Turning Point

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Russia’s culture, art, science and politics have made their mark on history with many famous names. But there are things in Russia that the world knows less about. One of these facts is that more than 30 million native non-immigrant Muslims live in Russia. The ancestors of these Muslims have been living in this part of the world generation after generation for the past 1300 years and they have played a crucial role in forming the history of the world’s largest country. In fact Islam is part of Russia’s spiritual tradition. It’s also part of the country’s historical and political tradition. This documentary explores the history of Islam in Russia.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

Narration: Our world has seen a countless number of events throughout centuries, including many wars and truces. But from the outset of the 21th century, something happened, something dramatic that set off a chain of unnatural events.

After more than a decade, no one is really sure who actually set off what transpired. Many researchers are still studying it’s mysterious and contradictory details, but in the meantime the finger has been pointed at a population a billion strong, with one thing in common: Islam; yes it was the Muslim community of the world that was blamed by the mainstream media, for the September 11th tragedy and what ensued. 

But the strange thing is that in the first decade of the 21st century, Muslims were the main victims of wars and terrorist attacks; Take Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Myanmar, Bahrain, and recently in one of the most catastrophic of these complicated wars, Syria. 

But while Muslims are being accused of disrupting world order, history shows that wherever in the world they have lived, they have left relics of order and human civilization behind. And while Muslims are being massacred in the most horrendous way in Syria, a huge country like Russia is one of their few allies.

Russia’s culture, art, science and politics have made their mark on history with many a famous names. Great writers and brilliant literary works like Pushkin (push-kin), Dostoyevsky (dostoyefsky), Tolstoy, Chekhov (chekoff), Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Tchaikovsky (ch-eye-cof-skie), Shostakovich (shostokovich), ballets and memorable operas, Eisenstein (eye-zen-stine), Pudovkin (poo-dawf-kin), the glorious cinema of the 1920s, Yuri Gagarin (yoorigugarian), Man on the moon, famous names of the fluctuant history of this country, from the Viking and Moghul eras to the Tsarist period and contemporaries like Marx, Lenin, socialism, communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But there are things in Russia that the world knows less about. Residing in the neighborhood of the Russian Federation, even I didn’t know that in a country I have always known for its great achievements of human civilization, lives more than 30 million native non-immigrant Muslims whose ancestors have been living in this part of the world generation after generation for the last 1300 years and played crucial role in forming the history of the world’s largest country. 

Narration: This is Russia. The largest country in the world, 17,075,400 square kilometers big, it includes all of Asia’s north, and on the edge between the east and the west, it joins Asia to Europe. The Russian Federation consists of 21 autonomous republics and 2 federal cities: Moscow and St. Petersburg. Here is the most southerly part of the Russian Federation, beside the Caspian Sea in the vicinity of Iran. The city is called Derbent. Derbent (d-air, bent) is located near Makhachkala (ma-khaach-kela), the capital of Dagestan. Historians suggest that this is the gate through which the religion Islam entered the territory, known today as the Russian Federation. Located between the Caspian Sea and the Montes Caucasus, the city of Derbent has been very important throughout history as the Caucasian Territory’s entrance.

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Farhad Aliyev, Member of Management Council of Derbent Mosque: “On the geographical map of the world, there are a number of cities called Derbent. But it’s only our Derbent, on the west of the Caspian Sea in the Republic of Dagestan. That is distinguished from other places for its history and relics from times gone by. Derbent is home to 63 ancient monuments.”

Narration: In the distant past, Derbent was seized by the powerful kings of the Sasanian Empire of Iran, and the city was named Derbent by the Sasanid king Ghobad. In Pahlavi Persian, Derbent means a narrow passage.

