Muscovite, making it – and Muslim

The old Moscow is rapidly giving way to a multi-ethnic city where Muslims from Central Asia are the population's fastest-growing sector, and they are moving up the career ladder.

Uzbekistan natives and subway janitors Kushan, right, and Umid at work in Moscow. Two million Muslims now live in Moscow, a city of 12 million.
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MOSCOW // Timur Bulgakov has a black belt in karate, two university degrees, a powerful SUV and a small yet thriving construction company. The 28-year-old's success is impressive for a Muslim migrant from Uzbekistan whose first job in Moscow 10 years ago was as a delivery boy.

But his story is no longer that unusual.

The old Moscow, populated largely by Slavs, is rapidly giving way to a multi-ethnic city where Muslims from Central Asia are the fastest-growing sector of the population. And they are changing the face of Moscow as their numbers rise and they move up the career ladder, taking on more visible roles in society.

Muslim women wearing hijabs are a growing sight on the capital's shopping streets. Bearded men sport Muslim skullcaps and hang trinkets with Quranic verses in their cars. Many more are non-practising Muslims who blend in with secular attire, although their darker skin, accented speech and foreign customs often provoke frowns from Muscovites. Meanwhile, their children - some born and raised in the capital - throng schools.

Russia's Federal Migration Service estimates that about 9.1 million foreigners arrived in Russia to work in 2011. More than a third came from three impoverished Central Asian countries that were once part of the Soviet Union: about 2 million from Uzbekistan, 1 million from Tajikistan and more than 500,000 from Kyrgyzstan. Local experts say the number of Central Asian arrivals is at least twice as high. And hundreds of thousands of Central Asians have already acquired Russian passports and are off the migration services' radar.

The Central Asian migration has been the driving force in boosting Russia's Muslim population to more than 20 million, from about 14 million 10 years ago.

"Today, we're standing on the verge of a powerful demographic explosion, a great migration period equal to the one that took place in the first centuries AD," said Vyacheslav Mikhailov, a former minister for ethnic issues and a presidential adviser on ethnic policies.

Muslims are expected to account for 19 per cent of Russia's population by 2030, up from 14 per cent of the current population of 142 million, according to the US government's National Intelligence Council report on global trends published this month.

"Russia's greatest demographic challenge could well be integrating its rapidly growing ethnic Muslim population in the face of a shrinking ethnic Russian population," the report said. The changing ethnic mix "already appears to be a source of growing social tensions".

By the most conservative estimates, 2 million Muslims now live in Moscow, a city of nearly 12 million.

Polls show that nearly half of Russians dislike migrants from Central Asia and Russia's Caucasus - another source of Muslim migration. They have become the bogeymen of Russian nationalists, accused of stealing jobs, forming ethnic gangs and disrespecting Russian customs.

"If you build a mosque in downtown Moscow, slaughter sheep on your holiday and impose your traditions on us, no one will want you as a neighbour," said Dmitry Demushkin, a veteran Russian neo-Nazi who heads a nationalist party.

Central Asian labour migrants have for years filled the lowest-paying jobs, working as janitors, street cleaners, construction workers and unlicensed cab drivers whose rundown cars are popularly known as "jihad taxis". Many live in trailers on construction sites, in squalid basements and overcrowded flophouses or sleep inside their cars. The uncertain legal status of many of the migrant workers has left them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation from employers. They have also fallen victim to xenophobic attacks.

But in recent years, they are increasingly becoming more established members of the workforce. And a significant minority, like Mr Bulgakov, now run their own successful businesses.

The undisputed star among Russia's Central Asian business figures is ethnic Uzbek Alisher Usmanov: his interests in mining, telecoms and internet start-ups have made him one of Russia's richest men, with a fortune estimated at US$18.1 billion (Dh18.1bn), and he is the co-owner of British football club Arsenal.

Filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, who was born in Kazakhstan and educated in Uzbekistan, has directed some of Russia's most top grossing movies. Recently he moved to Hollywood, directing this year's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and before that Wanted, a 2008 action film starring Angelina Jolie.

Uzbek native Mirzakarim Norbekov has wrote half a dozen bestsellers based on the medical teachings of Muslim medieval scholar Avicenna, who was born in what is now Uzbekistan. His medical training centre in Moscow charges hundreds of dollars for short healing courses.

And while the Central Asian influx has caused frictions, there are also abundant signs of non-Muslim Muscovites embracing things seen as quintessentially Central Asian. Uzbek restaurants, fast-food joints and clay-oven bakeries that churn out round flat-cakes and meat pies have become ubiquitous; fashionistas sport oriental silk scarves and pashminas that resemble hijabs; and many ethnic Russian housewives buy halal meat believing it to be healthy and devoid of chemical preservatives.

The trend may have deep roots in Russian history: unlike most West European capitals, Moscow has absorbed Muslims into its population for centuries.

The principality of Moscow emerged as a regional power about 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 and invaded lands that once had been conquered by Arabs, Persians and Turks, Muslim nobles became part of the Russian elite and Muslims were free to practice their faith under the tsars.

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.

The Central Asians are far from a homogeneous group: Kyrgyz are proud of their militant nomadic heritage, while Uzbeks and Tajiks extol their cultures that produced poets and scholars who contributed to medieval Muslim civilisation.

Czarist armies finished the conquest of Central Asia by early 20th century and Stalinist purges decimated their elites. The Soviet era reshaped their economies and agriculture and made "Russification" a key to success for several generations of their best and brightest. In the 1980s, Central Asian conscripts became a majority in the Soviet Army as birth rates among ethnic Russians plummeted.

Communist Moscow tried to win sympathies of Central Asians - and uproot their Muslim traditions - 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.

The 1991 Soviet collapse was followed in their overpopulated republics by ineffective economic reforms, political unrest a resurgence of Islamic traditions and a gradual loss of Soviet mentality. But the number of Russian speakers remains high. They visit Russia visa-free and can stay for up to three months, or longer if they get work or residence permits.

Construction company owner Mr Bulgakov has faced his share of hardships.

Square-jawed and burly, he recalled over a cup of steaming tea 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. Mr Bulgakov said that during a hospital visit he heard a doctor reproaching his ethnic Russian wife for failing to "find a decent Russian man".

After several years of selling construction paint, Mr Bulgakov started his own company.

Now his company renovates apartments of affluent Muscovites and works on occasional contracts with the defence ministry. He also has joined Kremlin's United Russia party and wants to run for office in the Moscow suburb of Ivanteevka where he lives with his wife and two children.

Mr Bulgakov, who sports a white-gold ring with a sparkling diamond, 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."'

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