The Soviet Regime's Interaction with Domestic Islam


The Bolshevik regime that came to power in Russia in November 1917 inherited several regions whose indigenous populations were predominantly Muslim. The most important of these were Central Asia, in what became in the course of the 1920s and 1930s the Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen, Kazakh and Kirgiz union republics; the Volga region – the Tatar and Bashkir autonomous republics; and the Caucasus – the Azerbaijan union republic and the Dagestan, Chechen-Ingush, Kabardino-Balkar and Karachai-Cherkess autonomous republics.

As a Marxist (or Marxist-Leninist) body politic, the Soviet Union was an avowedly atheist state. The 1920s saw major campaigns to eradicate religion throughout the vast Soviet empire. In the early years, the new regime made the Russian Orthodox Church the principal object of this onslaught and demonstrated considerable tolerance of Islam, but this changed toward the end of the decade when Moscow initiated a major offensive designed to "modernize" the Muslim woman. As in the case of other religions, the anti-Islam offensive involved closing houses of worship, persecuting clergy and other religious figures, prohibiting religious education, curtailing publication of religious literature and seeking to impose secular rites of passage and secular "happenings" to replace the religious festivals. State organizations became responsible for registering births, marriages and deaths, a vast atheistic propaganda campaign was initiated and a body under the auspices of the government was formed to enforce the relevant prohibitions and laws. Although Muslims registered the highest percentage of observance in the 1937 population census - the sole one to register religious observance – retention of the precepts of Islam was becoming increasingly difficult and risky.

During the Great Patriotic War following the Nazi German invasion of Soviet territory in June 1941, Moscow realized it had to do all in its power to enlist the population on behalf of the Soviet war effort. It consequently changed tack in its approach to religion at the expense of its avowed ideology. This was especially important since in face of the tribulations the war entailed and given the lack of any alternative remedy, people turned to religion. Such houses of worship as remained filled up once more and many that had been closed down and transferred to other uses, reverted to their pristine designation.

However, beginning 1948, the tables were turned again, and the lid was clamped down once more – until 1954, when another period of leniency toward religion, Islam included, began. It continued for less than four years, and in 1958 what became known as Khrushchev's anti-religious campaign set in, and lasted until his ouster in late 1964. While enhanced persecution ceased, the following decade and a half witnessed implementation of the traditional hard line.

Throughout most of the postwar years, Islam was perceived and treated by the regime very much as were the other recognized faiths, especially those that could be considered an integral part of the ethnic culture of the nationalities concerned. It was only in the 1980s following the Iranian revolution and an Islamic revival that began in the 1970s in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, that Islam was singled out for manifestly special treatment, "Islamic extremism" coming to be identified with a threat to the stability of the country's Muslim regions.

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Introduction by Yaacov Ro'i



  • Yaacov Ro'i