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Farhad Aliyev, Member of Management Council of Derbent Mosque: “It is located in the narrowest part of the Caucasian Mountains, 5.3 kilometers away from the Caspian Sea. In the early fifth century, Iran expanded its northern border to Derbent. From 438 to 567 three Persian kings, namely Yazdgerd II, Kaveh I and Khosrau Anushirvan built a defense system consisting of Narin Castle and two walls facing the sea in order to block the narrow passage. The walls ran 500 meters bordering on the sea. On coast they narrowed down making it impossible for enemy vessels to enter the city.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “Islam has a long history in Russia primarily because of the Arabs’ military expedition to northern Caucasia and the city of Derbent. In the year 744, the Arabs’ army reached the city, in the south of a land known today as Dagestan. This is where Islam was first introduced to what would later become modern-day Russia.”

Narration: There is an assumption that the people of Derbent where converted to Islam by the invitation of the prophet’s disciples who were fighting in the Arab army. When I went to visit the ancient graveyard of Derbent, I saw the tombs attributed to the prophet’s disciples. It seems these tombs were proof for those who assumed such. The assumption is that upon passing through the Sasanian Empire, the Arab Muslims arrived in the north of Iran and thus Islam spread into the northern parts of the Sasanian Empire, Derbent of today. At that time, the Caspian people resided in this region. The Caspian were the most powerful state of Eastern Europe. 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Damir Khairetdinov, Head of Moscow at Islamic University: “Muslims customarily lived in city centers. And Derbent was no exception. They settled down in two neighboring residential areas. One occupied by the locals and the other by Muslim warriors and their families. From there Islam began to spread.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Farhad Aliyev, Member of Management Council of Derbent Mosque: “Here, the city was divided into seven parts. Islam was the ruling religion. Besides this congregational mosque, there were smaller ones in every part of the city.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “One of the oldest mosques in the world is located here: the Friday Mosque in Derbent.” 

Narration: The Friday Mosque is the oldest in Russia. With the Caspians converting to Islam and Muslims settling in the town of Derbent in the 8th century, the construction of seven mosques began. The last of these mosques was the Friday Mosque that was built exclusively for Friday Prayers. This mosque is more than 1300 years old. 

In Russia, Islam was not limited to Derbent and the Caspian people. Islam had spread throughout Russia’s entire southern regions. Then in the 10th century, it reached the central region of today’s Russia.  

This is the city of Kazan (k-zaan), capital of the republic of Tatarstan (tar-ts-taan).

Located between the Ural Mountains and the Volga River, Kazan is the city of mosques and churches. Muslims and Christians have been living together for centuries. Today, in the vicinity of Kasan city, the remains of an ancient town are being kept as a museum. The city of Volga Bulgaria is on the bank of the Volga River. It has become a headquarters for a vast Islamic empire. 

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SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “The most consisted spread of Islam on Russian soil took place in Volga Bulgaria, in today’s Tatarstan. In the eighth century, a government was established in Volga Bulgaria. At the outset, the government was not religious. The land was populated by idolaters of various tribes. But in the eighth century, Islam slowly started to be adopted. Economic and commercial ties helped Islam grow rapidly. Muslim merchants began to come here. They built mosques, and soon came the missionaries.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rostam Khozin, Artist: “The common perception is that Muslims preached Islam with fire and swords. But that’s not true. Islam came to Volga Bulgaria on the backs of camel sand in their riders’ hearts, through healthy commercial transactions.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “If I’m not mistaken, a groundbreaking discovery was made in the city of Mashhad in the 1900s:“The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan’s Chronicle”. Ibn Fadlan was an embassy clerksent by the caliph of Baghdad to Volga Bulgaria.”

Narration: Ibn Fazlaan, an Arab explorer and travel writer, entered Volga Bulgaria in 922. Ibn Fazlaan was the Muslim’s Caliphat envoy and his mission was to present Islam to Almish (aamish), the king of Volga Bulgaria. Before the arrival of Ibn Fazlaan, the people of this region had already become familiar with Islam through their relations with Muslim merchants, so they readily accepted his message. 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “In his manuscript, Ibn Fadlan writes, “I went to Bulgaria as an envoy, and there I heard the Adhan. I saw how people worshipped God. But I didn’t agree with their style. They should not recite the Adhan twice, but thrice etc…”At this point, he started debating in detail with the people living in this area on the proper way to pray.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “The year 922 was decisive for Islam, not only in Tatarstan but in all of Russia, because in that year, Islam was proclaimed as the state religion, for the first time in the history of Russia, because in 922, the sheikhdoms were still Russian, and Orthodox Christianity had not yet been embraced as the official religion. So the Islamic state was the first to be established in Russia. No other religion had existed officially before then.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Aynaz Ruslanovich, Historian & Documentary Filmmaker: “Based on the records, our ancestors, the Bulgars, were not only Muslim, but missionaries of Islam. They would visit Russian princes and invite them to convert to Islam.” 

