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What Can We Learn from the Bolsheviks’ Policy Toward Muslims?

The early Soviet Republic adopted more progressive policies toward Muslims than most Western “democracies” a century later. The following article examines the ways in which the Bolsheviks sought to build alliances with Muslim people, who represented one-in-ten Soviet citizens, in order to fight a common enemy.

Robert Belano

December 5, 2017
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“Comrades, you who have for the first time assembled in a congress of peoples of the East, must here proclaim a real holy war, against the robbers, the Anglo-French capitalists. Now we must say that the hour has sounded when the workers of the whole world can arouse and raise up tens and hundreds of millions of peasants, can form a Red Army in the East as well, can arm and organise a revolt in the rear of the British, can hurl fire against the bandits, can poison the existence of every insolent British officer who is lording it in Turkey, Persia, India and China.”
G. Zinoviev, Congress of the Peoples of the East, Baku, 1920

The Bolsheviks and Religion

Anti-communist historians have long maintained that the Bolsheviks restricted religious freedoms and persecuted believers after the October Revolution. Robert Service, for example, decries “a campaign of terror” waged by the Bolsheviks against the Orthodox Church, Islam, and Judaism. Richard Pipes declares that Soviet campaign against the church was “accompanied by a drive against religious beliefs and rituals.” Liberal historians, for their part, have more or less echoed these assertions for the past century.

It is indisputable that the Bolsheviks — rightfully — saw the Russian Orthodox Church as an agent of czarism and an enemy in the fight for socialism. On the eve of the Revolution, the church was the nation’s largest landowner, with 7.5 million acres. In 1918, the Bolsheviks’ Decree on the Separation of Church and State expropriated the land and assets of the church and put them under the administration of the soviets. The Church was also stripped of the tremendous political power that it had held for over five centuries. Priests and clergy members who resisted the seizure of their gold and silver were ordered imprisoned or executed.

The Bolshevik leaders were convinced atheists in the Marxist tradition. Yet, like Marx, they understood that religious beliefs would vanish once and for all only when the class oppression that gives rise to these beliefs was done away with. Marx’s quote that “religion is the opium of the people” is well-known. What is less known is what precedes it: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” In other words, religious devotion arose from material conditions, which, at the turn of the 20th century in Russia, meant the remnants of feudalism combined with capitalist exploitation, war, and famine.

Lenin, in particular, was careful to distinguish between the oppressive apparatus of the Orthodox Church and the oppressed masses who were still, by and large, believers. He declared that the communists must organize “the most extensive propaganda of scientific enlightenment and anti-religious conceptions. While doing this, we must carefully avoid anything that can wound the feelings of believers, for such a method can only lead to the strengthening of religious fanaticism.”

How prescient Lenin’s words appear today. Decades of the fierce repression of Muslims — first under Stalinism and later under capitalist “democracy” — have fanned the flames of Islamic fundamentalism in Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

Religious Minorities Under Czarism

After the February Revolution toppled Nicholas II, minorities, particularly Muslims, Jews, and smaller Christian sects, who had long suffered under the yoke of czarism, were anxious for a new regime. For these sectors, czarism had meant bloody pogroms against Jews and a “Russification” program that imposed Russian as the official language and mandated all education be conducted in Russian.

The Bolsheviks recognized the need to appeal to oppressed people throughout the former empire — from oppressed nationalities like the Ukranians and Poles to the various religious minorities — in order to ensure the revolution’s success. They reversed Russification and encouraged schools to teach in their students’ native languages. This policy, like many other gains for Muslims and oppressed minorities, would be ended following Stalin’s consolidation of power. Stalin, who embodied the growing “Great Russian chauvinism” among the bureaucracy that had been denounced by Lenin, re-imposed Russian as the official language of the land and made education in Russian compulsory in 1938.

Unlike the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks offered oppressed nations full right to self-determination, including the right to separate from the Soviet Republic. The Poles and the Finns opted to separate. But this approach by the Bolsheviks earned them a confidence among many workers and peasants of oppressed nationalities that had eluded the Mensheviks and SRs. The support of the popular layers from these regions would be key in the Red Army’s victory in the civil war.

