With deep roots, the Baha'i community of Russia survived a long era of Communist persecution
The connection between Russia and the Bahá'í Faith stretches back more than a century. In the mid-1800s, Russian diplomats made important interventions on behalf of the Faith when it faced a first round of persecutions in Iran. Turn-of-the-century Russian intellectuals studied and wrote about the Faith extensively, attracted by its progressive principles. And early followers established a thriving community in Russian Turkistan in the pre-Revolutionary era, building there the world's first Bahá'í House of Worship.
The Faith was founded in Iran by Bahá'u'lláh, who claimed to be a Messenger of God on a par with Muhammad, Jesus and the world's other great Prophets, teaching that all of the world's religions are one. Branded a heretic, He was imprisoned in Teheran in 1852. Prince Dolgoruki, then the Russian Ambassador to Iran, appealed to the Shah to release Him, offering refuge in Russia. Although Bahá'u'lláh chose not to accept Prince Dolgoruki's offer, He was ultimately released from prison and sent into exile.
Later in the 1800s, prominent Russian orientalists and scholars, including M. Gamazov, V.P. Rosen, Mirsa Kasem-Beg, Alesander Tumanski, Bernard Dorn, and V. Zhukovski, began to research the Bahá'í movement, describing its principles, chronicling its early history, translating its literature, and, in general, playing an important role in acquainting the rest of Europe with the new religion.
In 1904, journalist S. Umanets was among the first to recognize the Faith as an independent religion. Both Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy investigated the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith and spoke often about it. In the later years of his life, Tolstoy mentioned the Faith many times in his correspondence, sharing books and information with his colleagues and friends, calling it at one point "the highest and purest form of religion".
Artists were likewise touched by dramatic episodes from the Faith's early history. Plays about its founding were written by St. Petersburg poet Isabella Grinevskaya and performed not only in St. Petersburg theaters, but in Paris, London and Berlin until the early 1920's.
In Russian Turkistan, the Bahá'í community reached a high stage of development in the early years of this century. Just prior to the Russian Revolution in 1918, more than 4,000 believers lived in Ishqabad, where they had erected a Bahá'í House of Worship, built an elementary school, two kindergartens, and a medical clinic, and had established a highly developed community life, featuring multiple libraries, social clubs and various societies devoted to drama, gymnastics and other pursuits.
As with other religious communities under Communism, the Bahá'ís of Russia were forced to severely curtail public activities after the Revolution. Those who remained active experienced systematic persecution and imprisonment. The House of Worship was confiscated by the government in 1928 and, its structure weakened by an earthquake in 1948, it was razed in 1963. In the 1930s, nearly all adult male believers were exiled to prison camps, where most perished. Yet some followers were able to teach their children about the Faith and its principles and, during periods of official leniency, community life sporadically flourished. For the most part, however, Bahá'í activity in Russia was virtually extinguished during Communist rule.