From October to December 2019 I stayed in Dushanbe/Tajikistan, supported by the Institute for Foreign Relations (ifa). I stuck to my writing practice there and did extensive research.
The texts are written from a personal perspective, not with a journalistic approach. The selection was edited in August 2020.
The parks in Dushanbe are brightly lit in the evening, with colorful garlands, steles and LED installations. It would be obvious that all this stuff comes from China, but I don’t know exactly.
Lighting can be a form of surveillance and if the social pressure would not infiltrate emerging relationships already from the start, the lighting does the rest to prevent couples from romantic meetings in the shade.
But light installations are by far not limited to the parks. Lights flicker up and down the facades of these new faceless skyscrapers so that in the evening you feel like driving through a casino. It completely eludes my understanding how one can find this kind of light pollution beautiful. Private rooms reflect this – here all the light sources come from China and the population was apparently successfully persuaded that the light bulbs that were standard in the Soviet era would no longer be modern and less efficient (which is both wrong).
Everywhere in Dushanbe there are construction works, and that in enormous dimensions. Skyscrapers shoot out of the ground like mushrooms, areas with flat or low-storied houses are threatened by demolition, as several residents in different neighborhoods tell me. True palaces are under construction for apartments, for sporadic foreign guests or as investment properties for foreign investors – certainly not for the local population.
As much as the Tajik state strives to propagate a Tajik identity, which as a construct ultimately depends on the respective rulers and opinion leaders, Dushanbe loses its face, its urban landscape, this fascinating architecture with a distinct taste for Soviet modernist shapes, Islamic art and Central Asian artistry.
There are also residential areas with skyscraper towers from the 1960s and up, whose condition makes one wonder how people can still live there at all. But it cannot be overlooked that the city is completely robbed of its once functioning structures of distribution of housing and public buildings, roads and networks of paths for services of general interest, areas for open space and connection between the various functions.
Apparently the demolitions are not motivated by hatred towards Russia, after all Tajikistan is still very dependent on Russia. But the relationship to the history of the Soviet republic seems ambivalent; the architectural evidence of this is to be eliminated in favor of a “modern city”.
The Soviet buildings were built very solid and their fabric is of quality that can last for several decades. They are also earthquake-proof and had permanently installed heating systems. The apartments in the new high-rise buildings, on the other hand, have no fixed heating systems at all and are built without them. The apartments are also not sufficiently insulated, not against the outside temperatures and not against the noise inside, as one construction worker I spoke to told me.
Furthermore, such apartments are unaffordable for the population, the square meter prices start at 1200 US dollars, the average monthly wage is 150 US dollars (you can read about this on various websites, I also hear this number from residents).
The representative buildings have been built from the late 1930s until the 1950s. They belong to the style of neoclassicism which was promoted by Stalin. Characteristics are columns at the front, symmetrical floor areas, one to three floors. The special Tajik elements are round or pointed arches above the entrances, stucco work that picks up on local patterns, and paintwork in bright red or blue. This architecture combines stringency and playfulness, the details on the buildings offer recognition features and thus the possibility of identifying with the region, the place where one lives. With the demolition, this anchoring is destroyed and the residents literally no longer find a foothold as the new buildings grow higher.
There were also buildings with which the inhabitants had a special relationship, such as the General Post Office, a constructivist building from the 1930s that was demolished in 2013, or the Mayakovsky Theatre, whose demolition is a particularly tragic story.
Further north along Rudaki Street and offset to the rear is the former open-air theatre “Padida”, I guess it was built in the late 1940s/early 1950s. It has been closed for years and will probably be demolished soon. The sight of it breaks my heart.