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Islam in the Russian Army

When did Islamic history begin in Russia? Most people would probably say

By Ilshat Nasirov : Islam Magazine | Makhachkala | 2005

Legal status of Muslims in the Russian Imperial Army in the 17-19 centuries on the example of Bashkirs

In the 16th century Russia was turning into a multinational state. The Russian army, the most important component of the Russian statehood has been multi-ethnic and multi-confessional since then. Thus, Muslim Bashkirs constituted a big part of the Russian troops.

The voluntary inclusion of Bashkortostan into Russia in the 16th century stipulated, that Bashkirs kept their right to land, local government and religion, Islam, but had to serve in the army. Bashkir cavalry regiments participated in the Livonian War, the liberation of Moscow from Polish invaders in 1612, in the Azov campaign of Peter the Great’s, the Great Northern War against Sweden, in the Seven Years’ War in Germany (1756-1763) and other wars waged by Russia.

Even after the Russian navy formation and Peter the Great’s military reforms Bashkir cavalry regiments kept their usual irregular structure – with their internal regulations, Bashkir aristocrats officers, tarkhans and elders, their troop imams.

The reason is not only boosting the efficiency of Bashkir cavalry, but also the weakness of Russia’s position in Bashkortostan in the 17th – 18th centuries. Bashkirs often took part in the Russian military campaigns as a punishment for their participation in the grand uprisings in Bashkortostan in the 17th and early 18th centuries. These revolts were their violent reaction to their gradual oppressing by the Russian Empire.

Bashkortostan lived in permanent unrest during the first three quarters of the 17th century.

Bashkir Tarkhan (Prince) Aldar Isyangildin, who took part in the Azov campaign of Peter the Great, was the mastermind and leader of the Bashkir uprising in 1705-1709. He ordered to assault and destroy many Russian fortresses, the Russian settlements in the basin of the Belaya and Kama rivers and on the Volga. He is also known to attach great importance to opening new madrasahs in Bashkortostan, inviting teachers from Khiva, Bukhara and Daghestan.

In 1756-1763, 12 regiments numbering 15 000 Bashkirs under the command of General Apraksin fought in the Seven Years’ War. Bashkir soldiers displayed bravery in the battles of Gross-Jägersdorf near Königsberg. Bashkir regiments made a significant contribution to the victory of Russian troops led by General Saltykov over the Prussian army at the Battle of Kunersdorf near Frankfurt-on-der-Oder. In 1760 General Chernyshev temporarily captured Berlin. Bashkir regiments were in the forefront of the Russian army during the assault and capture of the city. Bashkir patrols maintained order in the urban areas and institutions of Berlin, as the Islamic ban on drinking disciplined the Bashkir soldiers.

But not all the Muslims soldiers in the Russian army had legal religious protection like the Bashkirs in the irregular cavalry. According to the ‘Fusilier Regiments Personnel in 1765’, ‘Field Infantry Regiment Personnel in 1732’, ‘Infantry Regiment Personnel in 1765’, etc, each regular regiment had a Christian priest. Among peasants, army recruits, there were both Russians and Muslim Tatars. Just like all other ethnic minorities, Tatars served in the Russian regular army.

Despite the scarce sources about the Muslim soldiers in the Russian regular army, we can still obtain some information. Thus, a Ufa historian Robert N. Rakhimov found archives, which show that in October, 1741, a Tatar soldier of the Koporsky regiment quartered in St. Petersburg, Mika Zanalov filed a petition to be baptized (the request was satisfied). In addition, Zanalov indicates he was recruited in 1737 and that until 1741he remained a Muslim for five years. (Request by a Tartar soldier / / Archives of Prince Vorontsov. Book 1. M., 1870. P. 91.)

As already mentioned, the Bashkirs did not serve in the regular army. But until the second half of the 17th century Russian authorities recruited Bashkirs as a punishment for participating in the Bashkir riots into the regiments in the Baltic, and into the Baltic Fleet. A French historian Roger Portal in ‘Bashkiria in 17-18th centuries’ writes about the Bashkir uprising in 1735-1740, “Repressions by Colonel Alexei Tevkelev  were extremely cruel.

Apparently, this Bashkir soldier in the Russian army felt no remorse carrying out the orders. His soldiers burned the Bashkir villages, murdered men, women and children, and sent the survivors  as serfs to the central regions of Russia or as recruits to the Baltic regiments. In December, 1735, the Senate Secretary Kirillov presented in St. Petersburg his plans for the assimilation of Bashkiria and persuaded the Empress to approve the plan of total extermination of Bashkirs, which he followed up to his death in April 1737.” Incomplete statistics says, that in 1735-1740 Bashkirs lost in battle or execution over 40 thousand people.

According to General Saimonov, Head of the Bashkir Committee, in 1737-1740 the executioners burned down 880 Bashkir villages, took as serfs thousands of women and children, recruited over 500 Bashkir soldiers, and punished 300 people by flogging and cutting off their noses and ears. After the suppression of the Bashkir uprising in 1755 “thousands of Bashkirs were sentenced to flogging, hard labor in the Ural plants or manor-houses in Central Russia. Others were sent to the army or the Baltic Fleet. Long columns of the former rebels headed to the west, most of them died of exhaustion of diseases. Thus, in order to greatly facilitate the assimilation of Bashkortostan, the authorities resorted to the mass extermination of the Bashkir population” (Portal. Bashkiria in the 17 –18th centuries).

