Our Story with Russia: The Caucasus Massif The 'Mountain Of The Tongues'
30 June 2016
By Eyad Abu Shakra
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
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'. 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
peoples 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. 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
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
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.
Actually, as a fruit of such an endeavour, 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.
From my own personal experience, 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 two 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 recognise the founding of Saudi
The fact of the matter is that Russian gas 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!
Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with
the newspaper since 1978.