Source: Khurasaan.com

Islam under the Soviet Union

The American campaign against Afghanistan has thrust the region of Central Asia into the media spotlight. Despite the region’s independent in 1991, interest in this area of the world has largely been confined to governments, academics, companies and organizations such as NATO. The article briefly examines the history of this Islamic region under the Soviet; the impact of Gorbachev and his reforms, culminating in the independence of the region in 1991.

Soviet Rule in Central Asia

The Communist authorities of the Soviet Union (1917-1991) inherited Central Asia from the old Tsarist Empire which collapsed during the First World War. In spite of the political turmoil which existed within the former Tsarist Empire, heightened by the Civil War which followed, the newly created Communist regime did not allow the Central Asian region to escape its clutches. The peoples of Central Asia did not suffer repression at the hands of Soviet Communism because they were Uzbeks or Tajiks, rather, it was because they were Muslims. The Communists viewed Islam with hostility and suspicion and subjected the Muslims of the Soviet Union to countless secularisation campaigns. They also tried to replace the regions Islamic identity and loyalty, with ethnically created republics.[1]

The Soviet Union attempted to challenge Islam intellectually with Marxist dogma and suppressed any public manifestation of Islam.[2] Throughout the history of the Soviet Union and its dealings with Islam and the people of Central Asia, outright repression through to co-option was the mechanisms employed by the state.[3] Islamic sentiment survived under the Soviet Union as the state after the Second World War sought to bring in certain aspects of Islam and tried to incorporate them within the state’s structure. This lead to a Soviet ‘official Islam’, sanctioned and acceptable to the regime and an ‘underground Islam’ which sought to keep alive pre-Soviet ideas and practices.[4]

Creating the Central Asian Republics

The Soviet Union divided the Central Asian region into separate administrative units. Stalin created Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in 1924, Tajikistan in 1929 and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 1936.[5] Shirin Akiner notes that, ‘These republics were entirely new state formations with no basis in historic nation-states. They were created not in response to popular demand, but at Moscow’s behest.’[6] The Soviets had clear political reasons for forming what was formerly known as ‘Turkistan’, into five new republics. The first was based upon a clear policy of divide and rule. Moscow did not desire the creation of an ‘Islamic Turkistan’ to be a singular republic within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Moscow was particularly virulent in quashing all forms of Islamic identity that existed in the region,[7] and sought its replacement with attempts to form loyalties to the newly created republics and Marxist ideology.

Martha Brill Olcott has argued that - 'Stalin drew the map of Soviet Central Asia not with an eye to consolidating the natural regions, but rather for the purpose of reducing the prospects for regional unity. Five separate republics were formed, creating national units for ethnic communities that had yet to think of themselves as distinct nationalities. Moreover, boundaries were set to insure the presence of large irredentist populations in each republic.' [8]

The Muslims of Central Asia were thus subjected to living under an authority and an assumed identity which they did not adhere to in the Soviet Union. The emphasis which the Soviet’s placed upon ‘ethnicity’ was formulated to channel the allegiance of the Muslims towards the newly created republics. While the their Islamic identity was viciously suppressed.[9]

The Impact of Gorbachev

The resurgence of Islamic expression throughout the Soviet Union in the 1980s was a direct result of Gorbachev’s policies of Perestroika and Glasnost. Such policies relaxed the Soviet Union’s rigid authoritarianism and permitted a modicum of free expression to exist. Thus in republics like Uzbekistan, Islamic practices and sentiments to resurface.[10] This is particularly noteworthy. In many other areas of the Soviet Union, such as the Baltic’s and the Caucasus, the 1980s produced an upsurge in nationalist feeling. This embryonic Islamic resurgence was felt in those areas that were traditionally deeply religious, such as the Fergana Valley. [11] For Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz this was an extremely important development. It showed their desire to break with the Soviet Communist ideology as well as Russian and Slavic culture and a desire to reassert their own cultural identity and belief systems. There was a great upsurge in the study of Islam and Arabic, with many Central Asian youth studying Islamic courses abroad.[12]


1. Suny (1999), pp. 167 - 168
2. Gleason (1997), p. 170
3. Gleason (1997), p. 171; Akiner (1995), p. 10
4. Rashid (2002), pp. 38 - 39; Gleason (1997), p. 172
5. Akiner (1995), p. 7
6. Akiner (1995), p. 7
7. Micallef & Svanberg (1999), p. 154
8. quoted in Ahrari & Beal (1996), pp. 9 - 10
9. Ahrari & Beal (1996), p. 23
10. Micallef & Svanberg (1999), p. 156; Akcali (1998), p. 267
11. The Fergana Valley covers parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
12. Rashid (1995), p. 244; Ro’i (2001), pp. 16-17


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