammoth that competed with the USA for the leadership of the world, was an effective tool in promoting “Russian” interests, regardless of whether “internationalist” Bolsheviks had intended it or not.
I reckon this particular argument is still far from being settled, within Russia or outside the great country the Arabs and Muslims came to know for the first time through the travels of Ahmad Ibn Fadhlan in 922 AD, during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al-Muqtadir, who sent with him a letter to “the King of the Slavs”, including the Rus people.
On the other hand, I think we as Arabs have failed to get to know the Russian people, their culture, their history as well as their interests, in spite of the fact that they have been among the most interactive “European” peoples with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Without dwelling too much on the subject, it would be beneficial if we keep the following in mind:
Firstly, the Russian “geographic” environment has put them sometimes in a state of positive exchange, but more frequently in a state of confrontation with both Muslims and Arabs since the armies of Islamic conquest reached the foothills of the eastern Caucasus at Derbent (Bab Al-Abwab, i.e. “the gate of gates” in Arabic), and began to deal with the local population.
In those days the Muslims and Arabs called the Caucasus massif the “Mountain of the Tongues” (Jabal al-Alsun) denoting the multitude of languages spoken in its inaccessible valleys inhabited by different minorities without a single dominant majority. In fact, a large portion of that region is called Dagestan meaning the “Home or Land of mountains”.
When European powers began to show interests in the Middle East, bolstered by religious connections with the holy places in Palestine, Russia established a strong ecclesiastic, educational and cultural presenceEyad Abu Shakra
Before that, some historians linked the Jews to the Khazar people living on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea, claiming that the then King of the Khazar, already on bad terms with Christian Slavs but unwilling to accept Islam brought by invading armies from the south, decided to adopt Judaism as the religion of his people.
Throughout history the lands of the Rus witnessed several waves of invaders and settlers, perhaps the most important of which were the waves of Turkic (Altaic or Turanic) raids, which resulted in the settlement of many Turkic people in today’s Russia. These include the Chuvash – western Russia’s only major Christian Turkic people – the Tatars, the Bashkirs and the “old Bulgars”.
Secondly, Russia remains Europe’s largest country and certainly the leading bastion of Slavic culture. Indeed, when European powers began to show interests in the Middle East, bolstered by the never severed religious connections with the holy places in Palestine, Russia was one of these powers which established a strong ecclesiastic, educational and cultural presence. This presence was best reflected in what were known as “Moskovian” seminars and schools.
Going back in time
The remains of that presence are still there despite the spiritual retreat in the face of revolutionary thought during the Soviet decades. I still recall during my school days in Lebanon, namely in the town of Choueifat, the strong Russian ties with the area including the marriage of Aleksei Kruglov, the last Russian consul in Palestine to a Christian Orthodox lady from Choueifat. A grandson of consul Kruglov is a very dear friend and schoolmate.
Furthermore, in a study conducted by the Syrian academic Dr Joseph Zeitoun, he mentions that Russia’s interests in the "Mashreq" go back to the early 19th century during the reigns of Emperor (czar) Alexander I and his successors.
Zeitoun claims that the first steps in that direction were founding convents, caravanserais and hospices to serve pilgrims and visitors to the Holy Lands, particularly Jerusalem, but also including the Syrian town of Saydnaya, not far from Damascus, due to the significance of its “Convent of Our Lady”, regarded by many Christians as the “third pilgrimage” after Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
In the 1830s Russia’s consul in Beirut instructed his council to travel through greater Syria (Bilad Ash-Sham) and prepare a report about the overall situation of Orthodox Christians. This report in turn led the Russian Synod to ask one of its bishops to travel to Palestine in a fact finding mission.
The bishop indeed prepared an extensive report about the conditions of the Orthodox Church and its people, and stressed the urgent need for a spiritual, social and educational renaissance, as well as the need to establish a large Russian mission to provide relief not only to Greater Syria but also Egypt.
Men of letters
Actually, as a fruit of such an endeavor, the prominent Lebanese intellectual and man of letters Mikhail Naimy was one of the Syrio-Lebanese graduates of Russo-Ukrainian institutes, and so were the prominent Palestinian author and educator Khalil As-Sakakini, and three members of the Arab Pen League of New York, Raschid Ayyub, Abdul Massih Haddad and Nasib Arida. In addition to those, there was the noted Jerusalemite intellectual and academic Bandali Al-Jouzy who studied and taught in Russia.
According to Dr Zeitoun, the first school the Russians founded in Palestine was in the village of Al-Mujaidel near the city of Nazareth in Galilee in 1882. It was soon followed by other schools in the villages of Ar-Rameh, Kufr Yassif and Ash-Shajara in 1883 and 1884.
I remember reading two good books covering Russia’s interests in the Middle East; the first The Lebanon and the Lebanese, written in the 19th century by consul Konstantin Petkovich covering the affairs of Mount Lebanon autonomous district between 1862 and 1882 (later translated into Arabic); and the second Peasant Movements in the Lebanon during the first half of the 19th century written later during the Soviet era by Irina M. Smilianskaya.
These books give a clear idea about how seriously the Russians took our region, both in Imperial and Soviet periods. Yet we seem to be unable to understand the motives behind Russia’s intentions. We even do not know, or forget, that the USSR was the first country to recognize the founding of Saudi Arabia!
The fact of the matter is that Russia never ceased to see itself a major and influential player on the world stage; let alone with regards to its often problematic historical relations with Islam and Muslim peoples, its geo-political interests in the midst of global competition, and its economic and oil concerns in a world of conflicts and integration.
Today, we as Arabs need experts in Russian as well as Chinese affairs at the same level with those who have studied European and American history and cultures. This is a challenge for us, and we – very simply put – need to know about the Russians and Chinese as much as they know about us!
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Mar. 31, 2016.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949