The aim of this fascinating work is to contest the usual stereotyped views about religions in Central Asia in the course of the twentieth century. It is generally held that Soviet power had destroyed religions which suddenly rose as by miracle from their ashes after the fall of Communism and the dissolution of USSR in 1991. The author contradicts such an assertion by following two leading strands: 1) the continuity of many situations from the Communist period and even the Tsarist one to the post-Communist time; 2) the extreme diversity of responses, often evanescent and fluid, to each new turn of Communist politics according to the places and forms of religious affiliation. In spite of the difficulty of collecting written and oral information on the past and the present, the picture is developed in three tableaux. (The author has summarised his topic, mainly its recent implications, in several articles: “Pour une histoire des mouvements chrétiens en Asie centrale: le cas de l’Eglise luthérienne [For a History of Christian Movements in Central Asia: The Case of the Lutheran Church], Cahiers d’Asie Centrale 9 (2001): 209-29; “Les Eglises chrétiennes en Asie Centrale: l’expérience soviétique et post-soviétique [Christian Churches in Central Asia: The Soviet and Post-Soviet Experience],” Oriente moderno 23/3 (2004): 575-92; “Existe-t-il un ancrage spatial des minorités chrétiennes en Asie Centrale? Le poids du passé russo-soviétique [Have Christian Minorities Settled in a Specific Space? The Impact of the Russian and Soviet Past],” Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée 107-110 (2005): 459-79. The specific question of Russian presence in Kazakhstan has been the subject of an article, “Entre Russie et Asie centrale: regards croisés sur la minorité russe du Kazakhstan [Between Russia and Central Asia: Crossed Glances at the Russian minority of Kazakhstan]”, Cahiers d’études sur la Méditerranée orientale et le mode turco-iranien 34 (2002): 99-118; and a book co-authored with Marlène Laruelle, Les Russes du Kazakhstan: Identités nationales et nouveaux États dans l’espace post-soviétique [The Russians in Kazakhstan: National Identities and New States in the Post-Soviet Space], Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose – IFEAC, 2004.
The first part of the present book, on the relationship between state and Churches, is a magnificent contribution to Soviet history, showing that the distance from the centre and the isolation of Central Asia had an ambiguous influence on the persistence of religious life. In the nineteenth century, the Orthodox Church arrived along with colonisation, but it could not get the status of an official church nor the authorisation to preach among natives, while the different denominations born from Protestantism and brought chiefly by German settlers were encouraged. So that already under the Tsarist regime, the religious politics in Central Asia were not the same as those applied elsewhere. The anti-religious repression of Communism was enforced in the region some years later than in the other parts of the country. The reasons are that atheism was poorly understood and badly championed there, and the issue of a general native submission was still in jeopardy. Because of this, some Protestant denominations (Baptists, Mennonites, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses) and movements of Orthodox origin (“Old Believers,” Molokans, Molokans-Priguny, Khlisty, Khristovovery, Dukhobory) could still successfully expand in the 1920s and organise themselves till the 1930s when a severe anti-religious repression fell on this region too. The liberalisation which followed the Nazi invasion in June 1941 was profitable to “national” religions only, that is Orthodoxy and Islam, whose contribution to the war effort was expected.
The year 1947 saw a new surge of atheistic policy but the religious factor could no more be simply deleted. From then on, both sides (government and religious denominations and movements) tried to evade the issue through compromise, such as official recognition and the gathering of denominations around a recognised movement, a more or less clandestine survival of a part of the recognised Churches and, of course, of the non-recognised ones, a rewriting of history to exemplify the “national” character of such and such a Church, and so on. For small religious communities who survived in remote places, such as Protestant denominations and Catholicism of German and Polish exiles, the choice of normalisation was a delicate one, especially after Stalin’s death in 1953, the opening of relationship between the Soviet Union and Western Germany under Khrushchev in 1955 and finally the rehabilitation of deported nationalities in 1957. In the 1960s-70s the specificity of Central Asia took its definitive shape. On the one hand, the requirements of industrial exploitation of the region compelled the government to allow a certain freedom to the different nationalities (and their religions) who flocked there. On the other hand, Russians (and among them Orthodox believers) were mere colonisers whose presence natives resented, so that a policy of indigenisation of the managerial staff became unavoidable under Brezhnev. There was then a constant to-ing and fro-ing between atheist absolutism and the instrumentation of religious movements by local administrations. Orthodoxy appears to have been the most controlled Christian current in Central Asia, while the Protestant denominations were the most prone to join the political dissidence. Finally during the two decades of Brezhnev’s government (1964-1982) the post-Communist orientations of Christian churches in Central Asia took form. Under Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost’ and perestroika the ineluctability of the religious phenomenon was gradually admitted until official recognition came with a law in September 1990. Christian denominations were suddenly becoming minorities in a country where Islam was championed by the majority.
The second part is made up of a sociological study of Christianity in post-Communist Central Asia. The first observation is the great disparity of situations depending on movements and places. The main movement remains Orthodoxy considered as the “Russian national religion”. Catholicism and Lutheranism know a new blossoming, especially in towns where the building of churches had been previously authorised. The so-called “sects”, Russian and Protestant, have fared in various ways, the most aggressive ones as Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists having won over members from small Russian dissident movements like Molokans or others. During the whole Communist period, the possession of a building was an ambivalent stake for each religious community: To have a venue enabled it to held religious services for its community and to attract new membership; but it also meant collaboration with the Communist power. The main problem is now to find duly formed clerics and responsible persons, which means that the believers’ level of dogmatic and theological education is also low, and that the ritualistic aspect of the various faiths is the most important. (It is regrettable that the author does not dwell on a point of interest for understanding the psychology of surviving religious minorities, which he mentions only in passing, p.161: the recourse to typical dishes to mark religious festivities.) The second remark is that every specific faith has assumed an exclusive national and cultural tradition, often backed by a national language (German in particular). The most extreme example is furnished by the Mennonites who have kept on insisting on their German background.
The last part attempts to evaluate the Christian identities in the independent states of Central Asia and their future in the new legal setting implemented by these states. Two models of relations between religion and state in Islamic countries are possible: either the religious prevails on the national, as in Arabic countries and Iran, or secularism prevails on Islam as in Turkey. Central Asian states try to eliminate Christianity, not as a rival to an official Islam, but as a characteristic of foreign identities. In conclusion, the most dynamic denominations in Central Asia are supplied by Protestantism, mainly Baptism and Seventh Day Adventism. Orthodoxy does not succeed very well to secede from the secular power and its small dissenting movements are rapidly disappearing. Catholicism is in an intermediate position. Relationships between the movements themselves are competitive and conflicting, as they are with the states. But now two new factors come into play: the possibility of emigration; a proselytism marked by the rivalry between local believers and foreign missionaries, and the equivocal role of humanitarian organisations. Among the risks is the folklorisation of the religious feeling. So rich is this book in its minutely detailed presentation of each faith and Church that it is impossible to do it justice in few words, so that the present review is only intended to attract the potential reader. We cannot conceal, however, that it deserves a reproach: It sadly misses a general view of the peculiarities of each local context in the post-Communist time. The situation prevailing in each newly independent country could have been at least summarised in a chart.