In creating the new Central Asian republics in the 1920s, the central political leadership arbitrarily defined national identities, which until that time had had little political importance. In the case of the Tajiks, this meant not only differentiating them from the Uzbeks, with whom they had much in common despite their different native languages, but also from fellow Persian-speakers outside the Soviet Union. Although the labels "Tajik" and "Uzbek" were not Soviet inventions, they had little meaning to many of the people to whom they were suddenly applied. This circumstance led to much confusion when people were required to identify themselves by one of these two national designations. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

“The Tajiks' language, which they traditionally had called Persian (Farsi), was relabeled Tajik. Major Persian-language writers were called Tajiks, even if they had not used that term to describe themselves and had not lived in Central Asia. Tajik, like the other Central Asian languages, underwent a two-stage alphabet reform by order of the Soviet regime. First, the Arabic alphabet was abandoned in 1929 in favor of the Latin. Then, in 1940 Moscow declared Cyrillic the official alphabet of the Tajik language. *

“Meanwhile, during the 1930s and 1940s Tajik culture was redefined and Sovietized to suit the political requirements of the central government of Soviet leader Joseph V. Stalin. In this period, the accusation of "bourgeois nationalism" could destroy a member of the intelligentsia or a political figure. In the renewed wave of Stalinist repression after World War II, Tajik intellectuals were purged for being nationalists, a loosely defined offense that could be applied to any form of opposition to central government policies.” *

Early Bolshevik-Soviet Period in Tajikistan

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Soviet forces gradually overcame the widely dispersed resistance of indigenous Central Asian insurgents, some of whom were based in Tajikistan. In 1924 Tajikistan became an autonomous republic within the new Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, and in 1929 the country became a full-fledged Soviet republic. In the years between the world wars, the economy of Tajikistan was absorbed into the Soviet economic system, which designated Tajikistan as a cotton-growing republic. Tajiks exerted very little influence in Soviet political affairs during this time, and many Tajik party members were purged from the republic’s communist party. [Source: Library of Congress. 2007 **]

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The Tajiks of Eastern Bukhara initially welcomed the Red Army soldiers. They knew nothing about communism, and the majority of them had not even heard about the dramatic events of 1917; what they understood and cared about was that the oppressive rule of the emir and his Uzbek warlords was over. The isolated, self-sufficient peasant communities in Eastern Bukhara strove for autonomous existence according to ancient traditions in a peaceful environment, with as little state interference as possible. Of course, these hopes could not eventuate under the new regime. The Dictatorial Commission appointed revolutionary committees (revkoms) to each of the five vilayets of Eastern Bukhara, and these began to requisition food, confiscate private and vaqf (belonging to the mosques) lands and mobilise people for public works. In European Russia, the ‘arrogant, often abutting on malversation activities of revkoms, indulgence in bribery, drinking and other excesses’ caused a large-scale peasant revolt led by A. S. Antonov between autumn 1920 and summer 1921. In Central Asia the defensive reaction of the indigenous population took the form of the so-called basmachi movement. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“The Soviet authorities in Eastern Bukhara, due to the absence of educated locals to recruit as cadres, had to exercise central rule through a small number of ‘poorly-supervised local agents’. And some of the ‘new’ local Soviet officials were in fact the same old local authority figures. Certain local leaders joined the Bolshevik side as they saw an opportunity to use the Soviet ‘power structures’ as a vehicle to promote their own interests. The Central Commission for Struggle against the basmachi complained that as of the late 1920s the local power structures were mostly untouched and that the local Soviet bureaucracy was ‘colonised’ by former bureaucrats of the Bukharan Emirate. Another aspect of ‘colonisation’ concerned not former bureaucrats of the Bukharan Emirate, but powerful local figures. In Tajikistan, wealthy local elites were able—assisted by their local patronage networks—to be elected to serve in Soviet institutions, especially at the rural district level. This even led to factional fighting, power struggles and abuse of power by those in positions of authority. The Soviets noticed this problem and worried that ‘clans’ would successfully integrate themselves within the Soviet bureaucracy. In the former Bukharan Emirate the Kremlin encountered particular difficulty transforming the local power structures into Soviet institutions, unlike elsewhere, where the transformation was from tsarist to Soviet. As for Tajikistan, Moscow finally found the educated class needed as bureaucrats with the 1929 addition of the northern urban centre of Khujand to the Tajik SSR.

