The paper discussed in the seminar, examines how the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89), the conflict that contributed to the Soviet Union’s collapse, influenced the perceptions of the Soviet and post-Soviet elites regarding Islamism.
As Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin struggled to define a coherent policy toward Muslim insurgencies in neighbouring Tajikistan and in Chechnya, the paper argues that there were both continuities and breaks in perceptions of Islamism among Russian elites. Indeed, while some veterans of Afghanistan – the Afgantsy – and some regional political and security elites who had stayed in place during the transition emphasised Islamism’s disruptive potential in Tajikistan, Yeltsin’s team, largely constituted of ‘new’ people, initially dismissed religion’s importance.
The paper looks at how the Kremlin’s perceptions evolved throughout the 1990s as various groups pushed to impose their visions of Islamism. Remarkably, it showed that the concern about Islamism was long not central for the Kremlin in Chechnya even in the aftermath of the lost First Chechen War in 1996. For long, the Russian political and security elites continued to stress instead the importance of ethno-nationalist separatism and other drivers of conflict.
By downplaying the importance of Islamism in Russia’s threat assessments, the paper challenges some of the deterministic narratives about the ‘Islamist threat’ to Russia that trace a direct continuity from Afghanistan to the present.
The paper builds on extensive research in archives and interviews with policymakers in Moscow. It is part of Vassily’s ongoing postdoctoral project at the Schuman Centre on ‘Nationalism, Pan-Islamism, and Jihadism: At the Origins of the De-Territorialisation of the Grievances in the North Caucasus’ conducted on a grant of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). Professor Olivier Roy supervises the project.