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Islam in Central Asia, 1917-1991

(Introduction to the current selections from RGASPI and GARF collections)

The situation in Central Asia, where the influence of the religion of Islam had a major impact on society in the first half of the 20th century, was very complicated and contradictory and became even more muddled after the Bolsheviks came to power as a result of the Great Russian Revolution of 1917 and the civil war that followed. To this day those events affect the public mentality in both in the countries of the region as well as outside it, as well as modern historiography.

This vast body of documents from the Moscow archives will, for the first time, afford ordinary readers an opportunity to directly familiarize themselves with the most important documents. They show the following: what the Kremlin’s real policy was in Central Asia, which was being Sovietized, between 1917 and 1991; to what extent it met the interests of the local population; how significant Islam was there; what policy the central government was pursuing toward it; what the state of education was for indigenous inhabitants; what measures were being taken by the government in this regard; what the status of Muslim women was; how the problem of involving them in the construction of a Soviet society was being handled; what the “emancipation” of the women of the East and its main method – the mass campaign to remove the burqa – were leading to; what interethnic relations were like and how they were influencing the condition of society, national identity formation, and policy connected to nation building; how the armed resistance of local peoples against the Soviet government’s actions originated, and how these powerful protests influenced the Kremlin’s policy toward the region.

Historiography encompasses the most varied approaches to dealing with the history of Islam in Central Asia during Sovietization in that period. Many writings, all the same, bear the clear and deep imprints of modern geopolitical and ideological attitudes toward the Muslim world as a whole and certain parts of it, including the region’s Muslims. Such writings, despite the fact that a number of them were done on a high individual or group-based professional level, upon a close study have more of a propagandistic orientation than a scholarly one. They are too general, and do not pay attention, as a rule, to the specific historical conditions of 1917-1991 that prevailed in Central Asia during Sovietization. The historical literature of the past quarter of a century in the post-Soviet space graphically demonstrated that the mere lifting of previous ideological bans cannot turn around the situation in the study of this subject matter. This requires, above all, a careful and documented inquiry, which depends on sources and their representativeness.

The state of the stock of sources on this subject: Soviet historiography conducted a partial and selective publication of documents, which dealt with the situation of Islam in the region. Many facts, however, remained unexplored by Soviet historians, since this information did not fit into official history. The situation changed drastically with the breakup of the Soviet Union, when intensive publishing work in the post-Soviet space began. Progress began to be made in the study of sources, including on this subject. Under these circumstances great interest was drawn to previously inaccessible documents from various archives, including documents for the study of Islam in Central Asia during Sovietization between 1917 and 1991, which contain quite a few important topics that were heretofore undisclosed and not deeply studied.

Despite the fact that quite a bit has been done in modern science to this point, a considerable number of archival documents have not yet been put into scholarly circulation. Many monographs and document-based publications of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that have come out in various countries have made infrequent, selective or indirect use of documents from the archives, especially Moscow archives.

Equally important, as in the past, is not only the quantity of documents but the adequacy of the reproduction of various sources that are put into scholarly circulation. The factual level of the modern study of sources in this area both in Russia and in Central Asia is very low. Rules that are commonly accepted in historiography for publishing documents are often not followed, and their reproduction has been accompanied by numerous distortions, errors and inaccuracies, occasionally very substantial ones, that have then ended up in the scholarly and academic literature. All of this quite significantly distorts the meaning of a certain phrase and sometimes the document as a whole, ultimately breaches the cause-and-effect connection between events, and at times turns out to be far removed from specific historical topics. Under these circumstances researchers must deal with primary sources.

This body of documents for the first time gives scholars an opportunity to significantly expand the groundwork for an in-depth scholarly inquiry into the state of Central Asian society during the above period on a wide range of issues; to significantly correct the various prevailing interpretations of certain social problems in Central Asia, especially of an interethnic and interfaith nature; to objectively show the main conflicts of the ethno-political and military-political situation in the region; to clearly understand the formation and development of the anti-Bolshevik underground and armed resistance; to impartially analyze the evolution and development of relations between Moscow and the leadership of the Soviet republics of Central Asia; to clearly trace the decision-making mechanism of the center in regard to the region and its population; to broadly show the Muslims’ struggle for their rights and interests; to accurately portray the attitude toward them of various government authorities; to precisely present the attitude of Muslims toward the Soviet government; to clearly see the government’s miscalculations in regard to the Muslim population, etc.

