Everyday Life in Art and the Art of Everyday Life: Re-Reading Soviet Mosaics in Dushanbe

During the Soviet era, the present and future of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic were glorified in mosaics.

Colorful pieces of stained glass, interspersed with stones from the mountains, could be seen in even the most distant corners of the country, symbolizing the coexistence of Soviet ideas with local culture. What do young adults in Tajikistan make of this colorful Soviet legacy? For Firuza, Timur, Yusuf, Nargis, and Nodira, the mosaics are art that they can reinterpret and connect to the present in light of their own experiences.


Karolina Kluczewska

Karolina Kluczewska is a Maria Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She is writing her PhD dissertation about development aid in Tajikistan, looking at interactions between local and international actors. She is also an admirer of Soviet-era mosaics.

In adopting mosaics as a means of diffusing ideology throughout the republics, the Soviet Union contributed to an longstanding tradition of living storytelling. Throughout history, different civilizations and cultures have used mosaics to convey messages—to portray the life of ancient gods, to glorify great leaders, to depict international relations and commerce, to show daily life, or to sketch a moral life according to the standards of different religions.

In the 1960s, mosaics became a popular way of decorating public buildings in the Soviet Union. They displayed the whole range of Soviet values, ideas, and ideals: they glorified the working class, presented a clear vision of scientific progress, celebrated the value of education, and showed women as active members of society.

The mosaics turned everyday life in the Soviet Union into art and found the art in everyday life.

Kohi Tojikiston Cinema, Jomi Avenue (by Khabbibulayev, Begimov, and Rakhnaev)

A diversity of Soviet-era mosaics still exist across the various (now independent) republics. The mosaics reflected Soviet ideology but were simultaneously tailored to the culture, language, and history of each republic—a microcosm of the Soviet system’s merging with local traditions and informal social rules in territories that were geographically and culturally distant from Moscow. In Tajikistan, stained glass and stones formed images of local art and dance, but in its modified, “ideal” version, where men and women danced together as equals. Likewise, in mosaics’ depiction of cotton farms, local people continued to pay respect to their fathers and grandfathers, but were equally respectful of labor.

The mosaics are more than a mere depiction of outdated utopian ideals. Today, they provide an innovative way of engaging critically with both the Soviet past and the present. They are woven into the stories of different generations who lived and live in the spaces which the mosaics decorate. They form an avenue for dialogue between Soviet-era Tajikistan and its contemporary counterpart.


House, Abuali Ibn Sino Avenue (by Sadukov and Lukovtsev, 1971)

Music and dance add color to people’s lives—they certainly do so in Tajikistan. In this mosaic, the working class is celebrating labor. Look at the cotton plant in the hand of the woman in the red dress. Cotton was the basis of the Soviet Tajik economy.

We used to have really powerful artists in Tajikistan back then. Today it is not easy to be an artist—there is little funding and not enough appreciation of art among the public. Many of our artists are abroad now, like the violinist Nokhid Zeynalpur, who is based in Russia. Our neighbors, like Uzbekistan, invest much more in music and cinema and their art is closer to people’s lives. I recently read an interview with an older Tajik artist who said that in Soviet times art would indicate values and show people the right direction, try to bring society to a new level. Today, on the contrary, artists follow the taste and desires of their audience. Still, despite generally declining quality and often dubious taste, I think there is something unique about music in Tajikistan. Our artists have never sung about love as the shape of a female body, sex, clubs, and betrayals. They sing about love of parents, thankfulness for life, and respect for society. And if they sing about women, if is usually about their charming eyes or smile, like in this old song by Tojiddin Muhiddin:

Yak khanda kun, ey gul!

Give me one smile, oh dear flower!

Yak khanda kun ey gul, labi dandonata sabqa!

I will give everything for your smiling lips, oh dear flower!

Ey ghuncha dahon, zitai dandonata sabqa!

Your lips are like a bud, I will give everything to see your smiling teeth!

Rarely do you hear an American song about love for a mother. But every Tajik singer has a song about respect for parents. Music teaches us to respect our family; it reminds us how much we owe our parents. I lost my father a few years ago. There is a song by the group Anis that always reminds me of him:

Dar suroghat Padari jon ba mazor omadaam,

Oh dear Father, to visit you, I came to your grave,

Havbahor astu saru buttai navrasta zi khok,

Even though it is already spring and fresh grass is growing,

Tashnalab tashnajigar zoru nizor omadaam.

I came so thirsty, missing the closest person I had, I am desperately in need of you.