After the introduction of the military canton system in Bashkortostan, the decree of April 10, 1798 established the Bashkir Cossack Host (Collection of Laws of the Russian Empire. V. 25. № 18477). The decree stated: “Calculate all the Bashkirs able to perform military service, aged 20 to 50 years, and organize them into cantons.

All the administrative staff of cantons and yurts (teams) went into the military. Bashkirs formed an irregular army, divided initially into 11 cantons, then 12, and eventually 28. Every adult Bashkir became a Cossack ready to fight anytime. In case of participation of Bashkir troops in the Russian campaigns the Host formed 500-men regiments with a military imam (regimental mullah). The Bashkir Cossack regiment command consisted of 30 people: the commander, Lieutenant-Colonel, 5 majors, 5 Senior Lieutenants, 5 Lieutenants, a quartermaster, a mullah, 1-2 host clerks, and 10 Seargeants.

In 1806-1807 the Russian army sent 20 Bashkir regiments into the European campaign. Eight more regiments fought in the Napoleon war of 1812-1814. Bashkirs displayed bravery and courage in the battles of Leipzig, Weimar, Hanover, Danzig in Germany, Chateaubriand and Paris in France. Many of the Bashkir soldiers were awarded for heroism. Among them were Bashkir women. The bravery of the Bashkir soldiers is mentioned in the memoirs of the French General de Marbot. He was amazed by the courage of Bashkirs, who attacked Napoleon’s convoy and pushed back the French with nothing but cold weapons, bows and arrows.

The great German poet Goethe met Bashkir soldiers in Weimar and got interested in the oriental culture. At the same time a German scientist brought him the Holy Qur’an from Spain. The beautiful calligraphy verses of the Qur’an delighted Goethe. He even tried to rewrite the ayahs, although, of course, he knew no Arabic. Goethe ordered a German translation of the Muslim Holy Book. He was very much into the verses of the great Iranian poet Hafiz Shirazi translated into German. The appearance of the Bashkirs in Europe meant a real coming of the East to Weimar. Bashkirs performed a congregational prayer (salah al-jamaat) in the Weimar school. Goethe attended one of them. Perhaps it was a festive prayer, and the poet wanted to see the Muslim ritual of worship. Among the Bashkirs there was a high rank officer, whom they called a prince. Goethe met him. When the Bashkirs visited theWeimar Theatre, Goethe welcomed them with a speech, and they, in turn, gave him a bow and arrows.

In March, 1814, the Bashkir regiments were in the forefront of the Russian army, who took Paris. All Bashkir officers and soldiers were awarded with medals “For the capture of Paris” by the Commander-In-Chief of the Russian Army. As in the Germany, the Bashkir soldiers were entrusted with the protection of the most important Parisian government offices and palaces due to their high military discipline, maintained by the commanders and imams.

To my deepest regret, some people far from historical knowledge are often mistakenly enthusiastic about the Bashkirs’ participation in the war against Napoleon. In fact, their transformation into the Cossack Host caused enormous suffering. By generals’ orders Bashkirs rushed into the thick of bloody battles like the Battle of Borodino in 1812, Battle of Leipzig in 1813 and suffered heavy losses. Yakshigul Yansurov, an army imam in a Bashkir regiment sent the following verses from Paris to Bashkir Tarhan Musa Kuchukov: “O Providence, you’ve separated us from home for us to wail. / / We suffer a hundred thousand adversities daily to get back safe and sound. / / We trust in Allah and confide our lives to Him. / / Is it surprising that the heavenly angels accompany us?

In 1862, the Bashkir army and military canton system were abolished. Bashkirs served in the Russian regular units, without the mullahs. That made their religious duties extremely difficult. Ahmatshah, the father of Zaki Validi Togan (1890-1980), the famous Turkic researcher and founder of the Bashkir republic, was a village mullah and had served in the Russian regiment in Gunib (Daghestan) in his youth.

As you know, a Muslim, who have experienced wet dreams (ihtilam) must bathe completely washing his whole body (ghusl). But when Ahmatshah was performing ablutions at night, he ran into a Russian officer on duty. The officer, unaware, heavily punished the Bashkir soldier. Ahmatshah was rescued by the commander of the Daghestan unit, who took him temporarily under his commandment. As he spoke no Russian, he talked to the Daghestani officer in Arabic, and the latter was very pleased. While serving in Gunib, Ahmatshah met a former clerk of Imam Shamil and until the Revolution in 1905 wrote to him and his brother in Arabic. After the service Ahmatshah stayed in Daghestan for a year and continued to study Arabic.

To sum up, the position of the Muslim soldiers in the Russian army in the 17-19 centuries was ambiguous. Russia allowed regular Muslim soldiers to profess Islam, yet encouraged baptism into Orthodox Christianity. The legal status of the soldiers in the Muslim irregular cavalry was much better. The state supported Islam by allowing imams in the Bashkir troops. This ensured the combativity of the Bashkir troops.

Taken from: Spiritual and Educational Magazine ISLAM № 1 (11) / 2005. Author: Ilshat Nasyrov


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