Treatment of the different religious minorities in the early USSR. Part II.


In those days there lived around 20 million Muhammedan believers in the Russian Empire on the Eve of the Revolution. Disregarding the different denominations in Islam, we can state Islam predominates in some form in the Caucasus and in the lands of the Kyrgyz, the Turkmen and several other tribes. Next to the Quran, from which Sharia law is derived which is common Code of Law in these parts of the world, these tribes often practice another book called the Adat.
Adat is the generic term derived from Arabic language for describing a variety of local customary practices and tradition as observed by Muslim communities in the North Caucasus, Central- and Southeast Asia, and which bundles a variety of local customary practices and tradition. (The wearing of a burqa, a full body cloak worn by some Muslim women, is a controversial practice which stems from the Adat, and not from the Quran as sometimes assumed.)
The Adat eventually came to displace Sharia law, and as such common superstitions and religious practices seeped in the community, such as spiritualism and necromancy. Typical for most of these tribes is that they already possessed a high degree of independence and a well-defined identity, and those characteristics helped the tribe maintain themselves against the Islamic intruder, the New Faith most of them came to voluntarily accept.


“Allah” carrying English capitalist symbols (top hat and umbrella)

During the 1920s, it would have been distinctly unhealthy for anyone to profess oneself “godless” within the limits of any Mohammedan village. It would have been equally unhealthy to act against Islam in general, whose faithful followers were ever-ready to offer such a wandering soul peace of mind, using a silent but convincing argument (a knife between the ribs).

At first the “League of Godless” propagandists tried to modernize the practices and costumes of the faithful, assuming that by doing this the logical conclusion would be that the Muslims would eventually come to reject their faith completely and become apostates. In short, the plan was to “bedazzle these simple primitives with Modern Technology and Civilisation”.

Once the Godless propagandists tried different methods. In a Tatar village an early delegation of the “League” consisting of 13 militants, gathered all the females together and, in public, proceeded to threaten them with the words:

You will from now on all take off your veils, and never cover your heads again!

Needless to say this caused uproar. Such a direct approach was only attempted once, as no member of that delegation (save the driver) was left alive.

The lorry, by which they had come to the Tatar village, now carried away with it 13 dead bodies. The Party subsequently decided to never again handle such techniques, called a “political deviation to the left“.

Self-styled communist Muslims adhered very strongly to Islam. On several occassions Muslims succeeded in blocking the requirement of their Mullahs to donate their Wakoufs (endowments in land shares the Mullah receives from the faithful) to the government. In Turkestan the faithful community even forced the communist government to give back secularized lands to the clerics.


Attempts have been made to affect the historical foundations of Islam, by claiming that Mohammed never really existed, and that his doctrine was developed by Mecca‘s mercantile elite. The Quran was presented as a mainstay of civil society, social inequality and private property rights. Pan-Islamism is a bourgeois-movement, drawn up by the aristocracy, the landowners and the clerics of Islam. The God of the Quran is a spiteful creature, and the fatalism arising from it bothers the workers, it retards the amelioration of their general condition and impedes the revolution.


The Mullahs were formally accused of counter-revolutionary practices. In Tashkent back in 1886, the Kazi-Kalian (chief  Muslim judge) Mukhitdin praised the tsar as the Lord-Protector of all native peoples.

In addition, there emerged an Islamic Party, under the leadership of a Sultan-Galiev, who dreamed aloud of establishing his own Turanic Empire. This political party was officially disbanded in 1929, the grounds were suspicion of secret support by Great Britain.

чистота-залог здоровья.

чистота-залог здоровья.

The bolsheviks did found support for their struggle against the maltreatment of women with many ethnic groups, in particular Dagestan, where in pre-revolutionary days women were still bought and sold on slave-markets. In Dagestan now women were allowed to visit mosques, schools and Soviet-meetings.

