Notes on the Babi and Bahá'í Religions in Russia and its territoriesJournal of Bahá'í Studies, 5:3, pages 41-80
Ottawa: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1993
The proximity of Russia to Persia, and the presence of representatives of the Russian government there during both the ministries of Siyyíd Alí Muhammad (the Báb, 1817-1850) and Mírzá Husayn Alí (Bahá'u'lláh 1819-1892), resulted in the involvement of officials and other observers from that country in crucial episodes in the evolution of the Bábí and Bahá'í religions. In Persia, Russian officials were among those foreigners who, in certain instances, protected persecuted Bábís, just as they offered protection to Bahá'u'lláh and his followers both there and later during their exile. In this same period Russia contributed to the downfall of the Ottoman regime and its rulers, who had been responsible for Bahá'u'lláh's further imprisonment and exiles, and for his final incarceration in `Akka. The subsequent overthrow of the Czarist government by the Communists, and the consolidation of Bolshevik power, witnessed fluctuations in the fortunes of the Bahá'í communities that came under Tzarist authority, then Communist subjugation. This paper traces these episodes in the emergence of Bahá'í communities in Russia and territories under Russian domination, from their origins until recent times.
In 1844, when the Báb declared his mission, the Russian legation was one of only two European diplomatic missions in Tehran. Thus the Russian government was one of the best informed as to the progress of the Bábí movement. Bahá'u'lláh's brother-in-law, Mirza Majid-i-Ahi (he was married to Bahá'u'lláh's full sister Nisá' Khánum), although not a believer, was a secretary at the Russian legation, and was quite possibly a source of much information, and the Russian diplomat, Prince Dimitri Ivanovich Dolgorukov, was energetic in reporting affairs in Persia. Persia was at this time the object of political intrigue and contest between Britain and Russia. Slightly earlier, during the reign of Fath-'Alí Sháh (1797-1834), the clergy had brought calamity to the Qajar dynasty by declaring holy war on Russia - which only yielded defeat at the hands of the Czar's forces, and the damaging treaties of Gulistán (1813) and Turkomanchay (1828). Years later, in his Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Bahá'u'lláh commented on the folly of this "war that have involved the two Nations", in which both sides had "renounced their possessions and their lives" and in which many villages were "completely wiped out!" For another century the inattention of Persia's Qajar shahs allowed Russia the opportunity to press south into Persia. Transcapia, the region that included Ashkhábád, home to so many Bahá'ís, was secured by Russia in the 1880s, and Persia's northern provinces were occupied at the outbreak of the First World War.
The Russian crown and the judgement of Bahá'u'lláh
The most significant contact between Russian diplomats and Persian Bahá'ís occurred in the years after the Báb's martyrdom in 1850. In 1869, when a Báhá'í named Badí was tortured and executed at the order of Nasiri'd-Din Sháh, for having attempted to hand him a letter written by Bahá'u'lláh, the text was acquired by Russian consular officials in Persia, and sent to the Institute of Oriental Languages in St. Petersburg. Badí had walked the entire distance from `Akká in Palestine, to Persia, knowing well that the act he was destined to perform would mean his martyrdom. Through the diligence of Russian officials and scholars, notably Gamazov and Baron Victor Rosen, the words he conveyed to the Sháh were preserved, and widely circulated. It was Rosen, who forwarded a catalogue containing this tablet to Cambridge Orientalist E.G. Browne, who awakened that English scholar's interest in the Bábí movement.
Other scholars of this early period included Mírzá Aleksandr Kazem-Beg, a Persian-born Orientalist, and Professor of Persian Literature at the University of St. Petersburg 1849-60. Kazem-Beg reported the experience of Siyyid 'Abdu'l-Karím-i-Urdœbádi, who had become a Bábí after travelling in Iráq, but had been arrested by the Russian government and exiled to Smolensk after having converted several people to his new Faith in the Caucasus. Kezem-Beg also produced the first Russian-language publication on Bábísm, which was in 1866 translated and published in French. Another Orientalist of this period, Bernard Dorn, published several articles on Bábísm, from St Petersburg, in German.
While Orientalists commenced corresponding on what they regarded as an intriguing contemporary religious movement, Bahá'u'lláh and his accompanying relatives and followers were exiled by stages, through the province of 'Iráq to the penal colony of `Akká in Palestine. There he wrote to the Russian monarch, Czár Alexander II (1855-1881), a tablet known as Lawh-i-Malik-i-Rus, warning the sovereign not to ignore his message, and intimating that he had heard a prayer for military victory over the Ottomans that the Czár had earnestly offered. This evidently refers to Alexander II's war with the Ottoman Empire, 1877-78, a war which the Czar had entered in an attempt to avenge the defeat suffered by his father in the Crimean War. With his armies almost defeated Alexander had turned to God in prayer. Bahá'u'lláh intimated his awareness of the Czar's secretly uttered prayer, and attributed the subsequent Russian victory to divine assistance. Further, he suggested the Czar received divine assistance after one of his ministers had sought to aid Bahá'u'lláh during his unjust confinement in Tehran in 1852. Finally, Bahá'u'lláh's tablet warned Czár Alexander not to "barter away" God's pleasure by ignoring His summons.
In examining the course of subsequent events, historical explanation and religious interpretation intertwine. Shoghi Effendi has suggested the "persistent and decisive intervention of the Russian Minister, Prince Dolgorukov, who "left no stone unturned to establish the innocence of Bahá'u'lláh" was one of several important factors among those that secured Bahá'u'lláh's release from prison. Informed that Bahá'u'lláh was to be exiled, the Russian Minister
There were several factors that may have influenced the efforts of Dolgorukov. His daughter is known to have especially pleaded for this, and Bahá'u'lláh's brother-in-law's employment with the Russian legation may have carried some effect. Furthermore, it is well known that foreign missions extended favours to those in need in order to cultivate future support from a cross-section of Persian interests. Russian diplomats continued to extend protection to Bahá'ís in later years, prior to the revolution. In Isfahan in 1903, for instance, Bahá'ís took refuge from mobs in the Russian Consulate, and the Russian acting consul, M. Baronowsky, petitioned Persian authorities on their behalf. Such humanitarian assistance has been interpreted as "Russian support for the Bahá'ís". If this had been the case, however, more would surely have been done, or at least said, by Russian officials, to prevent the deaths of so many thousands of Bábís and Bahá'ís the hands of their Persian enemies.
