By M.S. Asimov
The dissolution of the Soviet Union gave rise to a revision of Central Asian history. Although
Central Asian historians of most of this century have been 'formatted' in the Marxist
methodology, which reduced everything to 'class struggle' and denied any human dimension,
it is unacceptable to wipe out everything that was done in those years.
We should by no means pretend to be blind and deny that it was during the years of the Soviet regime that universities and a highly elaborate network of schools were opened, industry started to develop, archaeologists discovered important monuments of the past, physicians successfully fought endemic local diseases, engineers constructed hydropower stations and illiteracy has overcome in Tajikistan. All this and much more permits me to insist in a very modest way that it is quite impossible to accept a unilateral negative position to the recent past of Central Asia.
Having given this caution I shall return to my topic; let us see which periods in the history of the Tajiks have to be rewritten most urgently, and which problems seen from modern objective viewpoints, we should investigate first.
The benevolent Russian brother.
One of the most burning issues in our past is the Russian conquest. Central Asia was conquered by the Russian Empire in the second half of the nineteenth century. Historically it was only another step in Russian colonial politics which had started in the fifteenth century with the move to the east.
The Russian conquest of Central Asia was extremely brutal; we possess an impressive testimony of that terrible brutality in the pictures of the great Russian artist Vereshchagin. In one of his famous pictures we see a huge hill composed of human heads, heads which Russian soldiers severed from the bodies of defeated Central Asians.
This colonial conquest was said to be the free choice of Central Asian nations whose single purpose was to be united with the great and most benevolent Russian brother!
Here lies a very important task for historians: their obligation is to uncover all details, to describe day by day how Russia conquered Central Asia; sources should be published, archives opened, the requisite documents handed over to Central Asian scholars. The world should know the truth about the real deeds of the Russians in Central Asia.
Once conquered, Central Asia was made a deliverer of raw material for the Russian industry. As far as Tajikistan is concerned, the north grew more prosperous than the south. The south of the country remained under control of the amir of Bukhara, who was, however, under Russian protection. The amir regarded the eastern part of his princedom as a kind of colony; thus the people of this "Eastern Bukhara" experienced double exploitation; they led a miserable life that is shown in the few contemporary documentaries that still are at our disposal.
The area that we now regard as Northern Tajikistan was in a more favourable situation: it was under the direct rule of the Russian governor-general in Tashkent. It became an integral part of the Russian Empire. The growth of Russia's textile industry augmented the demand for cotton; this raw material became the main agricultural product in the area. The growth of trade corresponded to that of agriculture and by 1914 the export of Central Asia was higher than its import. The growth of trade turned the Central Asian economy from an isolated, self-sufficient rural economy into a steadily strengthening market-oriented economy. Thus Russian colonization also brought Central Asia positive innovations. Railways were constructed, new schools, and gymnasiums opened.
We cannot deny the importance of Russian scholarship. Needless to say that all orientalists are highly appreciative of Professor Barthold and his incomparable scholarly heritage.
Enlightening on the Jadidists.
Another matter is the anti-Russian resistance in Central Asia. Soviet historiography had to qualify this as a highly reactionary movement. In the restudy of the resistance movement we should first turn to role of the enlightened Jadidists. Soviet historians always associated Jadidism with pan-Turkism; and indeed, Jadidist leaders expected support from Turkey and dreamed of the unification of the Turkish nations. Since pan-Turkism implied a change of orientation from Russia to the Turkish nations, it was systematically repressed by Russia, along with Jadidism. In the years of Stalin's purges the majority of the Jadidists disappeared, even people loosely connected with them did not escape Stalin's hand. The Jadidists were painted very black indeed and absolutely no research on their real ideas and actions was permitted: one had simply to repeat the official formulas.
We know now that the Jadidists were not reactionaries. They were critical of the stagnation in the old princedoms, and they were against the feudal regime. The Jadidists were fighting for progress in Central Asia, for the well-being of their nation. I am convinced that our duty is to convey the truth about them, a process which has already been started. The literary heritage of the Jadidists has now been published.
