The Tajiks have been in the Pamir area for thousands of years and are regarded as the oldest people in Central Asia. They are believed to have descended from Aryans, an ancient Indo-European people that also gave both to early Hindus, Iranians, Greeks and Europeans, and have links with the ancient Samanid, Sogdian and Bactrian empires. Some Tajiks are regarded as descendants of subjects of Alexander the Great. Alexander spent some time in the area of the Tajiks and his soldiers took many took local brides. Tajiks are perhaps the most non-Central Asian-looking people in Central Asia. They have copper-colored skin, round eyes and Caucasian and Mediterranean features such as Roman noses. Some have blue eyes, green eyes. freckles and red hair.

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: “Contemporary usage of ‘Tajik’ generally narrows to sedentary, Persian-speaking Sunni Muslims in Central Asia and Afghanistan (with a few exceptions such as Dari-speakers who claim Pashtun lineage). Beyond this simple categorisation, many scholars stress that ‘Tajik’ refers to Persian-speakers of diverse origins. As for the language of the Tajiks—variously referred to as Persian, Farsi, Dari or Tajik—the historical linguistic changes in Central Asia within the Iranian-language family should be noted. The Eastern Iranian languages in Central Asia were superseded by a mutually unintelligible Western Iranian language (Persian) several hundred years after the Arab conquests in a process that began well before the Arabs entered the region. According to the Tajik historian Bobojon Ghafurov, the appeal and power of religious, cultural, political and economic factors all contributed to the spread of Western Iranian. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

Tajiks were the 13th largest ethnic group in the Soviet Union. There are many living Uzbekistan and elsewhere in the Soviet Union and almost as many in Afghanistan and in Tajikistan. Tajiks have traditionally lived around the snowcapped Pamirs, a mountain range shared by Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and China, with most living in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan and smaller numbers in China and former Soviet republics. Related to ethnic groups in Afghanistan and Iran, the Tajiks have endured wars in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

A census in 1989 counted 4,217,000 Tajiks in the Soviet Union, with 3,168,000 in Tajikistan and 932,000 in Uzbekistan. Many had doubts about these figures. Because of they were accurate 99 percent of all Tajiks would be in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The are several million Dari speakers in Afghanistan who may also be counted as Tajiks. There is also a small number in western China.

Ethnic Background of the Tajiks

Iranian peoples, including ancestors of the modern Tajiks, have inhabited Central Asia since at least the earliest recorded history of the region, which began some 2,500 years ago. Contemporary Tajiks are the descendants of ancient Eastern Iranian inhabitants of Central Asia, in particular the Soghdians and the Bactrians, and possibly other groups, with an admixture of Western Iranian Persians and non-Iranian peoples. The ethnic contribution of various Turkic and Mongol peoples, who entered Central Asia at later times, has not been determined precisely. However, experts assume that some assimilation must have occurred in both directions. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The origin of the name Tajik has been embroiled in twentieth-century political disputes about whether Turkic or Iranian peoples were the original inhabitants of Central Asia. The explanation most favored by scholars is that the word evolved from the name of a pre-Islamic (before the seventh century A.D.) Arab tribe. *

Until the twentieth century, people in the region used two types of distinction to identify themselves: way of life — either nomadic or sedentary — and place of residence. By the late nineteenth century, the Tajik and Uzbek peoples, who had lived in proximity for centuries and often used each other's languages, did not perceive themselves as two distinct nationalities. Consequently, such labels were imposed artificially when Central Asia was divided into five Soviet republics in the 1920s. *

The origin of the Tajik ethnic group can be traced to tribes speaking eastern Iranian who had settled in the eastern part of the Pamirs more than twenty centuries ago. In the 11th century, the nomadic Turkic tribes called people "Tajiks" who lived in Central Asia, spoke Iranian and believed in Islam. Tajik people who had lived in various areas of Xinjiang and those who had moved from the western Pamirs to settle in Taxkorgan at different times are ancestors of the present-day Tajik ethnic group in China. The ancient tomb of Xiang Bao Bao, found through archaeological excavation in recent years in Taxkorgan, is the oldest cultural relic ever discovered in the westernmost part of China. Many burial objects were found in this 3,000-year-old tomb. [Source: China.org china.org |]