The vast unravelling that led to the ultimate dissolution of the Ottoman empire commenced in this period. Sultan `Abdu'l-'Aziz was murdered in 1876. When Adrianople was occupied by the Russians during the war of 1877-78 "no less than eleven million people were freed from the cruelties of that tyrannical regime." Matching the fate of the Ottoman Sultan, Czár Alexander II, "the omnipotent Czar of the vast Russian Empire" was assassinated in 1881.
The character of the last days of Tzárist rule has been assessed by Shoghi Effendi, grandson of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith 1921-57. Alexander II's policies, Shoghi Effendi has suggested, were "retrogressive", and proved "fatal to both himself and his dynasty". They had caused widespread disillusionment, given rise to nihilism, which had in turn "ushered in a period of terrorism of unexampled violence, leading in its turn to several attempts on his life, and culminating in his assassination." The Czár's successor, Alexander III, continued repressive policies, and "assumed an attitude of defiant hostility to innovators and liberals". "Finally," Shoghi Effendi continued,
Shoghi Effendi continued this analysis of the downfall of the Russian monarchy in his later work God Passes By. The continuation of repressive policies under Alexander III, in his view,
The Russian state's harsh domestic policies were accompanied by continuing imperialist aspirations, and control over border regions, including some inside Persia, grew.
Bahá'ís were not favoured by Russian authorities in the Romanoff period, neither were they discriminated against: it was this neutrality that attracted Persian Bahá'ís north into Russian-held territority. Several generations of Muslims, numbering more than ten million, had lived in Russian controlled territories to the north of Persia by the time Persian Bahá'ís migrated to Ashkhabad in the 1880s. Many of the Bahá'ís were builders or traders, well suited to earning their living in a frontier town. In 1881 the area in which the new city was located formally became part of the Russian territory of Transcapia, later Turkestan. A "prosperous community" of Bahá'ís evolved in Ashkhabad," observed Shoghi Effendi, "assured of the good will of a sympathetic government..." When, in subsequent years, the Shah complained to Russian diplomats about what he regarded as too favourable treatment of the Bahá'ís, the official Russian response was that no such favourable treatment was being given the community. This neutrality of interest was quite possibly a major influence on migration north by hundreds if not several thousand Persian Bahá'ís, and by the 1890s the Bahá'í community in Ashkhabad had risen to above 1,000. There may have been additional factor contributing to the relative freedom experienced by the Bahá'ís in Russian territories: Bennigsen and Queluejay have suggested that Sunni and Shi'i communities demonstrated a unity in the context of common Russian oppression that was so comprehensive that it recognized even the Bahá'í communities in Ashkhabad and Astrakhan' (and also the Ismailis who had fled persecution in Afghanistan) to be part of the Muslim Umma, the 'commonwealth' of Islam.
Momen has made several pertinent observations about this community: it remained remained predominantly Persian; the extent of its contact with Turkmen was limited by linguistic and cultural barriers; that "there was no attempt made to convert Russians, since Russian law made it a capital offence for a Russian citizen to convert from Christianity"; and that the Bahá'í community was, consequently, "rather introverted". The impression of Kalmykow, a Russian diplomat in Ashkhabad at this time, was that the Bahá'ís (whom he continued to describe as Babis) formed a "closely knit community of honest, law-abiding people, somewhat reminiscent of the early Christian churches in the first century after Christ":
Under a Christian government, the Bahá'ís had hoped for a life free from Shí'i persecution, but the murder of Hájí Muhammad-Ridá in 1889 threw the community into prominence. Shoghi Effendi's summary of this incident pointed to the ferocity of the crime, and the existence of a system of justice that had been denied to the Bahá'ís in their own homeland:
In Epistle to the Son of the Wolf Bahá'u'lláh praised the actions of his followers, who refused to seek revenge:
This dramatic episode attracted the attention of Russian Orientalists Rosen and Alexander Tumanski, and its details appeared also in the correspondence of British diplomats. Thus, however ethnically insular the Bahá'ís of Ashkhabad may have been, they were not obscure. The construction of the first Mashriqu'l-Adhkar by the Bahá'ís anywhere fully demonstrated their extroadinary vision, resources, and capacity.
Hájí Mírzá Muhammad-Taqiy-i-Afnán, a nephew of the Báb, and a man of considerable wealth, had purchased some land in the region, and had been instructed by Bahá'u'lláh to use a portion of it for the construction of a Mashriqu'l-Adhkár. Having been consular agent for Russia, England, and France in his native town for many years, Taqiy moved from Yazd in 1902 - in the recollection of Russian diplomat Andrew Kalmykow - to escape the persecution in that city. He settled in Ashkhabad and, as the "crowning act of his long religious life," embarked upon the building of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár: "He lived in a very simple manner but spared no money for the completion of the temple or the cause of his religion."
The general design for the edifice was selected by `Abdu'l-Bahá and a Russian architect, Volkov, planned and executed the details of construction. The cornerstone was laid on 2 December 1902 in the "presence of General Krupatkin, the governor-general of Turkistan, who had been delegated by the Czár to represent him at the ceremony." Stories of the sacrifices involved in its construction became legend. Erection of this temple ranked, in the estimation of Shoghi Effendi as "..one of the most brilliant and enduring achievements in the history of the first Bahá'í century." The Chicago Bahá'ís, upon hearing that a Mashriqu'l-Adhkár was to be built, wrote to the Ashkabad Bahá'ís to obtain a copy of its plan.
