|Intruder in the “Communal Apartment:” The Afghan War, Soviet Muslims, and the Collapse of the USSR
Paper Prepared for the HY510, 11 November 2009
Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 there has been much speculation regarding the effect of the war on the Soviet Union’s Muslims, particularly in Central Asia, as well as the extent to which such concerns played on the decision-making of Soviet leaders. Some scholars saw the potential radicalization of the USSR’s Muslims as a major problem for Soviet leaders and a reason for the ultimate decision to leave Afghanistan without achieving military victory. Others, however, argued that such radicalization was minimal and that in any case Moscow’s calculations were dominated by other concerns. Although the Afghan war does come up in studies focusing on the emergence of post-Soviet states and political movements, there has not been a systematic effort to analyze the effect of the war on Soviet Muslims and test the assumptions of Sovietologists.1
Twenty years later, a number of questions remain. What was the reaction of Muslim soldiers to the war? How did the war resonate in Central Asia and the Caucasus? Did it become a topic of conversation for participants of underground study circles or serve as an impetus for the rise of the early opposition parties, such as the Islamic Renaissance Party? Did it contribute to the emergence of “national consciousness” the way that the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the Soviet break of relations with Israel did for Soviet Jews?
This paper will not answer all of these questions. It will argue that while a certain amount of radicalization did take place during the 1980s, it was limited and mostly unrelated to the Afghan war. Furthermore, while Soviet leaders were aware of efforts by the mujahadeen (with support from the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI) to contribute to this radicalization, they were not overly concerned by them. The radicalization that did take place was limited and in no way undermined Soviet power in the Central Asian republics or the Caucasus until the late 1980s. Despite the events of the Iranian revolution and occasional stirrings of nationalism or anti-Soviet religious fervour among Muslims in Central Asia and the Caucasus, understanding of the political power of “Islamic fundamentalism” among leaders in Moscow was limited. Concerns about the damage of failure in Afghanistan to the USSR’s standing in the world consistently trumped worries about reaction to the war from the Soviet public – including Soviet Muslims. Examining the issue of the wars impact is crucial because it helps clarify the ongoing debates about the effect of the war on the Soviet Union, the causes of the USSR’s collapse, and the shaping of the “post-Soviet” space. The case of the Afghan war shows that far from being a rotting giant or a tinderbox of simmering discontent, the Soviet Union at the end of the Brezhnev era was a highly stable, if indeed stagnant society. Only the effort to fundamentally rebuild it shattered that stability, while the war itself had little effect on the collapse of the USSR.
The paper will draw on a number of sources that have only recently become accessible to researchers, including the papers of the Council for Religious Affairs, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Politburo records and memoranda from the Gorbachev Foundation. It will also draw on interviews with policymakers as well as some of the people affected by the war. 2
Debate and Context: The Muslims of Central Asia and the Caucasus in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union
In the early 1980s, a number of Western scholars speculated that Soviet Muslims might prove a major destabilizing factor, particularly in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These scholars pointed to the disparity of population growth, which heavily favoured Soviet Muslims, a seeming reluctance to accept Sovietization, and the persistence of Islamic practice. In addition there were rumours that the Soviet military had to withdraw its Central Asian recruits from Afghanistan because they proved unwilling to fight their ethnic relatives or co-religionists.3 Other scholars were more sceptical, pointing out that there were few signs of either an Islamic or nationalist revival either in Central Asia or the Caucasus.4 While the possibility that the Muslims could become a destabilizing factor within the USSR was of interest to the CIA, on which more later, there was rarely any solid evidence that an “uprising” was imminent.
