Circumcision in the former Soviet Socialist Republics of Central Asia and the Caspian Basin
These six countries, sometimes called the “Stan’s and Jan’s”, were all part of the former USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). As such, there was no official religion, all Soviet states being nominally atheist. Nevertheless, their Islamic cultural history persisted. The result remains obvious today – individual socialist states with evident Islamic roots but mostly without the militant religious fervour found further south in countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
The high incidence of male circumcision is just one Islamic norm that persisted throughout the communist era and survives to this day. World Health Authority data suggests that in five out of the six countries more than 80% of males are circumcised before or at puberty. The exception is Kazakhstan, where a lower rate is probably attributable to the differing ethnic and cultural mix especially in the more northerly parts of the country.
The best available figures for circumcision in these countries are:
A closer look at Uzbekistan
Possibly due to its historical associations with the Silk Road and the magnificent architecture of many sites which now have UNESCO World Heritage Site status, Uzbekistan features more prominently on the tourist trail than the other countries in the group. In line with the old Soviet norms, tourism tends to be a group activity, led by a professional guide. Roaming at will isn’t achievable by the average visitor; you see only what the authorities are content for you to see. But that can be quite revealing, as the following experiential account shows:
In Central Asia there is a limited but noticeable openness regarding nudity of young boys (and sometimes girls too) in public places. One of the favourite summer pastimes of Uzbek and Tatar boys is to bathe in the many fountains the Soviets built in the cities of Uzbekistan – Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Urgench. In the countryside they bathe in the many canals. This is very public and very much approved of. Sometimes girls join in. Usually boys and young adolescents bathe naked.You can view a video of an Uzbek "boy’s toi" (circumcision) here (age restricted). The boy seems very happy about it. Thanks to Andras for the link.
Virtually all the boys are circumcised. I do not know about the older men who lived in harsher Soviet times. But a Russian lady guide told me that whenever they invited her to a “toi” celebration she would ask “A boy’s toi or a wedding toi?”. The word is the same for the covenant: be it circumcision for a young boy or wedding for a couple. In the countryside and even in cities the celebration of a young boy’s circumcision is at the level of a wedding, it is so important. When I asked the driver of our tour and the guide they both said that their children and nephews had been circumcised when they were around 2 years old, in the hospital, so as to be more hygienic and less painful. It seemed very natural for them to speak of circumcision.
The Tatars, Uzbeks and other muslims of Central Asia (Kazaks, Turkmen) do not seem to be very religious muslims. They are rather ignorant of their faith. Many, for example, when I asked them if they had read the Koran said " no". They are not practicing muslims, but they are cultural muslims. And circumcision comes in with culture. The Russian guides I had were not circumcised. It seems the Soviets tolerated circumcision in these countries where muslims were in the majority as a cultural identity mark, not as a religious ceremony.
Antonio [Contributed in 2004]
Technical advances in circumcision
The development of a laser circumcision shield in Uzbekistan as long ago as 1989 indicates that the circumcision procedure is taken seriously, done as a hospital or clinic-based routine at least in the major cities. Details of the device are to be found in the old Soviet Union patent record SU1683702.
The following resources were used in the preparation of this web page:
Wikipedia (Flags and map)
Brian Morris et al. 2016 Estimation of country-specific and global prevalence of male circumcision. Population Health Metrics (2016) 14:4 DOI 10.1186/s12963-016-0073-5 open access
Samarkand photograph courtesy of Voyages Jules Verne
Personal testimony of members of the CIRCLIST discussion group.