Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Russia’s Muslim Leaders in 1917 Wanted US-Style Liberal Democracy, New Moscow Book Concedes

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 13 – Soviet and Russian historians, and following them, many in the West, have portrayed the Muslim population of the Russian Empire as inherently and dangerously reactionary, a description that is not only inaccurate but is designed to exculpate the Bolsheviks from their crimes against Muslims.

            In fact, the Muslims of the Russian Empire were some of the most liberal of all Islamic communities, with leaders who served in the Duma, were committed to the creation of a liberal democratic state like that of the United States or Switzerland, and modernist in their views on issues ranging from the status of women to minority rights.

            All this is documented in an impressive new book, The Great Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Muslim Movement (in Russian, compiled by Salavat Iskhakov, Moscow: Institute of Russian History, 2019) and stressed in a new review by Andrey Martynov at

                “The final goal” of Muslim activists in Russia n 1917, the book says, “was hardly an Islamic theocratic state but a Western political system along the American or Swiss models.” They thus overwhelmingly supported Alexander Kerensky against the Kornilov putsch and overwhelmingly opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power.

            Because of this opposition, the Bolsheviks portrayed the Muslim leaders as the blackest of blackguards and moved to eliminate them, killing most and driving the remainder into emigration.  The consequence of that action was that what little was left of the Muslim establishment, a microscopic number of imams and mullahs, was in fact deeply conservative.

            That allowed the Soviets to continue to portray the Muslims as reactionaries, a view far too many in the West have accepted without close examination. Now that there is a Russian book urging precisely that, it may be possible that some in both Russia and the West will recognize just how liberal the Islamic community in Russia was – and how the Bolsheviks destroyed it.

            For one extremely detailed study of Muslim leaders at the time of the Russian Revolution and their aspirations, see Shafiqa Daulet’s Moscow and Kazan (Hudson, NH, 2003). In it, she describes the debates at the major Muslim congresses at that time, debates which show how liberal this community was before the Bolsheviks worked to destroy it. 

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