by Markus Göransson
When Zafar was a platoon commander in Afghanistan during the Soviet war of 1979-1989, he put together an album that he has kept until this day. He labelled the album “Memory of Service” and studded its pages with photographs from his service and text cuttings that praised the Soviet military. On one page he stuck a banner that read “Glory to the defenders of the motherland”. On another he glued stickers of the Soviet army insignia and the Soviet navy flag. Some of his photographs show him standing proudly in his uniform, his face determined, in Afghan landscapes.
“I was a Soviet person back then,” Zafar said to me during an interview. “I wanted to serve in Afghanistan. Everyone wanted to serve in the army. It was prestigious to serve in the army.”
His words contrast with his family history. As many others in Tajikistan, Zafar’s family were repressed during the Stalin period. His uncle was shot and his mother’s family were forced to go underground. Zafar’s father, an underground Islamic preacher, was sent to the gulag twice for illegal religious activity. The early decades of Soviet rule in Tajikistan brought little joy and much suffering for Zafar’s relatives. One is forgiven for assuming that they saw Soviet power more as a yoke than a boon.
Yet, after the Second World War, things changed dramatically in Tajikistan. The republic, long an economic and political backwater, began to receive more attention from Moscow. In this period of worldwide de-colonisation, the Kremlin started investing heavily in Soviet Central Asia. It wanted to use the region, which had once wallowed in poverty, as a showcase to the Third World of the transformative power of Soviet socialism.
To this end, Moscow invested massive funds in Tajikistan. Agricultural production was increased; industry was developed; and infrastructure was improved all across the mountainous republic. Dushanbe became an industrial hub, and its population, fed by labour migration, nearly quintupled between 1936 and 1971. Zafar’s family, too, left their home in the Karategin region during this time to find work in the capital.
Perhaps the biggest advances were made in education. In 1941 only 39 ethnic Tajiks and 11 ethnic Uzbeks completed secondary education in the republic. But by the 1960s, Tajikistan had more than twice as many students in higher education per capita as France and seventy times more than neighbouring Afghanistan. Universal eight-year education was virtually achieved in the early 1970s and Zafar, who finished secondary school in 1981, even contemplated enrolling at university, a prospect that would have been much less likely a generation before.
The expansion of schooling helped to educate a new professional class. But it also broadened opportunities for political socialisation. The Tajik adolescents who passed through primary and secondary schools received instruction in Russian, socialist ideology and so-called “military-patriotic education”. As one of Zafar’s peers said, school taught him “to love the motherland from the very first lessons. There was this kind of education: love of the motherland. Like loving your mother.”
The post-war socio-economic development transformed the relationship between state and society in Tajikistan. Just as the expansion of television and radio broadcasting plugged previously peripheral communities into a common Soviet media space, the vast increase in schooling widened the possibilities for political socialisation.
This occurred in the context of real improvements in many spheres of life. Zafar’s parents had endured tragedy in the 1930s and 1940s, but Zafar’s own generation came of age in a period of rapid economic and social advance. Indeed, Zafar’s youth saw the narrowing of the socio-economic gap between Central Asia and the Western parts of the USSR. By the same token, it also witnessed the widening of the gulf between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, which had been similar in economic terms only sixty years before. Now Tajikistan was propelled ahead, leaving its neighbour in much greater poverty and underdevelopment. That disparity was to shape many Tajik soldiers’ perceptions of Afghans during the 1979-89 war.
During the Cold War, it was commonplace for Western researchers to claim that many of the Soviet Muslims who served in the Soviet-Afghan War would return politically disillusioned and even religiously radicalised. Researchers such as Alexandre Bennigsen and S. Enders Wimbush believed that Central Asians possessed only a skin-deep Soviet identity, which would quickly evaporate when they came into contact with religious and ethnic kin across the Amu Darya. Very little of this came to pass. In fact, many Tajik soldiers looked down on their Afghan cousins as inhabitants of a country unblessed by Soviet modernity. As one former private from southern Tajikistan said, recalling the relative prosperity of the Soviet era: “Well, we were from a country – you can say the twentieth century. And they were in the fourteenth or at most the fifteenth century.”
Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.
About the Author:
Markus Göransson wrote his PhD about Soviet-Afghan War veterans in Tajikistan at the Department of International Politics Aberystwyth University. In 2013 and 2014 he conducted research in Tajikistan as a Junior Research Fellow of the University of Central Asia and an affiliated researcher with the Tajik Academy of Sciences.