TARTU, Estonia, May 9 (UPI) -- Shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Joseph Stalin ordered the release from the gulag of those Russian mullahs and imams whom he earlier had arrested so they could declare a jihad against Hitler and thus mobilize the Muslim population to fight the Nazis.
That action, a senior Muslim leader in the Russian Federation said last week, did inspire many Russian Muslims to fight against the Germans, but, more importantly, it also helped to preserve what little remained of organized Islam there. And as a result, some Muslims, like some Orthodox hierarchs, now view the Soviet dictator more positively than one might expect.
In an interview published in St. Petersburg's Chas Pik newspaper last Thursday, Sheikh Mokhammed Karachai, a deputy chief mufti of the Russian Federation, provided new details on how Stalin and Soviet Muslims interacted at the beginning of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union (religare.ru/print17428.htm).
Immediately after the invasion began, the mufti of Tashkent issued a fatwa declaring a holy war against the Germans, Karachai said, but the ranks of mullahs and imams in the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic had been so decimated in the 1920s and 1930s there were almost no Muslim leaders who could issue a similar fatwa for the Muslims of the Russian Federation.
One measure of the destruction of the public face of Islam by Stalin is provided by "Shariat," a recent book issued by the Russian Interior Ministry and Moscow State University. In the 2004 work, Sultonbek Boronbekov notes the number of mosques in the Russian Federation alone fell from some 22,000 to as few as 100 at the start of the war.
Most were shut down by the Soviet state, and almost all of their mullahs and imams were either killed or incarcerated in the gulag (For a chilling description of what this process looked like in a single city, see "Pravda Severo-Zapada," March 9, 2005, at portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=monitor&id=5931).
But despite his complicity in this repression, Stalin was prepared to use any and all means to oppose the Germans, including cooperating with those he had only recently put in prison or worse, Karachai said. After the Tashkent fatwa, the Soviet leader personally turned to the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Muslims in Ufa and asked it to issue one as well.
Ufa promptly did so, and then in the words of Karachai, Stalin ordered the release from prison of "the Muslim leaders who remained alive" so they could issue similar declarations of a holy war against the Nazis.
Stalin's actions allowed the public face of Islam to survive and even recover slightly, but Karachai was at pains to say that "Muslims did not die for Stalin -- they died in the name of the creator and for the salvation of his creation, the motherland." And he recalled Stalin's expressions of gratitude to Muslims both at home and at the front.
"Today," Karachai said in conclusion, "a grateful Russia has built together with the Muslims a beautiful mosque on Poklonnaya hill which is called the Mosque of the Shakhids -- of the martyrs who gave their life for the Motherland and the holy war against fascist Germany."
Few other Muslim leaders have discussed this particular role of Stalin, with most limiting themselves to noting how many Muslims fought and died in World War II, how many mullahs once served in the Red Army, and how Muslims are now honoring both (islam.ru/press/rus/2005-05-05/).
But Karachai's comments parallel those of many Russian Orthodox churchmen, whose praise for Stalin has sometimes been less restrained. Archbishop Antonii of Krasnoyarsk and Yeniseisk, for example, has praised Stalin for allowing his church to re-emerge, a position that has been criticized by some advocates of religious freedom (portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=comment&id=721).
Such comments by Muslim and Orthodox Christian leaders clearly reflect three things. First, they are obviously the product of a desire on the part of both to curry favor with the current Russian leadership, which continues to promote Stalin as an important military and political leader.
Second, such remarks reflect a genuine understanding on the part of the leaders of both religious groups that Stalin's reaching out to the faithful during the war, as calculated and cynical as it may have been, nonetheless played a major role in the survival of Islam and Orthodoxy in Soviet times.
And third, comments by Karachai and Antonii highlight a more general trend, one that recent polls suggests affects an ever larger part of the population of the Russian Federation: the more Russians are asked to consider Stalin's role in the war, the less they focus on his crimes against their society.
In the current issue of Neprikosnovenniy zapas, Lev Gudkov analyzes this tendency in detail (polit.ru/research/2005/05/08/pamjat_print.html). "The higher the status of the events of 'the war' which are teleologically organized as a chain of events leading to an inevitable victory," he writes, "the more memory about Stalinist repression recedes."
Over the past 12 years, he notes, the number of Russians saying Stalinist repression was an important aspect of Russian history has fallen from 29 percent to less than 1 percent now, and the percentage of those who have a positive view of Stalin has risen from 19 percent in 1998 to 53 percent now.
Karachai's interview shows he and other Muslims in the Russian Federation are much affected by this trend as well, but his remarks at the same time make it clear neither he nor other Muslims there have forgotten that Stalin's reaching out to Islam was very much the exception rather than the rule in Soviet times.
(Paul Goble teaches at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia.)