Chapter 5: The Muslim Policy of Soviet Goverment(1917-1945)

After the revolution of October 1917 Soviet government declared a policy on the rights of different nations of Russia. This policy was published on the 24th November 1917. The policy accepted equal rights of all nations of Russia, rights of autonomy and rights of forming independent states, separated from Russia [1. Manzoorul Ahsan; Rush Biplober Itihash (History of Russian Revolution); page 108].This declaration was very significant for Muslims because most of the minority population of Russia were Muslims. This charter about the rights of nations was derived from the 'April thesis' of Lenin. He presented this thesis in the conference of Russian Social Democratic Party in the April of 1917. In that thesis Lenin said, "We must have to appreciate the right of every part of Russia to become separated and form independent states. The rejection of this right or to put obstacle on this is equivalent to invade and capture other states...... The rights of nations to get separated willingly and the benefits of separation or the correct time for separation for a particular nation is not the same question. The proletariat will ultimately decide the question [2. A. Bennigsen and CL. Quelquejay; Islam in The Soviet Union. Pale Mall Press, London; page 67]".

But in fact no Muslim nation of Russia got the opportunity to get separated and form independent state (until in the 90's when the Soviet Union broke down). The different Muslim nations and regions who declared independence during the civil war were forcefully taken under the control of Communist Soviet Union. The excuse of Communist Soviet government behind this was that these independent states were being established by anti-revolutionary bourgeoisie Muslim leaders. The pro-Bolshevik Muslims(so called Muslim proletariat) did not raise the demand of independence. So by giving this excuse the issue of independence of Muslim states was overlooked. But the fact was that within the rule of Soviet Communist regime it was practically impossible for any Muslim majority region of Russia or any provincial Communist Party to take any resolution in favour of separation or independence. Because the Communist party of every state of USSR was simply a branch of Soviet Communist party. As Soviet Communist Party was guided by democratic-Centralism so it was beyond imagination that any such resolution would get approval of the (central) Party. In this connection a quotation from a speech of Sordolov president of central Soviet Communist Party can be mentioned. In march 1919 he said in the conference of Ukraine Communist Party," It is not within the jurisdiction of Ukraine Communist Party to select or guide principles. All of these are the responsibility of Central Committee of Communist Party. We want to keep supremacy of Russian Communist Party on the states we have created [3. A. Bennigsen and CL. Quelquejay; Islam in The Soviet Union. Pale Mall Press, London; page 137]." For this policy of Communist leaders the, 'April thesis' of Lenin and 'November declaration' of Soviet government remained unimplemented.

