by Eren Tasar, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Mehmet Volkan Kasicki observes in an insightful review article that: “In contemporary scholarship, we are usually stuck with two separate histories of Soviet Central Asia. On the one hand, we have a history of violence and repression in which collectivization, anti-Islamic destruction, and the Terror occupy a central place. On the other hand, we have a history of social and cultural development in which Central Asian intellectuals, politicians, artists, or women activists create a new culture and society in which violence and repression are rarely taken into account.” Kasikci credits Allen Frank’s recent book, Gulag Miracles, among several others on wartime Kazakhstan, with helping the field move beyond a “duality” that “significantly limits our understanding of the Soviet experiment in Central Asia.”[i] The duality, however, is not all that it seems; it is the product of a historiographical distortion. Scholars of Islam in the USSR, and especially of Late Socialism, face persistent misconceptions and misunderstandings concerning their work: that a real engagement with religious life under communism must entail minimizing the impact of Soviet antireligious violence, ignoring the pervasiveness of Soviet restrictions on Islam, and privileging an ostensibly unbroken continuity with the pre-Soviet period at the expense of change. It is a specious binary and one which has left at least some colleagues in Europe, Japan, and the former USSR scratching their heads. Why, after all, should one entail the other? But it should come as no surprise to scholars studying Russian and Soviet history in America, the birthplace of Sovietology.

Isabella Jane Blagden famously wrote that: “‘If a lie is only printed often enough, it becomes a quasi-truth, and if such a truth is repeated often enough, it becomes an article of belief, a dogma, and men will die for it.”[ii] The claim that levels of religiosity, and Islamic practice, were comically low in the USSR, was made so frequently by urban intellectuals in Soviet Central Asia, and the Western Sovietologists following their work, that it acquired an élan of empirical truth, despite the fact that not a shred of research has ever been presented to sustain such a generalization. It is worth asking out loud: How would one actually prove that levels of religiosity in a single community, let alone an entire world religion, were low, or high? The belief (concerning the Soviet era) persists among Central Asia’s urban intellectuals, some of whom even point to the poverty of “their” Islam as a source of pride. Devin DeWeese has recently noted that Sovietology’s employment of arbitrary metrics concerning observance, belief and ritual led to the construction of the myth of an impoverished or minimalist Islam that survived the ravages of communist persecution.[iii] He has also pointed out that the tenacity of these metrics in Central Asian Studies flies in the face of the academic study of religion, which dispensed with them about half a century ago. The fiction of “poverty” was not just a product of faulty metrics, however: it resulted from a basic absence of imagination. The rare Sovietologists who actually made it to Bukhara or Samarqand in the late 1960s drew attention to the absence of public displays of Muslim religiosity, but never bothered to ask how their observations might compare with the state of affairs in, say, the more posh parts of Ankara, Cairo, Islamabad, Kuala Lumpur or Tehran (or, for that matter, downtown back home). Nor did Sovietologists’ inability to spend significant time in the rural areas where the majority of Central Asian population lived, discourage them from prognosticating about the Soviets’ successful destruction of Islamic ritual, knowledge, and personnel, the greater role taken on by women to fill in this supposed void, etc. In the end, the myth of poverty has in a sense become a reality: scholars arguing against it get cast, at least in some quarters, as pedants (or worse) no matter how many truckloads of evidence they park at the table.

What many people studying modern Central Asia don’t realize is that it’s all happened before. Social history now comprises a foundation of the historiography of the Soviet Union. Most scholars appreciate the ways in which the traditional social historical focus on practices and data has transformed our understanding of Soviet society. This is especially the case with recent scholarship focusing on the Brezhnev era. It’s easy to forget that the historians who made it possible in the 1980s and 1990s, scholars such as Sheila Fitzpatrick, Diane Koenker, Donald J. Raleigh, Alexander Rabinowitch, William Rosenberg, Ronald Suny, and others faced the harshest possible criticism of their work, criticism that bears at least some comparison to the broadsides leveled at scholars of Soviet Islam right now. The birth pangs of the social history of the USSR thirty years ago were certainly nastier, as some of the scholars in question faced ad hominem attacks in the right-wing press, and even threats to their careers.[iv] Their courage, and above all their unflagging commitment to following their sources, is one of the reasons that the study of religion in the Soviet Union is even possible today.

