Tajikistan, literally the "Land of the Tajiks," has ancient cultural roots. The people now known as the Tajiks are the Persian speakers of Central Asia, some of whose ancestors inhabited Central Asia (including present-day Afghanistan and western China) at the dawn of history. There are sizable numbers of Tajiks found in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, China and Afghanistan.

Formal Name: Republic of Tajikistan (local form: Jumhurii Tojikiston). Short Form: Tajikistan (local form: Tojikiston). Former name (under the Soviet Union): Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic Term for Citizen(s): Tajikistani(s).Tajiks are an ethnic group. Citizens of Tajikistan are officially refereed are to as Tajikistanis. “Tajik” officially refers to the Tajik ethnic group although it can also refer to Tajikistan citizens.

”Isetan” is the old Persian word for "place of." Thus Tajikistan means "place of the Tajiks.” In Persian, “taj” means "crown" and “ik” means "head." Thus Tajik means a "person who wears a crown."

Stan -stan suffix \stan, stan[Per.] 1: place, place of 2: land. Adopted into several languages from Persian, the court language employed in antique kingdoms of Central Asia. Thus the place or land of the Afghans is Afghanistan, the place of the Tajiks, Tajikistan. [Source: National Geographic, February 2002]

Relatively little has been written in English about Tajikistan. An important study of the largely Persian civilization and political history of southern Central Asia in the early centuries of the Islamic era is Richard N. Frye's Bukhara: The Medieval Achievement . The first three chapters of Turko-Persia in Historical Perspective , edited by Robert L. Canfield, describe the interaction of Turkic- and Persian-speaking peoples in the region. The Russian scholar Vasilii V. Bartol'd wrote a seminal historical work that has been translated as Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion . Teresa Rakowska-Harmstone's Russia and Nationalism in Central Asia describes Tajikistani politics in the Stalin and Khrushchev eras from the Russian viewpoint. Muriel Atkin's The Subtlest Battle and "Islam as Faith, Politics and Bogeyman in Tajikistan" (a chapter in The Politics of Religion in Russia and the New States of Eurasia , edited by Michael Bourdeaux) describe the role of Islam in Soviet and post-Soviet times. [Source: Library of Congress]

Books on Central Asia: “Central Asia: 120 Years of Russian Rule,” edited by Edward Allworth, offers a comprehensive treatment of the region. A more concise summary of each country’s geopolitical position in the 1990s is found in Charles Undeland and Nicholas Platt's “The Central Asian Republics”. “Central Asia,” edited by Hafeez Malik, offers a collection of articles on the history and geopolitics of the region. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Brief History of Tajikistan

Despite the long heritage of its indigenous peoples, Tajikistan has existed as a state only since the Soviet Union decreed its existence in 1924. The creation of modern Tajikistan was part of the Soviet policy of giving the outward trappings of political representation to minority nationalities in Central Asia while simultaneously reorganizing or fragmenting communities and political entities. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The area designated today as the Republic of Tajikistan underwent a series of population changes that brought with them political and cultural influences from the Turkic and Mongol peoples of the Eurasian steppe, China, Iran, Russia, and other contiguous regions.

Tajikistan has endured invasions by Iranians, Arabs, Mongols, Uzbeks, Afghans and Russians. Its history and development has been closely tied with the settled people in Central Asia, namely Tajiks and Uzbeks. Before horsemen such as Turks and Mongols claimed or destroyed them, Iranian groups such as the Tajiks often dominated the urban oases of Central Asia.

After the arrival of the Turks and Mongols, Iranians were kept on as administrators., The Turkic and Mongol rulers tended to adjust their religion and culture to match the people they ruled. The result of the Turkic leaders combined with the Iranian (Tajik) administrators produced a Turko-Iranian culture that dominated important Central Asian oases towns, especially Bukhara and Samarkand. Many people spoke both Tajik and Turkic languages such as Chagatay or Uzbek, a pattern which continues to this day.