Creation of Tajik Soviet Republic

After the Bolshevik revolution, Tajikistan was first part of Turkestan (1918 to 1924). The Tajik ASSR was created within the Uzbek SSR in 1924. The Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was officially proclaimed and added the Soviet Union in 1929.

After establishing communist rule throughout formerly tsarist Central Asia in 1924, the Soviet government redrew internal political borders, eliminating the major units into which the region had been divided. The Soviet rationale was that this reorganization fulfilled local inhabitants' nationalist aspirations and would undercut support for the Basmachis. However, the new boundaries still left national groups fragmented, and nationalist aspirations in Central Asia did not prove as threatening as depicted in communist propaganda. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

One of the new states created in Central Asia in 1924 was Uzbekistan, which had the status of a Soviet socialist republic. Tajikistan was created as an autonomous Soviet socialist republic within Uzbekistan. The new autonomous republic included what had been eastern Bukhara and had a population of about 740,000, out of a total population of nearly 5 million in Uzbekistan as a whole. Its capital was established in Dushanbe, which had been a village of 3,000 in 1920. In 1929 Tajikistan was detached from Uzbekistan and given full status as a Soviet socialist republic. At that time, the territory that is now northern Tajikistan was added to the new republic. Even with the additional territory, Tajikistan remained the smallest Central Asian republic. *

Political Process That Befind the Creation of the Soviet Tajik Republic

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: “ As of September 1924, 49 per cent of Bukharan Communist Party (BCP) members were Uzbeks, 22 per cent Russians, 8 per cent Turkmen, 5 per cent Tatars and only 0.7 per cent Tajiks. There were no Tajiks in the BCP Central Committee or in any other important positions in the Bukharan Republic. A similar situation prevailed in Turkestan. In 1923, the 77 Turkestani students at the Communist University of Toilers of the Orient in Moscow—the main institution to produce elite party cadres for the Soviet periphery—included not a single Tajik. During 1921–22, the People’s Commissariat of Nationalities of Turkestan (Turkkomnats) consisted of four national departments (Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Uzbek and National Minorities). Tajiks were under the jurisdiction of the fourth department, on a par with Armenians, Latvians and Germans. Turkkomnats published 60 newspapers and magazines in native languages, but none in Tajik. Stalin, then People’s Commissar of Nationalities of Russia, did not include Tajiks in the number of main Central Asian ethnic groups either: ‘There are three nationalities in Bukhara: Uzbeks, Turkmens and Kyrgyzs.’ [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“Not surprisingly, there were no Tajiks in the Special Territorial Commission of the Central Asian Bureau of the Russian Communist Party, which was created in the spring of 1924 to redraw boundaries impartially according to the predominance of a particular ethnic group in a given territory. The fate of the Tajiks was decided by four Uzbeks, five Kazakhs, one Ukrainian, one Lithuanian, one Latvian, one Russian, one Turkmen and one Kyrgyz. Tajikistan was to become an autonomous oblast within the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Uzbekistan received the most fertile, populated and developed territories of Central Asia: Ferghana, Samarkand and part of the Syr-Darya oblasts of Turkestan, Western Bukhara, south-eastern Khorezm and the city of Tashkent. Tajikistan was given the far less important areas of Eastern Bukhara and the Pamirs.

“Henceforth, in October 1924, Tajikistan was deprived of any city, and large concentrations of the Tajik population in Bukhara, Samarkand, Ferghana and Termez stayed outside its borders. While Uzbek, Kazakh, Turkmen and Kyrgyz officials bargained ferociously for every inch of land, the Uzbek national sub-commission quietly determined borders for the Tajiks. In the meantime, Uzbek newspapers published articles maintaining that the ‘small number and dispersedness of Tajiks over great expanses do not allow them to create an independent political life’, and that, anyway, the inevitability of assimilation of the Tajiks ‘is predetermined by … social progress’. It was only intervention by the Politburo of the Russian Communist Party Central Committee on 11 October 1924 that precluded the transformation of Tajikistan into simply one of the districts of Uzbekistan: the Tajik state entity was instead elevated to the status of an autonomous republic.