The Muslim peoples of Russia were an unified nation due to Islamic ideology, brotherhood and Turkic language and nationalism [4. Discussed in the chapter, 'Muslim Revival Movement in Central Asia' ]. Yet Soviet government planned to divide Muslim nation into different nationality. Because the Bolshevik leaders did not appreciate Islamic brotherhood as any basis of nationalism. According to Stalin the characteristics of a nation is an unity based on geography, language, economics and culture [5. Proveshcheniye Review. no:3 March 5. 1913.] . Though Muslims of Russia lived in a definite geographical area and most of them spoke in Turkish language but there were many Persian speakers. There were some regional difference among the Turkish speakers. There were also some differences in their local culture. Nomadic lifestyle prevailed in Kazakhstan, Kirghizia and Turkmen and the economy of other regions were mainly agro-based. Showing these excuse Stalin did not consider Muslims as a single nation. Accordingly different new nationalities were created dividing the Muslim nation. Two new states were formed in Volga region; Bashkhiria state was formed in march 1919 and Tatar state in 1920. There was not sufficient reason to make separate state in Bashkhiria. Muslims of Volga-Ural had the dream to form a combined Ideal-Ural state. Moreover only 25% of the population of Bashkhiria were actually Bashkhir rest were Tatar. In 1923 one spoken language of Bashkhir was given a literary form under the sponsorship of Soviet government. The language was declared as the state language of Bashkhiria. But till today most of the Bashkhirs do not speak in this language. According to Alexander Benigson now a days 62% Bashkhir people speak in this language [6 A. Bennigsen and CL.Quelquejay; Islam in The Soviet Union. page 127.] . Different tribes lived in North Caucasus and Arabic language was the medium of communication among them. In fact the Arabic language became the general language of North Caucasus. A separate state could be made including whole of North Caucasus on the basis of Arabic language. But Soviet government was thinking to form a nation on the basis of local language though most of the local languages did not have written form at that time. During Soviet reign Chechen language got written form in 1925, Inguish in 1923 and Kabarda-Bolkar in 1924. Then Soviet government divided North Caucasus into six autonomous states on the basis of local language. Those are: Chechen-Inguish autonomous state(two language), Kabarda-Bolkar autonomous state(two language), Dagestan autonomous state, Adizai autonomous state, North Osetia autonomous state and Karachai-Cherekes autonomous state. Due to influence of many tribal languages Soviet government approved eleven languages as state language of Dagestan. As a result ultimately Russian language became the language of communication between peoples of different autonomous states and tribes. But historically we find no justified reason as to why Soviets divided north Caucasus into so many parts. The only reason seems to abolish Muslim nationalism. A hundred years old fighting against Russian aggression and finally declaration of independence of North Caucasus in 1918 under the leadership of Imam Najmuddin led Soviet government to divide the political unity of North Caucasus.

In South Caucasus one autonomous state was formed by Soviet government in Azarbeizan and Azeri-Turk was declared as the official language of Azarbeizan. After many experiments, five new nations and five new autonomous states was formed in Central Asia and Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan state was declared in 1924, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in 1925, Kirghiz in 1926 and Tajikistan in 1929. The national language of Tajikistan was Persian from the past, and that of other four states were Turkish [7.Discussed in the chapter, 'Muslim Revival Movement in Central Asia']. But the Soviet authority established these new states on the basis of local spoken language, so it was needed to give a written and literary form to those spoken languages. Kajakh language took literary form before revolution, though Kazan-Turk(which was widely used by Gamprinski via Tarjuman) was also popular as a literary language. In 1923 Kirghiz language was given literary form and declared as the state language of Kirghizistan. In 1921 the spoken language of Yomond and Tekke-Turkmans was given written form and made state language of Turkmenistan. In a similar way Uzbek language was created according to the spoken language of Tashkhent which took the place of Chagata-Turk.

Thus Communist Soviet government divided Muslim Russia into different nations and states on the basis of local language. In this way at least they temporarily succeeded to weaken Pan-Islamic and Pan-Turk idealism. Because though these new nationalities were imposed and artificial yet in the long run they created some sort of localism among the Muslims.

Lenin first declared the policy of Soviet government for Muslim nation and Islam in his declaration of 24th November 1917. The declaration "Call to the Muslims" was written in a very powerful and heart touching language. He said, " Muslim people of Russia, Tatar brothers of Crimea and Volga, Kirghiz and Sarats [8. Those Uzbek who got separated from their original tribe.] of Siberia and Turkistan, Turks and Tatars of South Caucasus, Chechen and hilly people of North Caucasus, all of your mosques and religious places were being destroyed during the reign of Tsar; your belief and ideals were overruled; from today your beliefs and ideals will prevail and should remain free for ever, there should be no more intervention; you should also know that you have equal rights like all other nations of Russia; and that should be protected by revolution and its different institutions like labourers, peasants and soldiers Soviets [9. VI. Lenin; Sochieeniya, Moscow, 3rd edition. vol:16 page 507.]". There is no doubt that in this declaration there was clear guarantee to keep the religious, ideological and cultural heritage and traditions of Muslims. In Communist manifesto religion is not regarded as beneficial for people [10. In the, 'Great Soviet Encyclopedia' published in 1953 it was said about Islam, "like all religions, Islam has always played a reactionary role, being a weapon in the hands of the exploiting classes and an instrument for the subjection of the peoples of the east by foreign coloniality".], yet Lenin's declaration for Muslim peoples is very important. Though many historician regard this declaration as a means to exploit support of Muslim people during the dangerous period of revolution. But it has another positive explanation. Lenin was born in a Muslim majority area of Volga and got education in Kazan University. So it was quite possible that he had the opportunity to observe Muslim life style very closely and had a good concept about Islam.