Narration: Promoting Islam among other communities; the Bulgarians invited the mighty king of Kiev to accept Islam. History states Vladimir, who was looking for a religion for the Russians at the same time, asks the Bulgarian envoys about the traits of Islam. They answer that, this is a religion that forbids eating pork and drinking Alcohol. It’s been said that for this reason Vladimir does not accept Islam and answers, Alcohol and drinks are cheerful for Russians and we can’t live without them. In the end, Vladimir endorsed Christianity as the official religion of Russian in 988A.D. 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “It was only in 988, 60 years after Volga Bulgaria converted to Islam, that the sheikdom of Russia adopted Orthodox Christianity. Therefore, the advent of Islam in Russia predates Orthodox Christianity. So Russia is considered a Muslim country.” 

Narration: In 1237 Moguls and Tatars seized Volga Bulgaria and this state perished. Then the Golden Horde was established here. The golden horde was part of the Mongol empire under the rule of Batoo Khan, the grandchild of Chenghiz. The golden horde’s kingdom consisted of the main parts of today’s Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. It is unknown what the “golden horde” title refers to, but some sources state that Batoo Khan had a large tent with golden pillars and the golden horde was named after this tent. 

TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “This is how the story goes: Ching his Khan established a vast united Euro-Asian empire. And as you know, the Golden Horde which was formed after Ching his Khan, emphasized the same tolerance codes that he had introduced. According to the codes, every citizen had to respect all religions. And those who disrespected the sanctities of a religion would be punished by death. You see? That’s how Muslims protected Christians and vice versa. The followers of other religions were also protected the same way. In fact, thanks to the tolerance codes of Ching his Khan, the possibility of preserving a vast empire presented itself.”

Narration: After the establishment of the golden horde, the Chengizian code of tolerance helped Muslims perform their religious duties without ease. After Ozbak Khan’s accession and conversion to Islam, Islam became the official religion of the golden horde and began to spread quickly. The Islamic civilization circulated in the fields of southern Russia and the cities of the golden horde were filled with clergymen, schools and mosques. 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Aleksandr Dugin, Professor of Philosophy & Political Science: “In the absence of fanaticism, Islam gained absolute socio-political rights. It’s interesting to know that our ancestors lived according to the teachings of their religion. Few people believe that. But there was Sharia inside the Golden Horde. Islam was the official religion in the Horde after Ozbak Khan. But what kind of Is l am was it? It was Chengizian Islam. Politically speaking, Chingizian Islam emphasized that under no circumstances would the spread of Islam lead to a diminution of other religions.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “There are no records of Tatars fighting with other nations living in Volga Bulgaria. They lived in peaceful coexistence. Islam bans bullying. So no other forced anyone into embracing it. According to the available records, many Armenian merchants visited Volga Bulgaria at the time. They built their own Orthodox church there. They had their church and so did the Russians. It was a mutual admiration society with Muslims never resorting to bullying, violence or coercion. In fact Islam has never been about those things.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of Hermitage Museum: “The golden horde” turned into a powerful international power. It expanded into such important territories as North Caucasus, Ural River, the Ilkhanate Kingdom, Siberia and Dnieper. It was as if Russia and the kingdom of Russia were on the margins of this “golden horde”, which was an international authority. Of course they had intensive mutual relations, such as the civilization communication, political relations and other interactions.” 

Narration: The golden age of the golden horde lasted for two centuries. The golden horde’s king’s reputation for justice and their tolerance for other religions also spread to all Islamic states. But when Timur invaded the Qichaq fields in the golden horde’s kingdom, and the ruins it had caused, the state was demolished and was broken down into different khanates.