The energy with which the Ashkhabad Bahá'ís shaped their community and institutions in accordance with principles in the Bahá'í Writings quickly won the admiration of Bahá'ís in the West. In 1908 the American Bahá'í Charles Mason Remey visited Ashkhabad, and reported on progress in construction of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár in Star of the West. The following year he published a lengthier account of his travels in Palestine, Iran, and Turkestan. When mounting his first survey of the international Bahá'í community, Horace Holley suggested that administratively, the Ashkhabad community operated at a "high degree of perfection". It was one of the first Bahá'í communities anywhere in the world to operate schools, medical facilities, and a cemetery, and maintained a printing press devoted entirely to publication of Bahá'í literature.
The Ashkhabad community included such prominent members as Shaykh Muhammad-`Alí, that "eloquent and learned champion of the Faith in Russian Turkistan" later named by Shoghi Effendi one of the nineteen "Apostles of Bahá'u'lláh"; Hájí Mírzá Muhammad-Taqí, the cousin of the Báb already mentioned as being responsible for the construction of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár; and Aqá Mírzá Ja'far-i-Hádíoff, originally from Shíráz, who paid for construction of the pilgrim house next to the Shrine of the Báb on Mt. Carmel. The presence of such intellectuals as Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani, Sayyid Mahdi, Shaykh Muhammad Qa'ini and Shaykh Muhammad 'Ali made Ashkhabad "a major centre of learning and intellectual life in the Bahá'í world", just as the fearlessness of its leadership made it one of the most courageous in the face of later opposition.
The history of Central Asia, according to Bennigson, has been characterised by conflict between "centrifugal tendences of budding local nationalism and the unifying current of pan-Turkism". The absence of ethnic and linguistic unity, and of territorial and social unity, however, was partially compensated for by a degree of religious unity. Most Muslims were Sunnis of the Hanafi sect, and the cultures of diverse peoples were based on common Arabo-Iranic-Turkic base. The dominant languages were classical Arabic, Persian, and Chagatay. Persian, according to Bennigsen, was taught in the religious schools and written and spoken by the Turkic and Iranian intelligentsia in the towns of Central Asia and also in Kazan and Baku. In the form of Tadzhik, Persian was the spoken, but not the written, language of the Iranian population of the eastern parts of the emirate of Bukhara.
Perhaps the existence of a common tongue facilitated the spread of the Bahá'í teachings in the cities and towns of Asiatic Russia. Within the lifetime of Bahá'u'lláh, his teachings appear to have spread through the Caucasus, often through Persian merchants travelling in search of markets for their Persian wares. Apart from communities of believers in Turkistan and Caucasus, others were established in Uzbekistan, in "far-off Samarqand and Bukhárá, in the heart of the Asiatic continent, in consequence of the discourses and writings of the erudite Fádil-i-Qá'iní and the learned apologist Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl". The latter's influence while in the region emerges from diverse sources. An early biography states that while in Samarkand of Abu'l-Fadl wrote a book, Fassl-ul-Khitab (Conclusive Proof), in response to the questions of Mirza Haydar-Ali of Tabriz. It was in Samarkand, too, that Abu'l-Fadl debated a well-known Protestant teacher, Dr Marcard Assadorian. Tumanski, then professor of Arabic language at Tiflis, valued greatly the friendship of Abu'l Fadl among other Bahá'ís with whom he was in contact there. Abu'l-Fadl had arrived in Ashkhabad sometime after being released from his third imprisonment in Persia, in February 1886. Eventually, he travelled as far as Moscow and eastward as far as China and Kashgaria (Chinese Turkistan). Among other notable Bahá'ís resident in the region were Fadil, of Ghaeem, who was buried at Buhkara and later removed to 'Ishqábád on the verbal instructions of `Abdu'l-Bahá; and Aqá Muhammad-i-Qáiní, Nabíl-i-Akbar, who passed through Ashkhabad and in Bukhárá in July 1892.
When `Abdu'l-Bahá assumed leadership of the Bahá'í community upon the passing of Bahá'u'lláh in 1892 there were adherents not only in Persia and the Ottoman Empire, but also as far east as India and Burma. In Russia, the movement was known to officials and intellectuals, some of whom were attracted to the heroism and idealism of the early adherents. But whereas Bábí and Bahá'í ideas were being debated by the thinking class, they remained generally unknown to the masses, who allowed themselves to be swayed by a more rebellious and politically oriented project of social upheaval, and led into dislocation on a massive scale.
Although the number of Bahá'í communities in Asiatic Russia appears to have been increasing in the early years of the Twentieth Century, the exact numbers are unclear. Furthermore, further research will be required to ascertain the extent of non-Persian adherence. In 1910 a group of Persians was meeting in Merv, while in Samarkand the Bahá'ís had established an Assembly, and a school, and had applied to the Government for permission to purchase land on which to build a Mashriqu'l-Adhkár. Four meetings were being held each week.
In Baku, few Russians had been attracted into the Bahá'í community, and there were some dangers involved in admitting to such affiliation. Baku's "Board of Consultation" described, when writing to New York Bahá'ís in 1902, the difficulties of spreading the Bahá'í teachings amongst an uninformed people:
In the face of such restrictions, the Baku Bahá'ís maintained an international outlook. They were in communication with such Western Bahá'ís as Thornton Chase and Arthur Pilsbury Dodge. They sent contributions to the North American Bahá'í Temple Unity Fund, and published Bahá'í materials in several languages. They received a visit from American Bahá'ís Susan Moody and Sydney Sprague.
Other Bahá'í centres included Sharud and Kongand, Batoum, Cocand, Tiflis, Shamatchi, and Salcya. In September 1911 the North American Bahá'í magazine Star of the West reported 56 letters in Persian had been received from these centres in the past year, and that 176 subscriptions to the journal had been taken up. This suggests a considerable level of communication existed between Western Bahá'ís and those in the outer territories, if not in Russia itself. There was, too, opposition from political movements, including pan-Turkism, which sought solidarity through nationalism rather than religion, and castigated Azerbaijani Turks in Persia who sacrificed themselves for the Faith of the Báb.