Stalin, the Basmuchi and Tajik Soviet Republic

Many people in what is now Tajikistan wanted to establish an Islamic republic there. Basmachi guerrillas, based in mountain bases, fought off and on with the Soviets for several years. A group led by Enver Pasha captured and briefly held Dushanbe. In the process of subduing them, the Soviet razed entire villages. Enver Pasha was killed in southern Tajikistan in 1922. The surviving guerrillas escaped to Afghanistan, where they continued to stage raids for several more years.

Joseph V. Stalin was the one who wanted to make the Tajik region a separate republic as a kind of buffer zone between the Soviet Union and the Islamic world. A republic needed at last 1 million inhabits but at that time there weren't that many Tajiks. To reach that goal, Stalin had a large Uzbek area tacked on in the north.

The Tajiks were given their own republic but it lacked Bukhara and Samarkand, cities with mostly Tajik populations and traditional Tajik cultural and business centers. These were given to Uzbekistan partly as punishment for the Basmachi activity in Tajikistan. At the time Tajikistan became a Soviet republic many of the Tajik intellectuals were based in Bukhara and Samarkand. Many unhappily made the move to Dushanbe.

Ethnic–Territorial Divisions in Soviet-Era Tajikistan

It has been said that Tajikistan was “the most artificial and flawed of all the Soviet territorial creations.” Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: Arguably, the Tajiks suffered most from the arbitrariness of new administrative borders. Prior to 1924, 47.7 per cent of some 1.2 million Tajiks of Central Asia lived in what was to become the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and 52.3 per cent lived in the Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic (31 per cent of the total population of the Bukharan Republic); however, Tajik participation in Central Asian political life was negligible. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“In December 1924, the first government of the Tajik autonomy of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was created, and in March 1925 the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was officially proclaimed. The inadequate character of the national–territorial delimitation as far as the Tajiks were concerned was accentuated by the fact that the capital of the new republic, in the absence of alternatives, had to be established in the qishloq (village) of Dushanbe, which, with less than 1000 inhabitants, had never before served as a cultural or administrative centre. The Tajik autonomy embraced only 63.1 per cent of all Central Asian Tajiks; 35.8 per cent of them remained enfolded by Uzbekistan.

“The elevation of Tajikistan to a full Union Republic in October 1929, and the acquisition of Khujand and other Tajik lands in Ferghana, rectified the situation only partially. Samarkand and Bukhara, the two paramount cultural, spiritual and economic centres of the Tajiks, remained in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek leaders used underhand tactics to achieve this: the capital of Uzbekistan was temporarily moved from Tashkent to Samarkand, where Tajik citizens were encouraged to call themselves Uzbeks, otherwise they could be sent to ‘brotherly Tajikistan’ to help overcome its backwardness. This policy yielded the following results: in 1917, there were 44 758 Tajiks and 3301 Uzbeks recorded amongst the Samarkandis; the corresponding figures in 1926 stood at 10 716 and 43 304. In reality, however, Tajiks constituted more than 70 per cent of the population of Bukhara and Samarkand oblasts.”

Early Soviet Rule in Tajikistan

In contrast to the tsarist period, when most inhabitants of the future Tajikistan felt only limited Russian influence, the Soviet era saw a central authority exert itself in a way that was ideologically and culturally alien to the republic's inhabitants. The Tajik way of life experienced much change, even though social homogenization was never achieved.

The Soviets forced the Tajiks to settle down on farms and grow cotton for Russian mills. Industrialization did not begin until after World War II. There was a great deal of resistance to Russian then Soviet rule. Tajiks fought alongside Uzbeks in the Basmachi bands that were not stamped out until 1932.

The Soviet didn’t trust the Tajiks and made sure that positions of power within the government were occupied by non-Tajiks. One of the main themes of Soviet rule was trying to separate the Tajiks and Uzbeks and mitigating Tajik culture and influence in the region. While this was going on, Tajik intellectuals aimed to create a stronger sense of Tajik identity. They highlighted valley dialects, history and archeology as proof that the Tajiks had a rich, distinct culture separate from Islam and separate from the other Central Asian cultures.

