We think of the inhabitants of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics simply as Russians. But in fact, there are over 100 non-Russian nationalities living in the USSR who, after a century of near invisibility to casual Western observers, are making their presence felt in today's changing Soviet Union. Of the Union's 15 republics, six - including its second biggest - are still, despite decades of religious repression, largely, actively and consciously Muslim
In fact, the Soviet Union's 53 million Muslims compose almost one-fifth of the entire 280 million population of the USSR. After ethnic Russians, they are its second-largest population group. And since their numbers are growing four times as fast as the Soviet population as a whole, Soviet Muslims are projected to outnumber Russians in 30 years.
They are mainly Turkic peoples: Azaris, Balkars, Bashkirs, Karachays, Karakalpaks, Kazaks, Kirgiz, Kumyks, Tatars, Turkmen, and Uzbeks. Along with Farsi-speaking Tajiks, they occupy the vast crescent of land stretching from Europe to China along the southern rim of the USSR. These peoples are descendants of the fierce nomadic tribes of Mongolia, the one-time rulers of Central Asia who founded the glittering medieval cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. They were swallowed up by the southeasterly expansion of Russia's czarist empire in the 19th century, and then tell under control of the communists after the 1917 revolution.
Now, however, as the century draws to a close the peoples of the Soviet Union's Muslim republic - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Tajikstan, Turkmenia and Uzbekistan - are seeking to regain control of their own destinies.
Although they have not been as strident dent as the USSR's Ukrainians, Estonians or Latvians in their calls for autonomy, Soviet Muslims were among the first to test Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev policy of democratization. In 1986 Kazaks stage demonstrations against the imposition of Byelorussian as Communist Party boss of the republic - the USSR’s second largest.
Since then more than 100 protests have been recorded in Soviet Turkestan, as the Muslim republics are collectively known. And recent visitors report the growing isolation of local Communist Parties and the emergence of an alternative and definitely Muslim leadership. As The Times of London reported, "It is among the younger generation, especially students and intellectuals, that Islam is recruiting its most ardent advocates."
Many Muslims, including some former communists, are returning to the "sure values of their ancestral culture," says Tajik poet Mir-Goliev, because of present uncertainties in the Soviet Union. "If the Russians themselves do not know what they are going to do next," he asks, "why should we ask them for solutions to our problems?"
Muslims' leaders claim that, although under communist rule there have been vast improvements in health and education, the Russians have restricted their lives religiously, politically and economically.
Moscow, they say, shut down all but 400 of their 26,000 mosques and all but two of their religious colleges. Muslims were able to keep their religion alive by their own grass-roots efforts: through hundreds of illegal Koranic schools and unofficial prayer centers, and through the work and faith of thousands of itinerant, unofficial clerics.
And despite their numbers, Muslims say, they have been allowed virtually no voice in government: Since the communists gained control of Muslim regions in the 1920s, only three members of the ruling Soviet body, the Politburo, have had Muslim backgrounds.
Also, although Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Volga River basin, where most Muslims live, together account for more than half of the USSR's agriculture production and a good part of its mineral wealth, Muslim-populated regions are among the poorest in the union. The Russians, Muslims say, have utilized the resources of Soviet Turkestan almost as if the region were a colony.
Moscow's central planners, for example, designated Uzbekistan as the USSR's cotton-producing republic and pinpointed Kazakstan to grow wheat, bringing vast tracts of "virgin lands" under cultivation. But it was done at a price: Diversion of rivers to irrigate these new lands has resulted in the virtual desiccation of the Aral Sea. Once the fourth-largest lake in the world, the Aral has fallen 13.5 meters (44 feet) and shrunk to half its original area; it is surrounded by a grim desert land of salt and sand.
A shared symbol of Turkestan's patrimony, the slow death of the Aral Sea is an issue that has cut across the borders of the republics and has become a vehicle for nationalist expression: Turkic writers are using it as a blind from which to snipe at more sensitive issues such as social problems and political control by Moscow.
Although it has been possible to learn more about Muslims in the USSR since Gorbachev ushered in his policies of perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (openness), no foreign embassy or consular personnel live or work in the USSR's Muslim regions, and no foreign journalists are based there. But according to Edward Allworth, of the Central Asian Center at New York's Columbia University, Western and Middle Eastern nations disregard the "rumble of change in contemporary Turkestan-only at great, long-term risk." For "very soon," he warns, "developments in Turkestan will increasingly affect nearby regions.".
All the major Muslim nationalities in the USSR have relatives in neighboring countries with whom they share close ethnic and religious ties. Two million Tajiks and over one million Uzbeks live in Afghanistan. Four hundred thousand Turkmen live in Iran, and Kazakstan and Kirgizia share a frontier with China, with its own large Muslim population.
Certainly the binding force of Islam extends across the Soviet south and beyond, yet the forces for change within Soviet Turkestan so far "have carefully avoided making their appeal religious," the New York Times noted recently, because of fears that Moscow might cite religious extremism as a reason to suppress them. In fact, the newspaper adds, radicals form only a small and isolated minority among Soviet Muslims. And Amir Taheri, author of the recently published Crescent in a Red Sky, says that while "some believe that the way is now open for Muslim regions to regain control of their own destiny, few dream of independence, which would mean the breakup of the USSR."
As an unsigned article in the magazine Turkistan explained recently, the Muslims of the USSR "demand a solution, not a revolution." Their lands, lives and hopes are depicted in the pages that follow.