In Soviet times, statues of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, a Russian revolutionary and the first head of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, were powerful political symbols.
For most of the 20th century, monumental representations of Lenin could be found in all corners of the vast Soviet Union, as well as in Eastern Bloc countries. They came in different sizes and poses and were made of various materials, but they always reflected the official canon with regard to Lenin’s representation. They stood for the unity of the global proletariat, a welfare state, a dream of world revolution, and a common communist future.
is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. There are two strands to her research: development aid and interactions between international donors and local actors in Central Asia, and artistic production in Soviet Tajikistan.
And then, with regime change in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Soviet collapse in 1991, the Communist political and social order suddenly became a thing of the past. The turn to democracy and the free market implied that this past needed to be re-imagined or retroactively charged with a new meaning.
In some post-communist countries, this process was swift and straightforward: the Communist period was unequivocally denounced. In Poland and the Baltics, for example, the removal of Communist-era symbols in the early 1990s, starting with Lenin statues, signified a rupture with that past and, allegedly, a fresh beginning.
In other parts of the Soviet bloc, re-defining the past took longer. In Ukraine, for instance, the Soviet past was officially condemned only in 2015, with the adoption of decommunization laws that envisaged, among other things, the mandatory removal of Soviet monuments.
In still others, re-imagination of the past has been less straightforward and remains far from complete. Such has been the case of Tajikistan. The story of two Lenin statues in Dushanbe is emblematic of the country’s complex process of coming to terms with its history.
Arguably the most important Lenin statue in the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic was the one that stood in the main square of Dushanbe. In 1961, on the eve of one of the annual Communist celebrations, local politicians ordered a 5-meter Lenin statue, which was to adorn Lenin Square, from a renowned sculptor in Moscow. Legend has it that the artist did not deliver the order on time and the Tajik delegation to Moscow had no choice but to find a substitute at very short notice. In one of the warehouses of spare and defective Lenin statues, they identified a suitable monument, which was later transferred to Tajikistan and placed in the city center. Regardless of how much truth there is in this story, the Lenin statue, created by a team of four Russian artists—Radin, Polyakova, Gavrilov, and Kutyrev— was unique. It did not violate the canon, but nor did it fully adhere to it. Whereas other Lenins had their right hands raised, the Dushanbe Lenin was left-handed. This is how, for the next 30 years, he would indicate the path to world revolution to everyone passing through the city center.
Whereas other Lenins had their right hands raised, the Dushanbe Lenin was left-handed.
This Lenin was right-handed, but it was also in many ways unique. The material used to make the statue came from melted bronze tsarist cannons.
The second, smaller Lenin statue was located in Dushanbe’s central park, just a few hundred meters from the square that hosted the main monument. It was actually 36 years older than the figure in the square. This bronze statue was created by Vladimir Kozlov back in 1926 and was an exact copy of the figure from Smolny Palace in St. Petersburg, where Lenin and the first Soviet government worked in 1917. This Lenin was right-handed, but it was also in many ways unique. The material used to make the statue came from melted bronze tsarist cannons. The monument was created on Stalin’s orders and donated to Dushanbe to commemorate the second anniversary of the formation of the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (later, in 1929, upgraded to the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic). Moreover, this was the first Lenin statue in the whole of Central Asia. Lenin remained in this place for 82 years, accompanying several generations of Tajikistanis, as the park was a popular place for families, couples, and young people to go for a stroll.
The post-1991 trajectories of the two Dushanbe Lenin statues reveal policymakers’ confusion not only about what to do with Communist-era monuments, but also about how to re-imagine the Soviet past as a whole.