There is no clergy in Islam in Western sense since based on the belief that no intermediary between the believer and Allah. But in the course history to comment on Islamic matters and to lead the believers in collective prayers religious leadership emerged.

As in every Muslim society in the Soviet Union the ulama was considered into two categories: the official ulama and the unofficial ulama. In this article we dealt with the first one.

The ulama of the region has been playing very considerable role in the social, political, economic and cultural life for a long time. At the very beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution the Tatar Muslim nationalist communist Sultan-Galiev (1880-1939?), seeing an obstacle to antireligious propaganda pointed out the power and role of the ulama among the Russian Muslims stating that:

… the situation of the Muslim clergy among Russia is that whereas among Russians we find on parish for every 10.000 to 12.000 inhabitants, among Muslims there is one mosque for every 700 to 1.000 souls and each mosque is served by at least three members of the clergy: the mullah, his assistant, and the muezzin.

The strength of the Muslim clergy can also be explained by reason of its social and political position among the Muslim population. The mullah is at the same time priest (in charge of religious rites), teacher (each mullah has a religious school connected to his mosque: mektep or medreseh), administrator (in charge of regulating estates, registering civil acts of stage), judge (competent in affairs of marriage, divorce, and succession), and at times even a doctor of medicine.

Furthermore, the Muslim clergy are elected and this places them in more favourable and solid position than, for example, the Russian clergy.

The Russian priest, appointed by the superior authority, certainly has a lesser authority over his flock than does the Tatar or the Uzbek ulama in his mahalla. The latter consider themselves just the same to be “servants of the people” and lend an attentive ear to their wishes. They are more democratic and closer to the people, and exercise a greater influence on them than does the village priest over Russian muzhik.

In 1924 the Mullahs of the Republic of Tajikistan met to make a peace offering to the Soviet regime. On the 2nd November 1926 a message was sent from Ufa, the capital city of the Republic of Bashkortostan, which stated that the “Pan-Russian Conference of Muslim Clerics” sent Stalin a greeting telegram, in which they expressed the absolute certainty of their submission and gratitude towards the Soviet leadership. This probably was the reason that they were treated better than the traditional, Orthodox religion.


further reading:

“Adat and Islam in West Sumatra” ( Anthropology News, Vol. 43, No. 9, Dec. 2002, page 7)

“The Idea of Muslim National Communism: On Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev” (Viewpoint Magazine article)


The Tataro-Bashkir Feud Revisited: Zaki Validi and the Bashkir Autonomy in Western Historiography. By Christian Noack, Amsterdam 2013 [PDF].

The ‘Tataro-Bashkir feud , or more precisely the split between Tatars and Bashkirs over the question of territorial vs. cultural autonomy after the first Pan-Russian Muslim Congress in May 1917 and the role that the Bashkir leader Akhmed Zaki Validi played in it, has produced an important body of historical research in the West.

Commissar and Mullah: Soviet-Muslim Policy from 1917 to 1924 by Glenn L. Roberts ( Fl, USA 1990, 2006) [PDF] -200 p.

The Official Interpretation of Islam under the Soviet Regime: A Base for Understanding of Contemporary Central Asian Islam. By Seyfettin Erşahin. Journal for Religious Culture/Journal für Religionskultur vol 77 (2005):

Islam, the Muslim traditions and the ulama in Central Asian societies are becoming increasingly important for assessing the situation in and around the region. To understand of the post Soviet Muslim republics it is necessary to know the Islamic heritage of the Soviet Union, i.e. the Islamic understanding and interpretation of Soviet official ulama which still influence the mind of the people and the contemporary Central Asian ulama. The official ulama were endeavouring to reconcile Islam with science and progress and to guarantee its survival in a modern environment, they served by an extremely energetic effort to preserve Islam at least in purity and integrity as religion and national sentiment and to prevent it from relapsing into deprivation and ignorance. The most important official Muslim religious figure, the Mufti of Tashkent Ziyauddin Babakhan interpreted Islam as a bulwark of progress, disseminator of knowledge, the religion of peace and friendship; portrayed the Prophet Muhammad as a “democrat, reformer and revolutionary, even a socialist”; reconciliation with socialism and communism.

