Between Reform and Revolution

By Rachel Thomas–

In his lecture “Between Reform and Revolution:  Islamic Debates in Early Soviet Central Asia” Adeeb Khalid took his American audience into the early Soviet Union and left us with two eye-opening changes in perspective regarding the former superpower, not the least of which being that the Soviet Union existed beyond Moscow. His focus was on a group of Soviet citizens whose experience with the socialist experiment is largely ignored – the Muslims of mainly what had been Russian Turkestan during the tsarist era. Giving us little time to swallow the idea that there were Soviets outside Russia, he delved right into the heart of the debates regarding Soviet state-building and Islamic reform. The conclusions he led us to certainly challenged the monolithic boogeyman image of the Soviet Union left over from the Cold War, in much the same way as the opening of archives after 1991 did.

The first conceptual hurdle we encountered through Khalid’s talk was the idea that not all revolutionaries were Bolsheviks. Muslims in Turkestan at the time of the revolution were being confronted with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the last caliphate, and the resulting feelings of despair about the future of Islam. The intellectuals of this society, referred to as Jadids, recognized the need for both religious and social change. They also recognized that power and influence still lay with the religious leaders, the ulama, as it always had. The Jadids then decided that change had to be brought by force, and the new Soviet institutions that were part and parcel of the Bolshevik revolution were the catalyst necessary to spark this reform from within. But the Jadids were no Bolsheviks; their agenda had nothing to do with Marx or class struggle.

Bolsheviks they weren’t, but Soviets they would become. Dr. Khalid then turned the lecture to address how productive Soviet institutions were at the state-building process. While the Soviet Union still existed, it was seen as a nation-killer, a big strong state that imposed its ways on peoples that couldn’t possibly resist. After 1991 and increased access to information, scholars have determined that the opposite was true, especially in oppressed societies. In Turkestan, the Soviet state had a role to play in the building of the nation but it wasn’t the primary actor. It instead capitalized on the internal struggle by allowing the anticlericalism of the Jadids to wipe out the traditional power structure of the mullahs, while at the same time creating a new nomenklatura more in line with the Party to replace the Jadids. In typical Soviet fashion this new nomenklatura, decidedly more Bolshevik, killed off the existing intelligentsia as part of the Purges in 1938.

Dr. Khalid did a very good job of presenting the Central Asia case as one of mutual manipulation instead of unilateral domination. This really makes an American audience think twice about how the Soviet Union is understood now that it has collapsed and access to its archives is more widespread. What has been found, and what Dr. Khalid shared in his lecture, is a familiar thread in Soviet historiography—archival access doesn’t change the main events that transpired, but it does give more detail about those events and changes the way outsiders understand them. Before 1991, the Bolsheviks came to Central Asia and undid hundreds of years of Islamic tradition by establishing the socialist experiment. In the archives, in the details, are where an established intelligentsia tries to use the revolution to reform Islam while nascent Soviets use the reform and the revolution to establish socialism.

Rachel Thomas is a senior at Miami University majoring in Diplomacy and Global Affairs.

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