Muslim fighters from Tatarstan join the Bolshevik Red Army in 1918. Source: Dawn Muslim fighters from Tatarstan join the Bolshevik Red Army in 1918. Source: Dawn

The young Soviet Union took measures which were radical in giving power to indigenous people, including the Muslim peoples of Central Asia

In November 1917 the new Soviet Republic covered huge swathes of the old Czarist Empire. Some 10 percent of the population were Muslims, 16 million people, mainly not not all in Central Asia.

They had been conquered, their lands seized, their language and culture suppressed and excluded from governing. Indeed they were colonised in the same way that the Western powers went about their bloody business in Africa and Asia with the indigenous population of Central Asia treated exactly the same.

But they had contributed in no small way to the disintegration of Czarism when in the summer of 1916 there was a popular uprising in that region against the introduction of conscription. Some 2,500 Russian colonists were killed and, in the suppression of the rebellion, Russian forces butchered over 80,000 people.


Little surprise that news of the overthrow of the Czar with the February Revolution of 1919 brought joy to his former Muslim subjects.

It also led them to begin formulating their own demands, particularly religious freedom and national self-determination.

Muslim congresses were held in Kazan and Moscow, where 1000 delegates, 200 of whom were women, voted for the abolition of largescale private ownership of the land, the confiscation of large estates an eight hour day, plus political rights for women.

This reflected the fact that at the close of the 19th century a radical Islamic current had emerged, the usul-I jaded (Jaddists), which translated as “new method” – which championed a return to pure Islam with a strong stress on the centrality of education.

That meant they looked to technological and scientific advance. They became increasingly anti-colonial, wanting to see Britain driven from India and an end to European domination.

In the turmoil unleashed on Czarist Russia by the First World War they grew more radical and a section of them, though not all, welcomed the October 1917 Revolution with its promise of religious and national freedom.

The right to self-determination

This promise was no new position for the Bolsheviks. Even before they emerged as a separate current the 1903 congress of the unified Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) had voted to support the right of all nations within the Russian Empire to self-determination.

That meant concretely the majority population had the right to rule, to rule and to be educated using their own language. Self-determination was no abstraction.

This position was upheld and developed by Lenin in the following years.

Accordingly, one week after the insurrection in St Petersburg, the new Soviet authority passed and published a decree promising the “equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia” and the right of self-determination up to and including independence.

In the west, the Baltic States, Poland and Finland declared independence, something the Bolsheviks recognised, despite the new states being hostile to them and moving quickly to brutally crush the revolutionary forces.


The majority of the nations within the old Czarist Empire decided to join the new federation, the Soviet Union. Once more self-determination for the Bolsheviks was not abstract but decreed that these regions had the right to run their own affairs using the majority language, to create schools, courts of justice and other institutions on the same basis.

Sharia was recognised as part of the new Soviet legal system.

An early Soviet appeal promised Muslim workers and peasants that:

“Henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are declared free and inviolable… build your national life freely and without hindrance.”

This often involved sharp arguments with the local Bolsheviks, often Russian settlers, who dominated the original soviets. The new government in Moscow championed the rights of the indigenous people against them, including the right to take back land granted by the Czarist authorities to colonists.

In Turkestan the soviets had at the beginning excluded Muslims and treated them as second class citizens. The Soviet government intervened to overturn this and implement a policy of “korenizatsiia,” the right of each nationality to be represented in the government and administration in proportion to their share of the population.

By the close of 1918, 45 percent of the members of the Turkestan Communist Party were Muslims.

Fighting imperialism

All of this was important in guaranteeing as the imperialist powers invaded the new Soviet Republics and then helped develop Civil War, the infant Soviet Union could rally Muslim fighters to its side.

In 1920 an appeal issued to Red Army soldiers in Central Asia urged them to see peasant farmers and small tradesmen and artisans as allies and not enemies, noting that in 1920 urged that soldiers see the small independent producers and traders of these regions as allies, as toilers, not as profiteers. It noted that among these people:

“A clear class differentiation has not yet taken place…. The producers have not yet been torn away from the means of production. Each handicraftsman … is also a merchant. Commerce … rests in the hands of millions of small traders, [each of whom] only has a penny’s worth of goods… the rapid implementation of communism … nationalization of all trade … of handicraftsmen … is impossible.”[i]

For the Bolsheviks what was required was full national cultural development so, after years of colonial rule and oppression, those formerly colonised could stand in equal stature.

Thus care was taken as to what should be the national language from among various dialects, new alphabets were codified and consequently dictionaries and works of grammar published. By 1927, 90 percent of students from non-Russian nationalities were taught in their own language.

Religious freedom: beacon for the colonial peoples

Returning to religious freedom again this was not an abstract issue for the Bolsheviks. Friday became the official day of rest across Central Asia.