With the creation of a republic defined in national terms came the creation of institutions that, at least in form, were likewise national. The first Tajik-language newspaper in Soviet Tajikistan began publication in 1926. New educational institutions also began operation about the same time. The first state schools, available to both children and adults and designed to provide a basic education, opened in 1926. The central government also trained a small number of Tajiks for public office, either by putting them through courses offered by government departments or by sending them to schools in Uzbekistan. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Collectivization and “Nation Building” in Soviet-Era Tajikistan

The collectivization of agriculture was implemented on a limited scale in Tajikistan between 1927 and 1929, and much more aggressively between 1930 and 1934. The objective of Soviet agricultural policy was to expand the extent of cotton cultivation in Tajikistan as a whole, with particular emphasis on the southern part of the republic. The process included violence against peasants, substantial expansion of the irrigation network, and forcible resettlement of mountain people and people from Uzbekistan in the lowlands. Many peasants in Tajikistan fought forced collectivization, reviving the Basmachi movement in upland enclaves between 1930 and 1936. The interwar years also saw small-scale industrial development in the republic.[Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: “The new Tajik government had to start nation-state building from scratch. Apart from the fact that eponymous people accounted for an absolute majority (74.6 per cent) of the republic’s population, there was little else to bind them together. A Tajik scholar has written that ‘Tajiks who lived in the Hisor Mountains did not have knowledge about Tajiks residing in Khujand. And Tajiks of the Zarafshon Valley were not in the least cognisant of the life of Tajiks in Gorno-Badakhshan.’[Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“In the 1920s and early 1930s, what can be called a ‘territorial nation’ was being feverishly constructed in Tajikistan. It was based on a sense of clear-cut boundaries, as well as on a commonality of laws and legal and governmental institutions. Between 1926 and 1929, the previously ill-assorted territorial administrative structure was unified and simplified throughout the republic: the newly created seven okrugs (districts) and one autonomous oblast were divided into raions, which in turn comprised several selsovets (primary administrative organs) each. In 1926, the process of mass Sovietisation of the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic began, and was successfully completed in 1929 (extraordinary dictatorial organs—revolutionary committees, revkoms—had previously been replaced in northern Tajikistan with elected soviets). In 1931, the Constitution of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic was adopted, consolidating and sanctioning the changed political system. Finally, the independent Communist Party of Tajikistan (CPT) was set up in 1929, with a membership of 1479 (48 per cent Tajiks),compared with the total of 11 communists in Eastern Bukhara in 1924. The Tajik communist elite had grown sufficiently to fill vacancies in state agencies, especially at the grassroots level; while at the beginning of 1925, 80 per cent of personnel in local executive committees were former emirate officials, by 1931 they had been all but expunged.

“The growth of a national elite in Tajikistan was facilitated by the general policy of nativisation (korenizatsiia) of cadres, conducted by Moscow during 1920–34. As Stalin pointed out in 1923: [I]n order to make Soviet power dear to peasants of another [non-Russian] nation, it is necessary to make it understandable to them, to have it operating in the native language, to staff schools and organs of government with people who know the tongue, traditions, customs, and everyday life of non-Russian nationalities.

“The Commission for Tajikisation of the State Apparatus was set up in Dushanbe in March 1926. In October 1929, the ratio of indigenous personnel in central republican organs reached 14.3 per cent, at the okrug level 22.2 per cent and in raions, 44.9 per cent (72 per cent in 1933). Of course, all more or less important matters were decided in Moscow, and their solutions were supervised by centrally appointed personnel. Still, the policy of nativisation laid a solid foundation for the emergence of a viable territorial bureaucracy in Tajikistan in the 1970s.

“The advancement of a common Tajik culture was potentially another important factor for fostering a sense of national cohesion; however, the loss of the tremendous cultural and intellectual resources of Samarkand and Bukhara inhibited this process. The dialect of these two regions was supposed to form the basis of a contemporary literary Tajik language, but there were not enough qualified people in Tajikistan to promote it. Nor did the introduction of Latin (1928) and then Russian (1940) alphabets instead of the old Arabic script help to preserve the great medieval tradition. On the other hand, it was not until the advent of Soviet power that the rich cultural heritage and history of the Tajiks became subject to systematic research and popularisation. In 1930, the special Committee of Tajik Studies was established in Dushanbe, and two years later it was transformed into the State Research Institute, dealing with an array of topics in Tajik history, language, literature and ethnography. The Soviet authorities also sponsored national cinematography, fine arts and other forms of intellectual activity that altogether constituted ‘the new motor of ethnic revival’. The unprecedented spread of education created an ever-growing social stratum receptive to the ethnic myths reconstructed and elaborated by the Tajik intelligentsia.

