Islam in the Soviet Union
The Soviet Union was a state comprising fifteen communist republics which existed from 1922 until its dissolution into a series of separate nation states in 1991. Of these fifteen republics, six had a Muslim majority, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. There was also a large Muslim presence in the Volga-Ural region and most of the population of North Caucasus of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic were Muslims and a large number of Tatar Muslims lived in Siberia and other regions.
The Bolsheviks wanted to include as much as possible of the former Russian Empire within the Soviet Union. This meant they were faced with a number of contradictions as they set out to establish the Soviet Union in regions with strong Islamic influences.
Although actively encouraging atheism, Soviet authorities permitted limited religious activity in all the Muslim republics. Mosques functioned in most large cities of the Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan; however, their number decreased from 25,000 in 1917 to 500 in the 1970s. In 1989, as part of the general relaxation of restrictions on religions, some additional Muslim religious associations were registered, and some of the mosques that had been closed by the government were returned to Muslim communities. The government also announced plans to permit training of limited numbers of Muslim religious leaders in courses of two- and five-year duration in Ufa and Baku, respectively.
In the late 1980s, Islam had the second largest number of believers in the Soviet Union, with between 45 and 50 million people identifying themselves as Muslims. But the Soviet Union had only about 500 working Islamic mosques, a fraction of the mosques in pre-revolutionary Russia, and Soviet law forbade Islamic religious activity outside working mosques and Islamic schools. All working mosques, religious schools, and Islamic publications were supervised by four "spiritual directorates" established by Soviet authorities to provide governmental control. The Spiritual Directorate for Central Asia and Kazakhstan, the Spiritual Directorate for the European Soviet Union and Siberia, and the Spiritual Directorate for the Northern Caucasus and Dagestan oversaw the religious life of Sunni Muslims. The Spiritual Directorate for Transcaucasia dealt with both Sunni and Shia Muslims. The overwhelming majority of the Muslims were Sunnis; only about 10 percent, most of whom lived in the Azerbaijan, were Shias.
Unlike the Russian Orthodox Christian church, the Muslims of the Soviet Union originally encountered a larger degree of religious freedom under the new Bolshevik rule. Vladimir Lenin oversaw the return of religious artifacts, such as the Uthman Quran, the foundations of court systems using principles of Islamic law which ran alongside the Communist legal system, Jadids and other "Islamic socialists" were given positions of power, an affirmative action system called "korenizatsiya" (nativisation) was implemented which helped the local Muslim populace, while Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, was declared the legal day of rest throughout Central Asia. Under the Tsars, Muslims were brutally repressed and the Eastern Orthodox Church was the official religion. On 24 November 1917 Lenin declared;
Muslims of Russia…all you whose mosques and prayer houses have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled upon by the tsars and oppressors of Russia: your beliefs and practices, your national and cultural institutions are forever free and inviolate. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, are under the mighty protection of the revolution.
Left-wing socialists in the Muslim areas of the former tsarist empire developed a distinct variant of communism that continued in the USSR until 1928. The Muslims believed the fate of world revolution depended on events in Asia not Europe. They also argued alliances with the national bourgeoisie were necessary for the duration of the liberation struggle. Class divisions had to be ignored, otherwise the national bourgeoisie would turn away from national liberation, ally with their imperial counterparts and thus ensure the ultimate collapse of any revolutionary struggle and national liberation.
Revolutionary activity along the Soviet Union's southern border, Soviet decision makers recognized, would draw the attention of capitalist powers and invite them to intervene. It was this understanding which prompted the Russian representation at the Baku Congress in September 1920 to reject the arguments of the National communists as impractical and counterproductive to the revolution in general, without elaborating their fear that the safety of Russia lay in the balance. And it was this understanding, coupled with the Russian Bolsheviks' displeasure at seeing another revolutionary center proposed in their own revolutionary empire, that galvanized them into action against the national communists.
The great purge in the Muslim republics began in 1928 with executions of Veli Ibrahimov of the Tatar Communist Party and Milli Firka followed by the leaders of Hummet, Tatar Communist Party and even the Tatar Union of the Godless. It also happened in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and the Young Bukharians.
When Joseph Stalin consolidated power in the second half of the 1920s, his religion policy changed. Mosques were closed or turned into warehouses throughout Central Asia. Religious leaders were persecuted, religious schools were closed down and Waqf's were outlawed. The Soviet government took the paranji veil that the women wore (as part of the Islamic hijab interpretation of modesty) as evidence that the Muslim women were oppressed, and began the Hujum to try and forcibly remove it. This backfired, and the veil became more popular than ever among the workers, whereas prior to this was mostly used by the middle, wealthier classes. Stalin's cult of personality left virtually no place for any religious sentiment.
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During World War II, particularly in 1943-44, the Soviet government conducted a series of deportations to Siberia and the Central Asian republics. Treasonous collaboration with the invading Germans and anti-Soviet rebellion were the official reasons for these deportations. Six of the seven (non-Slavic) nationalities of the Crimea and the northern Caucasus that were deported, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Ingushs, Balkars, Karachays, and Meskhetian Turks, were predominantly Muslim.
Severe incidental losses of life were incurred during and after these deportations. The mass deportation of Crimean Tatar Muslims began on 17 May 1944 in all Crimean inhabited localities. More than 32,000 NKVD troops participated in deportation of 193,865 Crimean Tatars were deported, 151,136 of them to Uzbek SSR, 8,597 to Mari ASSR, 4,286 to Kazakh SSR, the rest 29,846 to the various oblasts of RSFSR. According to NKVD data, nearly 20% died in exile during the following year and a half. Crimean Tatar activists have reported this figure to be nearly 46%. (See Deportation of Crimean Tatars.)
- Persecution of Muslims in the Soviet Union
- Soviet Orientalist studies in Islam
- Population transfer in the Soviet Union
- Deportation of Crimean Tatars
- Operation Lentil (Caucasus)
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