Alternate Takes on History – Soviet Surprise?

Sometimes it’s easy to take history at face value when you’ve grown up surrounded by a one-sided consensus. Not so easy when you are surrounded by an alternate, equally convincing consensus.

I’m embarrassed to say I never really bothered to scratch the surface of the history of the Soviet Union. I took it as a given that the Soviet Union was not popular among its residents, and everyone would defect to the U.S. if they could.

Granted this sounds quite naïve put this way – but that’s the point.

I remember even playground discussions (I was a nerd, yes) about how “communism is great in theory, but it never works.” Even in university, at the start of my very first social science class (after “converting” from a pure engineering major), I was told that “Communism obviously failed, and Marxian ideas were wholly discredited after 1990.” We read western theorists like Francis Fukuyama and read/watch The Commanding Heights. We don’t hear accounts of the Soviet Union written by those that were on the inside. Or at least I never was encouraged or given the chance to.

Yet here in Tajikistan, there are almost universal fond memories of the shuravee or USSR. The young generation, the older folks lament, have no idea what it was like. They are used to the neoliberal capitalist present, where schools are run down, university is expensive, and healthcare a luxury. Chinese workers build roads while unemployed Tajiks watch hungrily.

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Chinese ashpalt paving machine on Rudaki Avenue

The youth have only heard seemingly tall tales about the times when doctors would helicopter into a Pamiri village to treat a broken leg. (This is what happened to my gheejak/kamanche instructor.) Or when bekari (unemployment) was zero, instead of the incredibly high rate at which it stands today, with an enormous amount of young Tajiks working in Russia.

Inequality was much lower, at least by anecdotal accounts. You didn’t see BMWs rolling by beggars on Rudaki avenue. The difference between the highest and lowest salaries was a factor of ~10, not the 10,000+ we see between the hedge fund manager and the minimum wager in the U.S. As my host father put it, if anyone had anything nicer than his job’s salary would provide, “you would ask: where did he steal that from?”

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A $3000 spread to feed 30 people, seemingly a regular dinner for the Tajik elite.

I wouldn’t be surprised that some were very rich due to corruption. But that hasn’t changed today. The president’s family and those of all the wazirs (ministers) still live a blatantly royal life (see the link above about driving).

The older generation does recognize two huge problems with the Soviet era: (1) a lack of autonomy, and the consequent loss of some traditional culture and (2) the suppression of religion.

The cultural loss should not be underestimated – indeed, Tajikistan and Afghanistan were once one culture. Yet certain changes might be viewed positively by some – the abolition of the horse hair veil and a stronger emphasis on women’s equality. (I say “some” as these changes met with a lot of local resistance in places like Uzbekistan, and I am still struggling with the Western idea of women’s rights in this context. I will discuss this in another post.)

During the Soviet era, public displays of Islamic faith (e.g. mosques) were shunned, but private prayers went on undisturbed. Islam has experienced an enormous resurgence since Tajikistan gained independence in 1991, thus much of the faith has been restored.

Notably, the older generation doesn’t complain about a lack of democracy, the KGB, or anything else under the USSR – likely since nothing has changed in that regard. The president of the so-called “democratic party” has already exceeded the constitutional term limit, protests are strictly repressed, and opposition parties are given only token power.

The Soviets brought infrastructure – roads, hospitals, schools, water, electricity, etc.  – all of which represent development for Tajiks. Despite their gripes, you can’t help but notice the overall positive view of the Soviet era. No one has told me it was perfect, and most would – naturally – prefer a middle path that has the social welfare of the USSR and the autonomy of the present.

I hope it’s possible.

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