As the Civil War came to an end, a system of official sharia courts existed alongside Soviet courts. There were some difficulties but across Central Asia half of all legal cases were heard by sharia courts, reaching 80 percent in Chechnya. Madrassas sprung up, legally recognised, so in Dagestan there were 1500 with 45,000 pupils, outnumbering the 183 state schools.

Lenin had always looked not just to socialist revolution in the west as the saviour of the Russian Revolution, but anti-colonial revolution in the east. The way the Soviet Union treated its own minority nationalities was, for him, a litmus test for how it would be viewed in the colonial world.

The Congress of the Peoples of the East

Once again this did not remain at the level of abstraction. In 1920 the Communist International summoned the Congress of the Peoples of the East to meet in Baku, in Soviet Azerbaijan.

Its primary concern was to support the growing tide of resistance to Western imperialism. That included forces who were hostile to Bolshevism, such as Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist movement in Turkey, but its representatives were welcome in Baku because they were waging war on British imperialism and its Greek stooge.

Not surprisingly the British fleet in the Black Sea patrolled the coast of Turkey to block delegates crossing to Soviet Russia, but a storm dispersed it and the delegates made their way to Baku.

Muslims from India had managed to reach Kabul where 150 of them formed the pro-Soviet Indian Revolutionary Association. Twenty five made the dangerous crossing of the mountains to reach Baku and were joined by soldiers from the British officered Indian Army who had deserted from Iraq.

The Comintern president, Zinoviev, proposed and amendment to the famous slogan of the Communist Manifesto, which now read:

“Workers of all lands and oppressed peoples of the whole world, unite.”[ii]

Fifty percent of delegates were Communists, 20 percent were classified as supporters and 25 percent as non-party.

Fifty five women participated which sparked a debate after the issue was debated three women were elected to the conference steering committee, receiving thunderous applause, and two women spoke on the liberation of women of the East.

One delegate, Babayev, a Muslim Azerbaijani, later recalled:

“When the call to prayer came, he found it natural to set aside his gun during devotions, after which he would ‘go back to defend with our blood the conference and the revolution.’ Inspired by the [conference’s] ‘declaration of holy war against the enemy of revolution’ …thousands of people, convinced there was no contradiction between being a Bolshevik and a Muslim, joined the Bolshevik ranks.”[iii]

Of course there were still difficulties and Muslim delegates raised complaints about instances of Greater Russian Chauvinism among Soviet officials. Zinoviev promised action and a delegation of 27 travelled to Moscow resulting in a resolution written by Lenin demanding officials from Moscow respect national and religious rights. The University of the People’s of the East was also set up.

Later, in 1922, he declared:

“The freedom to secede from the union by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist – in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is.”[iv]

Lenin’s last struggle

The last fight Lenin waged was in defence of the rights of national minorities against the general secretary of the Communist Party, Josef Stalin. It centred on Georgia were Stalin’s allies had removed ethnic Georgians from government. Lenin demanded this be reversed and finally denied Stalin’s removal.

Lenin’s death saw quickly the beginnings of the reversal of his policies as Stalin and his allies in the state bureaucracy gathered power.

The victory of the counter revolution in 1927-1928 saw a return to the old forms of rule, with Russian the official language and discrimination against minority nationalities. Then came the horror of forced collectivisation and the mass deportations during World War Two of the Crimean Tartars and the Chechens. Islam and other religions were suppressed, though never extinguished.

Where young Bolshevik women were encouraged to wear the hijab to enter the villages to help educate young Muslim women, it was now banned under Stalin with police tearing it off the heads of women.

Yet between 1917 and 1924, in difficult and dangerous conditions, the young Soviet Union took measures which were radical in giving power to indigenous people, including the Muslim peoples of Central Asia. Measures which did not remain at the level of the written word but gave control to indigenous people and religious and national freedom not seen yet.

Further Reading

John Riddell, The Russian Revolution and National Freedom, John Riddell: Marxist Essays and Commentary, 2006

John Riddell, editor, To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920 – First Congress of the Peoples of the East, Pathfinder Press, 1983

Ben Fowkes & Bülent Gökay (2009) Unholy Alliance: Muslims and Communists – An Introduction, Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, 25:1, 1-31

Dave Crouch, The Bolsheviks and Islam, International Socialism Journal, Issue 110, 2006


i John Riddell, editor, To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920 – First Congress of the Peoples of the East, Pathfinder Press, 1983, 307.

ii John Riddell, editor, To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920 – First Congress of the Peoples of the East, Pathfinder Press, 1983, 219.

iii John Riddell, editor, To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920 – First Congress of the Peoples of the East, Pathfinder Press, 1983, 29-30.

iv John Riddell, editor, To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920 – First Congress of the Peoples of the East, Pathfinder Press, 1983, P26

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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