But the religious and cultural rights of Muslims given by Lenin were not implemented. Section 124 of the constitution of Soviet Union states that, " To ensure freedom of conscience of all citizen Church [11. By the term 'Church' it is meant here all religious organizations and institutes.] should be separated from state in Soviet Union and the education should be separated from the Church. Every citizen should have the right of performing religious worship and right of campaigning against religion". This section of constitution have negated many of the religious rights that was ensured formerly in the main declaration of Lenin. Because though this section accepted religious freedom but it gives no opportunity to propagate religion or give Islamic education. In Soviet Union no one except government can establish any school and in government schools there is no scope for religious education. In fact there were only two Madrasa in Soviet Union to make Imam and Muazzin for Mosques those were Mir-E-Arab Madrasa of Bukhara and BarakKhan [12. Mir-e-Arab Madrasa of Bukhara was established in 1535. It was closed by Soviet government after revolution and reopened in 1952.]. Ordinary Muslims have no opportunity to give religious education to their children. Even pro-Soviet Arab writer Yousuf Sadik also failed to show any instance of such scope in his book, 'Soviet Union,s Musalman' [13. Yousuf Sadiq; Soviet Union's Musalman (Bengali translation)(Muslims of Soviet Union). Protiva Prokashani. Dhaka]. Only parents had the chance to give religious education to their children in home. But there is also acute crisis of books on Islamic teachings in Soviet Union. According to rule only the religious board of the government can publish such book. But they published very few number of books after revolution. For these reasons it became very difficult for Soviet Muslim parents to give religious education to their future generation. These reasons decreased the number of Mosques in Russia after revolution. According to the report of a journal 'Mir Islam' published from Saint-Petersburg(then the capital of Russia) there were 26279 mosques in Russia in 1912. But according to another report of 'Soviet War News' the number of mosques in Soviet Union decreased to 1312 in 1942 [14. A. Bennigsen and CL. Quelquejay; Islam in The Soviet Union, page 151]. The other mosques were transformed into godowns, clubs or cinema halls showing the excuse of absence or lack of worshippers [15. A. Bennigsen and CL. Quelquejay; Islam in The Soviet Union, page 151].

Though section 124 of Soviet Constitution ensured, 'Every citizen should have the right of performing religious worship and right of campaigning against religion; but practically there was no benefit for religions in general and Islam in particular from this section. Because this section gave people the right to campaign against religion but there was no scope for any religious institute to oppose anti-religious campaign. Thus in fact one atheist had the right to propagate atheism and oppose religion but a religious person had no right to oppose atheism or propagate religion. For this reason section 124 was biased against religion. Taking the advantage of this section of the constitution a group of atheist opposed religion very indecently. An organization was established in 1925 named, 'Union of Godless Zealots'. The number of members of this organization exceeded 70000 in Azerbeizan within 1932. Most of them were Russian settlers. This organization worked in Muslim regions with the name, 'Alla Sizlar', 'Khoda Sizlar' or 'Din Sizlar'. At first their attack on Islam was careful and gentle but after 1928 their attack became direct. They even attacked on mosques [16. A. Bennigsen and CL. Quelquejay; Islam in The Soviet Union, page 151] and in this way the number mosques gradually decreased(mentioned earlier). World famous Muslim thinker and diplomat Allama Muhammad Asad in his famous biography 'The Road to Mecca' gave an example of anti-religion propagation in Soviet Union which he experienced while he was moving from Afghanistan to Germany through Russia. He wrote, "my first (and most lasting) impression of Soviet Russia- at the railway station of Marv- was a huge beautifully executed poster which depicted a young proletariat in blue overalls booting a ridiculous white bearded gentleman, clad in flowing robes out of a cloud filled sky. The Russian legend beneath the poster read: Thus have the workers of Soviet Union kicked god out of his heaven. issued by the Bezbozhniki (godless) association of the USSR [17. Muhammad Asad; Road to Mecca. Max Rein Hardt. London 1954. page 299.] "