Stalinist Purges in Tajikistan

Like the CPSU branches elsewhere in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of Tajikistan suffered waves of purges directed by the central government in Moscow between 1927 and 1934. Conditions particular to Tajikistan were used to provide additional justification for the crackdown. Many Tajik communists were highly critical of the ferocity with which the collectivization of agriculture was implemented, and central party authorities were dissatisfied with the local communists' advocacy of the republic's interests, including attempts to gain more autonomy and shield local intellectuals. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

About 70 percent of the party membership in Tajikistan — nearly 10,000 people at all levels of the organization — was expelled between 1933 and 1935. Between 1932 and 1937, the proportion of Tajiks in the republic's party membership dropped from 53 to 45 percent as the purges escalated. Many of those expelled from party and state offices were replaced by Russians sent in by the central government. Another round of purges took place in 1937 and 1938, during the Great Terror orchestrated by Stalin. Subsequently Russians dominated party positions at all levels, including the top position of first secretary. Whatever their nationality, party officials representing Tajikistan, unlike those from some other Soviet republics, had little influence in nationwide politics throughout the existence of the Soviet Union.

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Stalin’s strategy of creating government structures in Tajikistan that would be unquestionably faithful to him and to the Central Committee’s Secretariat did not differ from the design applied elsewhere in the USSR and envisaged three measures: a) elimination of old cadres; b) large-scale posting of reliable officials from the centre; and c) quick promotion of suitably indoctrinated locals. The Central Asian Bureau of the VKP(b) Central Committee passed a resolution ‘About the Work of the Tajik Party Organisation’ in 1931, which stressed in particular that ‘alongside … the purification of Soviet, economic, cooperative and other apparatuses from class-antagonistic and bureaucratic elements, it is necessary to carry out mass promotion of cadres from amidst workers, kolkhoz members … tested during struggle against the bai’. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Purges of party members and other elites in Tajikistan commenced in 1933 with the removal of the first secretary of the CPT Central Committee, M. Huseinov; the chairman of the Central Executive Committee, N. Makhsum; and the chairman of the Council of People’s Commissariat, A. Hojibaev. Their arrests were made with the standard accusations of being ‘bourgeois nationalists’, ‘enemy agents’, ‘counter-revolutionary elements’ and ‘saboteurs’. In May 1934, a group of 79 high-ranking officials including A. Muhiddinov, then the chairman of the State Planning Committee of Tajikistan, was executed. It was reported that Muhiddinov had objected to the renaming of Dushanbe as Stalinobod. In the months that followed, dozens of Tajik intellectuals, amongst them renowned poets Ikromi, Hakim Karim, Ghani Abdullo, Zehni, Fitrat, Alikhush, Hamdi and Munzim, were imprisoned, exiled or put to death. Even Sadriddin Aini, the founding father of contemporary Tajik literature, invariably loyal to the Soviet regime, was labelled ‘pan-Turkist’, ‘pan-Islamist’, a ‘Bukharan adventurist’ and a ‘homeless Baha’i’, and only the intercession of Russian colleagues saved him from arrest in 1937.

“The number of victims of Stalin’s reprisals is still to be revealed; however, the fact that 7883 people sentenced in Tajikistan from the 1930s to the 1950s have been rehabilitated (half of them posthumously) may be a fair indication of the scale of terror in the republic. The new leadership in Tajikistan was subservient and tolerably literate; it feared and readily obeyed directives from Moscow, if only to survive. The case of Munavvar Shogadoev, the chairman of the Central Executive Committee (later Presidium of the Supreme Soviet) of Tajikistan between 1937 and 1950, provides an excellent example of the Stalinist appointee.He had an impeccable social background (son of peasants, day-labourer at a cotton mill) and scant education (three years of rabfak—crash educational courses—in Tashkent). Shogadoev joined the party in the late 1920s and was appointed head of a district party committee in his native mountainous region of Gharm in 1930, where he showed himself to be an exemplary executant, having managed to recruit hundreds of fellow highlanders to take part in irrigation projects in south-west Tajikistan. He had a poor command of Russian, but the establishment of Russian schools in Gharm was amongst his main priorities. Shogadoev fully demonstrated his organisational skills and dedication in the 1940s, when, as head of the republic’s legislative body, he sanctioned and supervised the forced resettlement of tens of thousands of people from his native Gharm to the Vakhsh Valley—a project that cost scores of human lives.

