Arab Perspectives on Russian Revolutions

By Spencer Scoville
Submitted to Session P4359 (From Arab-Russian to Arab-Soviet Cultural Encounters: Are There Continuities?, 2016 Annual Meeting
Arab States; Egypt; Ottoman Empire; The Levant;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Merav Mack’s recent work on the connections between the Arab Orthodox Christian communities sheds important light on the complex attitudes toward communism among members of the Arab Orthodox community. I work to situate her work within its historical context by contrasting contemporary reactions to the 1917 revolution in published reports from inside and outside the Arab Orthodox community. I place special emphasis on the reactions from within the Orthodox community by comparing post-1917 discussions of revolutionary Russia with those that predate the 1917 revolution. The variety of reactions present in these reports illustrates the complicated consequences of the formation of the Soviet Union in the Arab world for both Orthodox Christians and emerging communist and socialist movements.

The Orthodox Christian communities in the Arab world had the strongest ties to Russia in 1917, and were most interested in what was happening there. At the same time, the religious nature of their connections shaped their reactions to the rise of the Bolsheviks to power. In their publications, we find the most sustained interest in Bolshevik ideology from 1905 onwards. I take examples of Orthodox attitudes toward the rise of Bolshevism from articles in prominent Orthodox publications such as al-Manar, al-Nafa’is al-‘asriyyah, al-Ikhaa’, and publications of individuals connected to the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IOPS) in the Levant.

It is not surprising to find that the leading Orthodox voices of the day, those Arab Christians most closely associated with the IOPS schools and institutions, criticized the Russian revolutionaries at every opportunity. Non-Orthodox publications from the same cities, on the other hand, contain a wide variety of reactions to the Bolshevik Revolution. While few Arab intellectuals were quick to embrace the ideology outright, the pieces published on the Bolshevik Revolution show a wide variety attitudes toward the emerging political movement. The prominent Egyptian journal al-Hilal, for example, begins publishing a variety of articles connected to the revolution in the 1917-1918 volume, including a translation of an article written by Vladimir Lenin explaining the tenets of Bolshevism. Putting these non-Orthodox pieces next to the extensive coverage produced by the Arab Orthodox community (both before and after 1917) highlights a unique aspect of the special relationship the Arab Orthodox community and Russian society.