Muslims and Christians together in the former Soviet Union

From Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets:

I was eager to hear her recollections of that terrifying day, February 6, 2004, when there was a terrorist attack on the Zamoskvoretskaya line of the Moscow Metro, between the Avtozavodskaya and Paveletskaya stops. Thirty-nine people were killed and 122 hospitalized.

[from the mother of a victim] I was always scoping out suspicious passengers on the Metro. At work, it was the only thing we talked about. What’s happening to us, dear Lord? One day, I was standing on the platform, and there was this young woman near me with a baby stroller. She had black hair, black eyes, I could tell that she wasn’t Russian. I don’t know what her ethnicity was—Chechen, Ossetian? Who was she? I couldn’t help myself and peeked into the stroller: Was there a child in there? Or was it something else? Thinking about riding in the same car as her ruined my mood. “No,” I thought. “She can go ahead, I’ll wait for the next train.” A man came up to me, “Why did you look into her stroller?” I told him the truth. “So you too, then.” …I see an unhappy girl curled up in a ball. It’s my Ksyusha. Why is she all alone? Without us? No, it’s impossible, it can’t be true. Blood on the pillow… I cry, “Ksyusha! Ksyushenka!” But she can’t hear me. She pulled a hat over her face so that I wouldn’t see her, so that I wouldn’t get scared. My little girl! She’d dreamed of being a pediatrician, but now, she’s lost her hearing. She was the most beautiful girl in her class… and now her face… For what? I’m drowning in a viscous fluid, my consciousness is splintering into shards. My legs don’t work, they feel like they’re made of cotton, and I have to be led out of the ward. The doctor screams at me. “Get ahold of yourself, or else we won’t let you see her again!” I get ahold of myself… and go back into the room… She didn’t look at me, she looked past me, off somewhere, as though she didn’t recognize me. The look in her eyes was like a suffering animal’s, it was unbearable. It was barely possible to go on living after seeing it. Now she’s hidden that look away somewhere, she’s put on an armored shell, but she’s holding all that inside of her. It’s all been imprinted on her. She’s always in that place where none of us were with her… There was an entire hospital ward full of girls like her… They’d all ridden in the same Metro car, and there they all lay… lots of students, school kids.

One operation… another… Three total! Ksyusha regained her hearing in one ear… then her fingers started working again… We lived on the border between life and death; between faith in miracles and utter injustice. It made me realize that even though I am a nurse, I know next to nothing about death. I’ve seen it many times, but only in passing. You put an IV in, listen for a pulse… Everyone thinks that medics know more about death than other people, but no.

…Everything is scarier underground. Now, I always carry a flashlight with me in my purse… …I couldn’t hear any screaming or wailing. It was completely silent. Everyone was lying in a big pile… It wasn’t scary, no… Then, slowly, people started moving. At a certain point, it dawned on me that I had to get out of there, everything was covered in chemicals, and it was all on fire. I was looking around for my backpack, it had my papers in it for school, my wallet… Shock… I was in shock… I didn’t feel any pain…

…At the top of the escalators, two women ran up to me and plastered some rag to my forehead. For some reason, I was freezing cold. They got me a chair, I sat down. I saw them asking other passengers for their belts and neckties and using them to tie off people’s wounds.

Everyone is used to it now. They turn on the TV, hear a little bit about it, then go drink their coffee…

[from the daughter, who had been attacked in the Metro] …The dead lay on the ground with their cellphones endlessly ringing… No one would brave going over and answering them.

…Why am I silent? I had been seeing this guy, we were even… he’d given me a ring… but after I told him about what happened to me… maybe it’s completely unrelated, but we ended up breaking up. I learned my lesson, it made me realize that you shouldn’t confess things to people. You get blown up, you survive, and you end up even more vulnerable and fragile than you were before. You’re branded a victim—I didn’t want people to see that brand on me…

I once had this conversation with a Chechen at the market… The war had been going on for fifteen years already, they’d come to escape it here. They’re fanning out through all of Russia… getting into every corner… even while we’re supposedly at war with them… Russia is fighting the Chechens… that so-called “special operation.” What kind of war is this? The Chechen I talked to was young: “I’m not out there fighting, lady. My wife is Russian.” I heard this story once—I’ll tell it to you, too… A Chechen girl fell in love with a Russian pilot. This handsome guy. By mutual agreement, they decided he should take her away from her parents. He brought her to Russia. They got married. Everything was by the book. Their son was born. But she kept crying and crying, she felt so bad for her parents. Finally, they wrote them a letter: “Please forgive us, we love each other…” And they sent them greetings from her Russian mother. But all those years, her brothers had been looking for her, they wanted to kill her for bringing shame on their family—she’d not only married a Russian, but a Russian who’d bombed them. Killed their people. The return address led them directly to her… One of her brothers murdered her, then another one showed up to take her body home.

More: read Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets



6 thoughts on “Muslims and Christians together in the former Soviet Union

  1. I am not sure “Muslims and Christians together…” is quite the right title. The conflicts in the South Caucasus and Central Asia were ethnic, not religious ones. Many Azeris were very nominal Muslims, IMHO, while Russians and Armenians were even more secular. To the best of my knowledge, no religious authorities (suppressed and/or tightly controlled in the Soviet Union) endorsed the conflicts at that time. The growth of the tribal Chechen islamic fundamentalism came years later.

    To me, these events are most similar to the civil war/ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia around the same time period. Two out of three parties to the conflict there there were nominally Christian, though of different denominations (Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats) – this did not stop pogroms and atrocities.

  2. Many Armenians from Armenia and Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis seemed very tight together just prior to and often during Sumgait events (outside Azerbaijan and Armenia in former USSR) Guess there were much enmity under the surface.
    Zapiens #1, Croats and Serbs share same language. Does it means that ethnically they are very close? Are you sure that this is not a religious conflict?

  3. Croats and Serbs are genetically/ethnically pretty close, perhaps practically indistinguishable. It is likely that religion and associated culture played a major role in the conflict, just as it did in the past. What immediately comes to ones mind, in the orthodox vs catholicism animosity history:

    Sack of the orthodox Constantinople by crusaders.
    Teutonic knights and Alexander Nevsky
    Russian medieval wars with Poland and Lithuania
    Serbo-Croatian wars, the latest in 1991

    Perhaps, the level of religion based animosity was/is less than in the Islam vs. generic Christianity case, but still regrettably quite strong.

  4. Anon #2: I am aware of the fact that Serbian and Croatian varieties of Serbo-Croatian are very close, though they use different alphabets. I have to question, however, how religious these people were after decades in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, nominally socialist and non-religious Yugoslavia. In my – not very, though the ancestors’ religions were undoubtedly used to stoke the nascent ethnic nationalisms there.

    I have heard an opinion from an ex-Yugoslav (a Slovene emigrant to the US) that the severity of the conflict stemmed from decades of hiding and suppressing the ethnic tensions during Tito’s rule.

  5. It is not at all clear what “ethnic” means and genetically we are all about the same. When human beings feel threatened we behave like any other animal and the veneer of civilization disappears. It is always right around the corner.

  6. @Jack: sorry, “genetically we are all about the same” is a content-free statement.

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