“The CPT, thoroughly purged and restaffed, became an organisation that could be entrusted with day-to-day management of the republic. The policy of nativisation was abandoned. Moreover, from 1930 to 1932 alone, 217 party officials were posted to Tajikistan from the centre. The figures below illustrate the process of the ‘adjustment’ of the republic’s party structures to the demands of Stalin’s era. Changes in the Membership and Ethnic Composition of the CPT, 1933–38: 1933: Total membership: 14,329; Tajiks: 52.9 percent; Uzbeks: 22.2 percent; Russians: 17.3percent; Others: 7.6 percent. 1938: Total membership: 4,715; Tajiks: 41.8 percent; Uzbeks: 16.4 percent; Russians: 25.4 percent; Others: 16.4 percent. [Source: Kommunisticheskaia partiia Tadzhikistana v tsifrakh za 60 let (Dushanbe: Irfon, 1984), pp. 27, 33]

Members of traditional elite groups, even those who had hailed the advent of Soviet power, were singled out for extermination. The wave of terror affected not only the representatives of institutionalised Islam and the old status hierarchies (such as sayids—descendants of the prophet Mohammad; khojas—descendants of the first four caliphs; turas—progenies of the Timurid rulers; pirs and ishons—dynastic leaders of Ismaili and Sunni communities; and mirs—chieftains and old landed aristocracy), it also destroyed the whole stratum of the Bukharan literati, who had carefully preserved and propagated old cultural values. This campaign swept Tajikistan in 1937—much later than in other Central Asian republics—but was waged with the same ferocity and yielded similar results. Contemporaries testified that in the city of Uroteppa (Istaravshon) the public baths were heated for a month by burning confiscated books and manuscripts of ecclesiastical works and classical poetry. Naturally, the subsequent formation of the Tajik intelligentsia largely rejected the old cultural tradition. It consisted mainly of newcomers from the peasantry, often the products of children’s homes and boarding schools to whom Soviet rule had given everything and for whom a totalitarian regime was a familiar and accustomed reality. The new intelligentsia was not only formed by the authorities, it was also tied to representatives of the structures of power by close, almost literally kinship bonds.

Regional Identities in Tajikistan During the Soviet Period

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “For Tajiks, there was the reality that ethnic Tajiks from different regions had obvious differences in dialect and in many other aspects of their culture... Regional differences are a common feature of many countries, but they held—and still hold—a particular social, economic and political significance in Tajikistan. During the post–World War II period, Tajiks from the northern province of Leninobod (now Sughd)—particularly from the city of Khujand—dominated the upper echelons of the Tajik SSR’s government and they cultivated patronage networks that were dominated by co-regionals. Besides competition within northern Tajikistan, these northern Tajiks then had to contend with their less privileged southern counterparts, whose elites also organised intricate patronage networks that came to be identified with regions such as Kulob and Gharm. Of course, the people in these networks were not completely averse to cooperating with outsiders in mutually beneficial arrangements, especially at the higher levels. And the networks did not benefit all people in a particular region, so it should be considered that they were dominated by people from a single region and mostly based there (and in the capital) rather than entire regions and their populations competing against each other. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Nevertheless, the end result was the ‘politicisation’ of regional identities—elites and those within their regional networks would benefit or suffer based on government appointments and bureaucratic decisions. For example, when a Kulobi held the post of minister of the interior, Kulobi Tajiks dominated the ranks of that ministry. The police force continued to be dominated by Kulobis throughout most of the 1980s. But when a Pamiri was appointed to that post during the late 1980s, ethnic Pamiris moved into the ministry in large numbers and displaced Kulobis from their positions—creating a pool of unemployed (and presumably angry) Kulobi former police officers.

“Concerning Tajiks from Gharm, they had a more modest level of access to national-level positions in the late Soviet era, and many turned instead to entrepreneurship and ‘grey market’ activities such as selling agricultural products to markets not just in Tajikistan, but in other republics as well. This activity was especially significant in the Vakhsh Valley, which was now home to many Gharmi and Kulobi Tajiks. At a more official level, the competition for government posts at the district and provincial levels, as well as for the top positions in the collective and state farms of Qurghonteppa Province (at times subsumed within Khatlon Province), was particularly fierce. An official position gave a person access to resources and jobs that they could then distribute. Losing one’s position meant far more than one disappointed Communist Party cadre; an entire network would then be at risk of losing benefits such as jobs, university acceptance, equipment, fertilisers, and other political and economic goods.

