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Resiliency Reigns for Russian Muslims, Indonesian Diplomat Finds

The rise of Islam in Russia is the subject of Indonesian diplomat M. Aji Surya's new book, 'Geliat Islam di Russia'

By Sylviana Hamdani | Jakarta Globe | 24 Aug 2012

“ For most of us in Indonesia, Russia is a dark and dreary country,” Indonesian diplomat M. Aji Surya said. “In our minds, the country seems to be enclosed with hopelessness and darkness due to its past.”

Aji has been working and living in Russia since 2008. He helms the division of information, social, culture and education at Indonesia’s embassy in Moscow.

His placement in Russia has allowed him to experience the country in a deep and intimate way.

“Russia is very unique and exotic,” he said. “Its exoticism exceeds your imagination.”

The Russian Federation is the largest country in the world, with a total area of 17,075,400 square kilometers. It is also the ninth most populous country, with more than 143 million people. Its people consist of diverse ethnic groups, such as Russians, Tatars and Ukrainians.

Under the rule of the Communist Party (Soviet Union 1922-1991), all religions were repressed. Churches and mosques were closed down. People were forbidden to congregate for worship, ceremonies and prayer.

“Many people found it hard even to smile during those days,” Aji said.

But things changed.

In 1985, Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the Perestroika (economic structuring) and Glasnost (political openness) policies. The government allowed people to worship in churches and mosques under close monitoring. The reforms fostered a new sense of hope in the future.

“Religion became the energy for progressive change in the country,” Aji said.

In 1991, the Soviet Union fell, and the Russian Federation was born.

Under the new regime people’s civil liberties increased. This was a welcome change, compared to what existed during the Soviet rule. But there was still a lot left to be desired. And a lot of damage had been done.

“At the start of the Bolshevik Revolution [1917, the birth of the Soviet Union], there were around 10,000 mosques in Russia,” said Aji. “When Perestroika arrived, there were only 100 left.”

But the resilient Russian Muslims built some and restored others.

“Today, there are over 7,000 mosques all over Russia,” Aji said.

Muslim people also make up 19 percent of the total Russian population these days.

“There are over 25 million Muslim people in Russia,” he said. “It’s such a great number. Their number is almost similar to the total populations of Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.”

The rise of Islam in Russia is the subject of Aji’s new book, “Geliat Islam di Russia” (“Resurrection of Islam in Russia”). The book was launched on Aug. 13 at the Grand Hyatt Jakarta.

The 288-page book is a result of Aji’s careful observations, interviews and literature study on Islamic faith in Russia.

“Islam first came to Russia in the 7th century,” Aji said. “It’s much earlier than the coming of Islam in Indonesia [around the 13th century].”

Since then, Islam has become a major faith in Russia, the second-most dominant after Orthodox Christianity.

“During the rule of the Communist Party, the government repressed all religions for more than 70 years,” Aji said. “However, no weapon can kill the faith. When the government forbade people to congregate in mosques, they congregated in houses and worshiped together with their close neighbors.”

Thus, the faith survived and even multiplied during the troubled times.

The book includes an interesting story of the Blue Mosque in St. Petersburg. During the rule of the Communist Party, the mosque served as a warehouse.

But when Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, visited St. Petersburg in 1955, he urged then-Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev to re-open it.

“The people were very grateful [to Sukarno],” Aji said. “The mosque was nicknamed Sukarno’s Mosque until now.”

Today, Indonesian people will be warmly welcomed by the Mufti if they visit the mosque, whose beautiful decorations include Balinese wood-etched calligraphy presented by Sukarno’s daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Yoga Mauladi, a newspaper reporter, lauded the newly launched book.

“Two thumbs up for Aji for writing the book,” Yoga said. “The book is easy and interesting to read. It has many beautiful pictures and uses daily conversational language.”

The book is enriched with pictures of beautiful Russian architecture, the mosques and Russian Muslims taken by Aji himself.

Currently, the book is only available in the Indonesian language. There are currently no plans to translate it into English or other languages.

“Tak kenal maka tak sayang [if you don’t know it, you won’t love it],” Aji said. “I really hope this book can be a bridge between Indonesian and Russian Muslims to be able to understand one another and maybe collaborate in the future.”

The book is also an interesting read for non-Muslim people because it relates Russia’s long and illustrated history, its great philosophers and writers, and its diverse cultural backgrounds and ethnic traditions.

The book is available at major bookstores throughout Indonesia for Rp 48,000 ($5).


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