The central figure in the dispute was Richard Pipes. Pipes was one of the great historians of modern Russia, but one whose emotions got the better of him when it came to the study of Soviet society. He served as a spokesperson for a constellation of American academic, official and public figures who viewed the USSR as rigidly totalitarian and destructive. Their inflexible posture toward Soviet history certainly stemmed in part from dismay at the leftward turn of American academia from the Vietnam era onward. Pipes’s attacks on social historical scholarship were wide-ranging and polemical, appearing in an array of scholarly and public venues. But perhaps the most succinct, and most widely read, iteration of his objections to the cohort he termed “the revisionists” appeared in the Spring 1993 edition of a conservative American publication, The National Interest. “1917 and the Revisionists” stands out not only as a virtuosic exercise in dissimulation, wildly misrepresenting, as it does, the arguments of the authors it targets. It could also be read as a kind of précis of the totalitarian framing of Soviet life.

The revisionists, like the Communist historians, assign the leading role in the events of October to industrial workers. They and their doctoral students turn out, year in, year out, weighty monographs laden with tables and footnotes, on the workers of Petrograd, the workers of Moscow, factory committees, industrial strikes, worker Red Guards, and such like. The heroes of these studies, however, never come to life: the reader has the impression that the authors have never met a real, flesh and blood, factory worker. They appear as pallid abstractions, like the noble savages of eighteenth-century philosophes, and, like them, unexceptionally noble. The revisionists seem to assume a very unfair distribution of virtue among the classes, with all goodness concentrated in the working class.[v]

Without ever addressing the arguments of his detractors, let alone attempting to accurately reproduce them, Pipes dismisses the bread and butter of what social historians – and, one might like to think, all historians – seek to do: compile a critical mass of data, uncover new sources, revisit established sources with a fresh eye, interpret both, and, in the end, ask new questions so that scholarship can develop. Pipes is having none of it. The revisionists’ work is tainted by a rosy-eyed worldview that sanctifies the proletariat. Superficial rhetorical parallels between social historical scholarship in the West and official Communist history writing become, in Pipes’s hands, a means of equating the two, and discrediting the former. Most importantly, Pipes views social history as illegitimate because it reifies, or essentializes, the working class, as a progressive force, a reservoir of virtue. From this perspective, it becomes clear why reams of data and evidence leave him unmoved. For Pipes, the development of a social history of Soviet society isan intellectually and ethically bankrupt exercise.

Key to the framing of social history as an essentialization of the proletarian will is the notion that historians have lavished the working class with attention it doesn’t merit. This is a core theme running through much of Pipes’s commentary on the labor movement in the dying days of the Russian Empire. Ignoring the virtually infinite quantity of evidence to the contrary, Pipes maintains that the Russian Revolution was a top-down affair featuring little popular input. The workers who did participate had merely been hoodwinked. (One finds a similar argument deployed to explain other popular revolutions, such as the one in Iran in 1979.) Thus:

A characteristic feature of the revisionists’ methodology is concentration on a small, select number of topics which, in the judgment of its adherents, serve to prove their theses. They deliberately ignore a whole range of subjects which to contemporaries, if one is to judge by memoirs and the daily press of the period, constituted the very essence of the Revolution.

This succinct broadside contains two powerful assumptions. The first has to do with alleged bias: If you look for something long enough, Pipes suggests, you will find it. Social historians wanted to find signs of popular participation in the Russian Revolution, and, sure enough, they did. The fact that they found it in droves is, to Pipes, irrelevant. It is incompatible with his understanding of the USSR as a totalitarian, anti-popular, and inherently unstable political construct. 

The second assumption Pipes makes is more important. One of the great contributions of early social historical writing on the USSR was to gather a critical mass of data that could be used to assess the validity of other, more established bodies of sources. The social historians revolutionized our understanding not only of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, but also the Civil War, Cultural Revolution, and Terror, by introducing alternative, empirically grounded perspectives, from large parts of the Soviet population that had not before been subject to historical scrutiny. Here, once again, Pipes delegitimizes this effort, suggesting that certain “benchmark” sources (in this case, memoirs and the official press) should constitute a sort of standard against which newer sources should be measured.