Why such a divergence of opinion? At least part of the explanation lies in the distorting effects of cold-war ideology and the effects of state funding on academic inquiry, and the growing awareness of Islamism as a revolutionary force after the Iranian revolution. As Fred Halliday put it in 1986, the idea of an Islamic challenge to the USSR, as developed by Western scholars, arose in part from “cold war wishful thinking about the possible challenge to the USSR of politicized Islam, a process in which academic industry and state finance have joined enthusiastically.”5 There were methodological problems as well, ones that are particularly worth noting since they are still faced by scholars today. Scholars that wanted to study Islam in the Soviet Union were dependent heavily on the Soviet official press and on Soviet orientalist publications, neither of which were reliably sources of factual information and, when it came to coverage of Islamic affairs, were generally serving propaganda purposes. As a result, scholars often made the mistake of viewing increased coverage as evidence of increased Islamic activity.6
Yet even if western scholars and intelligence analysts overestimated the disruptive potential of the USSR’s Muslim population, their linkage of the Afghan war with the situation in Central Asia was not illogical. There were several reasons to suspect that the war in Afghanistan would cause unrest among the Soviet Union’s large Muslim population. The first is that the Soviet house always stood on a seemingly somewhat shaky foundation when it came to maintaining harmony among the nationalities and keeping those nationalities loyal to the state. The second was that eradicating Islam and bringing it within the control of the state had always been more difficult than doing the same with Orthodox Christianity. Thirdly, three Central Asian Soviet republics shared a border with Afghanistan: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. In all three cases the dominant ethnic groups of the republic lived on both sides of the border and could migrate with relative ease.
Before discussing the possible effects of the Afghan war on Soviet Muslims it is worth considering the relationship of the state and Islam within the Soviet Union more generally.7 Russia’s rulers had confronted the issue of how to relate to its Muslim subjects since the reign of Ivan the Great and the conquests of the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan. From that point forward periods of conversion alternated with more pragmatic approaches; since the former generally met with stiff resistance, it was the latter policy that ultimately won out.8 It was the enlightened despot Catherine II who laid the foundation for a more durable structure that sought to make Russia’s Muslim people’s loyal subjects by respecting their religious and cultural autonomy but subordinating their spiritual and civil leadership to the state. Besides continuing the long existing policy of incorporating local elites into the Russian “establishment,” the state began to subsidize mosques and organized the creation of a Muslim assembly to settle doctrinal disputes and oversee the local clergy.9
Not surprisingly, this pattern largely held when Kazakh hordes and the khanates of Khiva, Bukhara, and Kokand were incorporated in the 19th century. True, there were calls from some quarters for a more forceful Russification policy – including both cultural assimilation and religious conversion. But such policies were for the most part resisted, particularly by the governors and officials sent to administer the newly acquired territories. Russification, where it did occur, did not seek to completely displace local culture, but rather provide a link to a broader identity – such, at least, was the idea behind the Kazakh-Russian schools. Russian administrators purged those religious leaders they felt were dangerous, but largely left the local mullah’s to run their mosques and schools. In that sense, then, Russian expansion can be said to have taken place with a minimal disruption for the population of Central Asia, which in turn helps explain why this process was relatively bloodless.10
Such was not the case in the Caucasus, where Russian expansion was met with stiff resistance, as popularized in Tolstoy’s Haji Murat. Here a succession of Russian generals were forced to develop what would be called today a counterinsurgency strategy. The “enemy” was, in essence, the population, organized and mobilized by Sufi leaders (most famously Imam Shamil) who harassed Russian garrisons, attacked supply lines, and generally made it impossible to establish Russian control. Only in the 1860s did pacification achieve any degree of success.11