The First World War undoubtedly disrupted communication between `Abdu'l-Bahá and the Bahá'ís in Russia, as it did with his correspondence elsewhere. When British forces were entering Palestine in 1917, the British Major and admirer of `Abdu'l-Bahá, Tudor-Pole, received inquiries from Russia concerning `Abdu'l-Bahá's safety. In late 1921 Ashkhabad remained so isolated by geographical and political circumstances that news of `Abdu'l-Bahá's death was only telegraphed to the Bahá'ís with the assistance of the American Red Cross and the British Trade Mission at Moscow.
In his letters to the North American Bahá'ís known as the Tablets of the Divine Plan written during the war years, `Abdu'l-Bahá mentioned Russia, White Russia (or Russia-Europe, now Bielorus) and Asiatic Russia among the regions to which he hoped Bahá'ís would travel to teach the message of Bahá'u'lláh. There was, however, little immediate response from the Western Bahá'ís, and another four decades passed before Shoghi Effendi used 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Divine Plan as the basis of his decade-long and world-embracing "Crusade".
In the 1920s, new lines of communication were established linking Bahá'ís in Russia with others expatriate in England. Mr. Dia'u'llah Asgharzadih, who had moved from Ashkhabad to London, maintained contact with the Russian Bahá'ís through Mr Dhabíhu'lláh Námdár. Mr. Asgharzadih, whose mother's family - believers from the time of the Báb - migrated in 1895 to Ashkhabad from Milán, Persian Azerbaijan, before moving to London in the 1920s and becoming a carpet merchant. There he married and raised a family, and served on the National Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the British Isles for periods 1925-1941. In September 1953 he moved to Channel Island, where he died in April 1956.
Beyond Turkistan and Caucasia, knowledge of the Bábí and Bahá'í religions was spreading among Russian intellectual and artistic circles. The Early Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh was published by the Oriental Department of the Imperial Russian University in St. Petersburg, under the supervision of Baron Victor Rosen, whose earlier work has already been mentioned, and who also mentioned the Faith in the 1899 publication Zapiski. The Will and Testament of Bahá'u'lláh was also printed in Russian.
Precious little is known about Isabel Grinevskaya, the early Russian Bahá'í who published a dramatic poem in five acts in St. Petersburgh in May 1903. Her drama, entitled The Báb, is reported as having caught the attention of the educated classes when it played in the St Petersburg Soavorinsky theatre in January 1904, and again, following the February Revolution, in the Folk Theatre in Leningrad in April 1917. By Grinevskaya's account, published in a newspaper in Odessa during her journey to Palestine, the play was "soon prohibited by the censors", but brought her into contact with Bahá'ís:
Those Grinevskaya met included, at Baku, Mirza Ali-Akbar Nakhjavani. In 1910 she addressed the Oratorical Club - and possibly other forums - on the subject of the Bahá'ís, and favourable reports her meetings appeared in Star of the West:
When `Abdu'l-Bahá learnt the details of Grinevskaya's work he asked her to correct some inaccuracies, and in 1911 invited her to visit:
It is not clear where Grinevskaya visited Palestine as well as Egypt. It was her journey to the latter that provided the setting for her later essay, Journey in the Countries of the Sun. A subsequent play, entitled Bahá'u'lláh, was published in Leningrad in 1912 but was never performed. The Russian writer and journalist Gabriel de Wesselitsky and the famed Russian novelist Leo Tolstoi were among those who praised the literary quality of her work.
Although for some time Grinevskaya corresponded with Martha Root, who wrote a brief essay on her involvement with the Bahá'ís of Russia and Persia, her later years were filled with isolation. Her work was not translated into other languages as she had hoped, and the Western Bahá'ís did not correpond with her to the extent that she wished:
Tolstoi had encountered the Bábí movement as early as 1894 and maintained sporadic contact with Bahá'ís from 1901 until his death in 1910. Ghadirian has recounted Tolstoi's vision of ideal religion, and his encounters with Bahá'ís, beginning with Isabel Grinevskaya and later 'Aziz'ulláh Jazzah Khorasani, who was apparently despatched from `Akká by `Abdu'l-Bahá to speak to Tolstoi during a period of house arrest that followed his excommunication from the Orthodox church. Collins and Jasion, having recently reviewed 80 published sources on Tolstoi and the Bábí and Bahá'í religions, have cautioned that the novelist's attitude to both religions was ambivalent, moving between the sympathies he expressed to Isabel Grinevskaya, and even to "Caucasian Mohammedans", and others more negative. They suggest it is more appropriate to view the positive statements Tolstoi made on the Bahá'í Faith as
The brief references to Bábísm and Bahá'í in Tolstoi's personal diary are enigmatic, and throw scant light on the subject, apart from demonstrating Tolstoi's known interested in comparative religion.
If Tolstoi had intended writing in detail about Bahá'í beliefs, he did not live to do so. Ironically, a number of other Russian writers investigated the Bábí and Bahá'í movements in far more detail than did Tolstoi, but received far less attention for their efforts. These included Umanets, Mubagajian, Bakulin, Batyushkov, Kazembrek, and Zhukovskiy. The Bahá'ís were also referred to in the works of Krymsky, and minor references appeared in the Bulletin de la AcadŽmie Imperiale de St. Petersburg, volumes eight and nine, and in Universala Uni_o, Vol.1, 1913. Bah'iyyat, by M. Blanovsky, was printed in Moscow in 1914. Captain A.H. Tumansky edited two volumes of Bahá'u'lláh's writings in Russian, Kitábe-Akdes and Works of Bahá'u'lláh, in addition to another major work published in St Petersburg. The Bahá'ís themselves printed a limited range of Russian-language materials during this period, in both Ashkhabad and Bakœ. `Abdu'l-Bahá's Tablet to the Hague was printed in Russian in London in 1922. Collins lists five "major" publications on the Bahá'í Faith in Russian, four written prior to the revolution, and another, by Ivanov, in 1939.
