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Religion, Extremism and Radicalisation in post-communist Russia: issues, public policy and research


In the past two decades Russia has seen a proliferation of religiously motivated ideologies, groups, movements and actions aimed at radical solutions of perceived social and political issues. The appeal of radicalism at this particular historical juncture is hardly coincidental. The recent past has been a time of profound social change, a transition away from the system of authoritarian state socialism and towards a future that promises possibilities and is also fraught with uncertainties. With all social institutions and structures in flux, if not in crisis, a multitude of grievances, hopes and aspirations have emerged and found expression in the variety of ideas, projects and actions that can be readily construed as radical in their intention to dramatically change society, power relations between various groups, and/or personal circumstances. A range of radical ideas and projects were concerned with the attempts of ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ to redefine the ethno-political boundaries inherited from the Soviet past and to establish independent national homelands (such as in Chechnya and Tatarstan). Others, such as Russian extreme nationalists (including Russian National Unity, RNU, and skinheads) reflected ethnic xenophobia and fear of migrants as migration, particularly from the Northern Caucasus and Central Asia, intensified in the early 1990s.

Religion featured prominently in many of these expressions of radicalism, for instance as a marker of ethnic identity that justified calls for separatism or national superiority, as in the case of Russian nationalists. In other cases, new religious ideas, practices and leaders provided alternative sources of authority that encouraged and justified radical changes in attitudes to social institutions such as the family, education and healthcare, as well as personal lifestyle and political views. The introduction of the 1990 Law on Freedom of Worship (immediately before the demise of the Soviet system) contributed to the emergence of a thriving market of religious movements, whose ideas and practices were often grafted onto the radical projects of social and personal transformation.

Radical New Religions and ‘Cult Controversies’

The earliest warning that religious faith can lead to extreme actions was associated in 1991 – 1993 with a homegrown new religious movement (NRM). The Great White Brotherhood (GWB) covered every possible public space in Russia and Ukraine with leaflets announcing the imminent end of the world on the 23 November 1993 in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital and birthplace of Slavic Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The anticipated ‘martyrdom’ of Maria Devi Chirstos, one of the leaders opened a prospect of ‘salvation’ for the ‘144,000 elected few’. The Russian and Ukrainian mass media and some government officials interpreted it as a direct reference to a planned mass suicide by all the movement’s members, although in reality, the GWB never had more than 1,000 members, nearly all of whom, including the leaders, were arrested by the Ukrainian police before the final event took place.[1]  This episode, however, gave rise to public anxieties and fears about the generic dangers of ‘destructive cults and sects’. The mass media and the emerging ‘anti-cult’ expert industry associated it with tragic events in other parts of the world such as the mass suicide by members of the People’s Temple in the jungles of Guyana in 1978 and the siege of Branch Davidians by the US law enforcement agencies in Waco, Texas, USA, unfolding almost simultaneously with the events in Kiev. The gas attack on the Tokyo underground by the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo in 1995 only added to this general alarm, as the group had its largest branch in Russia (and the mass media alleged that its leaders made attempts to get access to Russian nuclear capabilities).[2]

In the ensuing ‘cult controversies’, NRMs were presented by their opponents as a specific generic category of socially unacceptable groups (new, unofficial, ‘non-traditional’, mainly foreign, and extremist) that had to be distinguished from those that are socially acceptable and beneficial (old, official, ‘traditional’, and moderate). A conceptual vocabulary and commonly-held images emerged that purported to explain their appeal and their perceived ability to control individual and group behaviour, such as obedience to powerful charismatic leaders (‘brainwashing’ or ‘mind control’), social deviance (‘extremism’), and likely recourse to violence and terrorism to achieve their aims. ‘Cult controversies’ included political lobbying, which, in 1997, contributed to the introduction of a new law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations that was designed to restrict the activities of newer religious groups and prevent extreme expressions of religious faith. The actual application of the law, however, resulted in restrictions and even bans on a range of groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Salvation Army, Scientology, and new Pentecostal groups, without any sound evidence of their committing unlawful acts.

Academic research on NRMs, including my own ethnographic studies at the time, supported the approaches taken by most sociologists of religion in the West, that in their beliefs, practices and lifestyles, most NRMs did not deviate in any substantial ways from what could be commonly found in more established religions.[3]  The ‘radical departures’ of some from conventional values and institutions could be better explained by focusing on the socio-demographic characteristics of their membership, acknowledging their appeal to particular generational cohorts in terms of beliefs and lifestyles, by looking at the dynamics of their internal relationships, including with their leaders, and by considering reactions of the wider society to them. Things could go wrong with and in some of the new movements, as the examples of the GWB and others clearly indicated. However, explanations assuming involuntary membership resulting from the imposition of ‘alien’ beliefs, implicit in the notions of brainwashing and mind-control, obfuscated rather than illuminated a sound analysis of ‘radicalisation’ within NRMs.[4]