A history of the Tajik
It is very important to rewrite the history of the Soviet period, which was until recently the favourite period for research. At the same time it was the period most subject to control: one could only write what corresponded closely to the official views. For that reason the enormous bulk of books, articles, and dissertations which deal with this period must be read more than critically. The main topics for this period are the so-called revolution in Bukhara, the civil war in Central Asia, the redistribution of land, and water, the collectivization and industrialization, and the Communist Party's politics in the realm of culture and education. I would like to stress once more that we have to be very cautious in order not to swing from one extreme to another.
We have already started this work in Tajikistan. The Institute for History, Archaeology, and Anthropology of the Academy of Sciences is preparing a history of the Tajik People from the most ancient times up to our own day. The first two volumes, which deal with ancient and medieval history, are ready for print.
Let us discuss one of the problems that was of paramount importance to my nation as well as to our neighbours during all the years of Soviet rule: the problem of russification.
Russification embraced a wide spectrum of different issues: language and script; perception of the cultural heritage; understanding of national identity; family and everyday life; rituals and traditions; dress and food; everything underwent russification to a greater or lesser degree. Ultimately it reflects the global problem of "West" versus "East".
The opposition of "West" to "East" has a very long prehistory. It finally took its shape in the nineteenth century, when the European countries built their colonial empires A popular thought was that an abyss separated "West" and "East". We know the verse by Rudyard Kipling:
"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stay presently at God's great Judgment Seat"...
This was a global opposition, but it was even thought that eastern and western brains functioned
in different ways, that not only culture, but patterns of thinking differed drastically. And the
saddest thing was the lamentable idea about the absolute superiority of the "West" compared to
the "East". This is an extreme Eurocentric vision that first of all ignores the differences between
a brilliant variety of Oriental cultures and civilizations. Western culture is only one of the many
cultures that have emerged in the history of mankind.
The problem of russification should be analyzed from this point of view: to what extent did russification destroy our traditional culture and to what extent did it lead to a blend of eastern and western culture.
We have to separate two things: first, the compulsory russification, which certainly was a violation of the very basis of our life; second, the natural and beneficent process of opening Russian and Western culture to the population of Central Asia.
Compulsory russification started immediately after the conquest, the first tsarist governor-general of Turkestan, General Kaufman, expressed his views quite succinctly, when he said, that 'the development of education in the area should move in the direction of what is necessary for Russians'.
After the Russian revolution exactly the same politics continued to dominate, the only difference being a rather transparent veil of hypocrisy. Language politics gave obvious expression to russification. Though it was officially, even solemnly, proclaimed that all languages were equal and have the same rights, practically speaking some languages were more equal than others, and the "most equal" was, of course, Russian. Russian was not only used for interethnic contact, it was introduced to serve as a language for all kinds of official and semi-official documentation; it was even impossible to send a cablegram in Tajik. Non-Russian languages were expected to function in a very restricted area - in countryside settlements and for the writing of fiction.
Only after 1989 did it become possible to proclaim Tajik the official state language; however, the war and economic problems have not allowed us to do now what we intended. But several positive steps have been undertaken:
There were many other examples of russification, for instance, our national holidays and feasts had been forbidden, instead new soviet feasts were introduced. Now the situation has changed; we have again our Nawruz and Mehrgan, Idi Qurban, and Idi Ramazan.
As I already told you, it would be a great mistake to consider everything connected to the Russian culture as compulsory russification. Through Russia we adopted many highly-developed forms of culture, we have now our national operas and symphony orchestra, novels and modern poetry, painting and sculpture. Tajik translations of Shakespeare helped us to raise a generation of talented actors, who are popular far beyond the frontiers of Tajikistan.
We have a keen appreciation of the great humanistic culture of the West, which should pertain to the whole world; as do the great cultures of the East. It is impossible to solve and even to enumerate all the problems we have after we achieved Independence. Our expectations are for the future.
M.S. Asimov is affiliated to the Tajik Academy of Sciences, Dushanbe