Islam And the Bolshevik Revolution

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Muslim fighters from Tatarstan join the Bolshevik Red Army in 1918. — File photo

Mir Said Sultan Galiev became the architect of ‘Muslim national communism’.

Ahmed Rashid

IMAGINE if Vladimir Lenin had enlisted Muslim comrades to the Bolshevik party’s Central Committee during the 1917 Russian Revolution, how different the history of the Soviet Union and even the world might have turned out. Today, Muslims may still have been arguing about the pros and cons of Marxism in all its hues rather than debating extremist interpretations of jihad and Shariah.

In fact, there was an immensely popular and charismatic ‘Muslim communist’, who for a short time became a member of the Soviet Communist Party and was revered by Lenin before being purged and executed by Stalin. Mir Said Sultan Galiev (1882-1940) advocated setting up an independent Muslim Communist Party and a Muslim Red Army to fight the European-backed White armies and thereby secure the revolution.

Galiev was the son of an impoverished Tartar schoolmaster born in a village near Kazan, today the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. Galiev grew up poor. His father was incapable of feeding his 12 children. Nevertheless Galiev was already well read in Tartar, Russian and Arabic when he entered the teachers training school in Kazan.

By the time he graduated in 1911, he was reading revolutionary texts. He worked as a journalist and took part in Muslim nationalist politics. In 1917, he became a leading member of the Muslim Socialist Committee for Kazan and joined the Bolsheviks. He swiftly became the highest-ranking Muslim in its hierarchy, occupying several top posts.

Mir Said Sultan Galiev (1882-1940)

Lenin appointed him to the Central Muslim Commissariat and chairman of the Military Collegium. In 1918 Galiev organised the defence of Kazan against the advancing White armies and recruited Muslims to the cause of the revolution. Lenin and Stalin frequently sent him to eastern battle fronts in order to raise the morale of Muslim divisions in the Red Army. All his life he remained immensely popular among Muslim and Russian communists.

Galiev became the architect of ‘Muslim national communism’. He advocated that the only guarantee against greater Russian chauvinism in the Bolshevik Communist Party was the creation of a separate Muslim communist party. He argued with Lenin that in the East (Asia), the nationalist struggle must supersede the class struggle because all Muslim colonised peoples were proletarians as all had been oppressed by European or tsarist colonialism.

Galiev’s demands for greater decentralisation and democracy within the Communist Party and greater sensitivity to Islam could have changed the attitude of millions of Muslims to the revolution, especially in Central Asia.

Lenin insisted on Marx’s thesis that the world revolution could only be won with the support of the European proletariat, and the backward masses of the Muslim world were secondary. Galiev believed in reversing the order, stating that the revolution in the East would come first and undermine capitalism in the West making revolution possible there. While Lenin tolerated Galiev, Stalin did not.

Galiev’s most cogent idea was for a separate ‘Muslim Red Army’, which would be recruited on a populist leftist ideology rather than communism. The army would be sensitive to Islamic traditions and so galvanise the majority of Muslims to fight for the revolution. Even though Galiev was an atheist himself, he believed that Marxism and Islam could coexist, insisting that the CP use gradualism to educate the Muslim masses and slowly win them over to communism.

By 1923, with Lenin seriously ill, Stalin accused Galiev of treason and conspiracy. Galiev was removed from the party and arrested, as were all communists who believed in ‘Sultan-Galievism’. He was freed briefly in 1924 and then rearrested in 1928 and sentenced to death for ‘nationalist deviation’. He was finally shot on Jan 28, 1940. Much of his written work, speeches and essays were destroyed.

Galiev’s demands for greater decentralisation and democracy within the Communist Party and greater sensitivity to Islam could have changed the attitude of millions of Muslims to the revolution, especially in Central Asia.

Significantly, Galiev’s ideas about initially implementing a populist rather than a communist armed struggle were later taken up by Mao Zedong in China especially during the famous Long March and Ho Chi Min in Vietnam.

Galiev remains a little known figure even today. On my frequent journeys to Central Asia since 1988, I have told Galiev’s story to rapt Central Asian audiences who barely knew his name.

As Galiev had warned, the communist failure in winning over the Muslims of Central Asia led to fierce anti-Soviet resistance which continued until the 1930s as a jihad. Jihadist movements led by Muslim tribal chiefs, mullahs, landlords and intellectuals sprang up in all the regions we know today as the separate states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

In 1916, the whole of Central Asia had risen in revolt against the tsar’s attempts at forced recruitment into the Russian armies fighting the First World War. Terrible reprisals were carried out against the population. The civil war after 1917 and the 1923 famine bled the people further. Millions more were killed as a result of the forced collectivisation of nomads and farmers in the 1930s.

The Fergana valley was the heart of the anti-Soviet insurgency by the jihadis or, as the Russians called them derogatively Basmachis, meaning bandits. Within a year the whole of Central Asia was aflame. A local Uzbek chief massacred Soviet troops in 1918, sparking the flame of revolt in Uzbekistan. In Tajikistan a landlord Igash Beg mobilised 20,000 fighters and fighting continued until 1931 when he was executed by the Red Army.

Between 1917-1920 the Kazakh nomads set up their own nationalist government called Alash Orda led by Ali Khan Bukeykanov, a prince and descendent of Genghis Khan. Scholars estimate that the Kazakhs lost 1.5 million people or one-third of their population between 1917 and 1930. In the deserts of Turkmenistan, the resistance by the Turkmen nomadic tribal cavalry was led by the charismatic Mohammed Qurban Junaid Khan, a wealthy landlord, who led his last charge against the Red Army aged 70 in 1927.

The depopulation of Central Asia may have been avoided if Lenin and Stalin had listened to Galiev — that millions of Muslims appreciated the end of tsarist oppression and supported the Bolshevik message of ‘peace, bread and land’. However, they could not support an inflexible Marxist ideology that prevented them from being Muslim.

In the decades to come, revolutionary leaders from Mao to Fidel Castro became much more flexible about how to interpret Marxism. The success of every revolutionary movement depended on interpretation and innovation not dogged dogma.

Sultan Galiev was a heroic figure before his time.

(This essay, taken from Dawn,  is based on the writer’s 1994 book The Resurgence of Central Asia, Islam or Nationalism which has been republished as a classic by the New York Review of Books.)

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