The Tajik people came under Russian rule after a series of military campaigns that began in the 1860s, but Russia's hold on Central Asia weakened following the Revolution of 1917. Bands of indigenous guerrillas (called "basmachi") fiercely contested Bolshevik control of the area, which was not fully reestablished until 1925. Tajikistan was first created as an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan in 1924, but the USSR designated Tajikistan a separate republic in 1929 and transferred to it much of present-day Sughd province. Ethnic Uzbeks form a substantial minority in Tajikistan. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Tajikistan was the poorest republic in the Soviet Union and remains the poorest in the former Soviet sphere. It became independent in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and experienced a civil war between regional factions from 1992 to 1997. The civil war left at least 50,000 people dead. Most of its trained manpower fled. National Geographic described Tajikistan “as a crippled nation that will have a hard time surviving without foreign help.”

Tajikistan endured several domestic security incidents during 2010-12, including armed conflict between government forces and local strongmen in the Rasht Valley and between government forces and criminal groups in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. Tajikistan became a member of the World Trade Organization in March 2013. However, its economy continues to face major challenges, including dependence on remittances from Tajikistanis working in Russia, pervasive corruption, and the major role narcotrafficking plays in the country's informal economy. =

Themes in Tajikistan History

The Tajik are one of the least Russified of all the groups in Central Asia. This is because they have remained fairly isolated in the mountains and there was little in Tajikistan that was really valuable to the Russians or Soviets lifestyles. Up until the 20th century they were regarded as essentially the same people except that Uzbeks spoke a Turkish language and the Tajiks spoke a Persian language. In some ways the Tajik ethnic group was invented by the Russians as way to divide the local population and make them easier to conquer. Two of Uzbekistan’s most famous cities, Samarkand and Bukhara, have a longer association with Persian-Tajik cultures than with Turkic-Uzbek cultures and have traditionally been home to more Tajiks than Uzbeks.

On the drama of the Tajiks’ long march through history, Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Their traditional social organisation and culture provided for resilience and survival in the pre-modern period. Conserved and reified during the colonial and Soviet periods, these very aspects militated against the emergence of a viable inclusive nationalism at the time of independence. More than 20 years later, these patterns persist. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

In 1910, a Russian historian of Central Asia wrote: “A close acquaintance with Tajiks, and a study of their mores, traditions, and way of life, involuntarily compels one to take sympathy to this hard-working people who had sustained so much hardship and suffering that one can only wonder how despite all of this it has not only failed to disappear from the face of the earth but also preserved in purity its tribal features.”

Neglect of Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote:Until the break-up of the Soviet Union, Western scholars neglected Tajikistan for a number of reasons. Its remote geographic location made physical access to the republic almost impossible for foreigners. The fact that Tajikistan bordered Afghanistan and China and had a large network of strategic installations on its territory, including uranium mines and missile bases, had made Soviet security services extremely vigilant and alert in the republic, so the trickle of information emanating to the outside world from Tajikistan, and about Tajikistan, was heavily censored and scant. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Tajikistan was always viewed, and not without grounds, as a bastion of Soviet power, invariably loyal to the Kremlin, and was always treated as a dull political backwater of the USSR even in comparison with other Central Asian republics. Not surprisingly, in seven decades of Soviet rule, only one monograph devoted to the history and politics of Tajikistan was published in the West, and that was in 1970.

“Many important trends, events and patterns of continuity and change in Tajikistan, especially in the crucial period between 1965 and 1992, have so far remained ignored, overlooked or misinterpreted by the scholarly community. In recent years there has been some excellent work done on the very late 1980s and early 1990s, but in only a narrow or fragmented manner. In the meantime, this country represents an important aspect of Central Asian politics, with all its inherent modalities and controversies unprecedentedly amplified and exposed in the post-communist era. Thus, analysing issues of political development in Tajikistan may facilitate a better and more nuanced understanding of the entire region.”

