Staunton, September 22 –Soviet suppression of Russian Orthodoxy in Central Asia, Stalin’s exiling of representatives of various Protestant communities to that region, and Moscow’s attempt to replace religious identities with ethnic ones among the indigenous Muslim population set the stage for the rise of religious radicalism of all kinds there.
Indeed, Aleksey Sukhov argues in an article on the Evrazia.org portal, “as a result of the policy of state atheism, favorable conditions for the activities of supporters of radical Islam and also various religious sects and new religious organizations (including totalitarian ones) were in place at the moment of the collapse of the USSR” (evrazia.org/article/2368).
Although he devotes most of his 5,000-word article to the history of Islam and Russian Orthodoxy in Central Asia in general and Kyrgyzstan in particular before 1917, Sukhov provides one of the most thoughtful Russian discussions of the highly sensitive issue of Soviet responsibility for present-day religious extremism.
This is not a simple story, but it is a critically important one for understanding what has happened and why – and also for recognizing that many of the same Soviet actions that opened the way for Islamist extremism also had the effect of equally unintentionally promoting Christian radicalism as well.
In the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks were able to use the isolation of the Russian Orthodox Church and the divisions, religious as well as ethnic, among the indigenous and Islamic population. At first they hoped to use attacks on Orthodoxy to gain support from Muslims and then to use the Muslims to spread the revolution to the East.
“However,” Sukhov points out, “they quickly recognized that danger which the consolidation of Turkestan on a pan-Islamic basis would represent” and consequently sought to weaken Islam both by direct attacks on mosques and mullahs and by the division of the region into ethnically-defined territories.
The Bolsheviks attacked the Orthodox Church first. They suppressed the local hierarchs and priests, replacing them with pro-Soviet “renewal” figures from elsewhere, and closed almost all the churches. By the 1930s, there was only one Orthodox church open in all of Central Asia – the Pokrovsky Cathedral in Samarkand.
According to Sukhov, the local Muslims “showed sympathy” to the Christian victims of this anti-religious campaign, hiding the priests “even at the risk of their own lives.” These priests in turn became an underground or “catacomb” church, very much cut off from and later at odds with the restored Patriarchate in Moscow.
After World War II, Sukhov continued, Kyrgyzstan – and he could have added other parts of Central Asia as well – became the place of exile of “religious sectarians from the western oblast of Ukraine and Belarus, Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina, and the Baltics.” These included Jehovah’s Witnesses, various Pentecostals, Evangelical Baptists, and Seventh Day Adventists.
These groups had the greatest influence in Slavic communities who had been deprived of a church because of Moscow’s attacks on Orthodoxy, Sukhov continues. “As a result, and thanks to the deportation to Kyrgyzstan were rooted many new and hitherto unknown in that religious trends and sects.”
After 1945, Moscow allowed some of the Russian Orthodox churches to reopen. Their number in Central Asia reached 66 in the early 1950s, but most of them were shuttered again at the end of that decade during Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign. Only at the end of the 1980s did they reopen. In 1990, there were a total of 56 Orthodox churches there.
During the Soviet period, Sukhov says, official or institutionalized Islam was seriously weakened for the same reasons that Russian Orthodoxy was. But just as the closing of churches had not ended Christianity but driven it underground and in some cases politicized it, so too the closure of mosques had the same effect.
Islam remained an important component of identity, and Soviet campaigns against it “did not destroy” the faith but rather “drove religious leaders into the deep underground.” There, they continued to function, and something else happened as well: this “popular Islam became something more than a religion;” it became a bastion of national identity and political resistance.