An Appeal to the Peoples of the East

At the time of the October Revolution, as many as one in ten residents of the new Soviet Republic was Muslim. In the Central Asian region, often referred to as simply “The East,” more than 90 percent of the population was Muslim. More than 120 languages were spoken throughout the new republic, and only around half of the population spoke Russian. Only 19 languages in these territories had a written form.

The anti-imperialism of the Bolsheviks, and in particular, Lenin and Trotsky, was central to their policy toward Muslim people. Lenin often quoted Marx and Engels in stating “no nation can be free if it oppresses other nations.” Following the insurrection, the Bolsheviks declared null and void the treaties with the Allies which had offered Russia the annexation of Constantinople and the partitioning of Turkey and Persia.

Further, the Bolsheviks recognized that defeating the imperialist offensive — which far outmatched it militarily and technologically — would require the unity of all workers, poor peasants, and oppressed people throughout the Soviet Republic. The Soviet leaders saw an ally in the Muslim people who had long be subjugated by the same forces the Red Army fought against: British imperialism, French imperialism and of course, the czarist counter-revolutionary forces.

However, winning over poor and working Muslims to Bolshevism would be no easy task. Historian E.H. Carr notes:

“[The Bolsheviks] had in their minds a vague picture of oppressed peoples awaiting emancipation from superstitious mullahs as eagerly as from Tsarist administrators; and they were astonished to discover that, while the hold of Islam over the nomadic peoples and in parts of Central Asia was little more than nominal, it remained elsewhere a tenacious and vigorous institution which offered far fiercer resistance than the Orthodox Church to new beliefs and new practices. In regions where it was strong — notably in the northern Caucasus — the Muslim religion was a social, legal and political as well as religious institution regulating the daily way of life of its members in almost every particular. The imams and mullahs were judges, law-givers, teachers and intellectuals, as well as political and sometimes military leaders.”

In 1920, the Bolsheviks convened the First Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku, Azerbaijan. In attendance were two thousand delegates from throughout Central Asia as well as Soviet leaders such as Grigory Zinoviev and Karl Radek and communists from abroad like Bela Kun and John Reed. In his opening address, Zinoviev, a Bolshevik of Jewish and Ukrainian ancestry, urged a “holy war” against foreign imperialists. In this way, he sought to link the Red Army campaign against the Whites and their international backers to the historic struggle of the peoples of the East against foreign occupiers.

The historian Stephen White notes that: “The Congress’s anti-imperialist purpose was not lost on the British authorities.” A British maritime patrol was set up, unsuccessfully, to block Turkish delegates from attending. Two Persian delegates en route were were killed by a British aerial bombardment, and several others were wounded or arrested. The congress concluded with a major procession and the burning in effigy of Lloyd George, Alexandre Millerand, and Woodrow Wilson.

Islam After the Revolution

After the revolution, far from forcibly suppressing religion, the policies of the Bolsheviks allowed some religions to grow. The number of madrassas, for example, increased dramatically across the region, as Chris Bambery points out on Counterfire. In fact, in some Soviet states, these Islamic centers educated nearly ten times the number of students that state schools did. Further, the Bolsheviks promoted a policy of korenizatsiia or “indigenization,” by which “each nationality [would] be represented in the government and administration in proportion to their share of the population.” And while some distrust of the new Soviet regime still existed among the Eastern peoples, “[b]y the close of 1918, 45 percent of the members of the Turkestan Communist Party were Muslims.”

Writing for International Socialism, Dave Crouch notes that in Central Asia, “[a] parallel court system was created in 1921, with Islamic courts administering justice in accordance with sharia laws. The aim was for people to have a choice between religious and revolutionary justice.” However, “sharia sentences that contravened Soviet law, such as stoning or the cutting off of hands, were forbidden.” As many as half of all court cases in Central Asia during the early years of the Revolution were decided by sharia law. In cases in which a sharia trial refused to grant a woman divorce, the state allowed for retrials in revolutionary courts, if one party appealed the decision.

