Russia’s pragmatic approach toward Middle East

Despite all odds, Russia looks consistent with its Middle East policies as it is relentlessly trying to cement formidable ties with this region. Unlike the US, and despite disturbed geopolitics, Russia has utilized all the available opportunities to find a new ally in the form of Middle East.

The academicians, who are following Russia-Middle East relations for years, say that Russia is following a very pragmatic path toward Middle East and this is good for both sides in the long-run.

Zaur Gasimov, research fellow in the Istanbul Orient-Institut, part of the Berlin-linked Max Weber Foundation, has studied long-term relations between Russia and the Arab world going back to Tsarist times. He tells Trends that current Russian policies reflect a “century-long acquisition of knowledge of the Middle East, its state and ethnic actors” that contrasts with “the relative youth of oriental studies in the US”.

Central role of Arabic

Illustrating this point in a lecture in the Orient-Institut, Beirut, in March, Gasimov highlighted two books: a Russian-Arabic Military Dictionary, and Textbook of Military Translation — Arabic Language, both staples at Moscow’s Military Institute of Foreign Languages, a college that produces officers proficient in a foreign language as well as military tactics and the use of weapons.

Such professionally-produced textbooks reflect the central role of Arabic at the Institute, Gasimov tells TRENDS, although he says it is “hard to know” how many Arabic-speakers graduate each year.

In English, Gasimov uses the term ‘orientalists’, despite its negative connotations and despite the fact that much of Russia is to the east of the Middle East. Russians approve of Edward Said, who popularized the term in his book ‘Orientalism’ because they like his critique of Western writers.

Gasimov explains that interest in ‘vostokovedenie’ (‘knowledge of the east’) and specifically ‘Blizhnii Voskok’ (the ‘Near East’) goes back to Tsarist times, when Arabists studied medieval texts and the Koran.  After the 1917 Revolution, Soviet Arabists wanted to look more at modern Arabic. In 1941 Kharlampii Baranov (1892-1980) produced the first comprehensive Arabic-Russian dictionary, after work done by Mikhael Osipovich Attaya (1853-1924), a Damascene Christian.

Culture, language ties

Arabic was introduced in Soviet schools, with the first textbooks written by Said Sinan (1934-199o), a Baghdadi with a Kirkuk Turkic background who moved to Baku for ‘oriental studies’, worked in radio, and left song recordings at Baku Conservatory that are a valued part of preserved Kirkuk folklore. “Sinan arrived with a double identity,” said Gasimov during his talk in Beirut. “He came as an Arab but spoke to some Soviet colleagues in Turkic/Azeri. Later, in the 1970s he returned to Baghdad to spend his time translating Azerbaijani poetry into Arabic.”

Gamar Almaszadeh (1915-2006), a ballerina and later ballet-teacher in Baku, was invited in 1970 by the Ministry of Culture in Baghdad to establish a national theatre of dance, which took her two years. “She didn’t find the differences huge — back then in the 1970s,” said Gasimov. “It was important, though, [for Iraqi cultural sensibilities] that dancers in Baku had a way of covering up [their bodies] more than in Moscow.”

For the Soviet Union, ballet was part of a wider plan. While Moscow restricted Islamic education in the Central Asian republics, it utilized the cultural background of Soviet Muslims alongside the expertise of its orientalists. The limits to the approach were exposed in Russia’s defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s. “Area studies are important,” says Gasimov, “but they can’t change everything.”