Crowns, Hats and Origin of the Tajik

The source and meaning of the Tajik name is still a matter of debate among scholars. According to some "Tajik" is the name of an ancient Arab tribe in the Iraq region. "Tayi" is an ancient term used in many Asian countries to describe Arabs. Around the 10th century, "Tayi" was a name used by Iranians (Persians) to describe Islamic believers. In the 11th century, "Taji" became a word used to categorize nomadic tribes that spoke Turkic language in Central Asia. Later, settled inhabitants of Central Asia who spoke Iranian and believed in Islam were called "Tajik". Afterwards, "Tajik" became the name of the nationality. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

The Tajik in the Pamirs region of China offer an different explanation. They say that the word "Tajik" originally meant "crown". The Chinese Tajik scholar Xiren Kurban wrote in the book on the Chinese Tajik Nationality that the word "Taji" evolved from the ancient words of "Taji'erda" (person that wears crown) and "Tajiyeke" (sole crown). According to an old folk legend: There was once a hero named Lusitamu who possessed incomparable strength and extraordinary braveness. He defeated all the brutal, dark and mean forces with the spirit of male lion to bring happiness to his people, the ancestors of the Tajik people. ~

Afterwards, the ancient proto-Tajiks were rued by a series of kings: Kaiyihuosilu, Kaiyikubate, Kaiyikawusi, Jiamixide and Nuxiliwang. All of them wore crowns on their heads, and governed a large piece of land from the east to the west. Their subjects manufactured all kinds of bright-colored "Taji" hats that imitated the crowns and wore these on heads to show they were the happy subjects of a just king. Since then, all the kingdoms far and near called them the "Tajikla" (Tajik people). The "tubake" (the Tajik-style man's high hat), known for its exquisite workmanship, and the "kuleta" (the Tajik-style women hat), known for its excellent embroidery, worn by Tajiks today date back to the first Tajik kings and their crowns.

Who Are the Tajiks? The Problem of Tajik Ethnogenesis

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: ““While the claims of some Tajik writers that their direct ancestors include Noah’s son Shem or Biblical Adam himself should be attributed more to poetic imagination than to plausible historical fact, Tajik society demonstrates a surprising continuity over centuries.Official Tajik histories trace the completion of the Tajik’s ‘ethnogenesis’ and the beginning of their ‘statehood’ to the era of the Samanid Empire (ninth–tenth centuries). Contemporary Tajik scholars claim that ‘the formation of the Tajik nation was completed during the rule of the Samanids’. Ghafurov, an influential historian who was the first secretary of the Communist Party of Tajikistan from 1946 to 1956 and thereafter the director of the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, writes of the Tajiks as a clearly defined group from the Samanid era.[Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“Ghafurov, commenting on the ‘process of consolidation of the Tajik people’, uses contradictory language: ‘Although the formation of the Tajik people had already been completed by the 9th–10th centuries, in the following centuries it [that is, Tajik identity] did not remain unchanged.’ This phrasing allows Tajik scholars to claim all populations that preceded this era be included as ancestors of Tajiks and all cultural, linguistic and population changes after this era as not lessening the importance of the final ‘consolidation’ of Tajik identity. The Tajik archaeologist and historian N. N. Negmatov makes a similar claim of Tajik antiquity, albeit in somewhat more neutral terms, when he identifies all the Iranian-speaking populations of Central Asia during and before the Samanid era and argues that ‘[a]ll these people were ethnically related and spoke languages and dialects of the Middle Iranian and New Persian language groups; they were the basis for the emergence and gradual consolidation of what became an Eastern Persian-Tajik ethnic identity’.

