oDR: Interview

What do persecuted Russian Muslim converts tell us about Putin’s Russia?

Interview: Olga Kravets discusses her book on Russian converts to Islam, and how their repression bodes ill for anyone who rejects state orthodoxy

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky
17 May 2022, 12.00am

Pavel Okruzhko, who faces up to 10 years of prison in Russia, posing on a beach in Turkey with his family (whose faces are hidden at his request) in 2015

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(c) Olga Kravets/NOOR. All rights reserved

Over the past few years, photographer and filmmaker Olga Kravets has interviewed a number of Russians who converted to Islam during the past decade.

Many of these new converts were forced to leave the country because of persecution and were often made to feel unwelcome in the countries they migrated to. Kravets, who is based in France, tells their stories, from persecution to exile, in a new book More terror than Allah/A Faithful Rus’ (original title: Plus de terreur qu’Allah/Русские, правоверные’), which is published by Editions Sometimes.

openDemocracy spoke to Kravets, known for her work in Chechnya, about what these stories tell us about contemporary Russia.

openDemocracy: How did you feel when Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February?

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Olga Kravets: When the war started I felt that, even though I’ve been exiled for eight years, I had truly lost my country. That there would be no return. My father is Ukrainian, but I can’t say I’m of Ukrainian culture. I grew up in Moscow and unfortunately, my father didn’t teach me Ukrainian.

The book’s publication date had been scheduled for 15 May for the past year, but as a Russian author, I thought it was better to make space for others and not publish at this moment. Then I started reading the book, as writers do before a book comes out, and I had this revelation: what is happening now to dissidents across Russian society happened first with Russian Muslims and new converts.

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When someone chooses to convert to Islam in Russia, they become a target for the Orthodox Church and the security services. [In the eyes of the authorities] a convert is way worse than an ‘ethnic’ Muslim. For the state, the fact that these people have relinquished the religion of their ancestors is a slap in the face, particularly in the current climate, when the state relies so much on the Church. So converts experience double the amount of repression. They describe being tortured, being surveilled on social media, different methods of persecution.

I started interviewing people in 2014. By 2015, a majority of the people I had spoken to had left Russia. In early 2020, I spoke to someone [Artur Rusyaev] I really wanted to photograph, but I struggled to come to Russia because of COVID-19, and by the time I made it, he had already been arrested. The police planted drugs on him [and he was sentenced to four years in prison]. The real reason for his arrest was that he had dared to build his own mosque on his own land and open it to people. So first the mosque was destroyed. After he rebuilt it, he was accused of carrying drugs.

All these methods were tested – a bit like on rabbits – on converts to Islam, and they can now be used on the whole population.

I was sceptical at first, wondering if the people I met were exaggerating. I remember that in 2016 one of them, a convert and citizen journalist, was saying that the authorities would eventually block Facebook and Youtube. Well, they haven’t blocked YouTube yet, but they’ve blocked Facebook.

oD: Who are the people you interviewed and photographed?

OK: I spoke with more than 20 people in Turkey, or in exile [elsewhere]. I did some interviews in Russia too. I followed a lot of people throughout their exile, sometimes in unlikely places. There’s one woman who even went to Niger before reaching Sweden. She’s currently fighting to get political asylum there. In the end, in the book, I kept seven long accounts, the most dramatic ones, which cover a variety of persecutions, religious choices and journeys in exile.

oD: Where do these people come from in Russia?

OK: As it happens, many come from St Petersburg, which makes sense because it’s been an important place for Muslims, culturally. Then there was one guy from Yoshkar-Ola, in the Mari El republic [in western Russia]. He was reading law at university and was able to take a course in Sharia law, which is how he learnt about Islam.

Another is from Novy Urengoy, in Siberia. He was working in oil and gas drilling in the far north with Muslims from southern Russia. He was completely Islamophobic. He converted after living with these people. He used to be very religious but had doubts about the Orthodox Church. Others come from Moscow or southern Russia. It’s a very diverse group.

For Russian authorities, Muslims are a potential danger, potential extremists

oD: What prompted their conversion?

OK: There’s one common trait, which is that they were looking for answers spiritually. I was interested in that, of course, and also wondering why one would choose a religion which immediately places you on the fringes of Russian society.

One man I spoke to felt the presence of something like God while he was [attempting to kill himself] and sought help from his friends, who were getting drunk in the next room. Islam was the religion that seemed the most natural to him. His parents had moved to Azerbaijan in Soviet times.

