Since 2010, Tajik historian and journalist Gafur Shermatov has been writing a column entitled “Old Town” for the online news site “Asia-Plus” in which he covers issues related to the culture and historical memory of Soviet Tajikistan. Shermatov also recently published a collection of short stories on this topic entitled “The Creativity of Leningrad Architects in Dushanbe.”
In this interview, he shares his opinion on how the city has changed its look since independence.
Since old cities were largely rebuilt during the Soviet era, many cities in Central Asia—including Tashkent—were divided into “old” and “new” cities. Why does Dushanbe not have such a division?
It seems to me that for the current city administration, there is no sense in dividing the city into “new” and “old.” There is a concept of “a city” and its reformatting. The voices of the remnants of the Tajik intelligentsia, who understand urban planning, have not been heard. They do not take part in the decision-making process. For the new decision-makers, it is hard to perceive the concept of an “old” or “new” city. There is a certain disregard for past urban planning.
During the Soviet era, there was a concept of preserving the old city. Soviet urban planners took into account the specifics of the villages, with the result that all construction was done on the right bank of the Dushanbinka (the river that bisects the city). They tried to preserve the inherent features of the city. The city, located as it is on the high bank of the river, could be seen from the mountains on all sides. This landscape was taken into account when designing the city.
For me, as a historian, it was very important that the “House of the Farmer” (Peter Vaulin, architect) and other historical buildings should be preserved in the post-Soviet period. However, I failed to make this happen. As a consequence, and due to the uncontrollable laws of the market economy, we lost the historical appearance of Dushanbe.
There are many 12-16-story buildings currently under construction. There is also a rumor that there are plans to build a 25-story building. During the Soviet era, the tallest building was a maximum of 9-12 stories. What’s going on now? Do urban planners have a formula for using modern technologies to construct high-rise buildings in a mountainous region or have we stopped paying attention to the danger of seismicity?
The danger of seismicity has not gone anywhere. The Khait earthquake (1949), the Sharora tragedy (1989), and the Kairakum earthquake (1985) come to mind, but we must speak in the context of Central Asia. There have been the Ashgabat earthquake (1948) and the Tashkent earthquake (1966). In the Soviet era, urban planning was more responsible and the number of stories was also limited by many bureaucratic procedures. It was not at all easy to prove that it would be feasible to raise the height of buildings. Taller buildings had to pass a strength test. There was an institute for high-rise and earthquake-resistant construction that dealt directly with these issues. To build a building with more stories, you had to get a lot of approvals. Roughly speaking, over the course of 70 years, the number of stories grew from one to 12. Yet we need to pay attention to the landscape we live in. We are not a country where the construction of high-rise buildings is possible. I think that the principle of building a city has been violated. The massive construction of reinforced concrete high-rise buildings is a dead-end road for Dushanbe. Such housing is dangerous, unstable in the face of seismic activity, resource-intensive, extremely expensive to dispose of, and creates big problems for future generations. I am afraid that we will soon pay a huge price for our carelessness. We don’t even have the means to save people from buildings over 12 stories high.
The Soviet period left a significant mark on the development of the culture of the urban environment in Dushanbe.
The government is demolishing the buildings that are located on main streets. But construction does not go deep into the blocks. For example, all the old buildings on Aini Avenue were demolished and replaced with high-rise buildings. However, if you look behind these new buildings, nothing has changed. I have a feeling that the scenery was changed for the benefit of the cars that pass by carrying the authorities. I have many examples of such “reconstruction.”
At the same time, the Chekhovskii neighborhood, the Iuzhnii outskirt, the Pervyi Sovetskii outskirt, the Yakka-chinar, the 8-Marta districts remain huge undeveloped zones of the city. They are ten times larger than the area that has been subject to reconstruction. All this indicates the absence of a well-thought-out urban planning strategy. Newcomers build where there is well-functioning infrastructure: sewerage, water supply, communication lines. Today’s urban planners do not want to spend anything superfluous. They use the existing infrastructure and pursue immediate commercial benefits. I am afraid that commercial interests alone determine urban development at present.
What is the fate of Sergei Kutin’s National Museum of Antiquities, the State University on Rudaki Avenue, the Academy of Sciences, or Dmitry Bilibin’s building? How about the Opera and Ballet Theater, or the building of the national bank and the Firdausi Library by architect Stefan Anisimov? What are your forecasts for the future of these buildings?
