Catherine the Great created the predecessors of the MSDs after occupying Crimea to give the Russian state an institution that could supervise and hopefully control all Muslims in the empire. After the Bolshevik revolution, the MSD system decayed and by the 1930s had been destroyed.
Then during and after World War II, Stalin recreated the MSD system first in Ufa and later in Tashkent, Buinaksk and Baku and ensured that those in these institutions were thoroughly vetted by or even employees of the Soviet security services. Indeed, the heads of the MSDs in most cases were reputed to have the rank of colonel in the KGB.
With the collapse of the USSR, there were only two Soviet-era MSDs left within the Russian Federation, the Central MSD located in Bashkortostan and the North Caucasian MSD in Daghestan. (The MSD in now independent Azerbaijan has remained involved in the supervision of Shiites across the post-Soviet space including Russia.)
These MSDs, however, were soon joined by others organized by Muslims and government officials in non-Russian republics. There are now more than 80 of them; and it is sometimes the case that there are as many as six MSDs in a single republic or region, opening the door to competition, mutual denunciations and a way to power for radicals.
Many Muslims in the post-Soviet states wanted to do away with these institutions entirely given that they have no basis in Islamic tradition or practice and because of their notorious reputation especially in Soviet times. But the bureaucratic Russian tradition and the authorities desire to have someone other than individual Muslim parishes to deal with has kept them alive.
But now that radicals have seized control of some MSDs, Russian thinking about these institutions may be changing, especially given the fact that radical MSDs can hide from the Russian state authorities the actions of individual parishes and can even promote the radicalization of parishes that were not radical earlier.
If the Russian government as a whole or individual non-Russian republics individually or collectively disband MSDs, what might take their place? One possibility would be the restoration of the Soviet-era institution of the Committee on Religious Affairs, a body that was totally controlled by the KGB.
Another might be to allow Muslims in Russia to operate at the parish level as Muslims do in most other countries without any Christianity-like hierarchy over them. But at a time of increasing Muslim radicalization, that seems unlikely – and so actions like those of Yevkurov are increasingly likely without moving to disband all MSDs across the country.
At the very least, a new fight over Muslim organizations and the role of MSDs is now brewing – and it is one that Moscow so far has not offered much guidance that will allow regional governments to defeat radicals. Indeed, Moscow’s silence so far appears likely to make the situation more unstable at least in the short run.