After the revolution the Bolsheviks gradually reasserted control over what had been Tsarist Central Asia. In the early 1920s Soviet leaders cooperated with reformist groups like the jadids, particularly in Bukhara, where this group became known as the Young Bukharans (after the modernizing Young Turks). In the Soviet Republic of Khorezm (the transformed Khanate of Khiva), a communist party oversaw a secularization that nevertheless permitted Islamic courts and schools to function. Peasant resisting some of the changes being undertaken, who became known as the Basmachi resistance, proved the last serious armed obstacle to establishing Soviet power. At the same time the Bolsheviks undertook a redrawing of boundaries that created the states we know today as Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. By the late 1920s, the cooperation with Muslim reformers was abandoned and a more radical anti-Islamic campaign began. It only ended in 1943, at the same time that the Russian orthodox church was allowed to play a more prominent role in society. The anti-religious campaign was disastrous for the old order, as the repression carried away most of the learned scholars and community leaders, including many of the jadids.12
But in the post-war era, a certain equilibrium was established. With regard to religion, the state returned to the policy of limited control and benign neglect. A set of institutions, functioning on premises very similar to those first established under Catherine, monitored and supervised religious activity. The main one was the Council on Religious Affairs, which had offices throughout the USSR and reported to the Central Committee.13 The Council of Religious Affairs (CRA) supervised and kept watch over official Muslim organizations like the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, or SADUM, or the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in the North Caucasus, DUMSK. SADUM and DUMSK clergy were trained in officially sanctioned religious schools, and they were also employees of the state. Their sermons often included comments on nuclear peace and Lenin, as well as denunciations of the Western imperialist intervention in Afghanistan.14
Soviet Muslims responded to “official” religion in different ways. Many turned to “parallel” Islam, praying in unregistered mosques set up in apartments or abandoned buildings, or by joining unsanctioned religious groups, such as Sufi circles. The latter were particularly numerous in the Caucasus. Crucially, however, these religious groups and networks were largely quietist. The underground religious groups rarely engaged in political activity as such. Their challenge to the Soviet state was limited to their existence outside of bureaucratic and ideological control. Religious groups also fulfilled certain functions like conducting wedding and funeral ceremonies which were normally carried out by government offices. At the same time, many local communists in Central Asia and the Caucasus also participated in unofficial, or “parallel” Islam.
While primarily quietist, “parallel” Islam could provide a forum for more overt anti-Soviet activity. One example of this was the “samizdat” which circulated in both Central Asia and the Caucasus and often carried truly anti-Soviet messages, including calls to avoid military service.15 A 1979 investigation in the Chechen-Ingush ASSR uncovered widespread use of state-owned recording studios for the purposes of making or copying disks with “ideologically dangerous works by completely anonymous authors, all sorts of prayers and religious instructions in Chechen and Arabic.”16 These recordings contained instructions on behavior and morals, descriptions of the “true Muslim,” who read from the Koran, as well as glorifications of followers of Mohammed who fought against heresy. The number of such recordings that were circulating must have been quite large. Aside from the nineteen official studios that were discovered to be copying these recordings, another seventy were functioning in private homes. At least ten thousand copies were found, and the songs were broadcast over amateur radio. 17
The recordings also made effective use of native Chechen and Ingush “crying songs” and “complaints to mothers.” These songs were addressed particularly to young Chechen and Ingush men, warning them of the dangers of leaving the family and joining Soviet society:
If you say “Army,” you must cry!
Everyone must cry!
Let him lose his mother,
Not living to evening or to morning,
Who admires this world.
Let all of our mothers die,
If we should admire this world.
Ever since I learned to walk,
Since I knew this world,
My soul aches
Days and nights pass
But the aching of my soul does not pass.18
The powerful lyrics of this poem send a forceful message: the entry into the Soviet world is a great danger to the world you grew up in. It plays on traditional familial ties to vilify the Soviet world, which is never mentioned by name. The only connection with it is the reference to “army” (all Soviet males were subject to mandatory service) and the repeated reference to “this world.” The young man addressed in this song is told of a clear distinction between the world he belongs in (his mother’s world) and the world that will try to kidnap him (the army and the Soviet world). At the same time, the lyrics may be understood to refer to the distinction between the earthly world and the divine world; in that case, the association of the Soviet world with the earthly world is maintained, as is the young man’s alienation from it. He belongs in the world of his god and his family.