Most scholars would raise their eyebrows at such a claim. It is generally accepted that historians are not in the business of valorizing, or invalidating, entire genres of sources. These genres, even if they are produced at the same time, tell us different things, and this dissonance, far from being cause for concern, should be one for celebration, as interpreting and explaining these dissonances is perhaps the main thing that gives us historians something interesting to do.[vi] Thus, when DeWeese, in his magisterial essay “It was a Dark and Stagnant Night,” explored the ramifications of Jadidocentrism for scholarship on Central Asian history, he was not, as some have suggested, trying to delegitimize the writings of Jadids, or declaring that historians should banish them to the dustbin.[vii] The essay had a different purpose: to explain the complex reasons that half a century of scholarship on Tsarist and early Soviet Central Asia accepted the writings and views of a small group of intellectuals as a sufficient basis for studying the region’s intellectual, political, religious and social history.

If, for Pipes, totalitarianism, oppressive violence, and illegitimacy were the pillars of the Soviet system, then antireligious persecution was the defining feature of Islam for Sovietologists writing about Muslims. Indeed, many historians today assume that such a persecution was a perennial feature of Soviet life until perestroika. Party declarations, or statements by high officials, criticizing Islam are taken as proof of the existence of antireligious campaigns in eras as disparate as the 1940s and 1980s, long after the state had stopped caring about religion.[viii] Accounts by Muslims who lived in the Soviet era of praying in illegal mosques, or studying in underground study circles, are assumed to demonstrate all-encompassing religious repression, even though illegal mosques and underground circles were a ubiquitous feature of spiritual life in many authoritarian Muslim countries from the 1950s onward. My point is not that the Central Asian experience was identical to that in Egypt, Iran, or Jordan; my point, rather, is that no one made the comparison, and to ask what its ramifications might be for our understanding of the USSR as a religious space. A static abstraction of Soviet antireligious persecution is only one of the “benchmarks” that scholars of Soviet Islam have to invest time into confronting, time that would be better spent with the sources.

The labor of the “revisionists” from the 1960s to the 1990s made it possible to view the Soviet space as a productive one, even in the midst of terror, repression, and a progressively stultifying ideology. They introduced gender, class, region, language, and nationality as core elements of the study of Soviet history, replacing the vision of a top-down, static society with that of a dynamic one. Old habits may die hard, but scholars familiar with the academic study of religion can build on an inspiring foundation as they seek to weave religion and spirituality into the fabric of Soviet history.

[i] M. V. Kasikci, “Living under Stalin’s Rule in Kazakhstan.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History (23:4): 906. A. Frank, Gulag Miracles: Sufis and Stalinist Repression in Kazakhstan (Vienna, 2019).

[ii] I. J. Blagden, The Crown of a Life (Oxford, 1869): 155.

[iii] D. DeWeese, “The Soviet Union in Islamic Studies.” In R. Sela, P. Sartori, D. DeWeese, eds, Muslim Religious Authority in Central Eurasia (Leiden, 2022): 17-68.

[iv] S. Fitzpatrick, “Revisionism in Retrospect: A Personal View.” Slavic Review, 67:3 (Fall 2008): 682-704.

[v] R. Pipes, “1917 and the Revisionists.” The National Interest (Spring 1993): 74-75.

[vi] On the question of sources, it is worth pointing out that Sovietologists unwittingly confirmed the existence of a rich spiritual life in Central Asia, simply by regurgitating the arguments they encountered in their preferred media: official decrees, newspapers, and Russian-language ethnographic studies available in the West. This is not the task of the current scholarship on Soviet Islam; Sovietology accomplished it long ago. Historians working on the subject right now are in the midst of a more ambitious endeavor: reading and assessing the significance of new genres of source material being uncovered with each passing year. This source base’s expanding inventory includes official archival collections, biographical and hagiographical materials produced by and about Soviet Islamic scholars, the internal archives of the muftiates (including letters and petitions sent from Soviet citizens), poetry, and a diverse and massive body of atheistic literature written by scholars and propagandists in Turkic languages and Tajik.

[vii] The possibilities created by a sensitive reading of Jadid figures and their writings in the hands of a skilled historian familiar with the academic study of religion are on full display in a recent contribution. T. Welsford, “Becoming Behbudiy.” Journal of Central Asian History, 1(10), 2022: 37-99.

[viii] In this case, it is not so much unfamiliarity with developments in the academic study of religion that leads scholars to imagine persecution in settings that do not merit the name, but rather a basic ignorance about how the CPSU implemented social and religious policy after Stalin. For example, any discussion of Islam in the 1980s that cited antireligious Party communiques would not be complete without acknowledging the essential meaninglessness of many Party decrees on non-technical, military or economic matters under Brezhnev