New Movements within Islam

The 1990s also saw the emergence of new movements associated with Islam in the traditionally Muslim regions of Northern Caucasus (Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Chechnya and Ingushetia) and Tatarstan, within ethnically Muslim enclaves in predominantly Russian regions of the Volga area (e.g. the village of Belozerye, and Astrakhan), the Urals, Siberia, and, increasingly, among ethnically Muslim migrants in large Russian cities, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhnyi Novgorod. The new groups tended to attract younger people who rejected the ritualistic, ‘folk’, forms of Islam that survived Soviet suppression of religion. They embraced those forms that emphasised their Islamic identity (e.g. in worship and dress code) and lifestyle (e.g. abstinence from alcohol and entertainment, strict sexual norms, etc). However, embracing the faith often included – and indeed symbolised – the rejection of local social customs (e.g. dowry or forced marriage, bribery) and, ultimately, the authority of the family, clan, and, in some cases, that of the local governing Islamic and secular bodies, which caused tensions and conflicts. These tensions were particularly pronounced in Dagestan, where the tradition of Sufi brotherhoods and Islamic piety survived the Soviet restrictions and persecutions and where new movements emerged that were influenced by other strands of Islam, including what is often defined as Salafism. Moreover, the rivalry between Sufi and Salafi groups has become a salient example of radicalism and in some cases resulted in violence in Dagestan.[5]  In the 1990s some Salafi brotherhoods formed separate communities (jamaats) and declared autonomous rule in the Kadar area of Dagestan. In 1999, this ‘Islamist enclave’ was destroyed by the Russian security forces, as some of its members were linked to the Chechen rebels.

In a pattern familiar from the controversies over NRMs, the popular imagination, fed by mass media portrayals, saw the ‘radical departures’ of young Muslims as caused by the imposition of dangerous beliefs and practices. ‘Wahhabism’ became a catch-all label to refer to foreign forms of Islam spreading from Saudi Arabia and propagating religious exclusivity, aggressive proselytism and, ultimately, global jihad. From this perspective, Islam is seen as either ‘official’ (‘traditional’, ‘moderate’, domestic, obedient, and friendly to the state and secular society) or ‘non-official’ (‘non-traditional’, radical, foreign, anti-secular, and threatening to the state).[6]  However, concerns and anxieties over new Islamic forms and expressions were considerably exacerbated by wider domestic and global contexts, within which Islam was instrumentalised by various groups, identified with diverse ethno-political and geopolitical issues and causes, and often perceived as a source of conflict and terrorism.

It was the armed conflicts in Chechnya (1994-96 and 1999-09) and a series of associated terrorist acts in Russian cities that had the most consequential ramifications for the evolution of new Islamic groups and official policies towards them. While initially dominated by secular nationalism, the unfolding conflict came to be increasingly affected by the ‘Islamic factor’. Some of its leaders redefined the national independence movement as part of the global jihad against Russian and Western infidels. Terrorist acts in Russian cities, such as the Dubrovka theatre siege in 2002 in Moscow and the Beslan school tragedy in 2004, have been linked to anti-Russian Islamist activities, mainly associated with the Chechen rebel groups. On the other hand, in particular after 9/11, Russian government and pro-government mass media increasingly presented the conflict in Chechnya as part of the international fight against the global threat of militant Islamism. The presence of some foreign jihadists in Chechnya such as Khattab, Abu al-Saif, and Abu al-Walid, imparted a degree of credibility to this claim.

The most recent expression of this Islamist radicalisation was the emergence, in 2007, of the Caucasian Emirate, an Islamist terrorist political entity created as a result of the convergence of the interests and ideologies of individuals previously affiliated with groups from diverse origins. They included Dokku Umarov, a nationalist armed fighter-turned-jihadi to Anzor Astemirov, an ex-leader of the New Muslims movement in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, which evolved from a generally accommodating to a more extremist stance towards wider society. While the Caucasian Emirate is perhaps the first polity that was declared on the virtual space, it currently coordinates a network of terrorist cells and has been linked to terrorists attacks, such as at Moscow Domodedovo Airport in 2010 and the incidents on the Chechen-Dagestani border in February 2012.[7]  Finally, in 2006-7 Russia was shocked by a series of terrorist suicide attacks committed by women from the Northern Caucasus, so called ‘black widows’, and their presence in acts of group terrorism (such as in the Dubrovka siege), gave rise to the view that these were Chechen women brainwashed through special techniques in terrorist camps.