The potential implications of these messages were highlighted during the Afghan war, a topic we will return to later. What is curious, however, is that while the CRA files for the North Caucasus are brimming with material similar to the above, those for Central Asia contain very little such material. Indeed, reports on religious activity in the files for the Uzbek SSR, the Tajik SSR, and the Turkmen SSR focus overwhelmingly on various Baptist groups rather than on Muslims, and this is true not just for the 1970s but for the period of the Afghan war as well.19 The same appears to be true for the KGB materials smuggled out by Vassili Mitrokhin – while there is a wealth of information on KGB operations in the North Caucasus, there is nothing on Central Asia.20 The fact that Central Asia was much “quieter” than the North Caucasus is significant, however, since it is in Central Asia that one would expect to see the strongest response to the Afghan war.
That the grievances of the Chechens were much greater than those of the Central Asians should not be surprising. Leaving aside discussions of the relative “docility” or “warlikeness” of this people or that,21 there was the legacy of a much longer and bloody period of initial colonization by Russia and resistance, as well as a far more traumatic experience in Soviet times. For the Chechens were deported, en masse, to Kazakhstan during World War II, because Stalin feared that they would collaborate with approaching enemy forces; they were only allowed to return in 1957.22
Of course, the Central Asian republics were hardly utopias. Economic underdevelopment, exacerbated by the dominance of cotton as a “monocrop,” mounting environmental problems resulting in part from related irrigation projects, were features of all the republics in question. Corruption was endemic.23 But the system did not show signs of instability. If anything, it was too stable. As with the rest of the USSR in the long Brezhnev era, corruption and patronage kept enough people invested in the system to discourage any rocking of the boat.24 On the other hand, Central Asians could point to an enormous growth in literacy and education, access to good health care, and other achievements that were tied up with their participations in the Soviet experiment. Thus, for examples, Uzbeks interacting with their much poorer cousins in Afghanistan might feel quite different, indeed superior to, the latter.25 This was true of national culture, which the Soviet state supported and indeed encouraged in its own way.26 It was only after the death of Uzbek party boss Sharof Rashidov 1983, when Yuri Andropov began an anti-corruption drive and purge that was continued by Gorbachev and expanded to other Central Asian republic, that the system started to show some cracks.
Responses to the Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan
Soon after the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, rumours spread that the Soviet force was beset by problems of Central Asian soldiers refusing to fight their fellow Muslims in Afghanistan, and even going over to the side of the mujahadeen. The Soviet decision to withdraw some troops in June 1980 was interpreted as a reaction by Soviet authorities to this trend. In fact, there is little evidence that much “fraternalization” of the sort took place during the invasion. The Soviet decision to withdraw some troops in June 1980, meanwhile, was on the one hand a strategic readjustment and on the other a public relations move. The original force sent in was heavily dominated by ill trained reservists from Central Asia. They were selected because of their geographical proximity and because the Soviet forces were not expected to do much fighting. They were not prepared for the kind of warfare that erupted in the spring of 1980, and had to be withdrawn and replaced with battle-ready soldiers. At the same time, the withdrawal was publicized to show that the Soviet government had no intention of staying in the country indefinitely.27
This non-incident aside, however, it would be quite strange if the war had no effect on Soviet Muslims. In fact, it seems that as the war wore on through the 1980s, the war did start to feed in to growing disillusionment with the status quo. The war left legacies for the development of the Central Asian republics and the North Caucasus since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. In no case, however, did it serve as the cause of any of these centripetal processes or even as the main catalyst.