One woman called Evgenia was part of Nashi [a pro-government, patriotic youth movement of the 2000s] at the time she converted. She had invented a device to clean shoes and, being Nashi’s little star researcher, had benefited from several grants. She led a very comfortable life but was feeling something was missing. So she went on a spiritual quest, reading the Bible and the Torah. The only reason she encountered Islam was that she needed a driver and offered the job to a guy from her building, who happened to be Chechen. When she found out she thought of firing him. And then, being an educated woman, she questioned this and got interested in Islam.

Salman, my favourite interviewee, grew up in St Petersburg. As a teenager, he was a nationalist and wore T-shirts with swastikas. He never got into any trouble with the security services then. He hated the US and first got interested in Islam after 9/11, which made him wonder what this force [that he thought was] attacking the US was. That’s how he started reading the Quran. He speaks about having been attracted by Daesh [Islamic State] for a short while and says that it’s only meeting with other converts and being able to discuss how one could be both Russian and a Muslim that prevented him from joining the other side.

Photos from Salman’s own archive. Book page | Olga Kravets/NOOR

Photos from the archive of Salman, Olga Kravets' favourite interviewee

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Olga Kravets/NOOR

oD: How do the Russian authorities treat Muslims, and converts in particular?

OK: For them, Muslims are a potential danger, potential extremists. I think that, for the authorities, a ‘good Muslim’ is someone like Rashid Nurgaliyev [a Russian general and former interior minister, who is of Tatar origin and is reported to have become an Orthodox Christian in 2006]. Nurgaliyev mostly lives his life as if he wasn’t Muslim. For the Russian authorities, a good Muslim will pray discreetly and won’t live his faith in the open, as we are in an Orthodox country with ‘traditional’ values.

A convert has the whole system against him. If an imam – and I had confirmation of this from an imam I interviewed in southern Russia – has the slightest doubt about someone in his mosque, he is obliged to report him to the security services. This breaks the intimacy between a person and their spiritual guide, their imam.

A group of converts that I got particularly interested in chose to take part in the 2012 protests [in reaction to Vladimir Putin’s re-election]. They made banners and T-shirts that said ‘Muslim citizens’ to express that they wanted to be citizens of a democratic and free Russia. That really set the authorities off. This group has been particularly targeted.

oD: What kind of persecutions have these converts suffered?

OK: Many of them, particularly after they leave the country, will have their bank account blocked and they will be flagged as an extremist. Some of them will have drugs planted on them. Evgenia’s husband has been sentenced for belonging to a terrorist organisation that doesn’t exist. Another man called Alexei suffered persecution after he opened a free Muslim nursery. He was accused of spreading hatred on social media.

oD: What’s their reaction to the war Russia is waging in Ukraine?

OK: The converts I interviewed and photographed are against the Kremlin and they’re against the war. Many of them know people in Ukraine. Sometimes they’re relatives.

For instance, Hamza, from Novy Urengoy, was struggling to reply to me during the proofreading stage. I realised later that he was helping his brother evacuate from Ukraine. Hamza left Russia for Europe, but his brother, who converted to Islam after him, had been living in Ukraine for a few years. In Ukraine, Muslim converts benefit from more religious freedom; Muslims have been able to have a dialogue with the authorities. On this, Ukraine is an example for Russia.

More generally it’s interesting to note that so many Russian Muslims stood behind Alexey Navalny despite him having been so scathing about Chechens, Dagestanis and migrant workers, who are, most often, Muslim. Despite this, a group of Muslims wrote an address on the Voice of Islam website to support Navalny during his trial.

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Evgenia encountered Islam when she hired a driver from Chechnya

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(c) Olga Kravets/NOOR. All rights reserved

oD: In the 1990s and 2000s, Russia was at war with the majority-Muslim Chechen Republic. How much of Russia’s Islamophobia do you think can be linked to these wars?

OK: A lot comes from the Chechen war and even from the [Soviet] war in Afghanistan. The work that should have been done after the war [to address crimes that had been committed and enable a reconciliation] has never been done. Even if the Russian government has given carte blanche to Ramzan Kadyrov [head of the Chechen Republic], this doesn’t mean that for many Russians Chechens are seen as normal people.

In private conversations, even people close to the opposition have asked me how I could trust Muslims, saying things like: ‘How can you trust these people? What tells you they’re not luring you with their nice words and won’t become suicide bombers at some point?’ I hope my book can help them address their Islamophobia.

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