In the city of Kazan, on the upper reaches of the Volga River, I met Nukh, whose name, in Arabic, denotes the Old Testament prophet who survived the Flood. The name has a deeper significance when one reflects that Nukh, in his early twenties, was born in the old Soviet Union in a Siberian city called Chelyabinsk, in a place and time that offered little room for his religion. Islam proved defiant, and now Nukh is free to attend mosque, to live a Muslim life, even to study in a newly opened medraseh, a religious college, in this city 1500 miles from his hometown.

We met during Ramadan. I sat in the back of the mosque as Nukh and his fellow students knelt toward Mecca for sunset prayers; afterward we went down to the basement for a hearty meal to break the day’s fast. Then we walked a few blocks back to the medraseh, a run-down building beleaguered by snowdrifts; the gilded domes of an Orthodox church across the str ...