Following the trend in other Soviet republics, Tajikistan proclaimed national sovereignty in August 1991 and officially declared its independence on September 9, 1991. The chaos and demonstrations that accompanied the transitional period resulted in the government issuing a decree that banned the Tajik Communist Party and ordering the immediate removal of the Lenin statue from the main square. The order was signed on the evening of September 21 by acting president Kadriddin Aslonov, who was literally on his knees in front of the monument and angry masses. That very night, the monument was demolished with a crane, with the involvement of youths gathered in the square. In the process, some parts of the statue fell onto the ground and broke into pieces. Just two days later, the prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case regarding the dismantling of the statue. The decision to ban the Communist Party was also revoked. By this point, however, pieces of the monument had already been lost. In the spring, the Tajik civil war (1992-1997) broke out and the remains of the Lenin statue were no longer a priority.
In 1999, after the war ended, a 13-meter statue of Ismoili Somoni, a ninth-century regional ruler, was erected in the main square, in the same place where Lenin used to stand. This happened on the occasion of the 1,100th anniversary of the foundation of the Somonid Empire, which in current Tajik historiography is portrayed as the first Tajik state. Somoni, with his right hand raised, overlooks the city center, just as the left-handed Lenin did before him. The replacement of Lenins with Ismoili Somonis slowly became a national trend.
The Lenin statue from the central park met with a different fate from the monument in the main square. This statue, although located just a few hundred meters away, survived the 1991 unrest and the subsequent civil war untouched, remaining in its place until 2008, when the park underwent a major renovation. At that time, the Lenin statue was quietly removed and replaced with a monument to Rudaki, a ninth-century poet and the father of modern Persian literature. The Lenin statue was moved to the territory of the Art Fund (Khudfond), where it remains to this day.
This uncertainty about what to do with Lenin reflects a perplexity about what exactly the Soviet past means for contemporary Tajikistan.
Neither Remembering nor Forgetting
To date, the 67 years of Tajikistan’s Soviet statehood have not been re-imagined in any way. The Soviet past is not remembered, celebrated, or commemorated. Equally, it is not demonized, condemned, or deliberately silenced. The removal of Lenin statues across the country has been a slow and rather mundane process that remains ongoing 30 years after the Soviet collapse. It intensified in the last decade, but only to free up space in the main squares of local towns for archaic figures who have been raised to the level of national heroes. Lenin statues, in turn, have been moved to local parks but have not been destroyed.
Unlike in Central or Eastern Europe, this has never been a symbolic show orchestrated by policymakers and accompanied by crowds demanding that the statues be torn down. Instead, Tajik government officials justify the gradual removal of Lenin statues by arguing, rather vaguely, that they do not meet contemporary urban standards. Periodically, officials declare that the monuments will be renovated and preserved as historical artefacts, but this never seems to happen. Members of the contemporary Communist Party frequently write petitions to the government asking for the statues to be restored, but their appeals go unanswered. As a result, ordinary citizens sometimes take care of old Soviet monuments by bringing them home. On rare occasions, people even renovate the statues on their own.
When Tajikistan’s past is celebrated, this is the remote history of the Somonid Empire, not the Soviet period.
The officials claim that new, local academic interpretations of Soviet history are needed to underpin a new political narrative on the country’s Soviet past. In the meantime, contemporary Tajik historiography remains incomplete. While the country’s independence is celebrated, there is no clear narrative as to what exactly the country gained its independence from. And when Tajikistan’s past is celebrated, this is the remote history of the Somonid Empire, not the Soviet period. While policymakers remain unsure how to deal with the Soviet past, which most of them experienced, younger generations are often unfamiliar with local 20th-century history, including who Lenin was.
Tajikistan’s Soviet past cannot yet be re-imagined because re-imagining is a cultural process oriented toward the future. By positioning themselves toward their immediate past, countries simultaneously opt for a certain vision of their future and declare what political and social order they want to build. In Tajikistan, this order is still in the making: the state is neither secular nor religious, neither over-present in nor absent from people’s lives, neither neoliberal nor welfare-oriented. As such, it is unclear to what extent the Soviet past should be remembered and what lessons can be learned from it to shape the future. Equally, it is unclear why this past should be forgotten and which of its elements should not be repeated.