Monday, September 19, 2016

The Rise and Fall of Russian Dushanbe

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 19 – Only a few thousand ethnic Russians remain in Dushanbe, even though only a few decades ago, they made up a third of the population of the Tajik capital and dominated its linguistic space, changes that have been so rapid and dramatic that many have been disoriented by them, according to Nigora Bukhari-zade.

            National censuses have tracked the declining share of ethnic Russians in all the former Soviet republics, the result of the departure of many and differences in birthrates between them and the titular nationalities. But it is at the micro-level of individual cities and villages that this shift may be having the greatest impact on the populations involved.

            That makes Bukhari-zade’s article in on the Fergana news portal today so important because it tracks the rise of Dushanbe from a small kishlak numbering no more than a thousand people in the early 1920s to a city of more than a million today and the rise and fall of the Russian community within it (

            The journalist spoke with Gafur Shermatov, a historian and activist, about the 20th century history of the city, the role Russians played in developing it, and the extent to which their role has now been forgotten along with the Russian language by many young Tajiks one meets there.

            Shermatov points out that Dushanbe celebrated its 90th anniversary as a city two years ago and that few know how small it was before that time. Indeed, the neighboring kishlaks were in every case larger, but Dushanbe attracted people because it had the largest bazar in eastern Bukhara.

            It was also the only place in emirate where the Bukharan Jews lived, a group that played a key role, Shermatov says, is providing food to the local population when the city was besieged by Enver Pasha’s forces in 1921. In the same year, Emir Alimkhan made Dushanbe his capital and in 1922, Enver Pasha declared it the capital of the khalifate he had proclaimed.

            With the arrival of the Red army, Russians began to arrive in large numbers, and they continued to use Dushanbe as a political center. In 1924, it became the capital of the Tajik ASSR and remained the capital of the Tajik SSR, although it was known as Stalinabad between 1929 and 1961.

            The next large influx of Russians came during World War II, when more than 100,000 of them were evacuated to the Tajik capital and when many wounded Red Army men were hospitalized there.  For both, the city was a paradise at that time, Shermatov says, because it was one of the few cities of the USSR where bread was freely sold.

            He adds that when he was growing up there were “hundreds” of war invalids, many of them ethnic Russians, on the streets of Dushanbe.

            All these groups of Russians played a key role in the development of the Tajaik capital, he says, but they have been largely forgotten. Tajiks today remember national heroes from distant centuries, but they forget those who played a major role in protecting them from Turkic domination and promoting modernization.

            One measure of just how large a role they did play, he cotninnued, is to be found in the central city cemetery.  There are more than 1.5 million Orthodox graves, a number “larger than the number of residents of the city today.”  Many Tajiks can’t believe that there were once that many Russians in their city.

            Shermatov says that he has mixed feelings about the changes in the city.  The new construction is fine, he continues, but the destruction of many of the Soviet-era monuments and buildings is disturbing, as is the fact that some many Russians are leaving and so few Tajiks know about the Russian role or even speak Russian.

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