Counter-Extremist Approaches and Policies

Faced with a range of groups and activities that are commonly defined as ‘extremist’, Russian state agencies responded with the adoption of a series of policy and legislative acts that display all the hallmarks of a ‘catch-all’ approach to the issue of religion as a potential source of extremism. Thus, successive Doctrines of National Security refer to foreign missionary activities as presenting possible threats to social cohesion and even being part of expansionist agendas of foreign states. The Law on Combating Extremism (2002) contains very broad and loose definitions of extremism and fails to make clear distinctions between radical and extremist views, and between such views and extremist actions; for instance, it lists belief in religious exclusivity among possible manifestations of extremism, thus opening the prospect of singling out as extremist any religious group that makes exclusive truth claims.

Seen as an overriding matter of national security and loosely defined in law, ‘extremism’ is almost exclusively dealt with by law enforcement agencies, in particular the Federal Security Service (FSB) and prosecutors affiliated with the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). Within the ‘catch-all’ approach, the Law on Extremism has been used by these and other agencies (e.g. local authorities) to discriminate against, prosecute, and in many cases outlaw as extremist groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants, the Hare Krishna, as well as some Muslim groups and activists. It also resulted in the establishment of an index of banned literature, which currently contains hundreds of titles, most of which are produced by Islamic groups or scholars. Those involved in countering extremism hardly ever engage in public discussions and it remains unclear to what extent and on what kind of research their approach and activities are based, though it is known that the law enforcement ministries (FSB and MVD) have their own research institutes. Similarly, there seems to be little connection between academic research and public policy related to religiously-motivated extremism (however defined).

This is combined with extremely heavy-handed ways in which both local and federal law-enforcement agencies tackle what they see as Islamic extremism, in particular in the Northern Caucasus, where they frequently do not discriminate between known terrorist groups and Islamic activists, or between militant and peaceful factions of the same movement. A notable exception was the approach taken in 1997-8 by Sergei Stepashin, the then Interior Minister, who took a negotiating approach in the situation around the Kadar zone; his approach, however, was rejected by both local and federal authorities.

Research on Islamic Radicalism

With long-established traditions in Islamic (or, more broadly, Oriental) Studies, it is not surprising that the post-Soviet Islamic revival, including radicalism, has attracted a considerable interest among Russian academics. Some publications, for instance, by Alexander Ignatenko and Roman Silantiev, carry the imprint of the dichotomous categorisation of Islam into ‘official’ and ‘non-official’, with the latter being seen as a form of political opposition to the Russian state and therefore extreme and threatening. Ignatenko, a prominent expert in Islamic history and thought, specifically focuses on the Islamist influence which he describes as ‘Wahhabism’ and attributes to deliberate attempts by Saudi Arabia to export its ideology for geopolitical purposes. Working within a similar analytical framework, Silantiev, a scholar of Islam with strong connections with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, has collected a considerable body of information on the post-Soviet internal and external politics of Muslim organisations, which he employs to argue that among the reasons for Islamic radicalism is rivalry for political influence and material resources.

Quite a different picture, however, emerges from a range of local ethnographic studies conducted by Vladimir Bobrovnikov, Dmitry Makarov, Akhmet Yarlykapov, Enver Kisriev, Ruslan Kurbanov, and Shamil Shakhaliev who have mapped and described the actual landscapes of radical activities in various regions of the Northern Caucasus.[8]  They analyse the effects of the Chechen wars and grievances over Russian domination in the region, the dire economic situation, political corruption, inter-ethnic and inter-religious religious rivalry and targeted persecutions by local authorities. Based on in-depth ethnography, these studies challenge some of the common assumptions about the influence of ‘Wahhabism’, pointing out that this label is hardly useful for analysing beliefs and practices of different strands within Islam that have emerged in the Northern Caucasus. While recognising the effects of radical ideas, in particular on younger Muslims, these studies provide valuable data for understanding that part of their appeal can be better explained by their search for an alternative source of authority (‘Sharia law’, ‘pure Islam’, etc) as a basis for changing society. Contrary to the common view, they do not support the idea that ‘Wahhabist’ groups emerged exclusively as a result of foreign missionary activities, showing that the scale of these activities has been highly exaggerated, that Salafi ideas were already present in the region in the 1980s (if not earlier) and that in any case their appeal cannot be explained simply by reference to ‘imposition’. These studies (in particular by Makarov and Yarlykapov) also indicate that the label ‘Wahhabism’ as the ‘catch-all’ explanation of extremism, can be used as a political weapon to delegitimise and persecute those expressions of social protest that, while radical, are not necessarily linked to violence. Furthermore, these prosecutions can themselves play a strong role in encouraging extreme positions and even terrorism, as was the case with the New Muslims movements in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria and other new groups (often defined as Salafi) in Dagestan.

