Lack of or belated official recognition marked Muslim contribution to the Soviet war effort, even though it was an ethnic Kazakh soldier, Rakhimzhan Qoshkarbaev who was the first to raise former USSR’s flag at the German parliament building.
The 9th of May is a holiday that marks the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. Celebrations are held across Russia, Central Asia, satellite states such as Transnistria and the Soviet empire’s former dominions. It’s well-known that the USSR paid a heavy price for defeating the Nazis, the loss of over 26 million of its citizens and troops.
What is less known is the large Muslim contribution to the Soviet Union’s victory. It’s estimated over 3.5 million Muslims from Central Asia and the Caucasus fought on the frontlines of the Red Army against the Nazis, this was an increase from World War I, where 500,000 Muslims had served in the Russian imperial forces.
One would think the Soviet authorities were grateful for this vital manpower, far from it. Up to the outbreak of the war, Stalin was brutally persecuting Muslim populations across the vast empire’s territories. Over 1.5 million individuals, including Muslim peoples such as Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachai and Crimean Tatars were deported and forcibly resettled in Central Asia and Siberia. Stalin’s pretext for the deportations was that these people collaborated with the Nazis. Ironically, 50, 000 Chechens and Ingush were fighting on the frontlines against the Germans as the USSR cynically and mercilessly deported their families. Salman Dudayev to his and his Ukrainian commander’s shock was removed from the trenches of Stalingrad and told he was being exiled on (false) charges he was collaborating with the Nazi army. In another cruel irony, one of the five Chechen recipients of the ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ award, returned to find his entire family had been deported. Despite Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev de-Stalinization campaign allowing people to return to their native lands, many could not till the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Lack of or belated official recognition also marked Muslim contribution to the Soviet war effort. An ethnic Kazakh soldier , Rakhimzhan Qoshkarbaev on April 30th was the first person to raise the USSR’s flag at the Reichstag (German parliament building). Despite many high-profile petitions, Qoshkarbaev received no official recognition in his lifetime, in fact the Republic of Kazakhstan President’s archives show he was denied honours as his father had been declared an ‘enemy of the people’ by Stalinist authorities. They even went as far as giving that credit to two other soldiers, Georgian-born Meliton Kantaria and Russian-born Mikhail Yegorov . It was only in May 1999 that a Kazakh presidential decree posthumously declared him a hero of Kazakhstan. Anyway, the flag was shot by German snipers and the whole flag raising was staged once again by Russian photographer Yevgeny Khaldie a few days later on May 2nd, 1945. Another Muslim soldier, the Dagestani Abdulkhalim Ismailov was one of the three soldiers pictured atop the Reichstag; he was only declared a Hero of Russia by the Kremlin in 1996. What’s more Ismailov was severely injured 5 times throughout the Second World War, yet returned to the frontline every time.
In the Red Empire, where religion, especially Islam was heavily suppressed, there may have not been much political incentive to recognise as a collective, the sacrifice of USSR’s Muslim populations. In many Western countries, Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities are absent from the popular narrative of World War II as was seen in Christopher Nolan Dunkirk movie. Indeed, 2.5 million Indian soldiers, 40 percent of which were Muslim served in the British armed forces against the Nazis. Such was their value, Winston Churchill said the war would not have been won without the Indian army, in a letter to US President Roosevelt he wrote:
“We must not on any account break with the Moslems, who represent a hundred million people, and the main army elements on which we must rely for the immediate fighting”.
In this day and age when Islamophobia is rising across Western countries, it becomes even more important to highlight these stories of the Muslim contribution to break the far-right myth that Islam is foreign to the European continent and elsewhere.