Music is very important for us, in the sense that it is a part of our life. During weddings, there are always songs dedicated to parents, or fathers sing for their daughter who are brides. We do not need to drink to dance, we do not know shame, we get drunk with music. Tajik children are used to dancing and singing from an early age. This is why I say that music makes our life colorful.


House, Abuali Ibn Sino Avenue (by Sadukov and Begimov, 1971)

You see three generations in this mosaic: a grandfather, father, and son. Every new generation does things differently. The grandfather stands for the past, the tradition that is disappearing. The father symbolizes the present: his hands are the huge hands of a worker, his face is burnt by the sun. The boy is at the center of the mosaic. He is wearing the red tie of a pioner: he is the future of the Soviet state, which eventually collapsed.

The mosaic is about intergenerational bonds, about passing knowledge. It gives you the impression that the three men are very close to each other. But in fact, in Tajik society men have never played a big role in raising children; mothers do all these things. You do not see mothers here: even under communism, the prime position was reserved for men.

This mosaic also depictures respect for older generations, which is a feature of Tajik society that survived the Soviet period. The three men are cultivating cotton together. It is about continuity, a common project, responsibility for the land of their ancestors. When foreigners come to Tajikistan today, they are usually surprised by how much young people here respect the elderly. Yes, we still stand up when older people enter the room, we keep our heads bent down when they talk and do not interrupt them, we say that it is our tradition. But in reality we have only maintained the facade of tradition, empty gestures with little content. In front of our elders, our behavior is exemplary. Then, when we are alone, we think and act differently. We consider ourselves smarter than our ancestors. We have computers and mobile phones; we are flexible and assimilate new information quickly.

We live in times when money is more important than anything else. Such values as authority, respect, justice, honesty, and reliability have lost their importance.

Apart from the few first years of my life, I have no memory of Soviet times. But I grew up in the Soviet shambles and, of course, with nostalgia. Reading Soviet literature at school, I always had the impression that people used to respect any kind of work, both manual labor and intellectual work. Back then, people could not but work. If they could not find a job by themselves, the state would find it for them. This is why, today, this mosaic depicts a luxury. People are struggling to make ends meet. No one can turn to the state for help finding a job. We live in times when money is more important than anything else. Under such circumstances, such values as authority, respect, justice, honesty, and reliability have lost their importance.


Guliston building, Tehron Street (by Rahimov, Serebryanskiy, Zhadamov, Chapkin, Potanov, and Sharapov, 1979)

In Tajikistan, the family has always been a basic unit of society. During Soviet times, people used to live a “template life.” All families looked alike: they had similar living conditions and jobs, sent their children to similar kindergartens and schools. There was a lot of stability in people’s lives; in difficult moments, people could rely on relatives, the community, and the state. People could trust them because…they were trustworthy.

Today, life is different. The state is not there to take care of us anymore. Society, relatives, neighbors, friends do not tell us what is right and wrong. Our generation decides on everything on our own. As a result, the family has changed. We react negatively when others try to interfere in our family life. Relationships have changed. Firstly, when this mosaic was created, young people could not date freely. Family and neighbors would find them potential spouses. Now, at least in Dushanbe, there is more autonomy. The Internet has also created a platform for meeting other people—many of my friends met their partners online. Secondly, many young people today see marriage as an investment, insurance for the future. When choosing future partners, they either look at potential material benefits or educational status, because both translate into a good quality of life. This does not mean that young people are greedier than their parents. They are simply looking for the stability that the state and society no longer offer.

We are more egotistical than our parents; we think in terms of “me,” not of “we.”

Divorces have also transformed. Officially, there used to be fewer divorces in Soviet Tajikistan. The Soviet upbringing did not allow people to treat divorce as a solution to problems in relationships. They were ashamed to divorce. What would society say? People were thinking about their own reputation, the futures of their children and their prospects for a successful marriage. They would continue living together, even if they no longer had emotional bonds with their partners. This kind of “divorce” still happens nowadays, but mostly among very high-status families, like former Soviet elites and intellectuals. But among young people, 10% of couples divorce. We are more egotistical than our parents; we think in terms of “me,” not of “we.” We live in a time of great changes: globalization, the Internet, and labor migration. These changes bring new lifestyles and ideologies.

Old family traditions are undergoing changes. Perhaps those traditions were patriarchal, but they guaranteed balance in society. They offered a clear division of tasks and responsibilities between men and women, between older and younger generations. You cannot simply say, from one day to another, that all of this was wrong and from now on we all share the same tasks and responsibilities, that there will be a “gender balance.” Changes are happening too fast; society is unable to follow them.