The impact of Communism
In the year before his death `Abdu'l-Bahá had predicted that the "the movement of the left" would spread." It was to be a full decade after the revolution, however, that the Bahá'ís in Russian territories felt the full impact of the Communist regime. The Bolsheviks had brought the Romanoff dynasty to an end in 1917, and they eventually reversed the fortunes all religions communities in Russia and territories under Soviet rule. Bolshevism, in the summation of Shoghi Effendi, "shook the throne of the Czars and overthrew it":
The decline of orthodoxy at the hands of revolution became one of Shoghi Effendi's enduring themes. Russia's churches, he wrote, suffered "humiliating blows" under Communist rule, to the extent of their disestablishment and dismemberment. Writing to the Bahá'ís of the West, Shoghi Effendi described communism as a creed which negated "God, His Laws and Principles...", and whose emergence in the heart of Asia "threatened to disrupt the foundations of human society." It was one of "three false Gods" hastening the decline of religion and responsible for the slaughter of "multitudes". The "aggressive policies and the persistent efforts exerted by the inspirers and organizers of the communist movement", he wrote, contributed to the "de-Christianization of the masses." Communism spread from Soviet Russia into Europe and America, East into Persia, India, China and Japan with a "...conscious, avowed, organized attack against religion in general and Christianity in particular" that was "something new in history." It was an economic theory "definitely harnessed to disbelief in God...a religious irreligion" which had a "passionate sense of mission" and was in Russia and elsewhere "carrying on its anti-God campaign at the church's base".
A review of but a few of the "anti-religious" measures adopted in the years immediately after the installation of the Communist regime depict something of the upheavel Shoghi Effendi describes. On December 4, 1917, all land was nationalised, including that of churches and monasteries. A sweeping decree nationalised all Church-owned property, without compensation. Religious activities were curtailed by numerous rules and conditions. In 1918 religious instruction in state schools was prohibited, and a new Family Code refused to recognise church marriages and divorces.
Between Revolution and Persecution, 1917-1928
Despite the harsh anti-religious laws passed by the Bolshevik authorities soon after their putsch, the activities of Bahá'í communities in Russia and the southern regions flourished for another decade. They had been left free in matters of worship, administration, and purely non-political activities. Horace Holley, secretary of the United States National Assembly attributed this tolerance to the authorities' knowledge of the strictly non-political nature of Bahá'í affairs. But whereas the Bahá'ís believed their loyalty to government, and non-involvement in the tense politics of the time, was the sole cause of their continued toleration, it is clear that the government's first moves against the Churches, to strip them of assets and privileges enjoyed under the previous regime, were more damaging to the wealthy Orthodox and Catholic churches than to small and insignificant groups such as the Bahá'ís. In the south, furthermore, the Islamic factor may have at first shielded the Bahá'ís of Ashkhabad and elsewhere in Turkistan and the Caucasus from official sanction. The Soviet Communist Party, Robert Conquest has suggested, at first "subordinated its basic hostility to Islam, as a form of religious belief, to the needs of its internal and external policies". It was only later, with the civil war won, with Soviet rule consolidated, and when the need for tolerance had passed, that the Commissariat for Nationalities was reorganised, the Commissariat for Muslim Affairs abolished, and a campaign launched by the state to constrain the influence of Islam. During this time rumours concerning the fate of the Russian Bahá'ís spread to other parts of the world.
Notwithstanding the uncertainties and reversals of the time, the Ashkhabad Bahá'ís were engaged in vigorous dialogue with Muslim opponents. A report in Star of the West early in 1923 suggested "a large number of Russians, Tartars and other tribes" had become Bahá'ís, and that meetings of up to 3,000 people were being held. A Bahá'í newspaper, The Sun of the Orient was being distributed widely. A report in April praised the public performances of Agha Muhammad Sabst and Agha Siyyid Mihdi Gulpaygani, and indicated that separate meetings were being held for Muslim and Tartar inquirers, among whom there were "a number of firm believers".
Prospects for the Cause in Russian Turkistan were "promising" and there were too few teachers to instruct the number of inquirers. A.A. Furutan recalls the existence by 1922 of Bahá'í communities in Ishqabad and Marv in Russian Turkestan, and a Local Assemby at Bádkœbih in the Caucasus. National Assemblies had been formed in the Caucasus and in Turkistán by 1925, although these were of a preliminary nature, as Bahá'í electoral processes had not yet been adopted in the region. In the Caucasus, the establishment of an Assembly in Baku - a city visited by increasing numbers of Bahá'í pilgrims on their way from Persia to the Holy Land via Turkey - was followed by the establishment of new communities, which co-operated with the Bahá'ís in both Turkistan and Persia. More Western Bahá'ís visited, including Mrs Lorel Schopflocher, from Canada, who visited Persia and Iraq as well as Russia in 1925.
From Ashkhabad young Bahá'ís travelled to Khurasan, Mazindaran, and Gilan in Iran, and to Khiva, and isolated areas of Turkistan and Caucasus, to teach their Faith. They published a Bahá'í magazine, Khurshíd-i-Khávar. The Ashkhabad Bahá'ís had conducted a school for boys from 1897, and added another for girls. Some students subsequently travelled to London for further studies. Elsewhere in Turkestan, in Tashkand, where a community of Bahá'ís had expanded from about 1900, a library and Persian and Russian language schools had been established, and meetings of up to 2,000 inquirers were being advertised with the permission of government authorities. Bahá'í literature published in Tashkánd included `Abdu'l-Bahá's Vahdat (in the Tartar language) in 1918, and Lawh-i-Ahmad (nd) and A Traveller's Narrative (1916) in Farsi.