Tajiks and the Tajik State

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Descended primarily from the original sedentary population of Central Asia, Tajiks followed a peculiar cycle of civilisational adaptation in the wake of numerous dislocations brought about by outside forces, usually in the form of military conquest: political subjugation, adjustment, cultural synthesis, the rise of a new social order and its decay, once again, due to external influences. The invasions of Alexander the Great, the Turks, the Arabs, the Mongols and the Uzbeks were the major landmarks in these processes. The latest cultural dislocation in Tajikistan was associated with the establishment of communist rule after 1917. It initiated a new adaptation cycle, which formed the broader historical context for political occurrences in modern Tajikistan. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“The state remains the major focus of analysis in this monograph, but only as one of a multitude of social institutions in Tajikistan that compete for the ability to prescribe rules of behaviour for the populace. Even if the state in Tajikistan cannot challenge the lasting influence of people’s loyalties to kinship, religious and ethnic groups, it is certainly capable of acting as a mediator and incorporator in relation to these communities. Henceforth, the political system in Tajikistan is analysed from positions of instrumentalism—that is, its efficiency in regulating the competition for resources amongst elites representing various communities.

“From the 1930s until the mid 1980s the regime in Tajikistan did not face any legitimation crises, having attained a high degree of stability based on broad elite consensus, with formal and informal rules of political behaviour accepted, if not grudgingly, by all players involved. As part of the process of state consolidation in Tajikistan during the Soviet era, state structures did indeed penetrate local society; however, the process was only partially successful. The government had no choice at times but to accommodate local strongmen and traditional patterns of social organisation, religious belief, identities and loyalties. The result at the level of centre–periphery relations was the central (Soviet Union) and republic-level (Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic) governments’ use of local cleavages as a power-balancing and patronage tool—thereby sustaining the cleavages, even if in a transformed state. The alliance of local networks and actors with the central government gave regional actors a stake in the success or failure of the political arrangements in the national government—thereby tying highly localised issues to national political issues. In Tajikistan, such cleavages were present in the increasingly contentious politics of the late Soviet era and, strongly linked to Gorbachev’s reforms, reached a critical situation in the second half of the 1980s.”

Tajikistan as One of the Stans

Tajiks are of Persian stock and speak a Persian dialect. They make up 65 percent of the country's 6.6 million people; most of the rest are Uzbeks who mainly live in Tajikistan's slice of the Fergana Valley in the north. Many Tajiks have kin across the border in northern Afghanistan. While most of the Tajikistan Tajiks practice a moderate form of Islam, the mountains of their nation have been a hiding place for extremist Muslim guerrillas who have raided into Uzbekistan. Tajikistan's challenges begin with terrain. Ninety-three percent of the Arkansas-size nation is mountainous. Most of the arable 6 percent was long tilled by state farms that were required to grow cotton. It remains the major crop, but yields and prices have fallen. [Source: National Geographic, February 2002]

Describing Tajikistan in the early 2000s, Mike Edwards wrote in National Geographic, “Bombs occasionally explode in Dushanbe, the capital. Assassins gun down political leaders and kill others for revenge. Much of the violence is the aftermath of the civil war, a tangled, chaotic, multisided power struggle that continued until a cease-fire was signed in 1997, with occasional subsequent eruptions.” [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, February 2002 ]

“The fighters: bands of communists, Tajik clans, a small Islamic force, and warlords. The warlords were also trying to seize the nations meager assets, such as textile mills, for themselves. Russia sent troops in 1992, ostensibly to try to halt the fighting and perhaps to extend its influence in Central Asia. The Russian Army presence is still large.

“Elections in 1994 gave the presidency to Imomali Rakhmonov, a former state farm boss. Critics say he is allied with militia leaders who control regions of the country and sometimes commandeer businesses. Some commanders may be smuggling opium from Afghanistan, in recent years the world's number one producer. Tajikistan's biggest industry is a huge aluminum smelter built by the Soviets. Dams on mountain streams generated the necessary electricity, but the ore, bauxite, had to be transported from abroad by ship and rail. The smelter still limps along, 120 million dollars in debt.

“The best hope for Tajikistan may be development of small farms and orchards. The government has allowed some farmers to go private, and many have prospered. The Aga Khan Foundation, a charity active in Central Asia, has seen crop yields double among farmers who received modest loans for seed, fertilizer, and irrigation projects.Otherwise, not much good news emerges from Tajikistan. Barring a miracle, it will remain poor, and perhaps unstable as well.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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