St. Petersburg Imam Moves to Crimea to Push Moscow’s Agenda

June 14, 2014
Tanai Cholkhanov at the Crimean Front 16 March 2014. Photo by

Staunton, June 14 – The lack of local support in Crimea for the Russian occupation and the resistance of the Crimean Tatars to that occupation has prompted an imam from St. Petersburg to go to Crimea where he serves as Moscow’s point man against the Milli Mejlis which has just announced the Crimean Tatars will not take part in Russian-orchestrated elections.

Many commentators have pointed to the way in which Russia has dispatched militants to Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk and other parts of Ukraine in the hopes of creating a movement that did not exist before their arrival, but fewer have attended to the fact that Moscow appears to be orchestrating the same thing in the religious and non-Russian ethnic spheres as well.

Such people, as interviews with one of them demonstrates, can be counted on to follow Moscow’s line however much it twists and turns and can be played up in the media as somehow legitimately local even if they were born elsewhere, had no connections with Ukraine in the past, and only recently arrived there.

For the last several weeks, Tanay Cholkhanov, who was born in Voronezh in 1976 and was until a few weeks ago an official in the Muslim hierarchy in St. Petersburg and Leningrad Region presented himself as a spokesman for Crimean Tatars opposed to the Mejlis.

Cholkhanov showed his political colors in March when he broke with the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) for its support of the Milli Mejlis and was highlighted for having done so by Roman Silantyev who has gained notoriety for his attacks on most Muslim leaders in Russia and his outspoken support of the Kremlin.

Now the St. Petersburg transplant has given an interview to Rais Suleymanov, who works with the well-connected Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI) and who is if anything more notorious than Silantyev for his attacks on Muslim groups in general and the Kazan Tatars in particular.

Silantyev sets the stage for the interview by observing that “Tanay bey arrived in Crimea a month before the all-peoples referendum and has seen with his own eyes how the new history of Eurasia is being created. He quotes Cholkhanov as saying that the Crimean Tatar Mejlis is “an absolutely anti-Russian and, what is most important, anti-Tatar structure.”

Asked by Silantyev why he has resettled in Crimea, Cholkhanov says his decision reflected God’s will and a sense that he had to be in Crimea because anyone who doesn’t go through the tough times of his people “does not have the right to life with it during its times of flourishing.”

But Cholkhanov then made his own position about the Crimean Tatars and Ukraine absolutely clear. “The Russian Federation has given the Crimean Tatar people possibilities about which it could not even dream of while in Ukraine.” Those who opposed the annexation of Crimea, like the SMR, were “pro-Western and liberal” and must be opposed.

Further, Cholkhanov said that “the majority of the leaders of the Mejlis are marionettes and clowns controlled by the West. It is useless to speak with them; it is easier to speak with their masters in the US State Department and CIA, but for this we have the Russian Foreign Ministry and counter-intelligence services.”

According to Cholkhanov, within the Crimean Tatars are “represented the entire range of extremist trends and sects,” who “live in peace and concord,” a pattern which he said shows they are under “skilled administration from a single center.” Thus, the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Crimea, like the Milli Mejlis, must be “completely disbanded and forgotten.”

The recently transplanted imam says that “the Tatars do not trust the spiritual leaders and already do not know in which mosque there are no sectarians and extremists.” Moreover, he continued, these extremists are again being used by “our enemies who are introducing a split in the community of Muslims of Russia as a whole.”

The imam said that “now above all the Turkic world of Russia must unite. The radicals are using the principle of ‘divide and rule,’” and because of that they are imposing on the Tatars of Crimea that they are “not related to the Volga Tatars or in general part of the Turkic world.”

In words that recall the Eurasianism of Lev Gumilyev and Aleksandr Dugin more than the Prophet, Cholkhanov insists that “only the unification of the Turkic world of Russia and Euriasia with the ensuing articulation of a firm Slavic-Turkic axis can help us to become a Great Power!”

In support of his position, the imam cites the words of Ismail bey Gasprinsky – using the Russian rather than the Tatar spelling – that “Russians and Tatars are united by a single fate,” a suggestion the great nineteenth century Islamic reformer used in a quite different sense and for very different ends that Cholkhanov clearly wants.