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In Search of Post-Industrial Pastoral in Dushanbe

July 16, 2012

As my second week in Dushanbe kicks off, things are beginning to come into place. With any luck, I should be able to meet with the President of the Academy of Sciences later this afternoon to discuss my project and begin the byzantine process of trying to get access to the state archives of the Tajik SSR. As for the archives of the Communist Party of Tajikistan, it appears for the moment that the contact person at that archive has gone on a vacation to the north of the country. For two weeks. Right. Fortunately, though, I have a contact in Khujand (the second-largest city in the country, in the North, in the Ferghana Valley) who may help arrange an introduction to begin that side of the archival quest. Throw in a visit to the new (and enormous) National Library of Tajikistan and dinner with some fellow historian friends this evening, and it should all be a good day’s work.

Workers this past autumn performing construction on the new, gargantuan National Library of Tajikistan.

Fortunately, because the weather is so warm this time around in Dushanbe, I’ve had the chance to get out more and explore some of the city’s parks and gardens. Many of these are pleasant if rather benign places: benches, trees, people selling bottles of RC Soda (which mysteriously dominates the soda market here), and little canals of water that lend a soft babbling background noise to the place. Yet over the weekend, some of the girls in my host family invited me to go for a walk in Park Aini (named after a 20th century Tajik writer). I consented, expecting nothing more than a pleasant evening stroll under the trees while it was still cooling down. Yet not only did we get a huge vista of the abandoned cement factory to the north of the park. As we turned the corner, I was blown away by a striking Soviet-era canal that bridged the two sides of the ravine on the north end of the park. The canal transports water from the valleys and water sources to the north of the city, while the sluice gates on both sides of the canal control the water flow; any excess water gets dumped down into the ravine below.

I’m reminded of something that Avner Offer said in my podcast conversation with him when he recalled visiting Moscow as a boy in the 1950s and 1960s: compared to many capitalist societies, he noted, the Soviet Union was simply ugly. For the most part this remains true of many parts of the former Soviet space. Many of the cities of Russia or Central Asia were thrown up quickly in the 1920s and 1930s, and many had to deal with the problems of industrialization over a course of only a decade, while Western societies had had more than a century to adapt to these economic shifts. More than that, particularly in Russia, the 1960s and 1970s saw another influx of tens of millions of people from the countryside into the cities, creating new problems of housing and sanitary standards. Finally, in the last ten to fifteen years, post-Soviet citizens have been desperate to get their own cars. The only problem, however, is that few Soviet cities were designed for mass automobile ownership. People parking on sidewalks is still common is Moscow, and even in sleepy Dushanbe you take your life into your own hands when you cross the street.

Still, go beyond some of the sooty, dusty, traffic-choked city centers and you can find places like this, where the post-industrial infrastructure that pockmarks so much of Eurasia mixes with the natural environment in a way that I find inspiring. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for similar spots around Dushanbe and Uzbekistan this summer, and hope that readers are themselves enjoying similarly beautiful (if, perhaps, at least in Oxfordshire, less post-industrial) spots.

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