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Landmarks, memory, and a changing Dushanbe

Landmarks, memory, and a changing Dushanbe

Anna Kellar studied Political Science as an undergraduate at Yale, where she co-founded the Yale Afghanistan Forum, and is currently finishing a Msc in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics. She has conducted research on development aid in Tajikistan,  studied foreign policy in Italy and worked for an anti-corruption NGO in Slovakia. She is the recipient of a Sir Peter Holmes Memorial award from the RSAA. Here, she writes on the changing face of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

Last summer, while browsing through a collection of Soviet kitsch for sale in Dushanbe’s GUM department store, I found a faded set of Intourist postcards of Dushanbe circa 1982. The city they depict is clean and modern – blue skies, few cars, inhabitants in white shirts and sundresses. Though I recognized a few of the landmarks, many were a mystery to me. I assigned myself a mission: locate each place and see what had changed, and what hadn’t, in thirty-two years.

In the years since the postcards were printed, Tajikistan went through major upheaval, yet, despite independence and war, most of the landmarks had survived the 1990s. The statue of Lenin was gone, of course, replaced by the favorite national poet, Rudaki. I expected that; the remarkable thing was that the switch was only made in 2007. Other Soviet heroes linger on – trees have grown in front of Kuibishev, but he still guards the (mostly-inactive) train station. The hotels and department stores still stand, some with new names and new facades, but the same bones.

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Rudaki has replaced Lenin in central Dushanbe

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Sadbarg Department Store and Aini Square

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Rudaki (formerly Lenin) Avenue, and the Zindabod building

Though most of the landmarks I searched for are still there, covered with uglier facades, the surrounding buildings are disappearing. Attempting to imitate the angles of the original postcards, I searched for elevated vantage points, only to realize that the photographer must have stood on the balconies of buildings that no longer exist. Dushanbe changes slowly, but the pace is speeding up.

This scares me when I think about the fate of my favorite landmarks in Dushanbe. The sky blue towers on Pushkin Street are slightly surreal: twelve floors tall and monumental close up, they are somehow hidden, even in low-lying Dushanbe, when you are more than a block away. There are six of them, at corners to each other, the edges softened by vaguely oriental arches and the weathering of time. The balconies are mostly closed in and laundry hangs as tiny bright squares across many of the windows. Satellite dishes cover the roofs like hair on a chia pet.

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For weeks, I would snap a picture whenever my route took me near by. The towers drew me in with their decaying grandeur, their beauty in a city that is rapidly becoming uglier. It also helped that, unlike the slogan-topped towers on Rudaki Ave, of which I was also fond, these were not featured on the postcards that were guiding me around the city.  I felt possessive because I was sure no one else valued them. And as I documented the rapid rise of ugly fiberglass-clad pseudo-post-modern high rises across the city, I became increasingly sure that these relics weren’t likely to last much longer.

Every morning in Dushanbe, I woke up to the sound of construction on the apartment complex rising behind my house. When I came home at night, a single bright light on top of the skeletal framework competed with the waxing moon. The small apartment building I lived in – 2 stories, 8 apartments – was itself on borrowed time. It wasn’t much to feel nostalgic for – overgrown courtyard, broken windows and broken wooden boards in the fly-infested stairwell. But the courtyard also had two-story hollyhocks, and the neighbors shared washing machines, phone chargers, an occasional meal. I started thinking of it as a metaphor for everything good and bad about post-Soviet Tajikistan: existence in the ruins of a grand design, stagnant but made livable through the pacts of the inhabitants.

I visited the inside of the blue towers by accident. I was going to Iskanderkul for the weekend, and my friend was borrowing a friend-of-a-friend’s aquaintance’s sleeping bag from an apartment on the top floor of one of the towers. This was harder than it sounded: its only helpful to know street and apartment numbers if they are also posted somewhere on the building. The only signs I could see, though, were the huge faded numbers painted on the outside of each floor – for what purpose I could only imagine. We made a guess, taking a dark and creaking two-person elevator from the cramped lobby (lit with a bare bulb) up to the top floor. The top landing had four doors, all unlabeled, none of them opening when we knocked.

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But I was immediately drawn to the balcony, the view I suddenly had across the city in the late afternoon haze. From here I could see the detritus clustered on the upper level balconies of the tower opposite, screened by the delicate lacework concrete railings. Looking down, I saw one of the squat buildings nearby had a rug drying on the roof. On the way down the stairs, I read the graffiti – a large ballpoint pen drawing of a car squeezed among the usual declarations of love.

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In the interior courtyard (smelling strongly of the rotting melon rinds collecting at the bottom the trash bins) we pondered which tower to try next, until I noticed the old number sign, well hidden behind a scraggly tree: Pushkin 8. Aha! Into another dim entry, a slightly better maintained elevator, and again we knocked on the door of a random apartment, where a young girl pointed across the hall. We were foreigners; she knew where the foreigner lived. I took a last look from the new balcony: pigeons circled the top of tower I’d just been in, and the twin pastel wedding cake towers of Dushanbe Plaza loomed behind, the new wannabe-Dubai Dushanbe elite’s answer to statement architecture. As we reached the street again, I turned back for a last look, almost running into a young woman with elegant shoes and tight jeans, talking on the phone as she headed out for the night.

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Southwest in the evening

I don’t know the history of the blue towers; I don’t even know their name, if they have one. I don’t know who owns them, I don’t know if the same families have lived there for decades or if they are all rented out to newcomers. I don’t know their future, but I’ll be sad when they are gone. As an outside observer, I have the luxury to see the towers as a symbol.

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Construction in Azadi Square, with the Somoni monument in the background

Dushanbe is changing, though often these reconstructions only imply a superficial cladding over old foundations. The new forces transforming the city combine a Soviet disregard for the past with a drive for growth that only benefits a select political circle. The same story is everywhere: the drug money; the Chinese construction firms; the countless broken sidewalks and new shopping centers. There is a giant hole in central Azadi Square, where the post office used to be and a new post office has yet to be built. The site is fenced off with a massive billboard for Megafon cell plans. Something old is gone, and whether it’s lamented or not, the future hasn’t arrived yet. Not for the majority.



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