Life in the USSR الحياة في روسيا

Statue of Lenin in Front of a Crowd of Muslim People in 1925

It’s no secret that Russia is surrounded by diverse cultures. To its West there is Europe, to its East there is Asia, and to its South, there is Central Asia and the Middle East- what was formerly the great Ottoman Empire. The Soviet Union comprised of many smaller, predominantly Muslim countries on its southern border. I am minoring in Russian and Middle Eastern Studies so I found the topic of Muslims in Russia very intriguing. In this post, I examine the integration and consolidation of Muslim citizens into The Soviet Union following the 1917 Revolution.


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Prior to the Soviet Union, Russia already controlled much of Central Asia throughout the 1700-1800s. Muslims in and around Russia had been persecuted and treated unfairly because of their religion. They did not fit into the Russian Orthodox Christian mould that was customary of Russian citizens after hundreds of years of Czar- Church partnership in Autocratic Russia. The Russian empire and the Ottoman Empire had historically been at odds over power and territory, so there was yet another reason for the cruel treatment of Muslims in Czarist Russian territory.

Before the 1917 Revolution, “Small indigenous elites, influenced by developments in the Ottoman empire as well as among fellow Turkic-speaking Tatars and Azerbaijanis within the Russian Empire, initiated reformist movements around the ideals of pan-Islam and pan-Turkism. Jadidism, a secular movement advocating educational and social reform, also emerged among the more radically inclined intelligentsia.”

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After World War I, conditions deteriorated in Russo-Central Asia, and the Muslim people resented the Czar along with their forced draft into WWI. The Bolsheviks saw in this an opportunity, thus bringing about the olive branch called the “Appeal to the Moslems of Russian and the East” by the Bolsheviks to the Muslim people following 1917. The Bolsheviks knew they would need the people of Central Asia to help suppress the counterrevolutionary White Army. The Bolsheviks promised the Muslim people that if they helped to suppress the White Army, the Muslims would be granted freedom of religion and self-determination: an appealing prize for a subjugated people.

Appeal to the Moslems of Russia and the East

Council of People’s Commissars Appeal to the Moslems of Russia and the East. December 7, 1917

In the face of these great events, we turn to you, toiling and disinherited Moslems of Russia and the East.

Moslems of Russia, Tartars of the Volga and the Crimea, Kirghiz, and Sarts of Siberia and Turkestan, Turks and Tartars of Transcaucasia, Chechens and Mountaineers of the Caucasus–all those whose mosques and chapels have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled under foot by the tsars and oppressors of Russia!

Henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions, are free and inviolable. Build your national life freely and unhindered. You have a right to do so. Know that your rights, as well as the rights of all peoples of Russia, are protected by the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies.

Comrades! Brothers!

Firmly and decisively let us strive for an honorable, democratic peace.

On our banners we proclaim the liberation of oppressed peoples of the world.

Moslems of Russia!

Moslems of the East!

We await your sympathy and support in this cause of building a new world.”

Unfortunately for the people of Central Asia, their assistance to the Bolsheviks in the civil war did not lead to autonomy as promised because the Soviet Union still needed their land, resources, and men. “Their intention to set up a unified state of all Turkic peoples was thwarted by Moscow which instead established an autonomous Turkestan republic within the RSFSR and, after their conquest in 1920, two loosely affiliated “people’s republics” — Bukhara and Khorezm. In September 1920, a Congress of the Toiling Peoples of the East, which met in Baku and was attended by such leading Bolshevik and Comintern officials as Grigorii Zinoviev and Karl Radek (as well as the American Communist John Reed), endorsed the call among Muslim delegates for a jihad against the European colonialist and imperialist powers.”

More information regarding the Muslim East in the later part of the 1920’s can be found here.


Izvestiia, No. 232, 7 December 1917, pp. 1-2.

The Muslim East


10 Replies to “Life in the USSR الحياة في روسيا”

  1. This is a great post examining a lesser known part of Soviet history. I particularly love your picture you included in the post. The Bolsheviks weren’t too great at keeping their promises were they? Great post.

  2. As Parker said, it’s interesting to see how well they could appeal to the most heartfelt desires of the many and very unique peoples throughout the Russian Empire. However these promises, just like those promised to the Red Army, and the Soviets were often renegotiated to suit the realities faced with governing the vast territory of Russia and bringing its resources to bear. I’d be interested to see more about how the broken promises of the USSR contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

  3. When I think of Russia, Islam has never popped into my head, so I think it’s great you examined this aspect of Russian history. I had no idea about the religious oppression that Muslim people faced and the promises the Bolsheviks proposed that they didn’t follow through with.

  4. I’m so glad you wrote about a topic that integrates your work in Middle Eastern Studies and Russian! And as Kassidy’s comment suggests, this is not a subject that is in the forefront of popular awareness. I guess at this point it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Bolsheviks’ promises of self-determination for “the muslim east” weren’t honored. I hope you will continue to explore this topic going forward though, as there is much about the Sovietization of central Asia that is significant and interesting.

  5. I thought your post was really interesting and that it integrated a lot of information that isn’t usually focused on. I had no idea that the Bolsheviks had falsely promised autonomy to these Muslim people just to get their help in defeating the White Army. It’s interesting to see the relationship between Middle Eastern countries and Russia today compared with their relations during the early 20th century.

  6. Good work updating the caption for the first image! Please check back on the map though — the link isn’t to that particular image, and your readers need to know what those dots represent.

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