“The presence of a Tajik nation (or more precisely, a distinctive ethnicity, since the concept of ‘nation’ is a relatively recent phenomenon, which dates from the late eighteenth century) in the tenth century finds little corroborative evidence. It would be interesting, however, to speculate about the emergence of the primary form of ethnic community in Central Asia—the ethnie, in Anthony Smith’s parlance. An ethnie is a given population, a social group ‘whose members share a sense of common origins, claim a common and distinctive history and destiny, possess one or more distinctive characteristics, and feel a sense of collective uniqueness and solidarity’. In the case of Tajiks, the problem of collective cultural individuality put in historical perspective is twofold: a) their distinctness from non-Iranian peoples of Central Asia, and b) their dissociation from the populace of Iran proper. The question of association with a specific territory in the tenth century is an easy one. The indigenous Iranian population constituted an absolute majority throughout Mavarannahr (Central Asia), both in cities and in villages. More importantly, this association had commemorative overtones: Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shahnama includes Transoxiana (Central Asia) in Iranshahr, and stresses this region’s opposition to Turan (lands under the domain of Turkic peoples). On other counts, however, tracing a Tajik identity is much more complicated.

“Certain elements are indispensable for the formation of a viable ethnie. The use of a collective, identifying name is one of the most important. Usage of the word ‘Tajik’ as a mode of self-definition, however, was not registered before the second quarter of the eleventh century. Attempting to determine the origin of the term ‘Tajik’ and its social use throughout history is an exercise in speculation. Folk etymologies, single historical references, scholarly guessing, various shifting social usages and highly politicised attempts to find ancient origins all must be navigated when attempting to find the origin and historical usage of ‘Tajik’. It has been generally accepted amongst scholars that the term was initially used in Mavarannahr to refer to the Arabs (probably, it was derived from the Arab Tai tribal name). Afterwards it became a collective name for both Arabs and local converts to Islam (predominantly Iranians) and only much later was this term transformed into the ethnonym of an entity amongst Central Asian Iranians.

Tajiks and Samanids

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: “It would not be correct to call the Samanid Empire [819-999] the first Tajik state. Rather, it was the last time the bulk of Iranian lands were under the domain of an Iranian ruler. Within the Samanid administration there was a discernible ethno-religious division: an Iranian chancery, staffed with recent converts, coexisted with the predominantly Arab ulama, while the core of the army consisted of Turkic slaves or mercenaries. Eventually, the attack of the Qarakhanid Turks ended its reign in 999, and dominance in Central Asia passed on to Turkic rulers. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“Language and religion are considered the most basic traits of an ethnie’s shared culture. Under the Samanids, ordinary people continued to speak local dialects (Soghdian, Khorezmian, and so on), while Dari was primarily the language of official documents and court life, only beginning to spread en masse in Bukhara, Samarkand and Ferghana. Literary modern Persian remained uniform in Western Iran and Central Asia until the fifteenth or even sixteenth century. Similarly, behavioural patterns, legal procedures and educational systems based on shari’a stayed almost identical in both regions. Under the Samanids, the bulk of Turkic tribes beyond the Syr-Darya converted to Islam; it was a severe blow to the image of the Turk as a perennial enemy of the Iranian. The Sunni–Shi’a dichotomy was yet to become a watershed among different ethnic communities.

“Anthony Smith argues that ‘a strong sense of belonging and an active solidarity, which in time of stress and danger can override class, factional or religious divisions within the community’, are the decisive factors for a durable ethnic community. This was not the case amongst Iranians in Mavarannahr before, during and after Samanid rule. Internal divisions in principalities, valley communities or other territorial subunits were more potent sources of identity than affiliation to an ethnie. Khuttal, Chaganian, Isfijab, Khorezm and princedoms of Badakhshan nominally acknowledged the supremacy of the Samanids, yet in practice they ‘were ruled by local dynasties according to their old traditions’. Four distinct regions had formed by the twelfth century on the present-day territory of Tajikistan that were characterised by political and cultural autonomy: 1) Northern Tokharistan and Khuttal (that is, southern Tajikistan); 2) the Zarafshon Valley; 3) the basin of Upper and Middle Syr-Darya, including Ustrushana, Khujand and Western Ferghana; and 4) the Pamirs. With some variations, these specific geographic-cultural areas have survived until today. Prior to the Mongol invasion, their populations never acted in unison to repel aggressors; moreover, cases of mass resistance to aggression were almost unheard of in Mavarannahr.