In Moscow, no less than in the more distant centres, Bahá'í activities continued in the early 1920s. A correspondent from Moscow reported in Star of the West in October 1923 a gathering of some three hundred followers of the late Leo Tolstoi:
At about this time Gulpaygani, a relative of Mirza Abul Fazl, and an active Bahá'í speaker throughout Turkistan, was due to visit Moscow for a series of lectures. Ali Kuli Khan, a Persian Diplomat, visited Moscow in April 1924. Ali Akbar Furutan, whose family had moved from Sabzivár in Iran to Ashkhabad in 1914, arrived in Moscow in 1926 to commence his studies in education, and remained for several years before returning to Iran. It seems that there were few Bahá'ís resident in Russia beyond the major cities. Hossein Touty, possibly a merchant, moved to Vladivostok from Shanghai in 1919 or 1920, but left for Mindanao in the Philippines in January 1921.
Persecution and Dispersal, 1928-1938
In common with all other citizens of the Russian state, the Bahá'ís experienced civil strife and external war, partial expropriation of property, excessive taxation and the curtailment of certain individual rights. In 1928 this "highly unfortunate and perplexing" situation deteriorated. In that year, as Stalin initiated plans for the Soviet Union's forced industrialisation, a renewed attack on religion commenced on an "extended front". An official statement hostile to the Bahá'ís had appeared in the gazette of the Soviet government as early as 1922, but no serious action had been taken at that time. Now, Bahá'ís in Turkistan, Caucasus, and in Russia, experienced systematic harassment, and deprivation. Their homes were search, mail intercepted, meetings disrupted, schools closed, and the constitutions of Local Assemblies abrogated. In February 1928 a Russian Bahá'í, Husayn Beg Qudsi, who had corresponded with Shoghi Effendi, and who had taken the Bahá'í teachings to other parts of Russia, was the first to be arrested. In October two members of the Ashkhabad Assembly were arrested and held for three months; another 24 Bahá'ís were detained the following July. One of these, Ashraf Beg, was not heard of again and presumed murdered, a further sixteen were released after six months. During the same period Bahá'ís from Tashkent, Baku, and Bardá were either interrogated or imprisoned. Zargaroff and Massoumoff of Baku were banished for three years to the Arctic Circle, while Aqa Habibullah Baqiroff of Tashkent was sentenced to ten years imprisonment "in the neighbourhood of the North Sea and the polar forests." Letters from survivors of this persecution were reproduced in the 1928-1930 volume of Bahá'í World.
In addition, state authorities "enforced their right of ownership and control" over the Ashkhabad Mashriqu'l-Adhkár. On the 22nd of June 1928 the Ashkhabad Assembly cabled Shoghi Effendi:
On receiving this, Shoghi Effendi cabled to the Moscow Assembly to "intercede energetically" to the authorities to prevent the expropriation of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár and to inquire about the situation in Ashkhabad", and informed the Assembly of Ashkhabad that he had asked Moscow Assembly to petition the authorities and to act firmly on behalf of all Russian Bahá'ís.
At the same time, state orders were transmitted to Bahá'í communities in Baku, Ganjih, and other towns in the Caucasus, both orally and in writing, suspending all meetings, and suppressing all local and national administration. Prohibitions were placed on the raising of funds, and Bahá'í youth and children's clubs were ordered closed. Correspondence was strictly censored, bulletins and magazines were disbanded, and "leading personalities in the Cause whether as public teachers and speakers or officers of Bahá'í Assemblies" were deported. Shoghi Effendi explained:
The contract allowed for rental of the Temple by the Bahá'ís for a five-year period, and provided for fines and penalties for infringement of any of its provisions. The Bahá'ís complied with these actions of the State - even though quite conscious of their grievous impact - through the principle of loyalty to those in authority.
In 1929 the Guardian had hoped for amelioration of conditions under which the Persian and Russian Bahá'í communities existed, and felt that these limitations were "the only remaining obstacle" to the establishment of the Universal House of Justice". He felt that
After the Bolsheviks acquired the organs of the Russian state, and gradually extended their control over the territories of the former Czarist empire, the position of the Bahá'ís - as also that of the larger religious communities - steadily deteriorated. Although the "avowed purpose and action" of Soviet authorities was one of "uncompromising opposition to all forms of organized religious propaganda", the Bahá'ís had, for almost a decade, and "by some miraculous interposition of Providence", been spared the "strict application to their institutions of the central principle that directs and animates the policy of the Soviet state." They now faced, Shoghi Effendi wrote in March 1930, a "ferocious and insidious campaign of repression and cruelty." Although Horace Holley reported that "all known Bahá'ís" had been imprisoned and exiled," it is more likely that the most prominent were dispersed, leaving the remaining members of the community in disarray. In explaining the origins of hostility toward the Bahá'ís, Kolarz has suggested:
Bahá'í beliefs, suggests Kolarz, contradict the communist thesis about the backwardness of religion: its adherents were broadminded, tolerant, and international in outlook. For these reasons, he suggests, the Bahá'í religion "attracted the attention of the Soviet communists to a much greater degree than might be warranted by the numerical strength of its supporters." Anti-Bahá'í literature emerged in 1930, with the publication of the pamphlets Bahá'íism - a New Religion of the East, by the Leningrad Oriental Institute, and Bahá'íism, authored by A.M. Arsharuni and published by the 'Bezbozhnik' publishing house. Kolarz has explained that how these two pamphlets described Bahá'í belief as the 'ideology of the Persian trading bourgeoisie':
Little is known in the West about the fate of the Russian Bahá'ís. In the late 1920s correspondence was directed to Kázim Zade Kázim Rœhání, a Persian living in Moscow. In the 1930s successive volumes of The Bahá'í World listed Isabel Grinevskaya (the noted poetess, discussed above), of Prospect Nahimson, No. 10, log. 32, Leningrad, as Moscow correspondent. A Mr Mazsud Nerou visited England and Haifa en route to Russia in 1930.