House, Abuali Ibn Sino Avenue (by Rahnayev, Il’yaev, and Grigorov, 1988)

In Soviet times, knowledge was respected. Professors used to have authority—their voice was heard. Now it is prestigious to work for an international organization, in the IT sector, or as a manager. Teaching does not give you any status or privileges, apart from your personal satisfaction. But still I would not change my job for any other.

I come from a family of teachers and professors. Even in childhood, playing with other children, I would pretend to be a teacher and younger kids from our neighborhood would be my students. Somewhat naturally, I ended up following the path of my parents. I love teaching, observing how students change their thinking over time. Some of my students are hardworking, others can be lazy and even arrogant, I guess like anywhere around the world. I would like to position myself as more of an equal to my students, like in Europe. But if I am not strict, I will not be respected by my students. We live in a hierarchical society.

People constantly compare current students to students in the past. I am only ten years older than my students, but even recalling my own university experience I see that we were a different generation. We did not have mobile phones; Internet was available only in Internet cafes, where we would go only once a month because it was expensive. Today, I compete for students’ attention with their mobile phones, with YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. You probably see internet as an eye-opening tool that gives young people access to information that is otherwise rather restricted in our country. I do not see it this way. I think access to the Internet completely eliminates my students’ motivation to study. They make no effort to look for knowledge, because they can Google information whenever they need it. But knowledge is different from information: it requires reflection.

This mosaic shows Avicenna, the conquest of space, technological progress, the production of knowledge that foments progress in society. It makes me wonder what knowledge is for today.

This mosaic shows Avicenna, the conquest of space, technological progress, the production of knowledge that foments progress in society. It makes me wonder what knowledge is for today. I do not know the answer. In Soviet times, people knew why they studied and that jobs were waiting for them after university. There was more certainty. Today, I try to motivate my students to study, I repeat that they need a diploma. But what do they need it for? We live in an age when with a teaching diploma you can still end up working in a shop or having to go abroad as a labor migrant.


Lukhtak puppet theater, Shotemur Street (by Sangov, Potapov, Grigorov, and Il’yaev, 1985)

I was raised in Qurghonteppa in the south of Tajikistan, which was at that time an industrial center of the Soviet Tajik economy. Most of our neighbors were ethnic Germans; we were the only Tajik family on our street. I was the only Tajik child in my class at school. My classmates were ethnic Koreans, Russians, Uzbeks, or Ukrainians. Teachers were Russian. Russian was our main language of communication. Tajik was treated as the language of uneducated people, so we would not speak it in public. At school, we used to read Pushkin, Bulgakov, and Dostoevsky.

Now I realize that Tajikistan at that time was fairly segregated. My life was not like the life of most Tajik children from the surrounding villages. It was the life of a child whose Tajik parents successfully integrated into the Soviet system and occupied high-level positions. “Normal” Tajik children in villages spoke Tajik and would quote Rudaki and Lohuti. We had—and still have—different worldviews, cultural points of reference, and understandings of patriotism.

Growing up, I would never have thought that one day I would leave Tajikistan. I could picture visiting Moscow for a short time, but I could not even imagine traveling so often.

Growing up, I would never have thought that one day I would leave Tajikistan. I could picture visiting Moscow for a short time, but I could not even imagine traveling so often. Now, looking at my children, I realize that they will probably never even think that they could be settled somewhere for the rest of their life. I think the idea we grew up with, of a settled life, was such a luxury. Some people would think that life without moving was Soviet oppression, but I think that the stability we had was so calming. I live abroad, but I love Tajikistan. It is my home; I keep coming back. My friends think I am crazy: I have an opportunity to leave, so why am I constantly coming back?! It was only when my children were born that I started to notice the extent to which Dushanbe is not accommodating of children: side roads are not suitable for strollers, marshrutki are honking all the time, people dump their trash all around, there are few parks. These are not problems specific to Tajikistan; these are the problems of capitalism. Making money matters more than making the city comfortable for the people who live here.

I do not like the way Tajikistan is developing. I do not want my children to have these nationalist attachments, to learn to “other” minorities. It was not like that when I was a child. But I want them to know that they are not privileged like the Western kids they will grow up with, that they also belong somewhere else. I want them to be humble, to have Tajik hospitality, and to respect older people. They should know that the West is a small, hermetic bubble and in most places in the world people struggle to make ends meet.

‘Mapping Mosaics’ is an upcoming project of the Bactria Cultural Centre in Dushanbe

All photos by
Rustam Samadov and Karolina Kluczewska


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