“In summary, it is impossible to single out a distinct Tajik ethnie in the tenth century. Central Asian Iranians remained an integral part of a wide Iranian ethnic community that came into being in the Achaemenid era, and from which they drew their name, history, inspiration and shared culture. The Samanid period, however, can be regarded as a landmark in the process of the ethnogenesis of the Tajiks. It produced an encoded fund of myths, memories, values and symbols—the core of the future ethnie in Tajikistan. Eventually, the Samanids themselves moved into the realm of the legendary tradition of contemporary Tajiks. As the future showed, the centuries-long absence of economic unity and a common polity did not lead to the dissolution of the Tajiks. The sense of shared origins and cultural markers allowed them to survive in the ocean of Turkic tribes, and later gave them a chance to reconstruct (or forge) their history, pedigree and ethnicity.

Tajiks and Turks

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: Tajiks have had a close historical and cultural relationship with the Turkic peoples. In Central Asia there is much shared culture and it is impossible to neatly divide two distinct Tajik or Uzbek cultures thanks to linguistic, cultural and genetic mixing that resulted from the massive in-migration of Turkic peoples into Iranian-populated lands; however, the process of Turkicisation was not accompanied by serious depredations or genocide. Statements to the effect that ‘from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries the Turks … advanced into Turkestan increasing the Turkic population there and destroying the Iranian culture should be treated with extreme caution. This period witnessed the further growth of cities and the important role of Persian language and culture. As John Armstrong has noted, before the rise of the Ottomans, ‘all Turkic regimes used Persian as their Court language’. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“In the tenth century the ethnic boundary between Iranians and Turks and the cultural boundary between sedentarism and nomadism were roughly the same. The whole medieval history of Mavarannahr can be written in terms of the relationship between steppe pastoralism and oasis agriculture. These contacts went far beyond warfare and the exchange of goods. Samuel Adshead, while describing the symbiosis between the two modes, applies the words ‘complementarity’ and ‘compenetration’, and gives a lucid picture of political interaction: On the one hand, the sedentarist found the best defence against one set of nomads was another set of nomads. On the other hand, if the nomad wanted to organise an empire out of his conquests, it was best done from an oasis with its granaries, money, literacy and unifying religion. The oasis needed government and protection: the steppe could provide both. The steppe lacked administration and education: the oasis could provide both.

“Prior to the tenth century, sedentarist Transoxiana had demonstrated an almost infinite ability to accommodate nomadic tribes invading its territory. Within two or three generations the steppe-dwellers usually gave up their habitual way of life and language. Some experts believe that only ‘the vast, sudden incursion by pagan Mongols in the mid-thirteenth century’ (and their Turkic allies) broke the routine; however, archaeological and anthropological data point to the fact that already in the eleventh century the situation in Mavarannahr was undergoing a radical transformation. There was a far greater influx of nomadic Turkic peoples during the earlier Qarakhanid era.