The Struggle of Muslim Women

While the revolution offered many new freedoms to women, such as the right to a divorce on demand and the right to an abortion, the revolutionaries did not impose their morals by force on oppressed minorities. Muslim women were allowed to continue wearing their traditional dress, including the headscarf, if they so chose (a right that would later be rescinded by Stalin). Speaking at the congress, one delegate declared, “The women of the East are not merely fighting for the right to walk in the street without wearing the chadra (headscarf), as many people suppose. For the women of the East, with their high moral ideals, the question of the chadra, it can be said, is of the least importance.”

But there was no illusion that Muslim women did not suffer extreme oppression. Another delegate stated unequivocally, “We, the women of the East, are exploited ten times worse than the men.” For the women delegates, the urgent demands included complete equality of rights, equal access to education and employment, an end to polygamy, equal rights within marriage, and the creation of women’s committees in defense of their rights.

The Potential for Muslim Rebellion

While anti-imperialism guided Lenin’s approach to Muslims, Islam’s own anti-imperialist history made Muslims particularly receptive to the ideas of Bolshevism. The liberal historian John Sidel notes that in the first two decades of the 20th century, workers, peasants, sailors, and soldiers rebelled against the Dutch colonizers in Indonesia, a country which is home to the world’s largest Muslim population. In 1920, the Communist Union of the Indies was launched and became the first communist party in Asia to join the Comintern. The Indonesian labor organizer, Tan Malaka, called for an alliance between the growing Pan-Islamist movement and the communist movement. The former’s lack of clarity on the class question, along with the Soviet Union’s regression toward Russian chauvinism in the following years, meant that a unity of anti-imperialist forces did not materialize.

Today, we have the example of the Arab Spring which began in 2011. This phenomenon showed the enormous potential of the people of Muslim-majority nations to rebel against tyranny and oppression. Begun as a pro-democracy and anti-austerity movement in Tunisia, it quickly spread across the Middle East. In Tunisia, massive demonstrations and general strikes by the workers brought an end to the 23-year rule of the U.S.-backed President Ben Ali. In Egypt, the movement toppled the repressive Mubarak administration that had governed for three decades with the full support of U.S. imperialism. These popular uprisings also confronted more “Islamist” governments such as the Morsi regime in Egypt, which was elected in 2012.

However, the Arab Spring’s lack of an independent, working-class political program ultimately led to the co-optation of the movement by bourgeois forces and, finally, to its defeat. Imperialism restored the police state in Egypt via a military coup. In Tunisia, as Gilbert Achcar notes in Jacobin, “The new dominant party [is] to a very large extent…refurbished version of the old regime’s ruling party.” But this massive movement demonstrated that it will be the workers, youth, and popular layers in the street that will achieve democratic reforms, not bourgeois forces or American interventions.

How Can We Apply the Bolsheviks’ Policy Today?

Clearly, the progressive attitudes of the Bolsheviks toward oppressed minorities and religions contrast sharply with the anti-Muslim laws and practices that exist across modern-day Europe and the U.S., Austria. France, and Belgium, as well as various states and cities in other European nations, have imposed bans on full-face veils. And it is not only the right-wing but also social democratic parties that have been responsible for these restrictions. France has attempted to go even further in repressing Muslim dress with a proposed “burkini” ban that would prohibit full-body swimsuits. Meanwhile, major newspapers mock the prophet Mohammed and paint Muslims as rabid terrorists. The profiling and harassment of Muslims is rampant at airports, universities, and elsewhere. In this regard, the tolerance achieved in the early years of the “godless” Soviet Republic far surpasses that which exists in the “enlightened countries” of the West.

Yet the lessons of the Bolsheviks go beyond the approach of socialists toward Muslims. In speaking at the Baku Congress, Zinoviev amended the famous slogan from the Communist Manifesto, declaring, “Workers of all lands and oppressed peoples of the whole world, unite!” The Bolsheviks saw the urgent need to link the causes of the workers and oppressed minorities, including those who were not, strictly speaking, part of the proletariat, but rather small peasants, artisans, or members of other sectors who were being increasingly squeezed by capitalism.

