Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Vaisovtsy, Bulgar Activists Who Tried to Combine Pure Islam with Bolshevism, Recalled as Source of Ideas about the Future

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 12 -- The ideological diversity of pre-1917 Muslims in the Russian Empire was far greater than many imagine. It involved not just divisions between Sunnis and Shiia or between modernists (Jadidism) and traditionalism (Kadism) but among a wide variety of groups with a remarkable diversity of ideas.

            The Soviets worked especially hard to suppress these groups, classifying them as “sects,” lest their ideas inform the thinking of Muslim groups within the USSR.  Since 1991, scholars and activists have begun to recover some of these traditions; and now, these groups are beginning to attract broader attention from the Muslims living in the Russian Federation.

            One of the most curious of these groups, the Vaisovtsy, who promoted pure Islam long before the name, called on Tatars to reidentify as Bulgars and even sought to combine Islamic purity with Bolshevism, cooperating with the latter against Tatars and Idel-Ural activists, before being brutally repressed in the 1920s is now getting its day in the sun.

            Today, Kazan’s Business-Gazeta presents a 5,000-word article about the Vaisovtsy that not only surveys the curious history of this group between the 1860s and 1920s but also considers its ideas which continue to resonate in the Middle Volga up to now (

            The occasion for the article is the supposed 210th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the group, Bagautdin Vaisov – the actual date is much disputed – and the form is an interview with Dilyara Usmanova, a professor at Kazan Federal University and a widely published specialist on Muslim politics at the end of the imperial period. 

            Vaisov who was a follower of the Naqshbandi sufi brotherhood, established a prayer house in Kazan where he promoted the idea that Bulgarian Islam was the closest to the pure Islam of the time of the Prophet and that Tatars had fallen away from this under the influence of the more public imams, mullahs and muftis.

            He and his followers found themselves at odds with the Islamic establishment and with the state. The latter was disturbed by their role in a series of peasant uprisings in the Middle Volga and the former by his theology.  As a result, the tsarist police together with the mullahs closed his school in 1884, confined him in a psychiatric hospital and then exiled him to Siberia.

            His family members and closest followers were also exiled but some were able to return to Kazan in 1905.  The most important of these was his son Gaynutdin who became the leader of the movement, which numbered between 1500 and 2,000 during its greatest activity in the revolutionary years after 1917.

            Gaynutdin was drawn to socialism and in a strange evolution of events, he and his movements became allies of the Bolsheviks against Tatar nationalists.  Usmanova argues that “the Bolsheviks used the Vaisovtsy to split the Tatar national movement and as a counterweight to the ideals of Idel Ural.”

            Gaynutdin Vaisov was killed by anti-Soviet elements, but despite that, the Bolsheviks having gained strength did whatever they could to wipe out his movement in the early 1920s, killing or exiling his followers. But when things eased in perestroika time, many people in the Middle Volga sought to revive his ideas, seeing them as a way to combine sovietism and Islam.

            “The history of the Vaisi movement shows,” the Kazan scholar concludes, “how complicated and diverse society was in the 19th and early 20th centuries,” far more interesting that the simplified ways in which it is normally considered. And as Tatars look to the future, they can draw on that diversity to provide guidance about the directions they may choose to go.

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