There was a Society for the Protection of Cultural and Architectural Monuments in Tajikistan. The list of protected architectural monuments included the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Tajikistan, the Stella by Tatarinova, a monument to Lenin on Lenin Square (Rudaki Avenue), the building of the Firdausi Library, the Opera and Ballet Theater, the Supreme Council building, etc. In 2010-2011, this list was revised. The buildings of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Tajikistan were removed from the list. By 2014-2015, the list of protected buildings had been further thinned out. The list no longer contains the Firdausi Library and some others, which means that there is no guarantee that these buildings will not be destroyed. The building of the Supreme Council has remained on the list. The list includes buildings that are not yet 50 years old as monuments that need to be preserved. I am very sorry to admit that there are no people left at the highest level of power who appreciate the culture and art of the Soviet period. I’m not even taking about the culture and art of the Greco-Roman or Bactrian periods, but of the Soviet period. The Soviet period left a significant mark on the development of the culture of the urban environment in Dushanbe.
What does historical memory mean for you as a public figure? In your writings, you stress that the Opera and Ballet Theater, completed in 1942, was perceived as Stalin’s gift to the Tajik people. I wonder if there were any exposés on this “gift” after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party—which exposed the personality cult of Stalin—in the city that bore its name (Dushanbe was named Stalinabad before 1962)?
There were no official articles on the topic of exposing the personality cult. It is necessary to understand the role of Stalin’s personality for the Tajik people. Considering that the war was going on (WWII) when the theater was completed in 1942, it was very much appreciated by the Tajik people. Even though the war was going on and the aggressor had conquered certain parts of the country, the construction of this cultural object was not halted. So the completion of the construction was received with gratitude. For the Tajik people, art was supreme. It is not customary among Tajiks to say bad things about Stalin. I don’t remember any articles or notes.
After the city of Stalinabad was renamed back to Dushanbe in 1962, there was some discontent among the people. Stalin had authority among the local population. During my youth and childhood, portraits of Stalin in civilian and military uniforms were ubiquitous. In our republic, he enjoyed indisputable authority. When we talk about Stalin’s authority, one must understand the context of why the Tajik people are close to the image of the former leader. After all, what was eastern Bukhara, the territory of present-day Tajikistan? A distant province of the Bukhara Emirate ruled by the Mangit dynasty, who were not Tajiks themselves. The province was undeveloped, with a lack of schools and hospitals, a high mortality rate, and territories that were completely impassable. Peasants who lacked land were always poor.
Stalin had authority among the local population.
When the Soviets came to power, they opened hospitals and schools, and set women free, allowing them to remove their veils. Soviet authority is therefore a luminary for the Tajik people. This freedom was personalized by the name of Stalin. The initiation of the renaming of the city of Dushanbe as Stalinabad took place ceremonially. There was an official request to rename the capital of the Tajik SSR in recognition of Stalin’s contribution to the Tajik people. And we must not forget that many professionals, representing all branches of science, came here to boost the economic and social life of the country thanks to Stalin. The systems of health care, public education, transport, and other significant spheres of people’s life were created by the party leadership, headed by Stalin.
In your publication, there is only one story of a woman architect, whom I know better as a sculptor: Elena Tatarinova. I wonder why we have so few noted female architects—women like Zaha Hadid and Vera Mukhina—worldwide. Do women need to do architecture?
Elena Tatarinova played an enormous role in the development of the country’s architecture. She ennobled the face of the city and the country’s urban planning more broadly. The buildings of the Firdausi Library, the state Opera and Ballet Theater, the national Bank of Tajikistan—these were all designed by her.
In addition to being a good architect, she was a wonderful artist. Together with the architect Anisimov, she designed the famous Stella by Tatarinova. She was the author of the wonderful bas-reliefs on the building of the Supreme Council (now the Parliament). She was a tireless professional and a creative artist.
I think that the role of women in the design of architectural objects is huge and precious in Tajikistan. The architect Khamro Tairova was in charge of the construction of the Opera and Ballet Theater. Rebecca Rudovskaya, one of the first women architects to come to Tajikistan, stayed here and designed many public buildings, schools, and kindergartens—not only in the city of Dushanbe, but also in the regions. Tatyana Vedenskaya was another famous architect.
Certainly, few women were chief architects, but they were indispensable as design engineers. Take, for example, the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Its chief architect was Stefan Anisimov. Two female design engineers assisted him: Vavilova and Vedenskaya.
Architecture is music frozen in stone, and women were an integral part of these arts. They were active in the visual arts, composing, science, and architecture. I am not only for the equality of men and women, but also for the superiority of women over men.