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By: Veronica Khokhlova

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Tuesday, 10-Feb-2004 00:00 Email | Share | Bookmark
St. Pete--The Russian Museum of Ethnography--Today & Yesterday

"It is especially typical of Islam to strive to affect all sides of life of its followers. The clergy controlled education and justice; mullahs acted as teachers and doctors. Islam helped preserve discrimination against women. Haji's - those who have traveled to the sacred Muslim city, Mecca - were especially influential.

The income of the mosques and the clergy came from the deductions off the believers' incomes, from the fees charged for religious ceremonies, from penalties imposed for not attending the mosque, etc. The mullahs exploited the remnants of the pagan beliefs, conducting rites to bring about rain and making protective amulets. The majority of the Muslim clergy resisted the influences of the Russian culture, declaring everything that stemmed from the Christians - the Russians - unclean and sinful."

I found myself at the Russian Museum of Ethnography this past Friday, after spending the first half of the day watching the news of the horrible Moscow subway explosion.

I've been meaning to go there ever since our New Year's trip to Istanbul, where Mishah unearthed a gorgeous album published by the museum's staff. On Friday, I finally dragged myself away from the TV and just walked down the street, aimlessly. I ended up by the museum and decided to step inside.

It is a very well-kept museum, something to be proud of. Kids come here with their teachers to draw sketches and learn about the many cultures represented in this huge country and beyond its borders. The only problem is that the annotations to most of the museum's exhibits haven't been changed since the Soviet times. I wouldn't have noticed this perhaps, on such a very sad day, if it hadn't been for the vast upstairs gallery devoted to the peoples of the Caucasus - and for that note on Islam.

It didn't sound scientifically detached to me, but, rather, imperially slanted, in an ambiguous way: the Soviet disapproval on the one hand, and the contemporary hostility on the other.

Stuck between today and yesterday, too, were the elderly women working at the museum: in small groups, they stood next to the strikingly lifelike ethnic dummies behind the glass, discussing the news of the subway bombing. On a day like this, it was hard to figure which were more "authentic" in this museum, the beautifully decorated mannequins or the angry little women employed to guard them.

As I'm writing this, five days later, all the national channels are broadcasting footage from the funerals of the Moscow subway victims - as well as this shocking little item: last night, a group of teenagers, drunk and armed, beat to death a 9-year-old Tajik girl who was walking home from the skating-rink with her father and 11-year-old cousin. The skating-rink is located right across the street from where I'm staying in St. Petersburg; early last fall, I took a few pictures there, the pictures of the boys playing football next to the wall filled with swastikas and hateful graffiti.

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