Dushanbe: Tajikistan’s gaudy, soulless capital

I have described dictator chic as an architectural vibe in my post about Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, only to be outdone in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Urban renewal, the Tajik style, is reinventing Dushanbe as just another gaudy Central Asian capital. (Nursultan in Kazakhstan, formerly known as Astana, where kitsch rules on a colossal scale, is an unhelpful prototype.) In doing so, Dushanbe’s Soviet past is being erased at breakneck speed. The trouble with this is that the Soviet history is the only history the city has.

Dushanbe was a small frontier village when Moscow high-handedly decreed it into Stalinabad (“the city of Stalin”) as the capital of the newly formed Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic in 1929. The 1930s and 40s gave the fast growing city its trademark constructivist feel where Soviet designs, to meet the local tastes, were adorned with colourful orientalist traits. As this was long before Soviet architecture became so well known for pre-fab and drab, Dushanbe’s old, pre-war vibe would have been rather nice.

“This ugly modernity has clearly come at the expense of Tajikistan’s ancient Persian and recent Soviet history, pointing to a severe crisis of identity”

With many Soviet-era public edifices and apartment buildings already razed and others earmarked for the same fate, bizarre monuments, such as the Somoni or Rudaki statues, and soulless palaces, like the Dushanbe Plaza complex, are springing up in their place, in industrial quantities of marble and gold. In this construction boom where bigger is better, the Tajik authorities are creating vanity projects with more empty office space and without making much of a dent on Dushanbe’s housing crisis.

Tajikistan, by most metrics, is the poorest of all post-Soviet states and one of the least democratic, although the latter is a tough call. Public services have deteriorated sharply since independence and many Tajiks struggle to find work so they simply emigrate – just ask any Tajik-looking taxi driver in Moscow or St Petersburg. The construction industry may be the only one thriving but the locals, living in a dictatorship, have little idea about the cost of the world’s tallest flagpole and the like.

To get a taste of ancient Tajik history, one must – as I eventually did – take a short trip out of town to the Hissar Fort, some 30km to the west of Dushanbe. All that remains of this 18th-century fort is a twin-towered gateway but its architecture and the nearby 17th-century madrassa, now on the verge of collapse, nevertheless reveal something about Tajikistan’s proud Persian heritage. If I hadn’t seen the Hissar Fort, I’d never have guessed any of this from Dushanbe’s post-Soviet dictator chic.

Back in Dushanbe and strolling along the sycamore-lined Rudaki Avenue, now devoid of all atmosphere, I pondered this sudden urge to whitewash a country’s history. This ugly modernity has clearly come at the expense of Tajikistan’s ancient Persian and recent Soviet history, pointing to a severe crisis of identity. This drive to modernise is thus an effort to make Dushanbe look like a financial centre, albeit without the finances, and to create a new national discourse, albeit in the absence of free speech.