CLIO FINAL - page 22

To say that the USSR had a rocky relation-
ship with religion is an understatement, and in this
article I will be discussing the history of one religion
in particular- Islam. However, to be able to under-
stand the events of the 20th century, we have to
look back to the events of the 8th century.
In 751, the MuslimAbbasid Caliphate and
the Tang dynasty fought the Battle of Talas in mod-
ern day Kyrgyzstan. The battle was fought over the
control of Central Asia, and the loss of the Tang Dy-
nasty was a major turning point in the history of the
region. By the 10th century, most of the nomadic
tribes in the area had been converted. Until the
invasion of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century,
many cities such as Samarkand were major centres
of Islamic art and learning, producing art, architec-
ture, and literature. Up until the colonisation by the
Russian empire from the 16th to 18th centuries, the
area was under the control of Muslim khanates.
The Russian empire demonstrated a tolerance of
Islam, allowing it to exist without making efforts
to convert the Turkic Muslims of the region and
allowing them to join the army (albeit, with the
restrictions of not being able to use firearms).
However, the Russian administration eventually
clamped down. By promoting migration and land
grants, areas in the South Ural which previously had
a majority of Muslims, became majority Russian
Orthodox. However, it didn’t stop there. Russian
soldiers rounded up Muslims and expelled them to
bordering Muslim countries, such as the Ottoman
Empire and Persia, as well as confiscating property
and destroying mosques.
The Communist doctrine was very anti
religious, and Marx’s famous quote “Religion is the
opium of the people” reflects the deep seated belief
that religion was used to control the people. Lenin
described religion and the church as “the organs of
bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the
exploitation and the stupefaction of the working
At the time of the Russian Revolution, the
vast majority of Russians had some sort of religious
belief, with Russian Orthodoxy being the official
state religion. The Soviet government established
atheism as the official doctrine of the USSR and
attempted to suppress theism by eliminating reli-
gious leaders and teaching atheism in schools.
Despite this, the Muslims of the Soviet
Union enjoyed relatively improved conditions
under Lenin’s rule compared to the rule of the
Tsarist regime. The vast majority of Muslims in the
USSR were Sunni, with Muslims primarily living
in the Caucasus and Central Asian regions, as well
as many Tatar muslims living in Siberia. Six of the
USSR’s fifteen republics had a Muslimmajority
(Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kirghizia, Uzbekistan, Turk-
menistan, and Azerbaijan). Artifacts that had been
confiscated were returned, and Islamic law was
integrated into the Soviet legal system in majori-
ty sunni regions, and Friday (the Muslim sabbath)
was declared as the day of rest in Central Asia. In a
1917 speech, Lenin declared “Muslims of Russia…all
you whose mosques and prayer houses have been
destroyed... your beliefs and practices, your na-
tional 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”.
However, this newfound religious freedom
didn’t last long. Following a long period of illness,
Lenin suffered his third stroke in 1923, completely
losing his ability to speak. On the 21st of January
1924, he fell into coma, and died. Upon Lenin’s
death, one of his subordinates, Josef Stalin, took
control after a brief power struggle. Stalin had a
much more reactionary standpoint towards Islam.
Under him, mosques were closed and repurposed
as warehouses. Imams were persecuted, and reli-
gious schools were shut down. The woman’s branch
of the Communist Party began the Hujum (InTurkic
languages Assault), an attempt to outlaw the hijab
worn by Muslim women, supposedly for the pur-
poses of women’s liberation and integration into
Soviet society. However, many Muslims took it as
Russians trying to force their culture onto others.
Public unveilings were held, where women would
gather and burn their veils. However, not all were
eager to do this; some women were forced to re-
The USSR and Islam
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