When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea on March 18, he highlighted the area’s sacred history, invoking the tenth-century conversion of Vladimir the Great to Christianity. But Putin’s references to religion were complicated by the absence at the ceremonies of Kirill I, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the third row, however, behind pro-Kremlin representatives of the Russian Crimean community and other Russian lawmakers and officials, sat the Russian Federation’s two highest-ranking Muslim clerics. Although Putin never mentioned Islam in his speech, their presence at the ceremony, accentuated by their turbans and robes amid a sea of black suits and ties, sent an unmistakable message. The Crimean crisis is not just about Russia’s relationship with the West; it is also very much about Islam’s role in Russia.
Russia's Muslim elites have long played an important role in Russian state expansion. At key junctures in Russian and Soviet history, Muslim clerics from the Volga region cajoled Muslim populations along the southern and eastern frontiers of the empire to become subjects of the tsar. Formal expansion was typically followed by a wave of Tatar merchants, who thrived in newly incorporated territories and helped integrate Muslims into imperial trade networks. In the Soviet period, a number of Tatars led efforts to create a synthesis between socialism and Islam -- and a bridge between the U.S.S.R. and the Muslim world.
From the first days of the upheaval in Ukraine, prominent members of Russia’s Muslim community have mobilized to court their co-religionists on behalf of Moscow. Talgat Tadzhuddin, who is the head of one of the most powerful Muslim institutions in Russia and was one of the clerics in attendance at Putin's speech, has portrayed the annexation as an act of good will. As Tadzhuddin said in an interview with a Russian news agency, "When a neighbor has a fire, you have to help, considering that the flames might jump to your house."