Mixing of Turkic and Persian People in Central Asia

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: ““The historically close relations between Turkic and Iranian-speakers did not have just political and socioeconomic consequences, but ethnic and linguistic ones as well. This time the newcomers settled in rural areas as well as in towns; they not only retained their tongue but also eventually gave it to lands with ancient Iranian traditions. In Richard Frye’s words, the spread of the Turkic languages in Transoxiana was ‘nothing short of amazing’. On top of the numerical strength of the Turks, the Qarakhanids’ conversion to Islam, which supposedly took place under Satuq Bughra-khan (died about 955), must have facilitated the infixion of the Turkic element in Mavarannahr enormously. Even before the Mongols, many Turkic toponyms had appeared in the Zarafshon Valley. The interaction among Tajiks, sedentarised Turks and nomadic Uzbeks remained a highly complex process. Culturally, only language clearly demarcates the Tajik and Uzbek categories, and the prevalence of bilingualism lessens the importance of this division. In Eastern Bukhara, where Tajiks constituted the majority of the population, large numbers of Uzbeks ultimately lost their native tongue and clan divisions, and adopted the way of life of the indigenous sedentary population. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“The stereotypes of the ‘ideal’ appearance of Turkic peoples (including Uzbeks) and Iranian peoples (including Tajiks) are very different; however, the population of sedentary Central Asia has been intermixed for so long that it is impossible to accurately distinguish Tajiks from Uzbeks on physical appearance (phenotype) alone, particularly those who live on the plains and in the lower valleys. The lowland Tajiks share more physical characteristics that are stereotyped as Turkic while mountain-dwellers share fewer linguistic and physical features with Turkic peoples. A large number of the Uzbeks in Central Asia have Iranian ancestry while Tajiks who live outside the isolated mountain communities have some Turkic ancestry. In line with this description, it is noted that mixed marriages are common in Tajikistan, with the Ferghana Valley the area where mixed marriages are most common.

“On the whole, the ethnic composition of the inhabitants of Tajikistan in the nineteenth century was characterised by extraordinary heterogeneity: apart from Tajiks and Tajik-speaking Turks (called Chaghatai in southern vilayets), there were also various Uzbek tribes, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Jews, Iranians, Afghans, Arabs, Lesgins, Armenians and Indians. The Tajiks were subdivided according to their affiliation with ancient cultural and historical regions: Kulob (medieval Khuttal), Panjakent (in Zarafshon Valley), Asht (Upper Syr-Darya) and Qarotegin (foothills of the Pamirs); the Kulobis may have accounted for more than 60 per cent of the Tajik ethnie in Eastern Bukhara.

“In terms of genealogical memory, the oral tradition of the Asht Tajiks is illustrative of the tendencies in the Tajik ethnic community in the late nineteenth century. Asht was a locality in North-Western Ferghana that consisted of a number of qishloqs (villages)—with very different histories and ethnic composition—that could be divided into three groups. First, the titular qishloq of Asht allegedly had an uninterrupted cultural tradition since the Achaemenid period and its inhabitants readily referred to Shahnama’s Rustam, Alexander the Great and Qutaiba as contributors to their original Soghdian genealogy. Second, the citizens of Ponghoz claimed that their qishloq was established by migrants from the south, Darvoz in particular, whom they called ‘real Tajiks’, as opposed to the local mixture of Soghdians and Turks (‘also Tajiks’). Third, ‘real Tajiks’ and ‘also Tajiks’ were very persistent in stressing their dissimilarity with the predominantly Uzbek-dwellers of Kamysh-Qurghon in terms of ‘customs, outlook and especially consciousness’, though they admitted that Uzbeks had been living in the region ‘for a long time, too’.

Evolution of Tajik Identity

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: The Tajik ethnicity has emerged as a result of cultural meiosis, through a succession of archetypal civilisation complexes: Aryan, Hellenistic, Greater Iranian, Perso-Islamic and Turkestani. Each stage of this process left an imprint on the collective knowledge systems of the Tajiks, characterised by a specific ‘politics of memory’. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Tajiks had retained the notion of sameness by maintaining cultural boundaries that kept them separate from Turkic ethnic groups in Central Asia—with some localised exceptions as in the case of the Uzbeks. The weak solidarity component of their ethnie, however, the inability to overcome dissonances within those boundaries, reflected in competing cultural elements on the sub-ethnic level, diminished their chances to seek national status in the modern era. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“The policies pursued by the latest in the series of invaders, the Russian Empire, were conducive to the preservation of sub-ethnic consciousness amongst Tajiks. Cultural differences between people living to the north and to the south of the Hisor Range, or Valley Tajiks and Mountain Tajiks, were aggravated by administrative borders established by tsarist officials. In addition to this major dichotomy, smaller communities defined by geographic and historical features, although subject to ethnic awareness, remained remarkably passive in furthering it; this was the situation where ‘an individual knows (s)he possesses a certain ethnic trait(s) which is no more meaningful than his or her other cultural, physical, social or territorial characteristics’. The 1917 revolution in Russia brought the promise of change to this stalemated pattern.

