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Bayram BALCI (Director of the French Institute for Central Asian Studies IFEAC, Tashkent) and Azer JAFAROV (Baku)

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The Baha’is of the Caucasus: From Russian Tolerance to Soviet Repression {2/3}
Article published in 21/02/2007 Issue

By Bayram BALCI (Director of the French Institute for Central Asian Studies IFEAC, Tashkent) and Azer JAFAROV (Baku)

Translated by Kathryn GAYLORD-MILES

Russia, at the moment of the Baha’i faith’s advent was already politically and militarily very present in Iran and along its frontiers. Guided by an imperial policy that put it into competition with the English Crown, Russia was very interested in what was happening in Iran, where it was one of the rare European powers to maintain permanent diplomatic representation .{1} Because of this, Russia was concerned and well-informed about what happened there, including in the domain of politico-religious ideas.

The theological questions of the Persian Empire interested Russia even more because historically, it was often the Shiite clergy that pushed the Shah to war against Russia. This was the case in 1813 and 1828 at least. {2} This strong interest explains the rapidity with which the Writings of Baha’ullah were translated into Russian by Orientalists in the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and Moscow. {3} On the part of certain Russian intellectuals, these translations contributed to a veritable fancy for the Baha’i faith.

Repression, to which the first converts were subject, obligated them to exile themselves in several directions and notably, to Russian territory, in the Turkmen steppes and in the region of Nakhichevan. Therefore, Ashgabat, capital of present-day Turkmenistan, the main city of the Turkmen desert at the time and an important Russian garrison in the region, became the centre of Baha’i exiles. Largely studied by specialists of the Baha’i faith {4}, this community is considered a model of a Baha’i society, founded and governed by the Writings of Baha’ullah. Because of its order, discipline and social organization, as well as its interdependent collective life, based on mutual aid and conviviality, it elicited the admiration of the Russian political authorities of the period.

It possessed, exceptionally for the time, its own hospitals, schools, workshops, newspapers, and centres of leisure. Early egalitarians, girls were educated, conforming to the prescriptions of Baha’ullah that insist on the instruction of girls. The temple of the community, Mashriq-ul-Adhkar, was the point of assembly and crystallization of the group. Certain European intellectuals did not hesitate to compare it to the first Christian societies. {5}

Parallel to its diffusion in the Russian provinces, this new faith attracted the curiosity and sympathy of intellectual circles in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 1903 the writer Isabelle Grinevskaya composed a play in five acts that she called The Bab. In the play, she praises Baha’ism, which she had just embraced. But it is Leo Tolstoy who most publicized this new religion to Russian readers of the period. An admirer of Baha’ullah, he was notably seduced by his progressivism, the rationality of his thinking and above all by the positive role that he gives to women in society. Arguments vary and contradict each other as to whether or not he converted to Baha’ism. {6}

The first contact between Babism (and therefore Baha’ism) and the Caucasus occurred in present-day Nakhichevan. As of the announcement of the next coming of Baha’ullah, a group of disciples formed under the leadership of Sadiq, from the town of Senend, close to Ordubad. The movement spread to all of Nakhichevan and to the region of Zangezur. Worried in face of this movement that it did not understand from the start, the Russian army, under the command of General Behbudov, attacked the new community, which is thought to have included more than ten thousand people. In spite of repression, the new faith continued to grow. From 1850 onwards, small communities established themselves in Baku, Balakhani, Ganja, Barda, and Sheki.

Small groups also installed themselves in Tbilisi, Batumi, in Armenia and in Karabakh. But it is the community of Baku that counted the largest number of believers, to such a point that in 1860, it obtained official recognition from the authorities. It was supported in its legalization efforts by Mirza Abdulkadir Ismayilzade, father of the great national poet Mikayil Mushfik.

Records from the Russian period and from the NKVD show that in 1887 the building situated at 216 Mirza Agha Aliev Street (formerly Jadirov Street), was the spiritual centre of the Baha’i faith community. Currently, attempts are underway for this property to be returned to the Baha’i faith community, but the current legislation does not provide for such recourse.

