A group of Russian army soldiers from Dagestan cleaned their shoes in a holy spring by a Russian Orthodox church in the country’s westernmost province of Kaliningrad. The case sparked outrage among many ethnic Russians after the video surfaced on YouTube. Early reports suggested that the offenders were Chechens, but later it transpired that all members of the group were from Dagestan, though one of them was ethnically Chechen. One of the individuals involved in the incident promptly apologized (YouTube, September 14). On September 17, military investigators announced that they launched a criminal investigation into the actions of two young men in the group. At the same time, the Russian Baltic Fleet military prosecutor’s office stated that it was reviewing whether the command of the military unit to which the suspects were assigned was right in criminally charging them with breaking the law on combatting extremism (TASS, September 17).
The controversy with Dagestanis washing their shoes by an Orthodox church highlighted the persistent cultural divide between North Caucasians and ethnic Russians. When the former find themselves in Russia proper or the latter travel to the North Caucasus, conflicts tend to abound.
The Russian Orthodox Church reportedly tried to downplay the gravity of the incident. Instead, a group of ethnic-Russian veterans of the Russian-Chechen wars stepped in to take on the mantle of champions of the faith. They demanded the authorities launch a criminal investigation into the actions of the Dagestani soldiers. Namely, the leader of the organization “For Fatherland!” (“Za Otechestvo!”), Ivan Otrakovski, asked the Investigative Committee in Kaliningrad Oblast to prosecute the conscript soldiers for insulting the feelings of believers. If needed, Otrakovski stated, he along with other veterans and Cossacks would stage protest actions in front of the offices of the Investigative Committee, the General Prosecutor and the Federal Security Service (FSB), as well as head to Red Square to push the federal government to act. The activist stated that, according to his information, the five soldiers who were present at the desecration of the holy water source had gone absent without leave (AWOL). Three of the participants were conscripts and two contract soldiers—but all from Dagestan, he stressed (Znak.com, September 15).
Russian commentators with somewhat higher cultural awareness reacted to the incident with greater care. For example, a well-known journalist and TV presenter with expertise on Dagestan, Maksim Shevchenko, said that the Russian Orthodox community should avoid overreacting to individuals from the Caucasus washing their shoes in the holy spring. It was only hooliganism that had no prejudicial motivations, Shevchenko stated. He pointed out that ethnic-Russian delinquents are often caught in similar acts. Only if the Dagestanis had knowingly desecrated holy places, should they be punished according to the law, the journalist proposed (Osnmedia.ru, September 16).
Linked to the ethnic question, presumed religious cleavages between Muslims and Christians played a role in the scandal. Muslim clerics in Kaliningrad hurried to apologize for the incident. And the deputy mufti of Dagestan, Muhammad Magomedov, condemned the behavior of the Dagestanis who had washed their shoes in holy water near the Orthodox chapel. He said that Muslim teachings prescribed them to respect other religious denominations (Argumenty i Fakty, September 17).
Despite the Islamic clerics’ attempts at striking a conciliatory tone, if the Russian authorities proceed with criminal charges against the five Dagestanis, Russian Muslims’ mood may change. Some Dagestani lawyers have already stated that the young men had no intention of insulting Christians. Indeed, the corresponding article of the Russian Criminal Code on offending the feelings of believers is extremely obscure and open to abuse, they stated. Much of the controversy, according to experts, is caused by the mutual misunderstanding of ethnic Russians and Caucasians. As they come in contact with each other, they often lack the cultural experience to understand what is acceptable and what is offensive to the other side (Kavkazsky Uzel, September 17).
Washing shoes had no relationship with Muslim prayer, the clerics assured. The young men came from the Khasavyurt district of Dagestan and had probably traveled to a majority-ethnic-Russian region for the first time in their lives. The spokesperson for the regional Orthodox Church, David Rozhin, reassured that the affected spring was not particularly unique in Kaliningrad (Kavkazsky Uzel, September 18).
At the same time, the incident in Russia’s westernmost province elucidated the types of issues that local Muslims face. An estimated 40,000–50,000 Muslims reside in the region with a total population of around one million. But oblast authorities have not afforded them any land for building even a single mosque. A preexisting mosque in downtown Kaliningrad was demolished in 2019, along with a prayer house in one of the nearby districts. Local businessman Artur Rusyaev said that he has since rebuilt another modest prayer house on the site of the previous building that was torn down last year. But the authorities reportedly do not allow Muslims to build a full-fledged mosque with minarets (Kavkazsky Uzel, September 18).
On the surface, the conflict over the desecration of the holy spring in Kaliningrad looks to be about religious differences. However, the most fervent actors in the clash seem to have no direct relationship to any organized faith. The five Dagestani soldiers, speaking Russian in the video, did not invoke any religious motives for their actions at the water site; although they indicated some knowledge of where they were. The Russian Orthodox Church itself appeared to shrug off the incident. Whereas, a group of veterans of the Russian-Chechen wars ostensibly found the incident highly offensive and pushed for the punishment of the presumed intruders at the Christian holy site.
Meanwhile, the central government’s policies toward this and other similar incidents remain unclear. When North Caucasians and ethnic Russians meet, spiraling conflicts oftentimes erupt. But the authorities generally lack any policies or methods to smooth such encounters, except for some ad hoc solutions. It is also uncertain whether the cultural gap between the two communities has been widening over time or if it is simply being overreported. In either case, these kinds of explosive incidents invariably strain public opinion in Russia, often to the brink of violence.