Islam in Soviet Central Asia: Renaissance or Revolution? by James Critchlow [PDF]

The Bolsheviks and Islam by Dave Crouch (International Socialism, vol 110, april 2006)

The Impact of Russo-Soviet Culture in Central Asia by Mark Dickens, 1989 [PDF]

Marxism or Pan‐Islamism: Russian Bolsheviks and Tatar national communists at the beginning of the civil war, July 1918. by Alexandre Bennigsen. Central Asian Survey, vol 6 (1987) no 2 pp 55-66 [PDF]

Education and Change in Religious Practices in Uzbekistan by Sabina Mushtaq. Research Journal of Educational Sciences Vol. 3(3), 1-5, April (2015). [PDF]

Fundamentalist Challenges to Local Islamic Traditions in Soviet and Post‐Soviet Central Asia by Ashirbek Muminov [PDF]

Soft Power, Hard Power, and Counterinsurgency: The Early Soviet Experience in Central Asia and Its Implications. by Olga Oliker (RAND National Defense WR-547 feb 2008) [PDF]

Islamic Reformism on the Periphery of the Muslim World: Rezaeddin Fakreddin (1859-1936) by Sofia Mazgarova (Master Thesis 2010) [PDF]


Lamaism/Buddhism and shamanism

In the north-eastern part of European Russia, in the south, in North-Siberia and the Far East there are tribes practicing Lamaism/Buddhism and shamanism

It is said that Lamaism, which is closely related to Buddhism, attaches great importance to believing in spirits, and views life on Earth as suffering, similar to the dualist ideas of some gnostic Christians and Paulicians. The communists claimed that the religion requires from its adherents:

that they suppress all desire and lust, in order to reach the Nirvana and to merge with the Buddha, or the legendary tsar’s son [sic], and that as such the exploiting character of this religion became clearly proven.

“The Lamaists walk hundreds of versts to a so-called holy Kalmyk or Buryat, of course never empty-handed, often packed with rich gifts, which made these holy men very wealthy. The accumulated stock of such a holy man consisted of 33500 sheep, 4700 horses and 800 heads of horned cattle. Another holy man owns 3000 camels, 7555 sheep and 270 heads of horned cattle.
source: dlya rabotshich antirelig. krushkov (Manual for Workers of Antireligious Circles), Leningrad, p 375

The fierce struggle of the bolsheviks against these religions has both an economic an a political side. The Sovietrégime ruthlessly attacked certain primitive habits that were commonly practised by these tribes: bride kidnapping, bride-purchasing, polygamy and sati.

(note that there is also hinduism practiced in the former USSR)

Sati: Ceremony of Burning a Hindu Widow with the Body of her Late Husband

Sati: Ceremony of Burning a Hindu Widow with the Body of her Late Husband

The early USSR had good results with eradicating these practices from the Dark Ages on a large scale. Towards the women, who had always been abused as a slave and a beast of burden in the household, Soviet power paved the road to emancipation and political life.

This was before unseen with these primitive tribes.
The results were astonishing: women and girls eagerly presented themselves to the Communist Universities in Irkutsk, Tomsk and many other cities, and the success was so astounding that a lot of candidates had to be turned down because there were simply too much.
The economic side was focussed on collectivisation. This was naturally part of the master plan to mine the natural treasures of Siberia and Yakutia. A reformist wave was born amongst Lamaists.


Khambo Agvan-Lovsan Dorzhiev

Between 20 and 25 january 1927 in Moscow the “Pan-Russian-Buddhist Conference of Representatives of Lamaist Reformist Monks” took place. Earlier in Astrakhan a meeting of Kalmykian monks had taken place where the Buryat Khambo-lama Agvan Dorzhiev (the deputy of the Tibetan Dalai Lama) declared to fully subscribe to the communist doctrine. Buddhism meant according to him enlightenment from darkness and ignorance, and leads towards the highest form of intellectual development, and partly to the development of intellectual culture.