These documents also contain diverse information about what was happening at the time in various territories of Central Asia; what role various regional politicians, religious leaders and military personnel played; what drove the socio-political activities of Muslims in a given area; what they were seeking; how their mentality was changing; what factors were influencing them, etc. In addition, these materials contain unknown information and little-studied facts and disclose the causes of a number of key events in the socio-political history of the Muslim peoples of Central Asia; depict the typical ethno-social conflicts that existed both among Muslims and between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations of the region, which occasionally reached the point of severe ethnic conflicts and armed confrontations on a large scale; make it possible to significantly clarify the situation regarding the ethnic composition of the leadership of Central Asia, the governing methods, the degree of responsibility of the center and the local authorities, relations between local leaders and the functionaries sent from Moscow, etc.

For the first time in historiography the documents provide a fairly complete picture of the activities of the Politburo of the RKP(b)/VKP(b)/KPSS CC in regard to Central Asia during that period and make it possible to ascertain exactly what issues the Politburo of the CC and its individual leaders were focusing on and what issues other agencies were focusing on; what kind of progress they made; and how major party and government decisions in Central Asia were adopted, implemented and monitored.

A great deal of space in these documents, most of which previously have not been published, is taken up by resolutions of the Politburo and the accompanying materials (memorandums, reports and recommendations by institutions and top government officials), which make it possible to trace the decision-making process at various stages.

For example, at the 27 January 1920 meeting of the Politburo of the RKP(b) CC the head of the RSFSR People’s Commissariat of Nationalities, I. V. Stalin, presented his theses “on communist work among the workers and peasants of the Muslim East,” which were adopted for implementation.[1] On 17 February 1920 the Politburo of the RKP(b) CC approved the draft of a circular telegram on party policy toward the Muslim peoples of Russia.[2] On 25 May 1920 the Politburo, after reviewing a report on Turkestan, decided to formulate a resolution on policy there.[3] On 14 October 1920 the Politburo resolved in regard to the question of the tasks of the RKP(b) “in areas populated by Eastern peoples,” including Turkestan: to issue in the name of the top Soviet leadership “a manifesto that would reaffirm the principles of the nationality policy of the RSFSR and would establish actual monitoring of its full implementation.”[4]. On 10 October 1945, V. M. Molotov, deputy chairman of the USSR Council of People’s Commissars, signed a directive on the opening of Muslim religious schools in Tashkent and Bukhara.[5] On 15 August 1949, however, I. V. Stalin, chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, rescinded the part of the directive regarding the opening of a Muslim religious school in Tashkent.[6]

These and other documents provide a full picture of the views of V. I. Lenin, I. V. Stalin and other leaders of the Soviet state regarding policy in Central Asia. What was used were not only documents from top government and party bodies, but also various materials from local government bodies, letters, reports and statements by the Central Asian Muslims themselves.

There is still very little that is known for certain about their true attitudes during various periods of rule by the Kremlin and its representatives, including the official Muslim clergy. It turns out that in January-February 1989, during Gorbachev’s perestroika, demonstrations and rallies of believers took place in Tashkent against Mufti Sh. Babakhanov, chairman of the Muslim Religious Board for Central Asia and Kazakhstan, who was forced to resign shortly thereafter.[7] And another startling fact: under the influence of believers, the head of Tadzhikistan’s Muslims in early 1991 appealed to Moscow through the mass media to arrange sending 500 pilgrims to Mecca, while giving assurances on behalf of all of Tadzhikistan’s Muslims that they would vote in a referendum in favor of preserving the Soviet Union.[8] The Muslim community of each republic in Central Asia had its own distinctive features.

The documents, therefore, afford an opportunity to take a new look at the relations between the state and Islam in Central Asia, which became part of the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1991, to do a reassessment, to conduct a critical analysis of a number of interpretations by modern historiography of “nation-building” and “national identity,” and make it possible to substantially correct, and at times to disagree with, the interpretation of the key events of 1917-1991 in this region – all of this is an important condition for further research work and for the development of world historiography.