Concluding Remarks

While supporting these findings, my research on the new movements within Islam, which I have carried out with Akhmet Yarlykapov since 2008, has highlighted the problems involved in the notion of ‘radicalisation’ as an analytical tool.[9]  In fact, the notions of radicalism and radicalisation are rarely employed in the Russian debates, with ‘extremism’ being the preferred term. However, rather than indicating a sort of intellectual hygiene, the exclusion of ‘radicalisation’ from the Russian debate can be better explained by a lack of interest in the process and instead a focus on the result. The Russian experience demonstrates that in its common usage both within and outside Western academia the notion of radicalisation is highly problematic as it purports to refer to the process whereby individuals and groups take increasingly oppositional stances towards the existing social order, which is likely to lead to violent actions, including terrorism. This indiscriminate usage opens up the unwelcome prospect of legitimate expressions of radicalism being implicitly linked to violence and thus potentially delegitimised. Further, as the preceding discussion clearly indicates, the same notion is used to apply to different types of situations, the study of which would require distinctive theoretical approaches, conceptual vocabularies, and methodologies. For instance, the processes whereby Chechen separatists were increasingly embracing militant Islamic ideologies and terrorism is distinctive from those when individual Chechen women came to adopt ‘the die-to-win’ stance as a result of their personal trajectories and socialisation within certain groups. And this is yet different from the New Muslims Movement in Kabardino-Balkaria evolving from an accommodating position towards undertaking violent actions. In other words, the existing approaches, including those found in Russia, tend to mix up and confuse individual, group, inter-group, societal, and inter-societal (global) contexts and dynamics, and catch them all in a single notion of radicalisation.

Further Reading:

  1. Dannreuther, Roland and Luke March (eds., 2010), Russia and Islam: State, Society, and Radicalism, London: Routledge.
  2. Yemelianova, Galina (ed., 2010), Radical Islam in the Former Soviet Union, London: Routledge.
  3. Muslim Young People in Britain and Russia: Intersections of Biography, Faith and History. Religion, State and Society, Volume 39 (2-3), 2011.
  4. McKay George and Christopher Williams (eds., 2009), Subcultures and New Religious Movements in Russia and East-Central Europe, London: Peter Lang.


Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Marat Shterin, and not of  Shterin is a Lecturer in Sociology of Religion at King’s College London. His research interests and expertise are in religion and society in Europe, in particular in post-communist societies and also in new religious movements, especially new Islamic groups and new Charismatic and Pentecostal Christian groups.


1. For details, see Eliot Borenstein, “’Suspending Disbelief”: ‘Cults’ and Postmodernism in Post-Soviet Russia”, in Adele Barker (ed.), Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex and Society since Gorbachev, Durham: Duke University Press, 1999, pp.437-62. BACK UP TO TEXT

3. See, Marat Shterin (2001)  'New Religions in the New Russia', Nova Religio, 4 (2), pp.310-321. BACK UP TO TEXT

4. For a useful general overview of problems related to NRMs, see Eileen Barker (1989), New Religious Movements: a Practical Introduction, London: HMSO.  On violence involving NRMs, see, David Bromley and Gordon Melton (2002), Cults, Religion and Violence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. BACK UP TO TEXT

5. See Akhmet Yarlykapov (2010) “Folk Islam’ and Muslim youth of the Central and North-West Caucasus', in Marjorie Balzer (ed.), Religion and Politics in Russia (Armonk/ London, M.E. Sharpe). BACK UP TO TEXT

6. See, Roland Dannreuther (2010). “‘Russian discourses and approaches to Islam and Islamism’”. In Roland Dannreuther and Luke March (eds.), Russia and Islam: State, Society, and Radicalism, London: Routledge, pp.9-25. BACK UP TO TEXT

7. On the Caucasian Emirate, see Alexander Knysh, 'The Caucasus Emirate: Between Reality and Virtuality' (2009), available at, accessed 15 August 2011. BACK UP TO TEXT

8. Articles by Bobrovnikov and Kurbanov can be found in the special issue of Religion, State, and Society 'Muslim Young People in Britain and Russia: intersections of biography, faith, and history', edited by Marat Shterin and Basia Spalek, Vol. 39, issue 2-3; Enver Kisriev (2004), Islam i vlast’ v Dagestane, Moscow: OGI (in Russian); Dmitri Makarov (2007), ‘Nesostoyavsheyesya vozrozhdeniye umerennogo islamizma v Dagestane’. Islam v sovremennom mire: vnutrigosudarstvenny i mezhdunarodno-politichesky aspekt, 7, pp.19–27 (in Russian). BACK UP TO TEXT

9. See, Marat Shterin and Akhmet Yarlykapov (2011), “Reconsidering Radicalisation and Terrorism: the New Muslims Movement in Kabardino-Balkaria and its Path to Violence”, Religion, State and Society, Volume 39, Issue 2-3, pp.303-325. BACK UP TO TEXT


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