According to him, the West had preached individualism, but instead introduced capitalism, imperialism and extortion. Marx and Lenin therein against had achieved justice and fraternity.

Buryat lama Agvan Dorzhiev argued in his Autobiography that Buddhism was fully compatible with “this newly established system of communism,” stressing that both were based on compassion, insisting on helping the poor and establishing basic justice. He also vehemently condemned corruption in both systems, explaining it by the fact that monks have abandoned the teaching of the Buddha, just as Bolsheviks corrupted the “good” Lenin’s teaching.

Dorzhiev, Agvan. 1994 [1921]. “Predanie o krugosvetnom puteshestvii” ili povestvovanie o zhizni Agvana Dorzhieva. Ulan Ude: Olzon, pp. 31-35.

Russian diplomat and Orientalist Prince Esper Esperovich Ukhtomskij argued that Buryats were strategically crucial to Russian foreign policy in Asia:

Trans-Baikalia is the key to the heart of Asia, the vanguard of Russian civilization on the frontier of the “Yellow Orient.”

Due to Ukhtomskij’s efforts, two ethnic Buryats became especially influential in St. Petersburg: Avgan Dorzhiev and Piotr Aleksandrovich Badmaev, a doctor of Tibetan medicine who had access to the Romanov court. Agvan Dorzhiev, the aforementioned Buryat lama who became prominent as the advisor and teacher of the 13th Dalai Lama and an intermediary between the Russian court and Tibet.

doctor Piotr Aleksandrovich Badmaev

doctor Piotr Aleksandrovich Badmaev

Князь Эспер Эсперович У́хтомский (prince Ester Esterovich Uchtomskij)

Князь Эспер Эсперович У́хтомский (prince Ester Esterovich Uchtomskij)

Badmaev, a fashionable “Eastern” doctor at the time when occult beliefs were very much in vogue with the Russian aristocracy, had become influential in the tsar’s thinking on Eastern policy, convincing Nicolas II in the possibility to detach Mongolia and Tibet from China.

His plans included building an extension to the Trans-Siberian Railway to connect Buryat regions around Lake Baikal to the Chinese city of Lanzhou across the Gobi desert, where thousands of Buryat fifth columnists would descend to agitate their fellow Buddhists for the creation of the pan-Buddhist confederacy under the “White Tsar.”

see Badmaev, P.A. 1925. Za kulisami tsarizma: arkhiv Tibetskogo vracha Badmaeva. Leningrad: Gos. izd-vo. “Peter the Great opened a window on Europe, and Petersburg became the symbol of Russian might. … [Now you] have opened a window on the Chinese East.”

From the memorandum to Nicolas II written by Badmaev in 1900 quoted in D. Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, Towards the Rising Sun, p 200.

Although Badmaev’s eccentric projects have soon failed and were eventually revealed as a fraud by serious politicians, he was crucial for the development of Russian Buddhology in that he sponsored two Buryat students, Gombozhab Tsybikov and Banzar Baradjin, to come to St. Petersburg to study under Russia’s three internationally renowned Buddhologists: A. M. Pozdneev, S. F. Ol’denburg and F. I. Shcherbatskoy. Both Buryat scholars undertook several successful years-long field expeditions to Tibet disguised as Buddhist pilgrims, bringing back extensive fieldnotes, maps, and some of the first photographs of Tibet.


Gombozhab Tsybikov is sometimes called “Buryat Lomonosov,” for he came from a poor nomadic Buryat family, whose father decided to educate his younger son.

He graduated from the Khita gimnazija and later went on to study medicine at Tomsk University. Badmaev, who happened to pass by Tomsk, met Tsybikov there and convinced him to quit medicine and come to St Petersburg to major in Oriental studies and diplomacy, promising him financial help and essentially recruiting him for his future schemes.

