Saturday, October 10, 2015

Yagnobs, Last Nation Soviets Deported, Struggle to Survive

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 10 – The Yagnobs, a small 15,000-strong nation of highland Tajikistan near the Afghan border, have a double distinction: they are the last survivors of the pre-Turkic Sogdian civilization of Central Asia, and they are the last survivors of the last nation the Soviets deported – not in the 1940s or before as was the case with others but in the 1970s.

            Fewer than a thousand of them have been able to return to their ancestral homeland; their language which was not a literary one until the 1980s is dying out; and despite promises from Dushanbe, their only hope at present seems to be the efforts of a local NGO supported by the Christianson Foundation in the United States.

            And because of all these things and the inaccessibility of their kishlaks in the mountains of Tajikistan, they rarely attract media attention anywhere.  That makes an article by Tajik journalist Nigora Buhkhari-Zade posted on the Fergana News portal yesterday especially precious (

                The story she tells is not a happy one. In several decades, she says, this community may see its ancient pre-Turkic language completely disappear and its unique culture rooted in Sogdian civilization absorbed into the larger Tajik one, even though some Yagnobs and others are trying to preserve it.

            The place the Yagnob nation considers its home includes 17 kishlaks whose approximately 500 residents do not have access to the Internet or even good roads to the outside world: for six months of the year, they cannot make their way to the lowlands and no one can come to them by road.

            Most Yagnobs, some 15,000, live in lowland Tajikistan, the result of the March 29, 1970, deportation of the entire nation.  On that day, helicopters swooped in and forcibly took the Yagnobs away from their ancestral homes, nominally to promote cotton farming in the lowlands but in fact to get them away from the Afghan border (

            Like other peoples the Soviets deported, the Yagnobs had a hard time adapting to the conditions in the lowlands. For many of them, their new “homes” were too hot, work in the cotton fields unpleasant, and exposure to the more modernized Tajiks difficult for people who had lived cut off from the world all of their lives.

            Not surprisingly, they tried to return home.  In 1975, several succeeded, but in 1978, the Soviet authorities again came and deported them by force.  In the early 1980s, however, more Yagnobs sought to return; but only after 1985 did Moscow give them their right to live in the places from which they had been deported.

            Sayfiddin Mirzozoda, a Yagnobwho works as a researcher at the Dushanbe Institute of Language and Literature, says that “as a result of assimilation of the resettlers, the Yagnob language is being driven out of daily use by the state language and possibly after several decades there will not be any speakers of it left.”

            In the 17 Yagnob villages, there are a total of three primary schools where children study Yagnob alongside Tajik; but in more advanced schools and at schools elsewhere in Tajikistan, the situation is much worse. Despite a 2009 law promising more instruction in Yagnob, Dushanbe has in fact overseen a cutback in the number of hours of Yagnob classes.

            One hopeful sign is the work of the Anakhita organization headed by Vokhid Safarov and funded by the US-based Christianson Foundation. It sponsors the collection of data about the language and the publication of materials in it as part of its program of promoting diversity human and environmental.

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