Some Bahá'í writings continued to appear in translation, and Russian orientalists continued their interest in Bábí and Bahá'í history. The Bahá'ís were referred to in the works of Klimovich, Ivanov, and others. In Riga, the Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh was printed in Russian in 1934, and the Kitáb-i-Iqán in 1933. In the 1940s Bahá'í literature in Russian was being distributed from the International Bahá'í Bureau in Geneva, although apparently there was some dissatisfaction with the quality of the translation into Russian of Esslemont's Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era.
In 1930 Shoghi Effendi called on the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada to appeal to the Russian authorities stressing the international character of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár in Ashkhabad, but their efforts did nothing to deter Soviet policy. Pilgrims to Haifa from Ashkhabad brought news of the repression of the Bahá'ís and the expulsion of some of them from Turkistan, a region in which seventeen distinct Bahá'í communities had emerged by 1930.. On the strength of reports received in Haifa, Shoghi Effendi wrote of Central Asia,
Predicting Communism's decline
Shoghi Effendi's view of Communist ideology and communist governments was at all times and in all places consistent: where a government held power, its legitimacy was recognised, and its laws were obeyed, to the extent that they did not contradict Bahá'í principles. At the same time, the attitude toward materialist philosophies and political ideologies elaborated in the Bahá'í writings was clearly one of rejection. The Bahá'í view was that ultimately Communism would prove unable to resolve humanity's crises, and that it would be rejected. There was thus in the writings of Shoghi Effendi a line of argument pointing to some inevitable end to Communist rule. He had recorded in 1929 that the Bahá'ís, then under persecution
Again, at the beginning of 1930, Shoghi Effendi had place contemporary adversities in the context of future victories:
Despite its spread, Shoghi Effendi noted in the 1930s, the "inability of the leaders and exponents of the Communist movement to vindicate the much-vaunted dictatorship of the proletariat" was one example of the impotence of its institutions. At the time, however, and at the average level of vision, a much darker horizon was discernible, apart from a temporary lessening of government intimidation between 1934 and 1936. In 1935 religious buildings were restored to their owners, and the Bahá'ís came into full possession once more of the Ashkhabad Mashriqu'l-Adhkár, having first fulfilled the requirement that extensive repairs be made within six months. Assembly elections and teaching activities were also recommenced, with only "slight and occasional civil interference". Persian residents in Soviet Republics faced the choice of changing nationality, or returning to Iran, and many returned to Khurásán. At the beginning of 1938, whatever leniency remained in the Soviet regime came to an end. The members of the Ashkhabad Assembly, as well as about 500 other Bahá'í men, were arrested on 5 February, and all Bahá'í records were confiscated. 600 women and children fled south, most to Mashad; The National Spiritual Assemblies of the Caucasus and Turkistan were disbanded; The Mashriqu'l-Adhkár was once more confiscated, and turned into an art gallery.
A pamphlet appeared claiming Bahá'í leaders were 'closely linked with the leaders of Trotskyie-Bukharinist and Dashnak-Mussavat bands'. Kolarz summises from this 'monstrous accusation' that the Bahá'ís were persecuted not only in Turkmenistan but also in Transcaucasia, where the Dashnaks and Mussavatists had been active. The details of this period are still unknown. Over 500 Bahá'ís were arrested: some were exiled to "Siberia, the polar forests and other places in the vicinity of the Arctic Ocean," others deported to Iran. By 1946, only the Baku, Batum and Tiflis communities remained in the Caucasus, while in Turkistan, only Ashkhabad, Samarkand and Tashkand communities continued.
The Baltic States
In the Baltic states - Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania - which had been under Russian rule until 1918, and were again to come under Soviet domination between 1940 and 1990, the barest impression was made by Bahá'ís, apart from visits in 1927, 1934 and 1925 by Martha Root, principally under the patronage of the Esperanto movement. All three states were independent at this time although at least one, Lithuania, was under military administration. There were no Bahá'í communities, and Miss Root's helpers in organising public lectures, press interviews, and visits to public officials, during which she presented the Bahá'í teachings, were Esperantists. Although Bahá'í activities in the Baltic states remained limited in subsequent years, Esslemont's Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era was printed in Latvia in 1930, and an article - possibly about Martha Root - appeared in Lithuania in 1935. The American traveller Nellie French reported the presence of Latvian Bahá'ís at a Summer School at Esslingon, Germany, in 1937. The Soviet Union's forced Union with the Baltic states 1940 closed opportunities for promotion of religious ideas for several decades.
The World Crusade
By 1953 there were Bahá'ís in no more than five of the Soviet Union's sixteen Republics. Nor were there any in three additional countries in the Soviet "Orbit" (Albania, Mongolia, and Romania). Soviet rule provided one of the major obstacles to the global spread of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings during the ministry of Shoghi Effendi. The Guardian's vision for the Bahá'í World, however, transcended the political and socio-religious limitations and boundaries of the 1950s, and required courage on the part of those individuals who would deploy in a "Ten Year World Crusade" to all parts of the globe, and in their united effort
Such zeal did exist, and it fuelled the dispersal of Bahá'í pioneers to the remotest regions of every continent. In the Soviet Union, however, communist power remained firmly entrenched, and the superpowers were approaching the darkest years of the "cold war". Although there were no organised Bahá'í communities in the Soviet Republics, Bahá'í beliefs were disparaged in Soviet literature, and earlier histories of both the Bahá'í Faith and Babism were subject to Soviet revisionism.
Kolarz has suggested that the Large Soviet Encyclopaedia's article on Bahá'í - which propagated the view that Bahá'ís had received considerable support from "British and American Imperialists" - opposed the religion because it
A.N. Smirnov evaluated Russian scholarship on the Bábí and Bahá'í religions in his Marxist-theoretical review of works on Islam in Russia. Believing that the missions of the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh were totally different - the one directed against the "unjust feudal regime" of the Qájárs, the other excluding "every kind of political element from its preaching" and advocating "class-peace and an uncomplaining subordination to the authorities", Smirnov downplayed the usefulness of the works of Batyushkov, Umanets, Zhukovskiy, and Bakulin. The works of Arsharuni, Darov, and Ivanov, on the other hand, were regarded more favourably, presumably because they accorded with the objective set for Soviet studies of Islamic movements, namely exposure of the "reactionary nature which they share in equal measure with Islam itself." Vucinich adds Tomara to the list of Russian authors who criticized the Bábí and Bahá'í movementes "for their middle-class ideology". A similar critique continued in the work of N.A. Kuznetzova.
