Filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, who was born in Kazakhstan and educated in Uzbekistan, has directed some of Russia’s biggest grossing movies. Recently he moved to Hollywood, directing this year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
While the Central Asian influx has caused frictions, there are also abundant signs of Muscovites embracing things Central Asian. Uzbek restaurants, fast-food joints and clay-oven bakeries have become ubiquitous; fashionistas sport oriental silk scarves and pashminas and many Russian housewives buy halal meat believing it to be healthy and devoid of preservatives.
The trend may have deep roots in Russian history as Moscow has absorbed Muslims into its population for centuries.
The principality of Moscow emerged as a regional power some 700 years ago, when the Golden Horde, a state dominated by Mongols and Muslim Tatars, controlled parts of what is now southern Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. As Moscow took over the Horde’s territories Muslim nobles became part of the Russian elite and Muslims were free to practice their faith under the czars.
Novelist Vladimir Nabokov proudly wrote that his aristocratic family descended from Nabak, an illegitimate son of Genghis Khan. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and writer Mikhail Bulgakov were the offspring of Tatar nobles.
“Muslims are not newcomers here, and all the current problems are temporary,” said Vladilen Bokov, a devout Muslim and member of the Public Chamber, which advises the Kremlin on social issues.
Czarist armies finished the conquest of Central Asia by the early 20th century and the Soviet era reshaped their economies and agriculture and made “Russification” a key to success for several generations of their best and brightest.
Communist Moscow tried to win over Central Asians by building schools and universities. Their graduates are still qualified to work as bank clerks, computer engineers, artists and medical doctors in Russia. Employers often praise them for their hard work, career ambitions and indifference to alcohol — Russia’s proverbial scourge.
Construction company owner Bulgakov has faced his share of hardships. He recalled how he stole some undercooked buckwheat from a dormitory kitchen several days after losing a job. He lost another job after beating up his supervisor for calling him a churka, a pejorative term for Central Asians.
Bulgakov said that during a hospital visit he heard a doctor reproach his ethnic Russian wife for failing to “find a decent Russian man.”
After several years of selling construction paint, Bulgakov started his own company.
Now his firm renovates the apartments of affluent Muscovites and works on occasional contracts with the Defense Ministry. He has joined the United Russia party and wants to run for office in the Moscow suburb of Ivanteevka where he lives.
Bulgakov has this advice for fellow Central Asians seeking a better life in Moscow.
“If you want to work, just work,” he said, “If you don’t, you’ll find a thousand excuses — ‘I am being oppressed, abused, beaten.’”