Gulag Miracles: Sufis and Stalinist Repression in Kazakhstan


At some point in 1943, Allen J. Frank relates (pp. 103–4, 127), in the latest of his fascinating studies of religious life in the Volga-Ural region and the Kazakh steppe, a Kazakh khoja named Däuĭt-Qozha Berdĭsügĭrŭlï was thrown into prison. Däuĭt-Qozha had been working as a shepherd, and his crime was to have mislaid 4 or 5 sheep. While he was in prison, strange happenings occurred: a visiting inspector noticed that one of the cell doors never shut. Perplexed, the authorities summoned a Kazakh elder, who recognized Däuĭt-Qozha as a holy man, and persuaded the governor to release the eminent prisoner. Upon attaining his freedom, Däuĭt-Qozha agreed to join the Red Army, and went to fight in Leningrad. During his service over the remainder of the war, Däuĭt-Qozha escaped even the lightest injury, and he returned home untouched.

The story of Däuĭt-Qozha is interesting because it is a story of survival: a khoja survives imprisonment and war—and he survives because he is protected by his numinous spiritual power which survives also. The story thus contrasts with much of the existing scholarship on Islam in Soviet-era Central Asia, which—as Frank notes (pp. 11–13)—focuses instead upon rupture. A plethora of studies have explored the structural transformations of the early Soviet period, and the process whereby traditional Islamic educational, legal and devotional practices were constrained or abolished in the name of socialist progress. These studies tend to focus particularly on the events of the 1930s, when Moscow’s anti-Islamic policies reached a zenith at the same time as forced collectivization, famine, political terror and the other enormities of Stalinism—a concatenation of disasters which one might indeed expect to have utterly disfigured traditional religious life. More recently, however, several outstanding studies have demonstrated the resilience of Central Asian Islamic religiosity during the Soviet period and beyond. Eren Tasar’s institutional history of SADUM, the Central Asian spiritual directorate, ably highlights the continued intellectual vigour of theological disputation throughout the later years of Soviet rule,1 for instance, while Paolo Sartori’s study of Soviet-era pilgrimage practices in Khorezm uncovers deep resonances with behaviours described in manuscript texts dating back centuries.2 In telling the story of Däuĭt-Qozha and those other Kazakh holy men who survived their encounters with Stalinist repression, Gulag Miracles is an important contribution to this burgeoning literature about the durability of Central Asian Islamic observances throughout the Soviet years. 

Source : Oxford University Press