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “With the disintegration of the Golden Horde in the 15thcentury, the khanate of Kazan came to existence. The khanate of Kazan is considered the third government in Tatarstan and modern-day Russia. The Golden Horde Empire disintegrate dint many Tatarian states: the khanate of Astrakhan in the lower Volga River, the khanate of Siberia in the vast country of Siberia, the khanate of Kazan, and the Crimean khanate.”

Narration: After the Timur’s army began marching on Moscow, the people of the city restored Kazan and the khanate of Kazan that earlier was part of the golden horde, became an independent and powerful state. Kazan was the most affluent khanate among the split regions of the golden horde. A state that had made significant economic and commercial advances, in which the influences of the Islamic civilization were apparent. The Kazan city of today is in the territory of these modern khanates. Kazan is a green and lively city on the banks of the fertile Volga River and it has been one of the main settlements of the Muslims of Russia throughout history. Manifestation of the Muslim cultural heritage in this town are famous mosques like Ghol Sharif, Marjani and Apayanevski, all of which have a unique history and architecture. From the middle of the 15th century, with the rising of the dynasty of Russia, the Russian princes began their efforts for independence from Mongolian rule. Eventually in 1480, Ivan III refused to accept the rule of Mongols and wrenched back a vast part of Russia from Mongolian rule. A few years later, the great invasion took place. 

 TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “In October1552, Russians seized Kazan and within four years, all of the Islamic states entered the assembly of Russia’s Orthodox Christian states.”

Narration: In the summer of 1552, an army of 150,000 men belonging to Ivan Grozny, historically know as Ivan the terrible, invaded Kazan. The town was besieged by Russian aggressors. The October of that year coincided with Ramadan, the fasting month of the Muslims. Although they could have stayed alive by surrendering and giving them privileges, the Kazan defenders fought for Kazan until the last moment. Many Muslims were killed when the town was seized, including Sayyid Ghol Sharif, the religious leader of the Tatars. Fighting for the resistance of Kazan until the last moments of his life. In the end thrown from the roof of his school by the Russian aggressors. Years later, in memory of Sayyid Ghol Sharif’s resistance, Russia’s largest mosque was named after him. The Russians too, after massacring Muslims in Kazan and seizing their town, built the St. Bastille church in Moscow in honor of their victory. 

Throughout history the power of Russia has changed hands in many different periods. With the emergence Russia’s Tsar dynasty, a different era began for the Russian Muslims living in this land.

This is the town of St. Petersburg, in the northern most point of the European part of Russia. St. Petersburg was established by Peter the Great, the forth Tsar from the famous Romanoff family. And down the years, it has become a base for the government of the Russian tsars. The ruling era of the Russian Tsars was one of the hardest times for Russian Muslims. During this period, the Russian kings tried to convert the Muslim population of Russia to Christianity using a wide variety of methods including mandatory baptism.  

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Niaz Hazrat, Imam of Marjani Mosque: “Many seminaries and mosques were destroyed and the Muslims and Tatars were banned from practicing their religion.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Damir Khairetdinov, Head of Moscow at Islamic University: “For a long time, perhaps for more than 150 years, the rulers in Moscow believed that every nation was worthy enough to be baptized. The times were changing. Islam had to vanish and mosques had to be destroyed. Mosques had to be destroyed, and churches were erected on their ruins.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Niaz Hazrat, Imam of Marjani Mosque: “Despite all the difficulty, our ancestors would continue to build mosques and religious schools. But again they would be destroyed and replaced by churches.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “The fall of Kazan in 1552 at the hands of Ivan the Terrible proved disastrous for every Volga Bulgarian. It was tragedy for Kazan;a tragedy for a culture dating back centuries. There were many Muslims in Moscow at the time, too. Butonly the Tatars behind the Moscow River survived.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Aleksandr Dugin, Professor of Philosophy & Political Science: “In such circumstances, the Russian state’s attitude toward Caucasian Islam acquired an external aspect. It became more savage, more European, more Western and more intolerable and more fake.”

