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Ismailis in Russia

Publication Type  Article
Year of Publication  Submitted
Authors  Ivanow, Prof. W.
Original Publication  Read & Know
Issue  No.5
Publisher  H.H. The AgaKhan Shia Imami Ismaili Association for Tanzania
Key Words  russia; ismailis

Ismailis in Russia

In Russia, or U.S.S.R., Ismaili villages are only found in the valley of the river Panj which, after its confluence with Wakhsh, or Wakhshab, forms the mighty Oxus or Amu-Darya river of Central Asia. These Ismailis are often wrongly called "Pamir Ismailis", not because they inhabit the plateau of the "Roof of the World", Pamir, but because they reside on its borders, in the gorges which open into the valley of Panj. Only few Qirgniz nomad tribes who with their flocks roam the cold and arid expanse of the Pamir tableland, deserve to be called the real inhabitants of the place. But they are not Ismailis, but Sunnis.

All the Ismailis on the Russian territory are the followers of H.H. Mawlana Hazar Imam. It is not easy to find out their real number in Russia, as also in India, they were usually unwilling to state in census reports their real religion, simply calling themselves "Musulman". At present with the Soviet disregard to religious affiliation, this matter is simply omitted in statistics.

Till the beginning of this century these localities were almost completely isolated from the rest of the world owing to extremely difficult and risky communication by mountain paths, over passes up to something like 14,000 feet, continually infested by robbers, who made journeys in those localities next to impossible. There was no trade; the people merely produced enough to keep body and soul together, because the Rocky Mountains offered very little space for cultivation. Life was going at a very slow tempo, in the most patriarchal way, the people were poor and illiterate, except for a few. They were nice, good-natured folk, unspoiled by urban civilisation with all its evils, honest hospitable, respectable, hardworking. Their devotion to religion was very great, and some of them even took the immense risk of travelling all the distance to Bombay for the Didar of the Imam. It is said of them that they were so punctilious in paying the tithe, or dasondh, that in case a man had ten sons, he would send one of them as a slave to the Imam.

They regarded themselves as the descendants of the direct pupils of the great ancient sage, Nasir i Khursaw, although this is not so certain historically. Anyhow, his memory is still much alive in their community.

Russia moved into Central Asia in the 60-ties of the last century, but it was only towards its end that regular administration of these remote districts was introduced. A solitary military post, Khorog, on the Panj River, was guarding the peace of the country, especially against exploits of the Qirghiz nomads. However, this was a great advance as compared with the conditions in the past, as regards safety of communications. It even permitted regular mail service, however slow and rare between it was.

The Revolution of 1917 with its implications was very slow to produce much effect upon the life of this wild corner. But it began to move on. I remember well a pilgrim from these localities in 1932 who came to Bombay for the didar, He did not like the new order, and in his complaints the chief was the one to which he repeatedly returned: compulsory literacy, "A forty years old woman in compelled to go to school". This appeared to him as the limit of oppression.

What has happened since, is difficult to say. The World War, with its ruinous and poisonous influence upon everything has not spared even such remote places. Pilgrimages to Bombay became out of the question, and later on, on independence of India and partition with Pakistan, complications over Kashmir and fighting in that area, have stopped completely. Here now, as everywhere, arose the barrier of frontiers, visas, foreign currency, and other blessings of culture.

But the matter has not ended there. Pakistan's foreign policy opened the door to the America designs of the "containment of communism", military bases, and so forth. Russia powerfully answered the challenge by taking precautionary measures. Although no news are, naturally, permitted to leak out, we may logically expect that in any case one important aspect of that locality received special attention, - roads, which were such a problem before. Still some forty years ago the only "highway" was there the river Panj, a rapid and abundant stream of crystal clean and cold glacier water. It was one-way traffic, floating downstream on rafts made of inflated sheepskins. Travelling back was done on foot by the narrow path on the banks of the river. The new roads are bound to make the towns of Central Asia easier to visit, and buses and cars will cut the necessary time to what would appear some forty years ago a mere trifle.

It is difficult to foresee in how far the change may benefit the "Pamir Ismailis". Increased contact with big towns, with their attraction of easier earning of bread, may perhaps induce many to abandon their ancestral homes with their hard struggle for existence. Literacy, medical help, possibly instruction in various crafts or even good technical education which may enable the younger generations to attain much higher standard of living, - all this surely constitutes advantages. And it is quite possible to expect that such hardworking, intelligent, physically well-endowed people as the Ismailis of Badakhshan, as they are also called, may quickly develop into a prosperous community. It is, of course, inevitable that much of that fascination of the old partriarchality will have to go. But in the world as it is at the moment, such patriarchality is doomed to disappearance, anyhow, this cannot be helped. Proletarisation of rural population is going everywhere at a rapid pace, and cannot be stopped.

We may hope, however, that when the world at last settles down after having been stirred to the bottom by the last war, and life becomes normal, new conditions will become much more beneficial to people everywhere, bringing the needed relief and peace of mind.

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