“The authorities in Dushanbe and Moscow were generally able to control this process within the authoritarian system of the Soviet Union; however, this ‘control’ was only in the sense that cadres did not challenge the arrangements at the highest levels. In Tajikistan, corruption was pervasive and local apparatchiks competed to replace each other—but within the system.”

Social Improvements and Demographic Changes in Soviet Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “In the 1920s and 1930s, the Tajik ethnie was revitalised and underwent processes of mobilisation, territorialisation and politicisation. At the beginning of this century it seemed that the Tajik ethnic community was close to losing its demographic and cultural continuity. The communist leadership in Moscow deemed it necessary to preclude such a development and created the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. Its sovereignty may have been ephemeral, its boundaries artificial, but it did provide the Tajik ethnie with an institutional basis for transformation into a modern nation. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“In 1897, only 0.5 per cent of the Tajiks in Eastern Bukhara were literate, but after the creation of a national republic Tajikistan registered spectacular progress in literacy, even in comparison with its richer Central Asian neighbours. Compared with a literacy rate of about 20 per cent in Iran, Turkey and the Indian subcontinent, in Tajikistan complete literacy was claimed by the late 1950s. In 1940, in Tajikistan there were six tertiary education institutions and 30 colleges, with 8262 students, 74 per cent of whom were being trained to become teachers. That year allocations to education programs accounted for 39.5 per cent of all outlays from the republic’s budget. In the early 1960s, the number of tertiary students per 10 000 of population was 131 in Tajikistan, 71 in France, 24 in Turkey, 18 in Pakistan and two in Afghanistan.

“The unprecedented social mobilisation achieved in the course of the communist experiment throughout the USSR was instrumental in turning the latent and degenerating Tajik ethnie into a proto-nation. It hardly mattered that the whole mobilisation process had been conceived to serve the ultimate goal of building a communist society devoid of class, national or state distinctions. What mattered in the 1920s and 1930s was that the Tajiks acquired a common and concrete political goal—that is, the establishment of the Tajik socialist nation. The populace may not have cared about socialism per se, but large sections were forced to take up political activism, and consequently considered themselves members of a great Tajik community that transcended traditional local affiliations—previously the privilege of a handful of intellectuals.

“The usual triad of Bolshevik mobilisation and penetration methods (industrialisation, collectivisation, cultural revolution) was augmented by women’s emancipation and mass resettlement in Tajikistan. It was a cold, pragmatic consideration that to provide women with unconditional access to suffrage, and to all elective or appointive, as well as legislative and administrative, offices in the land, would not just challenge the traditional male monopoly of the political arena; it would immediately and decisively undermine the position of traditional political elites—tribal chieftains, village elders, and notables.

“The emancipation campaign (hujum) launched in 1926 envisaged the abolition of women’s seclusion, their promotion to party and state structures, and generally the creation of a climate of equal opportunities for both sexes. In Tajikistan in 1925, 99.4 per cent of women were illiterate; 10 years later 35.7 per cent of all students in primary and secondary schools were girls. Indigenous women, erstwhile confined to the family hearth, made up almost 80 per cent of the labour force in Tajikistan’s light industry by 1937. Numbers of female members of the CPT grew from three in 1925 to 1016 in 1932. In 1928, 957 women worked in selsovets—22 times more than during 1925–26.

“Following incorporation into Russia, Central Asia experienced a demographic explosion at the turn of the twentieth century, when the natural population growth rate rocketed from 0.3 to 2.5 per cent every year. In Tajikistan rural overpopulation began to be felt in the late 1920s, especially in northern Tajikistan and Gharm. Two waves of resettlement took place between 1926–29 and 1933–37 whereby some 30 000 peasant families from Gharm, Uroteppa (Istaravshon), Panjakent, Gorno-Badakhshan, Hisor, Kulob and Ferghana, as well as those returning from Afghanistan, were forcibly moved to develop virgin lands in the Qurghonteppa okrug, only sparsely populated by Uzbek nomadic tribes.This major demographic undertaking was presented by the Soviet authorities as ‘rectifying the historical injustice emanating from the Emirate’s feudal policy towards the Tajik people, which had been pushed into the mountains’. In reality the forcible resettlement of people to the south of Tajikistan was primarily to facilitate the construction of irrigation works and the production of cotton.