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.”

Tajiks in the Soviet Era

According to globalsecurity.org: “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: globalsecurity.org ^^]

“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.” ^^

Politicisation of Tajik Ethnic Identity in the Soviet Era

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: “After World War II there was a reversal in primary ideological emphasis in the Soviet Union from class to ethnicity. Previously nationalism was officially viewed as a stage in the evolution towards a class-based socialist society. In Yuri Slezkine’s words, nationalism became, with the full support of Soviet authorities, a ‘sacred principle of Marxism-Leninism’. As a result, according to Valery Tishkov’s analysis of Soviet social sciences, the view of ethnicity became politicised and primordialistic (the equivalent is easily found in Western scholarship). [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“There was heavy emphasis on ethnogenesis, with social scientists providing writings to trace a group origin as far back as the upper-Palaeolithic era, to identify cultural heroes, and to demonstrate the existence of a people with ‘their “own” territories and their “own” states’. Victor Shnirelman provides a very similar critique, and notes that this ‘invention of the past’ is used to raise self-esteem, usually in relation to neighbouring groups, and to demand ‘special rights and privileges with respect to others who lack their glorious past’. According to Alisher Ilkhamov, in response to the perception of growing nationalism—particularly in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic—the central Communist Party initiated a parallel process whereby they ‘gave the green light to ethnographic investigations that would raise doubts about the homogeneous nature of the modern Uzbek nation and question the reasons for the inclusions of certain ethnic groups’. As a result, it is possible to find clearly separate discourses on nationalism, identity and ethnic origins in the Soviet-era scholarship.

“The search for a ‘glorious past’ is not an irrelevant, isolated intellectual pursuit. While academics may provide the basic material, those ‘amateurs in the field’ such as popular writers, journalists, educators and artists are the ones who play a significant role, and often in a manner that is ‘less restrained’ and ‘highly selective’. Shnirelman notes that as part of this search for a past, ‘an ethnic group may encroach upon or even appropriate the past and cultural legacy of another group, leading to misunderstandings, arguments and tensions’. These types of claims are not without their material logic, as the ‘special rights and privileges’ part of Shnirelman’s explanation above demonstrates. All governments use historical symbols and historiography to cultivate patriotism, explain and justify policies, and secure the acquiescence and cooperation of the people in times of crises. Symbolic encapsulation of the themes of regime legitimacy, common identity and cultural revival through historical references is particularly crucial for emerging nations. The newly independent Central Asian countries present no exception to this pattern.

“The Tajik official histories, for their part, traced the completion of their ‘ethnogenesis’ to the Samanid era (ninth–tenth centuries). Shirin Akiner claims, in an assertion that can only be safely applied to nationalist intellectuals and select politicians, that ‘[h]istoriography is to Tajiks an intensely emotive, fiercely contested political issue’. Contemporary Tajik nationalists stress not only their Persian (Western Iranian) heritage, but also their Soghdian (Eastern Iranian) heritage in order to counteract the claim of ‘their Turkic neighbours’ (that is, Uzbek nationalists in Uzbekistan) that Turkic peoples are the original inhabitants of Central Asia and that the Tajiks are latecomers. An excellent example of this is in a recent article by Shamsiddin Kamoliddin, a researcher at the Institute of History in Uzbekistan, wherein he makes the uncited claim that modern-day Uzbeks are descended from sedentarised ‘proto-Turks’ who were the indigenous population of Central Asia before the arrival of Indo-European peoples. He further claims (again uncited) that these Turks had inhabited the region (and specifically not as nomads) since the second millennia BC, only to be forced out by ‘Aryan invaders’. As a reply to these extremely dubious historical assertions, Tajik nationalists can easily point in turn to the claim made by the prominent Tajik academic Bobojon Ghafurov that the ‘Iranian eastern populations did not come to Central Asia out of nowhere but constituted themselves there, on the ground’.”