When Tsybikov refused to convert to Christianity, however, Badmaev discontinued his stipend, and Tsybikov continued his education with the support from home in Buryatia.

After he graduated from St Petersburg University’s Faculty of Oriental Languages, Tsybikov spend a year doing field research on land management in Transbaikalia, after which his supervisor Pozdneev recommended him to the Russian Geographical Society, which sponsored his expedition to Tibet.

The situation today [2010]:

While there exist a small number of so-called “Westernizers” in Buryatia — many being the product of the Soviet education and general trend towards Russification — during the post-Soviet period, most Buryats favor their own version of “Asianism,” promoting their Asian heritage as a source of pride. [analogous to so-called “Slavophilia” movement]

Here we can trace the distinctions between the more extreme “Asianist” view (expressed by views such as the former Khambo lama Aleksandr Nimbuevich Budaev’s, which claim the derivative nature of Buryat Buddhism) while Khambo lama Damba Badmayevich Ayusheev’s point of view could be considered a moderate version of “Asian Eurasianism” or “Eurasianism from the Asian point of view” in the sense that in separating Buryats from their Tibetan and Mongolian heritage, he inevitably links them to Russia.

In fact, orientation to Russia (“West”) vs. Mongolia/Tibet (“East) was the defining factor in the reformist/conservative split in Buryat Buddhism after the Revolution of 1917.

The reformist movement or “progressives” led by Buryat intellectuals, such as Tsybikov and Baradjin, advocated separation of church and state, opening secular schools at monasteries, stressing the importance of harmonizing European science with traditional Mongol ways whilst the  conservative platform was mostly based on opposition to these reforms.

What united them was that both were pan-Mongolian nationalists: despite the reformists’ seeming orientation to the “West,” they were working for the greater Mongolian state, seeing Buryats as a cultural avant-garde among the Mongols, with a special mission to combine the best in European/Russian and Mongolian culture.

A version of pan-Mongolism was Pan-Buddhism in which Tibet was to be included in the Mongolian areas to be brought under unified control with the aforementioned Khambo Agvan-Lobsan Dorzhiev as its principal advocate.

All three of them — Tsybikov, Baradjin, and Dorzhiev — tried to collaborate with the Soviet government, but eventually all were blamed for advocating “bourgeois nationalism.” Tsybikov managed to die a natural death in 1930, while Baradjin was shot in 1937, and Dorzhiev died in a prison hospital in 1937 after being convicted for treason and counter-revolutionary activity.

source: Sunthar  V., “Chindia, Russia, Europe: the peaceful rise of Eurasia

There is a documentary produced by RT on the Kalmyk Republic and their variant of Buddhism called Russian Tibet. The description: Kalmykia is a steppe region in the south of European Russia and the only European Buddhist republic. An international Buddhist festival is going to take place in a temple in the Kalmykia’s capital, Elista. Monks are preparing a sand mandala. It is a palace that may serve a temporary abode for an enlightened deity. Colored marble sand is applied to the canvas through a cone-shaped tube.

Further reading:

“The White Tsar”: Romantic Imperialism in Russia’s legitimizing of Conquering the Far East
Marlène Laruelle
ACTA SLAVICA IAPONICA, TOMUS 25, pp 113-134 (2008) [PDF]



The tsarist regime wasn’t exactly philosemitic, to put it lightly. The public opinion wasn’t very positive towards the Jews either, the Russian pogroms leave no shadow of a doubt. “You are poor because the Jews took everything from you” was a sentence that was often heard.

This antisemitism also had a religious aspect, as the Jews were accused of having crucified Christ.

The pressure on the Jews grew along side with the danger of an emerging revolution.
The October-revolution gave the Jews freedom and equality. The highest ranks in the new government were taken by Jews: Leon Trotsky, Adolf Ioffe, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Karl Radek, etc… The Soviet leadership has favoured the Jews, but amongst the proletarian masses, although it may have softened somewhat in its intensity, antisemitism remained as alive as always in Russia.