Narration: Now it was time for the Muslims to be ruled over by the Christians, to pay taxes and be deprived of the rights they had before.  Some of the Muslims pretended to accept Christianity, but remained faithful to Islam. At this time, many of the Muslims, exasperated by the Russian government’s pressure and the Christian church’s compulsion, were forced to leave their hometown. 

TIME CODE: 25:00_30:00

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Aynaz Ruslanovich, Historian & Documentary Filmmaker: “When the khanate of Kazan collapsed, Islam disappeared for about 200 years. It was a period of silence. There was no trace of a single scholar or mosque. But we kept our faith. There are accounts of people passing on religious teachings in public baths, which means they were afraid of publicly practicing their religion. Obviously all of this was followed by popular movements and uprising. The Tatar Muslims participated in all the uprisings. The Stepan Razin uprises, the pugachev rebellion or the Bashkir uprising.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “But we should keep in mind that little by little, the Russian empire learned that there were many Muslims on the land. So in a sense it had to protect them.”

Narration: One of the most reputable rulers of tsarist Russia is Catherine the Great. Catherine was a princess from Germany who had entered the Dynasty of the Russian tsars after marrying Peter III. 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Niaz Hazrat, Imam of Marjani Mosque: “In 1762, Catherine II became the queen of the Russian empire. She realized that persecuting Muslims and clamping down on Islam wouldn’t help with the promotion of Christianity and decided instead to reach out to the Muslims. So she allowed mosques to be built again.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “In the 18th century, and after two centuries, Muslims were once again permitted to build mosques and religious schools. At long last, they resumed practicing their religion freely.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “Before Catherine, the Tatars were not allowed to live on the banks of Volga or of other large rivers or near the main roads. Why? To prevent them from doing trade and having an income…to keep them away from civilization, new technologies and education. But Catherine II made all those possible. And then the progress started and later flourished. The Tatar’s commerce, the Tatar’s education, the Tatar’s technology.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Aynaz Ruslanovich, Historian & Documentary Filmmaker: “Tsarist Russia extended its interests to the East and South and commercial trades with Central Asia and China became essential, because at the time,foreign trade was the driving force behind the economy.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “Catherine IIknew that if she maintained the anti-Islam approach, her country would plunge into endless wars,instead of enjoying a thriving economy and interacting with the rest of the world, and that as a result, it would become very difficult for her to resolve the problems of the empire.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Damir Khairetdinov, Head of Moscow at Islamic University: “You can’t say we enjoyed the same rights as the orthodox Russians. They differed from region to region. But that was the first step toward religious freedom and independence. The policy of mandatory baptism went unchallenged though and evidently continued until 1905when the authorities learned that they couldn’t do everything by force and that they couldn’t force people into changing their religious beliefs.” 

Narration: History is a roaring river that can uproot everything in its path, even giant trees with far-reaching roots; it can wash away vast terrain with weak soil and turn it into a derelict desert. But even in the most turbulent floods of history, the roots remain and sprout a new. The history of Russia is one of the most involved histories of mankind. A history that has at various points, even changed the course of world history. After many centuries of the tsar rule, the history of Russia entered a new phase in the early ninety twenties, and the Muslims of Russia also joined the new current that was forming. Even though relative freedoms were given to Muslims from Catharine’s era onwards, the pressure was never completely lifted. That’s why when in 1905, the people of Russia began to revolt against the empire of the tsars, the Muslims who were under pressure in the tsarist era the most, joined the people’s revolt.

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “Many people from various social strata in the west Russian Empire were unhappy with the ruling policies. The Muslims were among them. At the time, and as a consequence of the 1905 Revolution, Nicolai II issued a decree of tolerance towards other religions. The order was issued in 1907. According to the order the Pravoslav religion and other faiths like Islam and Judaism would have benefited from the same rights. The same also went for Buddhism in the Siberia regions.”