“After demarcation the government in Tajikistan introduced a standardised Tajik language, expanded the reach of the media and formed ‘national, political, cultural and educational institutions’, while intellectuals ‘gave shape and substance to the Tajik heritage’, creating a palpable sense of shared national identity, particularly when viewed in juxtaposition with other newly created Central Asian republics. Driven from above and confined to the highly visible public domain in big cities, Soviet modernisation was limited in its success in excoriating the parochial, sub-ethnic identities. These limitations were seen most acutely in rural society, as demonstrated polemically by Sergei Poliakov in his study of the ‘traditional’ lives of Central Asians. In regards again to identity categories, the local loyalties and associations were often ‘incorporated’ into the larger nationality categories. As a result, these pre-existing identities continued to survive ‘unofficially’ below the level of nation and nationality.”

Ethnic Identity in the Gorbachev Era

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: “In the years before perestroika, publically expressed anti-Russian feelings were practically unknown in Tajikistan. Ethnic Tajiks dominated in all spheres of human activities in the republic, except for industry, construction and science. There was practically no occupational competition between Tajiks on the one hand, and Russians and other Europeans on the other. In contrast, Uzbeks, who lived predominantly in rural areas of Tajikistan and were involved mostly in agriculture, presented a potential target for ethnic antagonism. Additionally, discriminatory policies pursued by Uzbek leaders throughout the Soviet era towards Tajiks living in Uzbekistan had led to a situation in which ‘language, culture, national feelings and interests of Tajiks in these cities [Samarkand and Bukhara] were deeply harmed. Negative developments in the field of Uzbek–Tajik interlingual and interethnic relations have created perceptible social strain.’ Still, sociological data gathered in 1989 demonstrated that while throughout the USSR 29 per cent of the population characterised the state of interethnic relations in the country as ‘very tense and prone to further exacerbation’, only 14 per cent of those surveyed in Tajikistan shared this pessimistic view. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“Thus, it appears that affiliation with the Soviet Union was the dominant supranational identity for the Tajiks; it also served as a major source of modern political and cultural values on the national level. Old values derived vitality from traditional identities, of which regionalism was the highest form. For decades the communist authorities suppressed and, to an extent, utilised regionalism in Tajikistan, but ultimately failed to overcome it. The native elite in the republic was uniform in the sense that ‘it was poisoned by conformism, duplicity, cowardice and selfishness … Being its sole employer, the state had secured its material and spiritual dependency’. At the same time, the elite was highly compartmentalised along regional lines. According to Otakhon Saifulloev, secretary of the Writers’ Union of Tajikistan between 1968 and 1973 and chairman of the State Broadcasting Committee of Tajikistan between 1991 and 1992, in the early 1970s there were 94 Tajik writers in the republic, who formed six rival groups; Saifulloev headed the largest faction of 25 Leninobodis, who dominated the Tajik literary landscape and had the lion’s share of books published.

“The ‘imaginary community’ of the Tajiks in the greater part of the twentieth century was a symbiosis construed through the political actions and poetics of Soviet nationalism and the Great Tradition of Central Asian Iranians. The importance of the Soviet component, with its specific political culture, forced indoctrination and modernisation drive, should not be underestimated. However contradictory, artificial and cruel, it constituted ‘the thin film of modern notions over the formidable layer of values, motivations, role expectations and behavioural stereotypes inherent in each region’s traditional culture’. Once the institutional core of Soviet cultural overlay began to erode under Gorbachev, political activism in Tajikistan inevitably assumed the form of regional factionalism.”

By the time Tajikistan became an independent republic in 1991, its multiethnic population included an ethnic majority of Tajiks and an even larger religious majority of Muslims. Despite Soviet claims that ethnic and religious loyalties had diminished sharply and were bound for extinction, there were strong indications in the late 1980s and early 1990s that ethnic and religious identities remained essentially intact. Indeed, those factors began to exert greater influence as Soviet controls weakened and people sought alternative ideologies.

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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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