Just because of the fact that there were so many Jews amongst the bolshevist leadership, during the Civil War, this gave the Whites, who wanted the tsar back, an idea for a new battle cry: “For the defense of Christians!

ЧК – чрезвыча́йная коми́ссия

ЧК – чрезвыча́йная коми́ссия

All lynching-parties, all horrors and cruelties from the civil war, especially those by the hands of the Cheka (predecessor of NKVD/KGB/FSB), were claimed to be the work of the Jews.

In spite of official resistance, antisemitism became common in broad communist party circles, so that in 1924 the Jews were removed from the main Soviet offices. Trotsky was banished from the USSR. In 1928-1929 the worst pogroms took place, and again the cry was heard: “the Jews are the cause of our fall!“.

The accusations against the Jews are mostly the following:

1. They avoid physical labour and prefer trade.
2. On prooflists of workers there are no Jewish names to be found.
3. The seditious wealth of Jewish N.E.P.-men.
4. The large number of Jews in institutes for higher education.
5. They try to evade military service.
6. The strong influx of Jews in Moscow.

source: Sandomirski, Puti antisemitisma v Rossij (The Ways of Antisemitism in Russia), Moscow 1928, p 34

(note the one-eyed Jehova)


The official Soviet-interpretation of antisemitism states:

“The pan-Slavism of the Orthodox Christians, the Zionism of the Jews, and the antisemitism of the Muslims: they all lead, despite the outward and verbal differences, to the flare of flames of national animosity and chauvinism, and all these have a destructive effect on the Revolutionary Movement.”

source: dlya rabotshich antirelig. krushkov (Manual for Workers of Antireligious Circles), Leningrad 1931, p 383

The Soviet-régime is hostile towards Zionism because it considers it a bourgeois-political movement with religious foundations, that does not accept class war.

The government tries to retain Jewish workers who want to move to Palestine, with claims that the situation in Palestine is terrible, partly due to British imperialism and the Jewish fanaticism of the rabbis who will exploit and suppress the Jewish worker.
Furthermore it is claimed that the rabbis exploit and dumb down the people and that they are the same like all other religious ministers: they are friends with the rich and exploit the poor.
The magazine De Apikoires (Yiddish for “The Unbeliever”) 1931, volume IX, p 59 report a huge success for the “Godless” in the city of Kremenchug near the Dniepr (Ukraine), where half of the city’s population was Jewish (about 40000), and over the city were spread 37 synagogues.

A large part of the Jewish factoryworkers voted in favor of closing the main synagogue.

The Young Pioneers had been mobilized to track down secret Jewish schools (Cheder) and trace and expose the children that attend them.

an early 20th century Cheder in Samarqand (Uzbekistan)

an early 20th century Cheder in Samarqand (Uzbekistan)

The Mikves (Jewish bathrooms with separate compartments for women on their monthly period) were contested under the guise of public healthcare, as both the sick and the healthy use the same water, which pose a possible source of pathogenic contamination.

Rabbi: “Purify your heart!” Bourgeois: “…so I can better purify your pockets at the same time.”


sources: Besboshnik u Stanka 1925, VIII, p6 ; Berg, “Wat zegt Rusland?” p 136


About Olivier Corveleyn

I'm a 35 years old biochemist from Belgium with a particular interest in Russian culture, history and politics, and general slavic culture and history. This blog is intended to put the Russian Godless Movement and its main media outlet, the journal безбожник, bezbozhnik (godless) and several others in its wake which existed during the interbellum period, in an objective historical perspective. Currently I must use mostly secondary sources as the journals are difficult to locate. The blog is a work-in-progress which I mostly put together during the little free time I have. I'll try to make it not too chaotic and keep it more or less structured. Also, English is not my first language, so forgive me any grammar and spelling mistakes in advance.
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