In the advanced capitalist countries today, the need to unite the working class with oppressed racial, ethnic, and religious minorities is as clear as ever. Faced with a growing restlessness among workers and oppressed people after decades of austerity and the erosion of workers’ living standards, the capitalists have promoted xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia in order to prevent unity between white workers, workers of color, Muslims, and immigrants. Far from offering any material benefits to workers, the politicians who campaigned on this nationalist fervor — Donald Trump and Teresa May among them — will only bring about the further slashing of wages, more precarious jobs, and new cuts to social services.

In the face of this, the Left must give all support to these oppressed sectors, drawing from examples like the nationwide airport demonstrations in the U.S. after Trump’s Muslim Ban, if we are to win over these communities to revolutionary struggles. We must be fully aware that state’s repressive forces, which today deport immigrants and arrest or harass people of color, will tomorrow be used to break up strikes and thwart workers’ rebellions. Furthermore, the Left and working classes of imperialist countries must show unwavering solidarity with the peoples of semi-colonial countries in their struggles against imperialism. We must reject all “humanitarian” invasions and bombing campaigns which are chiefly carried out against non-white and Muslim peoples around the word. These wars and acts of aggression, far from bringing democracy or improving the wellbeing of the people, only serve the interests of the imperialist countries and their 1 percent.

The spread of civil wars and hunger across the world as a direct result of imperialist policy has sparked a wave of migration from Africa and the Middle East to Europe, the U.S., and various petro-states, like Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates. This situation has created a new sector of immigrant workers, millions of whom are Muslims. These workers are among the most exploited and oppressed and are likely to lead new battles against capital. The solidarity shown by the Russian revolutionaries toward oppressed minorities should be an example for Western workers as they carry out struggles in common interest with Muslims, immigrants, people of color, LGBT people, and all those who suffer under the oppressive yoke of capitalism.


Achcar, Gilbert. “What Happened to the Arab Spring.” Jacobin, December 17, 2015. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/12/achchar-arab-spring-tunisia-egypt-isis-isil-assad-syria-revolution/.

Bambery, Chris. “The Moon and the Stars: Bolshevism and Islam.” Counterfire. February 15, 2017. http://www.counterfire.org/articles/history/18769-the-moon-and-stars-bolshevism-and-islam.

Carr, Edward Hallett. The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923. New York: W.W. Norton, 1985.

Crouch, Dave. “The Bolsheviks and Islam.” International Socialism, April 6, 2006, http://isj.org.uk/the-bolsheviks-and-islam/.

Erickson, Amanda. “How the USSR’s Effort To Destroy Islam Created a Generation of Radicals.” Washington Post, January 5, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/01/05/how-the-ussrs-effort-to-destroy-islam-created-a-generation-of-radicals/.

Pearce, Brian, trans. “Congress of the Peoples of the East, Baku, September, 1920.” London: New Park Publications Ltd., 1977. Previously published Petrograd: Publishing House of the Communist International, 1920. https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/baku/cpe-baku-pearce.pdf.

Pipes, Richard. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011.

Schiffman, Harold F. “Language Policy in the former Soviet Union.” (Handout for LING 540, Language Policy, University of Pennsylvania). http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/540/handouts/ussr/soviet2.html.

Service, Robert. A History of Modern Russia from Nicholas II to Vladimir Putin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Weeks, Theodor R. “Russians, Jews, and Poles: Russification and Antisemitism 1881-1914.” Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History, July 3, 2012. http://www.quest-cdecjournal.it/focus.php?id=308.

White, Stephen. “Communism and the East: The Baku Congress, 1920.” Slavic Review 33, no. 3 (September 1974): 492-514. http://intersci.ss.uci.edu/wiki/eBooks/Articles/1920%20Baku%20Congress%20%20White.pdf

Wiese, Stefan. “Jewish Self-Defense and Black Hundreds in Zhitomir. A Case Study on the Pogroms of 1905 in Tsarist Russia.” Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History, July 3, 2012. http://www.quest-cdecjournal.it/focus.php?issue=3&id=304.

Sidel, John T. “What Killed the Promise of Muslim Communism?” The New York Times, October 9, 2017.

“Religion in the Soviet Union.” Workers’ International News, 1945.

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Robert Belano

Robert Belano is a writer and editor for Left Voice. He lives in the Washington, DC area.

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