Political Opening

The success of the Baha’is in Azerbaijan stems from the importance that they accorded from the beginning to modern mixed education, to tolerance and to dialogue with other religions. These progressive views that went against the dominant religious ideas of the age cost them. The famous akhund (Shiite cleric) Ibrahimkhelil, learning that his son had not only converted to Baha’ism but also that he was contributing to its diffusion, published a fatwa condemning him to death. In 1901, he was thrown into an open oil well and stoned to death by the crowd. Barred from Muslim burial, the authorities gave him a space in the Merdekan cemetery.

Despite this climate of hostility, major Azerbaijani intellectual figures often read, admired and even embraced Baha’ism. Among them were the great poet Seyid Azim Shirvani (1835-1888), the founder of the national opera Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948), and Elekber Sabir (1862-1911) who lived for a long time among the Baha’is and to whom we owe the most scientific and reliable studies on the community. Finally, the major millionaire and oil magnate, patron of the arts and philanthropist Musa Naghiyev (1849-1919), was part of the Baha’i faith community. A member of the Spiritual Council of Baku, he helped the community confront external attacks.

Built on the ruins of the Russian Empire, the Soviet government’s ideologues defended with firm conviction from the 1920s onward the idea that all religions are the source of obscurantism and backwardness. With this idea, as soon as it established its control over the whole country, the Bolshevik regime declared war on major religions like Islam and Protestantism. Baha’ism was initially spared because it was a small community scattered in several towns in the Caucasus and in Central Asia.

From 1922, the new government’s caciques launched their campaign against the Baha’is through the official organs of the Party. Concrete measures ensued immediately, such as the deportation of certain Baha’is to Iran and the exile of others to Siberia. Baha’i faith publications and schools were banned, as well as collective meetings, which were considered to be a threat to socialism. From the 1930s onwards, repression intensified, as was the case for all other religions. Certain intellectuals were shot by the Stalinist police.

As in other religions, Baha’i faith and practices took refuge in the family circle and private life, as all religious expression was banned in public spaces. The end of Stalinism relaxed the antireligious policies but a renewal did not occur until much later during perestroika, which, blowing a wind of liberty over all of the Soviet Union, permitted the establishment of connections with Baha’is abroad. This political opening, along with the independence of the republics where the Baha’is were implanted, announced a reconstitution of the community.

{1}On the Anglo-Russian rivalry in Iran, see George CURZON, Persia and the Persian Question, vol. 1, Longmans, 1892, London, reprinted in Frank Cass, London, 1966. For a Russian version of these narratives, see Andrew D. KALMYKO, Memoirs of a Russian Diplomat (Ed. Kalmykow, Alexandra), Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1971.

{2} Tadeusz SWIETOCHOWSKI, Historical Dictionary of Azerbaijan, New York, Secarcrow, 1999.

{3} The first real Russian translation of Baha’i texts was the work of Aleksandr KAZEM-BEG, a Russian scholar of Iranian origin, a professor of Persian Studies at Saint Petersburg University between 1849 and 1860. See Graham HASSALL, “Notes on the Babi and Baha'i Religions in Russia and its territories”, Journal of Baha’ Studies, vol. 5, n° 3, 1993, pp. 41-80.

{4} On the Ashgabat Baha’i community, see Moojan MOMEN, “The Baha’i Community of Ashkkhabad : it’s Social Basis and Importance in Baha’i History”, in Shirin AKINER (Ed.), Cultural Change and Continuity in Central Asia, London, Kegan Paul International, 1991, pp. 278-305.

{5} Moojan MOMEN, « The Baha’i Community of Ashkhabad: its Social Basis and Importance in Baha’i History », op.cit.

{6} On the relationship between Leo Tolstoy and Baha’ism, see William P. COLLINS, and Jasion T. JAN, “Lev Tolstoy and the Báb’ and Bahá'’ Religions: A Bibliography”, The Journal of Bahá'’ Studies, vol. 3, n° 3, 1991, pp.1-10.

© CAUCAZ.COM | Article published in 21/02/2007 Issue | By Bayram BALCI (Director of the French Institute for Central Asian Studies IFEAC, Tashkent) and Azer JAFAROV (Baku)

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