 TIME CODE: 30:00_35:00

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “Instant freedoms emerged in the Russian empire and political parties were formed. The Muslims, who had not been allowed to form a political party, were now allowed to publish newspapers and journals. The Muslim fraction was formed in the Duma. It meant the Muslims of Russia would now have an active presence in the political and ideological scenes. They built many seminaries, founded political parties, became members of the Duma and began to defend their interests.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “But none of the new rights and freedoms convinced the Muslims to unanimously support the regime of Nikolai II. So in 1917 when the revolutionaries and especially the Bolsheviks resolved to topple the Tsar’s dynasty and overthrow Nikolai II, they adopted a diplomatic approach and tried to bring the Muslims round to their own side.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Aynaz Ruslanovich, Historian & Documentary Filmmaker: “This land was the land of Tatar’s, and the Russian state was heir to the Golden Horde. We know that Russia’s political history is intertwined with that of the Tatars, and the Bolsheviks were aware of it. So that had to enter into dialogue with the Muslims and the Tatars, grant certain rights to the Tatars and put them in charge of the governance system.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “Naturally, many of those living in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Siberia, Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Ukraine and so on and so forth, and in general all those living somewhere around.

The Russian Empire praised and supported Lenin they praised and supported the Bolsheviks. But why? 

The Tsarist Empire had toppled a united government and the people found it very difficult to tolerate that. They had lost their own government. Many gave up their faiths. Lenin had promised them that they would achieve whatever they want from then on, and so they threw their weight behind him. You see? That’s why many Muslims from different ethnicities and sects, the Shia, the Sunnis, the Turks, the Tatars of Crimea, Volga Bulgaria and Siberia, and those of Dagestan, Chechnya and elsewhere welcomed the change. They contributed to those changes at first.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Aynaz Ruslanovich, Historian & Documentary Filmmaker: “In Return the Tatars supported the revolution hoping it would give them a say in the new government.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “Of course they didn’t suffice to woo the Muslims. They summoned all those who were disgusted about the Russian Empire. They invited all those who had been subjected to harassment and repression in the Tsarist era. (They said,) You are free, Do whatever you like.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “If you had your own government in the Middle Ages, then you can reestablish it. The February Revolution was followed by the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks came to power.”

Narration: In 1917, the Bolsheviks revolted under the leadership of Lenin. The communist revolution triumphed and the Bolsheviks took over the running of the government. In the beginning, the Bolsheviks summoned not only Muslims, but all those who had been subjected to harassment and oppression during the Tsarist era, and promised them freedom. And the Muslims, who were one of Russia’s important and influential communities, joined the Bolsheviks in the 1917 revolution. 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “But Then came the founding of a different new government and that was when Lenin and the Bolsheviks launched their campaign ofdeception and demagoguery.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Aynaz Ruslanovich, Historian & Documentary Filmmaker: “But they were deceived by Revolution. Hey were promised governance, freedom, culture expansion, and support for Islam. But none of those promises were delivered on.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “At first, they respected Muslims and others. They didn’t suddenly ban everything. But after ten years ,they began opposing religions including Islam. Between1926 and 1927, seminaries were practically shut down.”

Narration: From 1927 onwards, life became harder for Muslims in the Communist state of the USSR. Clerical schools were closed and the religious classes were eliminated from the new schools. The mosques were demolished and shutdown. Things reached a point where visiting a mosque meant losing one’s social rights and even isolation and alienation from society. After a while, the only people who went to mosques were the elderly, peasants or workers. The Muslims were not allowed to perform any of their religious rites and ceremonies. 

 TIME CODE: 35:00_42:00

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “Before that time, the Bolsheviks were afraid of the Muslims because of the sheer size of their population. All the Tatars were Muslims and there were Muslims in Caucasia, too. Around 1917, the Bolsheviks were fearful of acting against religion. They began their activities slowly and after ten years. All the mosques were closed. Prior to that, there had been more than 16,000 mosques in Russia. But in the period between 1920 and 1930, only 300 mosques were standing. 300 out of16,000.” 

