Islamic Prohibition: Russia’s Dry Corner

Posted February 2nd, 2011 at 9:24 pm (UTC+0)

It was Friday night at the Assa. That’s the top hotel in Ingushetia, a republic in Russia’s heavily Islamic Caucasus region.

There were two tables of visiting journalists. And in one corner, at a third table: six ethnic Russian men, eating dinner and quietly nursing their vodkas. Something did not add up. Russian men, Friday night, vodka — and quiet?

Ingush Wedding animated by love, friendship, and fruit juice. Photo: Diana Markosian

Suddenly, three Ingush men in full camouflage and carrying automatic weapons swaggered through the restaurant door.

One man’s face was fully masked with a black wool balaclava. Russians call this hat a “racketyorka,” because they are favored by racketeers.

Our armed guards sprung into action.

Tense negotiations in Ingush ensued.

The restaurant is being closed, we were told, for serving alcohol.

There are bad men who cruise the city at night, we were told. The hotel could be shot up for serving alcohol. It is haram, forbidden.

I made sympathetic noises, and deftly moved my table’s bottle of Moldovan red wine to the floor.

The Russians, who as locals knew the rules better than we out-of-towners, sheepishly got up, paid their bill, put on their fur hats and overcoats, and disappeared into the winter night.

Once they were gone, the waitress hurried over to explain that the restaurant was not really closing. Local rules dictate that the hotel can only serve alcohol to registered guests, not to locals who came in off the street.

In this corner of Russia, and in neighboring Chechnya and Dagestan, Russian law is stepping aside in face of an Islamic revival.

In Ingushetia, a bombing campaign has restricted alcohol sales to a handful of stores that operate behind bomb barriers.

Diana Markosian, the VOA Moscow producer, attended a wedding Saturday night in Ingushetia where the dancing went on until 3 am. But the refreshments would have been appropriate for a Cub Scout meeting in suburban America.

Thursday night, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the republic’s president, offered a dinner for visiting foreign correspondents. The banquet table was dominated by large boxes of fruit juice.

Boxes of apple and cherry juice and bottles of Ingush mineral water lubricate dinner conversation between VOA's James Brooke and Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. Photo: Peter Gysling

Although a few underground speakeasies exist in Ingushetia, locals who want to drink safely drive half an hour to the west, to Vladikavkaz, capital of Northern Ossetia, a predominantly Christian republic.

In face of this rapid Islamisation of the three ‘Green Republics’ of the Caucasus – Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan – the ethnic Russian population has dropped to less than one percent.

The Russians have retreated to two historically Christian strongholds in the southern Caucasus – Stavropol and Northern Ossetia.
Many have settled in Vladikavkaz, which means Ruler of the Caucasus. Founded in 1784, this fortress city garrisoned czarist troops who ultimately imposed Russian rule over the Islamic populations of the Caucasus.

Now, as evidenced by the alcohol divide, the cultural and religious fault lines in the Caucasus are reverting to where they were in the days of Catherine the Great.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

7 responses to “Islamic Prohibition: Russia’s Dry Corner”

  1. Pyotr says:

    These republics are a disgrace of Russia. The result of feeble Putin’s politics in the Caucasus. These republics should go wherever they want, but before they go they must pay back all they’ve recieved from Russia and pay to every Russian or Caucasian willing to leave the complete cost of removal to Russia and all the damages. And then let them all enjoy fruit juice and green beards or whatever they like in their medieval frenzy behind the iron fence along the new border and under strict visa regime with Russia.

  2. ISMAIL says:

    for years lenin ,stalin brutalised these people because they are MUSLIMS,such brutality must end.muslims who gave their lives and property under savage rulers,their time has now come to an end,for years it was held a secret,to the people of the caucuses do not lose hope uplift islam OUR SINCERE DUAASARE WITH YOU!ALLAHU AKBAR!!!!!

  3. Andy says:

    actually it is hard to say whoever right or wrong.
    of course caucasians have rights to live however they like… but meanwhile they should respect their Russian population’s concerns

  4. rg.nadal says:

    I got the heading completely wrong. I presumed it was referring to Islamic oppression. Seems to be the other way around.

  5. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    Demographics may be on the side of the non-drinkers. In the USA, the Mormon faith bans alcohol. Mormons often have larger and healthier families than the American average — Jim Brooke (light drinker; father of three healthy sons; non-Mormon)

  6. Hugh Hill says:

    To be a Russian is to put your country first and foremost (Rodina). religion has no place in politics and can not be used to terrorize, those who choose to use it as such must be stopped at all costs.
    Society is about equality but to be treated equal one must first agree to abide by the rules of the given said society/state.
    20 years ago Russia was in a dark place life was less than $50 in some places, a strong leader came and pulled it back into the light he is the true patriot and no matter what anyone say’s his interests have always been for Russia.
    For Russia to work there must be Russians first and foremost everything else comes second and that way there can be equality.
    America has always wanted to see the demise of Russia and has used every trick in the book and still do it is therefore imperative that all Russians put their country first and foremost because the sad thing is that outsiders still think that niceness is a weakness.

  7. Nyhon says:

    Hello, i arrived to this blog although seeking something else, but to my joy i found this web site. Keep doing what you’re doing, its fantastic.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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