Friday, October 19, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Soviets Sent Openly Orthodox Christian Soldiers to Serve in Muslim Republics

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 19 – It was “an unwritten rule” that the Soviet military sent openly Russian Orthodox Christians to serve in the predominantly Muslim republics of Central Asia, according to the editor of the “Religion and the Media” portal, just as the Soviet commanders often sent practicing Muslims to serve in Slavic regions.

            The dispatch of Muslims to serve outside their home republics has long been the object of study because many of those who served in the Soviet military were subjected to dedovshchina and became more committed to the defense of their religious faith and national identities as a result.

            But the sending of openly practicing Christians to Muslim republics has attracted less attention and makes the recollections of Aleksandr Shchipkov which are entitlted “Dzhokhar and Aleksandr. The Clash of Civilizations,” as posted on the website, especially interesting (
            Shchipkov recalls his service in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in 1979 and his friendship with Dzhokhar K., a Chechen Muslim.  The religious news site editor notes in passing that “the openly Orthodox [of whom he was one] were sent for their military service to Central Asia” because “it was an unwritten rule that Christians would serve amidst Islamic culture.”

            As he was being processed in, the religious affairs expert says, he was handed “a cross on a chain” by “strong Turkmen hands.  That cross, which had come from abroad, was the first of Shchipkov’s many experiences with Muslims who nonetheless were prepared to help Christians who were active rather than merely “nominal” believers.

            Of course, he writes, while being shifted from one base or construction site to another, he “encountered inter-religious conflict with open eyes.”  Subsequently, “a friend sent [him] another cross in a letter,” and it was that cross that Shchipkov wore underneath his Soviet soldier’s uniform.

            Looking back, Shchipkov says, “the army [was] not a prison,” soldiers have more options to talk with others and the sense of freedom is “much larger.” One of the friends he made was a Chechen Muslim named Dzokhar, who, he continued, respected the young Orthodox believer because of his directness about his faith and his conflict with commanders about the cross.

            The young Chechen, the religious affairs expert continued, even helped him “hide the Gospels” when political officers tried to find it and take it away. Shchipkov said that he respected Dzhokhar because of his own faith and because the latter “did not fear death,” something that allowed him to survive.

            “The Georgians [in the unit] hated him,” Shchipkov says. They tried to kill him, but in vicious fights, he survived coming out the victor. He survived because every time he was ready to die and this triumph over death” allowed him to win against those who feared that outcome most of all.

            His Chechen Muslim friend was “an orphan,” the editor adds. “He was brought up by his grandmother, and faith was the norm for him. The natural definer of daily life.  At times it seemed that as far as questions of faith were concerned, we had nothing to argue about. As often happens with young people, initially you find only that which you have in common.”

            Obviously, Shchipkov’s words reflect the experience of only one man, but they do suggest two more important conclusions: On the one hand, it seems clear that at least in Soviet times, the atheist policy of the state meant that religious believers regardless of denomination found themselves to have more in common than many might assume.

            And on the other, even though Russian Orthodox Christians were also victims of “the unwritten rule” about assigning believers to military units outside the areas where their church was predominant, they may have come away from that experience with more positive feelings about the Muslim nationalities than many of the Muslim nationalities did about the Russians.

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