by Allen Frank, Takoma Park, Maryland

The book Kazakh Muslims in the Red Army, 1939-1945 (Brill forthcoming, June 2022) builds upon a growing literature on Soviet Muslims in the Second World War. The monograph explores the wartime experience of Kazakhs, both at the front and behind the lines who were mobilized as soldiers and workers to support the Soviet war effort. It is based on a Kazakh literary genre known as the “letter-poem,” which was a verse composition sent to family members and soldiers. The origins of the genre are unclear. It may be derived from similar wartime poems, known as bayts, that circulated among Tatars and Bashkirs serving in the Tsarist army in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first modern Kazakh-language wartime poem was written by a Tatar during the Russo-Japanese War. However, Kazakhs began composing similar works following their conscription into the Russian Army in 1916 and 1917. During WWII Kazakhs found themselves conscripted in the Soviet Army; they began composing these works and sending them home. In Kazakh communities these poems were commonly put to music and sung, usually by women, where they could circulate beyond narrow family circles. In this regard, they were at once public and private documents, and especially as oral documents, were largely outside of the view of official censorship. As contemporaneous sources, the poems contain a remarkable range of information about wartime experiences and Kazakh social history. They constitute an indigenous literary genre, and hence contain many religious and literary features specific to Kazakh oral literature. The tell us about the experience of conscription and warfare, being wounded and recovering, being a Kazakh and a Muslim in the Red Army, the meaning of kinship in the context of mobilization, and political evaluations of the Soviet government and of the fascist enemy, and the expression of Kazakh, Soviet, and Islamic patriotism.

Of course, an enormous quantity of patriotic poetry was being published during the years in Kazakh newspapers and journals. Frequently these officially sanctioned poems copied the characteristics and structure of the letter poems. The main distinguishing feature was that letter poems circulated as manuscripts and orally, and revealed religious, Islamic, elements. Despite the relaxation of anti-religious measures and persecution during the war years, officially sanctioned and published poetry, on the other hand, was completely secular. In this way, Kazakh letter-poems are especially useful, since they allow us insights into Kazakh religious expression that are otherwise unavailable in official documents or published literary sources.

Kazakh letter poems also enable us to consider some paradoxes in Soviet Muslim social history. For Kazakhs, the war was just the latest in a series of social catastrophes that they had endured collectively. While the period from 1916 to 1921 had seen violently suppressed rebellion, wartime conscription, localized famine, and civil war, the period from 1928 to 1939 has seen a calamities upon calamities, including collectivization, sedentarization, violent rebellion, and one of the worst famines anywhere in the 20th century resulting in the deaths up to 1.75 million Kazakhs. Whether or not the famine was a planned act of genocide, Soviet policy in the late 20s and early 30s violently transformed Kazakh society above all by targeting Kazakh “patriarchal-feudal survivals and customs.” Soviet officials targeted the very institution of lineage kinship by resettling Kazakhs in collective farms and undermining kinship solidarity. We can also add to this lamentable list the uprooting of Kazakh religious institutions, particularly the ulama, and the closing of mosques and madrasas.

The letter poems show us that it was precisely these formerly targeted features of Kazakh social life, kinship, and religious bonds within and between lineages, that Kazakh soldiers and their families mobilized so support one another, and by extension, the Soviet war effort. In the poems we see frequent invocations of kinship solidarity expressed in a variety of ways, including through aspects of Sufism, such as local shrines, and above all ancestral spirits who are commonly invoked in battle. Beyond kinship, we see regular reflections on Islamic philosophical conceptions such as fate, judgment, forbearance, and deprecation of “this world,” all philosophical concepts that contradicted the officially sanctioned foundations of Marxist humanism and historical materialism.

The letter poems reveal that the Kazakh’ wartime mobilization enabled them in some respects to reassert, albeit in somewhat altered forms, the features that Stalinism targeted in the 20s and 30s, but that were crucial to Kazakhs reasserting their collective kinship and religious bonds and expressing them among themselves. Similarly, the exigencies of mobilization compelled the Soviet authorities to abandon their violent assaults on Kazakh society and reach a sort of compromise. Just as my previous book, Gulag Miracles, showed how in their hagiographies Kazakh sacred lineages remembered the repression of the 1930s as both an era of the Sovietization of the sacred lineages, and of the Islamization of the Soviet system by the lineages, whose historical role in Kazakh society was Islamization broadly conceived. The letter poems show this same process underway, particularly among Kazakh conscripts at the front who, among other things, mobilized their ancestral spirits, Islamic philosophy and ethics, and Kazakh kinship solidarity to better wage war against the fascist invader.

This paradoxical aspect of mobilization is perhaps most evident in the varieties of patriotism expressed in the letter poems (a variety that is largely reduced in published works to standard expressions of secular Soviet patriotism). In the letters, we find, of course, expressions of Soviet and Kazakh patriotism. In contrast, we do not see any instances of Russian patriotism, suggesting that Kazakhs did not consider themselves part of Russia, something that is also evident in some Tsarist and Soviet shari’a debates among Kazakh nomads. We do, however, find regular invocations of ancestral heroes, including those who fought the Russians in the 19th centuries, as well as invocations of Islamic warrior heroes, such as the Caliph ‘Ali.

These sources from the Second World War should encourage to recognize Islam among Soviet citizens beyond the standard metrics of mosques, madrasas, imams, and opinion surveys measuring religiosity of the basis of religious propositions outside of the social contexts that gave them meaning. The letter poems reveal how Soviet Muslims, in the case, Kazakhs, relied and deployed on the very targets of Soviet social and cultural revolution to help them maintain solidarity in the face of mobilization and war, and defeat their foe.

More broadly, the book will encourage historians examining the social history of Soviet Muslims to look beyond state archives and native language propaganda texts to uncover wartime compositional genres of Soviet Muslims. In his recent monograph God Save the USSR: Soviet Muslims and the Second World War (Oxford University Press, 2021) Jeff Eden uncovered a wide range of published works composed among Daghestanis, Tatars, Bashkirs and others. In the case of the Kazakhs, much of this material was collected during the Soviet era, but remained unpublished. Without a doubt private archives, literary collections, museums and conservatories in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Russia will provide a wealth of new sources and compositional genres that researchers possessing the requisite language skills will be able to make use of and deepen our knowledge not only of Muslim social and religious history, but of the Soviet wartime experiences as a whole.