At the height of the Brezhnev period, when the Soviet system seemed politically secure and economically stable, a new theory emerged to excite the hopes of Kremlinologists: that Islam would be the force that undermined the evil empire. The impetus came from two French academics, Alexandre Bennigsen and Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, archetypal representatives of a profession always given to a strong element of wishful thinking, alongside hatred and resentment, in part because it was dominated by émigrés and their children. Bennigsen's Islam in the Soviet Union (1967) and Carrère d'Encausse's L'Empire éclaté (1978) argued that the five Central Asian republics were the Soviet Union's soft underbelly. Their large Muslim populations had retained a distinct political consciousness, they claimed, in spite of five decades of Sovietisation, and thanks to a high birthrate their numbers were increasing faster than those of the majority Slavs. Zbigniew Brzezinski and other US Sovietologists in the Carter administration eagerly took up the theory of a demographic time-bomb and funding was increased for Western radio broadcasts into Central Asia in the hope of exploiting Islam's anti-Soviet potential.
LRB 28 January 2010 | PDF Download