The state policy of Soviet Union about Muslims did not remain same all the time. Sometimes state took extreme attitude towards Islam and Muslims, sometimes there policy was slightly moderate. However the role and freedom of Islam became limited in course of time. At the time of civil war Soviet government took moderate policy towards Muslims, for that reason many Muslim leaders left anti revolutionaries and joined on the side of Soviet Communists. But from 1921 government gradually became more extreme towards Muslims. Governments policy firstly targeted the 'Waqf' properties of Muslims. Actually the process of nationalizing 'Waqf' property began first at the time of Tsar, when they nationalized 'Waqf' properties of Volga region. But the Waqf properties of Muslims were intact in Crimea, Caucasus and Central Asia until the beginning of Communist rule. Around ten percent of agricultural land of Central Asia were Waqf property. Tashkent Soviet nationalised their Waqf properties after revolution. But government of Turkistan returned back the nationalised Waqf properties in 1922 by issuing two decree. On the other hand Uzbek government nationalised all Waqf properties by another decree in 1925. Government declared that this property would be redistributed to the peasants. Within 1930 all Waqf properties of Soviet Union were nationalized. By this action Soviet government destroyed economic backbone of Muslim religious institutions and mosques [18. A Bennigsen and CL. Quelquejay: Islam in The Soviet Union. page 144-149] . After capturing properties of religious organizations, Soviet government targeted 'Shariah Court'. These Shariah courts dealt with marriage, divorce, inheritance and such other matters according to Islamic jurisprudence. Soviet government banned all these Shariah courts in December 1917. But due to public agitation Shariah courts were reestablished in Turkistan in 1921. Though their jurisdiction were gradually made narrower. At last in 27th September 1927 Soviet government issued a decree by which all Shariah courts were declared invalid [19. A Bennigsen and CL. Quelquejay: Islam in The Soviet Union. page 144-149]. Meanwhile Soviet government also looked at the Muslim religious schools. In a census of November 1921 there were 1117 Muslim religious schools in Turkistan only. These institutions became economically weak loosing their Waqf properties. In 1928 Soviet government closed all Muslim religious schools which survived even after loosing their Waqf property [20. A Bennigsen and CL. Quelquejay: Islam in The Soviet Union. page 144-149].

Islamic ideology faced pressure from all corner in 1928. At that time the atheist organization 'Union of Godless Zealots' organized their aggressive propagation programme. They used to raise charge of stealing, bribery and other dishonesty against Muslim Alims. Often they termed them as the agents of Germany and 'rootless parasite'. In 1935 Soviet government banned Hajj pilgrimage of Muslims [21. A Bennigsen and CL. Quelquejay: Islam in The Soviet Union, page 151.] . But Soviet government again became slightly moderate towards Muslims during its war against Germany. They stopped anti-religious propaganda under the shelter of government. They removed ban on Hajj in 1944. From then on few Muslims were allowed to perform Hajj, though they were mainly the members of different government controlled Muslim religious boards. Government decided to establish several Muslim religious board in 1942. These boards were established in 1943 and 1944 [22. Discussed in detail in the next chapter]. Government also gave permission to establish some new mosques in 1944.

(Muslims became free in these states after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even now these states are ruled by the ex-Communists. Democratic governments have not really emerged. Islamic parties are not allowed in all the states. All powers are trying to stop the progress of Islam. However the indications are that in the long run Islam will play its role in these states. one thing is however needed, the spread of authentic Islamic education. It is also necessary that extremism is not allowed to mar the prospect of Islamic renaissance.)