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Case Of Koran Burning In Russia Called A 'Cynical Provocation.' But By Whom?

A woman holds a portrait of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov during a rally staged in Grozny on May 23 after a citizen of Volgograd burned the Koran in front of a mosque.
A woman holds a portrait of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov during a rally staged in Grozny on May 23 after a citizen of Volgograd burned the Koran in front of a mosque.

On May 19, a short video was posted on Telegram purportedly showing an unidentified person silently burning a Koran outside a mosque in the southern Russian city of Volgograd. The post was accompanied by the words: "Volgograd! May Allah break your back, country of Islamophobes."

That 11-second clip, however, has set off a chain of events that has seen the Russian authorities taking the unusual step of transferring the investigation to the nearby Muslim-majority North Caucasus region of Chechnya, where thousands of people gathered on May 23 in a demonstration of outrage organized by the government of Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.

"There are no grounds for moving the case to Chechnya," said Abubakar Yangulbayev, a Chechen human rights advocate who fled abroad citing harassment from the regional government over his online criticism of Kadyrov. "The political context is clear: Kadyrov is continuing to build his reputation as 'the defender of Muslims,' of the Koran and Sunnis. He has said as much himself."

People holds copies of the Koran during a rally staged in Grozny on May 23.
People holds copies of the Koran during a rally staged in Grozny on May 23.

The original video appeared on the Morning In Daghestan Telegram channel, which is tied to Ilya Ponomaryov, a former Russian parliament deputy who is now based in Kyiv and is an active opponent of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In comments to the opposition Telegram channel Sota on May 21, Ponomaryov expressed no regret about posting the video while also condemning the act of burning the Islamic holy text. He speculated that the video had been produced and sent to Morning In Daghestan by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) "in order to create a scandal and earn awards for ‘solving' the case."

In a post on his Telegram channel on May 23, Kadyrov claimed without evidence that the Koran burning was "one of the crimes against Islam that are organized by henchmen of the satanic West and Europe."

"The West wanted to divide us inside Russia," Kadyrov continued. "But it turned out the other way around: We hate the West even more, and Western mercenaries will feel our anger."

Kadyrov's remarks echo wording in a September 2022 speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin that has since been repeated by other Kremlin-connected sources. In that speech, Putin accused the West of "the total negation of the human, the overthrow of religion and traditional values" and said that "the crushing of freedom comes to look like the opposite of religion -- open satanism."

Putin has increasingly sought to cast the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, which he launched in February 2022, as a civilizational struggle against an immoral West instead of a war of aggression against a neighboring county.

Quick Work

The FSB and other law enforcement agencies have acted with uncharacteristic speed in the Volgograd case.

A day after the anonymous video appeared, the Investigative Committee announced it had detained a man identified as 19-year-old student Nikita Zhuravel on suspicion of "offending the sensibilities of believers." The announcement asserted that Zhuravel had made the video himself and posted it to a channel controlled by the Ukrainian military. It added that under interrogation, Zhuravel had allegedly confessed and said a Ukrainian intelligence operative had paid him 10,000 rubles ($125). He also purportedly confessed to filming "military installations."

The same day, the FSB released to Russian state media a video purporting to show Zhuravel's arrest. While lying face down on pavement with his hands bound behind his back, Zhuravel is asked if he knows why he is being arrested.

Ramzan Kadyrov
Ramzan Kadyrov

"Because I took pictures of fighter jets," he answered. After some leading questions by an investigator off-camera, the youth confesses to burning a Koran, adding under questioning that he'd been incited to do it by people "from Ukraine" who offered him money.

The video, which is characterized by numerous cuts, then switches to an image of a young man in a black T-shirt, his face blurred. He gives a concise confession in a legalistic language including the date of the incident and the precise address of the Volgograd mosque. The even pacing and intonation of the video give the impression the man may have been reading from a text.

"I did this for the purpose of inciting religious indignation among Muslims," he concludes.

Russian law enforcement authorities and state-controlled media regularly publish purported confessions and other material suggesting a suspect is guilty. Activists say such confessions are often made under duress and damning footage faked or presented misleadingly.

On May 21, Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin ordered the case transferred to Chechnya, citing "numerous requests from residents of the Chechen Republic that they be recognized as victims" of the alleged act. Chechen government minister Akhmed Dudayev added shortly thereafter that Zhuravel should be tried in Chechnya and serve his sentence there if convicted.

Russian media have identified Zhuravel as a 19-year-old university student who originally came from the city of Sevastopol in Ukraine's Crimea region, which has been occupied by Moscow since 2014. As a student shortly after Russia seized control of Crimea, Zhuravel was listed as a member of the "presidential cadet academy" by the order of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Vladimir Malikhin of Memorial, a prominent human rights organization that has been banned by the Russian government amid a sweeping clampdown on civil society and dissent, finds the entire case suspicious.

"I really doubt that we should look at the Zhuravel case in the context of the war in Ukraine," he told RFE/RL. "His purported connection with Ukrainian intelligence is clearly made up. We can suppose the case against this student is just another public-relations campaign for Kadyrov himself. The evidence for this is the supposed large group of Chechens who appealed to the head of the Investigative Committee asking that the case be moved to Chechnya."

"That could only be done on Kadyrov's direct order," he added.

'A War Against Satanism'

In the Chechen capital, Grozny, tens of thousands of people holding portraits of Kadyrov and copies of the Koran gathered on May 23 to hear various local religious and political leaders condemn the alleged act in Volgograd and the "satanic" West.

"In today's world, when Muslims are surrounded by enemies, when the followers of satanism can burn Korans in any European country, when all sorts of filth is being spread by LGBT people, we live in Russia, where such things are impossible," said Salakh Mezhiyev, the head mufti of Chechnya.

Kadyrov ally and chairman of the Chechen parliament Magomed Daudov repeated the Investigative Committee's assertions that the act had been instigated by Ukrainian intelligence "with the participation of NATO and Western secret services." He also provided no evidence.

Chechen media said 60,000 people attended the rally. But many say they were pressured to be there, and didn't even know what it was about.
Chechen media said 60,000 people attended the rally. But many say they were pressured to be there, and didn't even know what it was about.

According to official Chechen media, the crowd numbered about 60,000 people.

However, sources told RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities that students and government employees were pressured to attend the rally even though many of them did not know what it was about. Schoolchildren were reportedly bused in from across the mountainous republic. RFE/RL has seen screenshots of text messages from education officials ordering schools to send specific numbers of children depending on their overall enrollment.

"The most paradoxical thing about this story for me, as a Chechen, is that when Russia invaded Chechnya, they didn't only burn Korans," said Yangulbayev, recalling the two wars Russia fought against separatist and insurgents in the region in the 1990s and early 2000s. "They bombed mosques in which Korans burned together with the bodies of praying believers. If Kadyrov wants to launch a war against Satanism, he should first of all fight against Putin."

Rights activist Malykhin sees the Zhuralev case as another stage in the "Kadyrovization" of Russian political culture broadly. Kadyrov, who has ruled Chechnya since his appointment by Putin in 2007, has been widely criticized for authoritarianism and accused of widespread human rights abuses.

"Over the last few years, we have seen the ‘Kadyrovization' of Russia in terms of ideology and tactics," he said. "The complete suppression of freedom of speech. The liquidation of independent media. The destruction of human rights organizations. Even the criminalization of human rights advocacy. That is just a short list of some of the practices that were perfected by the Kadyrov regime and that later became the norm across Russia."

Adapted by RFE/RL's Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Kavkaz.Realities correspondent Andrei Besedin. Current Time contributed to this report.

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