The potential to stir trouble among the Central Asian Muslims proved tempting for the CIA and the Pakistani ISI. In 1982 pamphlets with titles like “The Life of the Great Muhammad,” and “How to Pray,” as well as Islam and Social Justice by the Pakistani Islamist Sayed Abul-ala al Mawdoodi, were being printed in Peshawar in Russian and smuggled into Central Asia. Their existence came to light when they were criticized in a Kyrgyz newspaper by a local academic.28 The CIA decided to back these efforts as part of its support for the anti-communist resistance. As CIA Chief William Casey put it, the Muslims of Central Asia “could do a lot of damage to the Soviet Union.”29 The intelligence agencies experimented with a small-scale infiltration with Mohammad Yousaf coordinating the effort. With CIA help, some ten thousand copies of the Koran were prepared in Uzbek along with books describing Soviet atrocities against Uzbeks. During the summer of 1984, dozens of mujahadeen, primarily ethnic Uzbeks, made the night journey across the Amu Darya to bring the books into Uzbekistan. According to Yousaf, the Koran was well received, but there was little interest in the books on atrocities.30 The Pakistani ISI formulated plans to attack targets within the Soviet Union. For example, in 1986 the ISI trained fifteen Afghan resistance commanders to launch attacks within Soviet territory that would help disrupt the Soviet supply chain. While several attacks on the rail link between Samarkand and Termez, the last outpost on the Soviet border, was successful, others failed. In December 1986, there were also attacks on a power station in Tajikistan.
Nevertheless, Pakistani officials were careful not to overdo it. When the ISI commander in charge of aid to the resistance devised a plan to hit the “Friendship Bridge,” which provided a road link between Afghanistan and the USSR, it was called off by President Zia ul Haq, who feared escalation of the conflict.31 An April 1987 attack which destroyed several buildings on Soviet territory led to a Soviet protest which apparently caused some panic in the Pakistani Foreign Office. According to Yousaf, the Soviet ambassador to Islamabad relayed the message that “if any further operation was conducted in the Soviet Union the consequences for the security and integrity of Pakistan would be dire.”32 This prompted the local CIA official to ask Yousaf “not to start World War III” by conducting operations in Soviet territory. Eventually the attacks were called off completely. 33
There is some evidence that the war had resonance in Central Asian republics, leading unofficial clerics to denounce soldiers who had gone to fight there and an increase in the religious literature being circulated. In 1983, for example, the CRA reported to the CPSU Central Committee that in Tajikistan, some unregistered mullahs were issuing statements saying “it is forbidden to bury Soviet soldiers killed in Afghanistan according to Muslim rites, as they fought against true Muslims.”34 A March 1984 CRA report noted that growing ties with Afghanistan had led to an increase in religious literature coming into the Tajik SSR. Moreover, the report noted religious broadcasts coming from Iran and Pakistan. The radio programs, which included translations of the Koran and related commentary, were being recorded, transcribed, and circulated among believers.35 Perhaps more important than the religious books coming in with CIA help were those brought by civilians and soldiers who served in Afghanistan and brought the books back home to distribute to family and friends.36
There is little evidence that the war had any broader effect in the first half of the
decade. True, there were reports that some of the resistance organizations in Afghanistan were able to find supporters north of the Soviet-Afghan border. In 1983 the Tajik-dominated Jemiat-e Islami claimed to have 2500 members in Soviet Tajikistan.37 The number may have been an exaggeration, but any presence at all is significant and would have been of concern to Soviet authorities. On the other hand, the war was not apparently a subject of discussion in Islamic study circles until much later in the decade, when these circles started becoming politically active.38
As the war dragged on and the number of Soviet troops who had served there increased, public consciousness of the war increased as well, but this did not translate into widespread opposition to it. CIA compilations of disturbances associated with the Afghan war for the period 1984-1987 show that they were spread throughout the Soviet Union. The non-Russian republics seem to be more heavily represented, but the disturbances were by no means confined to predominantly Muslim areas.39 The CIA assessment also conceded that in Central Asia support for the war had “increased markedly, while opposition has only grown marginally.” The CIA’s sources were apparently repulsed by the violence of Islamic fundamentalists and feared the consequences of a takeover by them of Afghanistan.40