Narration: The communists believed that in an advanced country, there is no room for religion. Marx was saying that religion is the opium of the masses and nations are being held back by religion. They were theoretically and practically trying to build an advanced and modern society by destroying religion. 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “So once again the Muslims were subjected to harshness and mistreatment. Severe oppression began, far severer than that of the Ivan Groznyera. It wasn’t the Middle Ages anymore; it was the 20th century with new technologies and measures. New military technologies, and a different military arrangement consisting five types of army. Harassment and torture spread all over Russia and the USSR. This time, Islam lost many of its followers.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rafik Mukhametshin, Head of Russian at Islamic University: “In the beginning, clerics would either seize to exist, vanish, be jailed or killed. After Stalin’s death, the policy changed a little. There were no more direct killings and supervision, but still all the mosques were shuttered.”

Narration: After Stalin’s death, the anti-religious policies seemingly changed. There were no more sudden arrests, long imprisonments and direct killings. However, if a Muslim went to one of the few active mosques, he would be summoned by the government’s agents and there, he would need to explain why he went to a mosque! The people would gather in the gardens for prayer and put someone with an accordion at the door to guard. If someone came from the local assemblies or district offices, the Muslims would pretend they’d gathered in the garden for a celebration. 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Jannat Sergey Markus, Islamic Arts Critic: “In the villages and Mountains of Dagestan, they put up announcements that on a particular day and at a certain hour, everyone who knew Arabic had to come to a gathering. People thought that at last they had summoned their scholars and clerics. They thought that either the Bolshevikshada good offer for them, or that they were finally going to confer with the mover some matter. They were people of knowledge. But then, they gathered those people, put them in a truck, drove them through the mountain paths and threw them down the valleys. They didn’t even shoot them to avoid wasting their bullets. Simple as that! They exterminated almost all of them in Dagestan. Among them were well-known clerics, Muftis, scholars and Sufis. Generally,they killed anyone fluent in Arabic. The Bolsheviks’ brutality against religion sespecially against Islam was unparalleled. Such things had never occurred in history, and it had terrible consequences.” 

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Aynaz Ruslanovich, Historian & Documentary Filmmaker: “Although they hanged or gunned down religious leaders during the soviet era, we kept our Islamic faith. Those events did have grave consequences and we lost many things. But the most important thing is that we consider ourselves Muslims that we want to remain Muslims and would do anything for it.”

SOUNDBITE [Russian], Rostam Khozin, Artist: “The land we are standing on right now has a tragic history. Many sad events have taken place here. Our nation’s history is filled with great, watershed moments.”

Narration: Despite all the obstacles, the Muslims managed to preserve their religion for about 70 years in the socialist government of the USSR. Until in the year 1990, one of the turning points of Russian and world history. The USSR collapsed, the walls came down and the people of Russia had the chance to choose their own paths regardless of what political leaders wanted. After seven decades of communist ideologies dominating most private aspects of human life, the people of Russia once again had the chance to choose freely. The Muslims once again began to build mosques and schools tirelessly. After 70 years of godlessness, the new generation eagerly began studying different religions and theologies. 

Today the Muslims of Russia are a large and influential part of the Muslim community. About 30 million native non-immigrant Muslims are living in Russia and in this country’s large cities, Muslim districts deal with Muslim affairs. In the first decade of the 21st century in 2003, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, took part in the tenth organization of Islamic cooperation and announced that Russia is eager to become a member of this organization as a supervisor. One year later in 2005, Russia was awarded this title and the next year, The Strategic Landscape Group of Russia and The Muslim World was formed.

These days too, the people of the world hear the name Russia frequently via global media. What’s being reported now is Russia’s support for Syria, a Muslim country in which one of the most horrendous on-going terrorist operations is happening, and also the terrorist attacks happening in Russian cities in which ordinary citizens are being killed, in the metro and in bus stations. Some are trying to make the world believe that these terrorists are Muslims.

But the unanswered question that keeps going around and around in my mind is, how can these people, who held on to their religion with tooth and claw, during Russia’s turbulent history from tsars to the communists, and who have managed to stay in the roaring river of history, behave in a way that would destroy the image of their religion?


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