Later Soviet Rule in Tajikistan

As was the case in other republics of the Soviet Union, nearly seventy years of Soviet rule brought Tajikistan a combination of modernization and repression. Although barometers of modernization such as education, health care, and industrial development registered substantial improvements over low starting points in this era, the quality of the transformation in such areas was less impressive than the quantity, with reforms benefiting Russian-speaking city dwellers more than rural citizens who lacked fluency in Russian. For all the modernization that occurred under Soviet rule, the central government's policies limited Tajikistan to a role as a predominantly agricultural producer of raw materials for industries located elsewhere. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the post-World War II Soviet era, irrigation was expanded in Tajikistan’s agricultural system, industries developed, and the level of education rose. During this period, political life was dominated by a series of nondescript party functionaries. Like the rest of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan felt the effects of the party and government reorganization projects of Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev (in office 1953-64). Especially in 1957 and 1958, Tajikistan's population and economy were manipulated as part of Khrushchev's overly ambitious Virgin Lands project, a campaign to forcibly increase the extent of arable land in the Soviet Union. Under Khrushchev and his successor, Leonid I. Brezhnev (in office 1964-82), Tajikistan's borders were periodically redrawn as districts and provinces were recombined, abolished, and restored, while small amounts of territory were acquired from or ceded to neighboring republics. *

The Tajik republic was the poorest republic within the Soviet Union. It had the lowest standards of living and education levels and the highest levels of unemployment. In the Soviet system, the Tajikistani economy was designed to produce cotton, aluminum, and a few other mineral products, including uranium and gold. Southern Tajikistan was largely ignored. The ruling Communist elite had the closest ties with the clans in the northern province of Khujand.

In the 1970s, the rising tide of Muslim extremism in Afghanistan began making it way into Tajikistan, particularly in the southern regions around Kurgan-Tyube. In 1976,the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) was formed. It was supported by conservative Muslims and Tajik nationalists.

The warming of relations between Iran and the Soviet Union in the 1970s led to closer ties and cultural exchanges between Tajiks and Iranians. The outbreak of the Afghanistan War in 1979 evoked sympathy and support for the Afghan side and anger towards the Soviets from Tajiks in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Tajik Leaders in the Soviet Union

During the Soviet period, the only Tajikistani politician to become important outside his region was Bobojon Ghafurov (1908-77), a Tajik who became prominent as the Stalinist first secretary of the Communist Party of Tajikistan in the late 1940s. After Stalin's death in 1953, Ghafurov, a historian by training, established himself as a prominent Asia scholar and magazine editor, injecting notes of Tajik nationalism into some of his historical writings. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The fate of Ghafurov's successors illustrates important trends in the politics of Soviet Central Asia in the second half of the twentieth century. The next first secretary, Tursunbai Uljabayev (in office 1956-61), was ousted amid accusations that he had falsified reports to exaggerate the success of cotton production in the republic (charges also leveled in the 1980s against Uzbekistan's leadership); apparently the central government also objected to Uljabayev's preferential appointments of his cronies from Leninobod Province to party positions. Uljabaev's replacement as first secretary, Jabbor Rasulov, was a veteran of the prestigious agricultural bureaucracy of the republic. Like first secretaries in the other Central Asian republics, Rasulov benefited from Brezhnev's policy of "stability of cadres" and remained in office until Brezhnev's death in 1982. *

Rasulov's successor, Rahmon Nabiyev, was a man of the Brezhnevite political school, who, like his predecessor, spent much of his career in the agricultural bureaucracy. Nabiyev held office until ousted in 1985 as Gorbachev swept out the republic's old-guard party leaders. Nabiyev was 1991 installation as president of independent Tajikistan, by means of an old-guard coup and a rigged election, exacerbated the political tensions in the republic and was an important step toward the civil war that broke out in 1992. * [Source: Library of Congress, January 2007**]

All the post-Stalin party first secretaries came from Leninobod, in keeping with a broader phenomenon of Tajikistani politics from the postwar period to the collapse of the Soviet Union — the linkage between regional cliques, especially from Leninobod Province, and political power. Although certain cliques from Leninobod were dominant, they allowed allies from other provinces a lesser share of power. As the conflict in the early1990s showed, supporters of opposing camps could be found in all the country's provinces. *

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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