Rather than reacting to the Soviet intervention as an attack on fellow Muslims or on people of the same ethnicity, young people in Central Asia generally accepted official Soviet explanations for the reason Soviet troops had to go in. In the wars early years some even volunteered or thought of volunteering, identifying the “internationalist” action there with the legends of heroism they knew through popular songs such as Grenada, which celebrated Soviet volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. On the less romantic side of things, the seeming availability of consumer goods, brought back by returning soldiers, also increased the appeal of serving there.41 What is particularly interesting is that this attitude was shared not just by the children of Soviet elites, but even of those who lived in a grey area, participating in clandestine religious groups – the very people who would become the nucleus of a nationalist or religious opposition later in the decade. Mehdid Kabiri, who was a member of a clandestine religious study circle and later a political activist and eventually leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, even volunteered to be sent to Afghanistan while performing his military service, although he was not ultimately sent.42
It should be remembered that the Soviet media did not discuss combat operations, and generally discussed the war primarily as a peace-keeping and reconstruction operation. With time, of course, the attitudes described above began to change. Cross-border ethnic and religious ties on the one hand and the existence of a “parallel” religious network on the other gave Soviet Muslims, particularly in Central Asia, the ability to discuss the war in a more open way than others in the Soviet Union. Geographical proximity and the importance of the area as a staging ground for Soviet troops also increased exposure. Indeed, in the early years of the war, its presence was only clearly felt in a few areas. In Tashkent, often the first stop for returning veterans as well as troops bound for Afghanistan, the sight of wounded young men was familiar. Svetlana Alexievich, the well-known Russian human rights activist and author, described the city airport in 1986 as a place where “Young soldiers, no more than boys, hop about on crutches amidst the suntanned holiday crowds.” She goes on to say that nobody noticed the soldiers, they were “a familiar sight here, apparently.”43
The appearance of these invalids, accompanied by various rumours and “zinc coffins” quickly disabused young men of any romantic notions about the war, although it does not seem to have turned the actively against it. Generally speaking Afghan veterans were still seen as heroes in and treated as such upon their return. But stories of atrocities committed there as part of their service, told either as bravado or lamentation, further marred the image of service there and of the Soviet intervention in general.44
In terms of the soldiers who went to fight in Afghanistan, there was never any large scale defection of Muslims to the mujahadeen. True, some did go over to the other side, usually after being held in POW camps, but so did a number of Russians. The total number of such defectors was several hundred at most. Viewed against the hundreds of thousands of troops that went through the war over ten years, the number is not significant.45 Nor does there seem to have been a particular problem of draft avoidance by Central Asians as a result of the war; while precise figures are unavailable, Mark Galeotti has shown that participation in the war was consistent with the make-up of the Soviet armed forces generally. The Baltic republics were heavily underrepresented, as were the Transcaucasian ones; but the Tajiks and Uzbeks participated in numbers proportional to the size of their populations.46 True, they were less likely to perform combat roles, but this is primarily because they were underrepresented in elite units, which were dominated by Slavs.
Again, it is perhaps not surprising that reports of the most violent reaction to the war relate to the Caucasus. While the geographic distance from the war was greater, general dissatisfaction with the Soviet state was also more pronounced; resistance to participation in Soviet life was as well. In 1984, Chechen conscripts in Astrakahan rioted, reportedly leading to the death of several draftees.47 In June 1985, there were reports of clashes between Chechen recruits and officers when the former refused to go to Afghanistan and fight their “Muslim co-religionists.”48 Later that summer, a military train carrying conscripts from the North Caucasus to the Afghan border was delayed when a fight broke out between Muslims and Russian soldiers, with arguments about religion apparently fuelling the entire incident.49 We cannot be sure if such incidents really were much more prevalent among recruits from the Caucasus, but this sampling does suggest that this was the case. If so, it is consistent with the pattern noted regarding attitudes to serving in the military as described above. But it is also less important – the Soviet military did not depend on soldiers from Caucasus (or from that matter, from the Baltics, another source of discontent with the war and with Soviet life in general). Central Asians were more important, particularly in the context of the Afghan war, where many served as interpreters.