Despite official opposition to organised religion in the U.S.S.R., and the serious limitations on Bahá'í communities that this implied, Shoghi Effendi outlined objectives in the east, west, south, as well as in the very heart of the Empire. Globally, twelve National Assemblies participated in a program of expansion, which was aimed at taking the message of Bahá'u'lláh to all the unreached corners of the earth. Three of the twelve National Assemblies were allocated tasks within the U.S.S.R.
The Persian Bahá'ís were to consolidate the Bahá'í communities that already existed in five of the Republics of the Soviet Union: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. There may have been Bahá'ís in each of these areas since before the passing of Bahá'u'lláh in 1892. By 1963 there was one isolated centre at Baku in Azerbaijan, two isolated centres - Yerevan & Artez in Armenia; and an isolated Bahá'í at Tiflis in Georgia. In Turkmenistan, the centre of so much activity up until the 1930s, there remained in 1963 five Bahá'í groups. Against formidable odds, the Persian Bahá'ís endeavoured in the decade to send Bahá'ís to Kirgizia and Tadzhikstan. Shoghi Effendi referred to the arrival of Bahá'ís in these two Republics in his Ridvan Message in 1957, but the names of those involved are not established. By 1963 there were isolated Bahá'ís living in Kirgizia, in Tadzhikstan, and in Stalingrad (now Volgograd). Shoghi Effendi also referred in his message of Ridvan 1955 to the arrival of Bahá'ís in Uzbekistan, but he did not mention their names. By 1963 there were in Uzbekistan a Bahá'í group in Tashkent, and an isolated Bahá'í at Fergana.
The Bahá'ís of Germany and Austria were challenged to consolidate the existing Bahá'í community in Russian S.F.S.R. (Soviet Federated Socialist Republic). Bahá'ís had first moved there during the ministry of `Abdu'l-Bahá (1892-1921), and by 1963 there remained an isolated Bahá'í at Penza. In addition, the German and Austrian Bahá'ís were to open Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bielorus (referred to as White Russia), a task that did not prove possible by the completion of the World Crusade, in April 1963. American Bahá'ís were unable to settle any pioneers in the Ukraine, although Bahá'ís, whose names are not known, had entered Kazakhstan by April 1956.
At the close of the World Crusade, 251 Knights of Bahá'u'lláh had been named world-wide, and a further five were added between 1963 and 1990. The current list of 256 Knights of Bahá'u'lláh remains incomplete, however, since for a variety of reasons no Knights were named for ten territories which were part of the Soviet Union. Thus the position with regard to Knights of Bahá'u'lláh for Estonia, Finno-Karelia, Latvia, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tadzhikistan, and the Ukraine remains unclear. There had been a Bahá'í, Refo Capari, in Albania in the 1930s. Estonia was opened by travelling teachers, but was not settled during the Crusade, and no knights of Bahá'u'lláh were named. Helmut Winkelbach pioneered to White Russia in December, 1978, while Abbas Katirai and Rezvanieh Katirai became Knights of Bahá'u'lláh to the Sakhalin Islands in March 1990. Although the number of pioneers to Russian territories remained small, and response to their presence necessarily limited, their stories comprise a crucial episode in the unfoldment of the Bahá'í community, and remain inadequately documented.
A second theme of slow and imperceptible development during the years of the World Crusade concerned the production of Bahá'í literature. If restrictions on travel prevented the easy passage of Bahá'ís to Soviet-controlled lands, the translation of literature would prepare the way for future opportunities.
In Germany, Bahá'í-Verlag published the Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh and the Kitáb-i-Iqán in Russian. Bahá'í:Sissejuhav BrošŸŸr appeared in Estonian. By 1963 publications in Ukrainian included Communion with God, Praised be Thou O Lord (prayers taken from Communion with God), One God, One Mankind, One Religion, and Purification (chapter 3 of David Hofman's Renewal of Civilisation). These works were translated by Peter Pihichyn. The Ukrainian Teaching Committee of the NSA of Canada produced a bulletin, entitled New Word. Although the number of languages into which Bahá'í material was translated increased through the pursuit of stated objectives in the World Crusade, their lengths varied from translations of brief prayers, to translations of larger works.
The Silent Years
Despite severe limitations on religious activities during the Communist period, in some Republics of the Soviet Union opportunities to promote the Bahá'í teachings were explored in subsequent plans.
The Swedish Bahá'ís assisted in establishing Bahá'í communities in Latvia and Lithuania during as part of their "Five Year Plan" (1974-1979), although no additional progress was reported in the subsequent "Seven Year Plan" (1979-1986). The first Lithuanian convert was reported in July 1977, and Bahá'í communities were established in both countries. Elsewhere, a Local Assembly was established in Kazakhstan, and a locality in the Ukraine, both territories assigned to the North American Bahá'ís community. Of the three territories assigned to the German Bahá'ís during this period, Moldavia, Russian S.F.S.R., and White Russia, a locality was only established in the latter. Small gains were reported for the "Seven Year Plan" (1979-1986). While travel to the Republics of the Soviet Union was not possible, translation and publication of Bahá'í literature into regional languages proceeded. From Germany, translations were made into Bielorsusian (White Russian); from Sweden and Finland, into Estonian, Lithuanian and Latvian; from Iran and Sweden into Russian. During the Nine Year Plan literature was to be translated into Kazakh, White Russian and Estonian languages, under the auspices of the North American, German, and Finnish National Assemblies respectively.
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