Dushanbe Stories: Askarali Rajabov.

A series of interviews with Dushanbinci.

Askarali Rajabov, a professor of antiquity at the Academy of Sciences, is known for advocating historical claims to Tajik national identity. He recently consulted with the city government to determine a contentious list of Dushanbe’s 27 buildings of architectural, artistic and historical value which will be spared from destruction.When I walk in, he’s typing a report on his computer. He wears a newsboy cap. To talk to me, he turns around backward in his chair; he is partially blind and partially deaf; his eyes stare off to the side of my head and he shouts rather. 

I really don’t get why people are making such a big fuss about our plan to demolish these buildings. Take the executive office building, for example. It’s sunk more than 30-40 centimeters; repairing it will cost more than rebuilding it

The requirement for buildings to make the list was that they had to have been constructed well, from an artistic and architectural point of view, and that they need to possess historical value. For example, the national museum with the Buddha  — it was one of the first buildings constructed in the city. It used to be a school. Its neoclassical style is superb.

Why are the buildings across from the Academy of Sciences considered to have historical and artistic worth while the buildings across from Rudaki Park are slated for destruction?

Those buildings across from Rudaki Park are nothing. Structurally, artistically, they have no value. The apartments inside are awful.

What about the Mayakovskiy Theater? Didn’t that have value?

Honestly, I don’t understand why people on the internet are making such a commotion about the destruction of the theater and the other buildings. These buildings have no value. They’re not representative of a certain architectural style — or if they are, we’re preserving them. Why don’t people understand that we’re going to demolish these buildings where maybe 50 families lived and build new structures where 500 families can live? Dushanbe, as the capital of Tajikistan, is such a young city — only 90 years old. What here is really historical?

Our new construction will possess unity of architectural style. The new library, the new presidential palace…the new national theater will be even better than the Mayakovskiy Theater. Cities need to change, to progress, in keeping with the times.

Does this mean that the new buildings are intended to show the power of the state?

The power of the state? No! Not at all. They’re intended to serve their functions.

Some people say that the government is destroying these old buildings in an attempt to erase Soviet legacies.

Listen, the USSR gave us everything. They gave us a country. They gave us an identity. Before the USSR, history didn’t exist here. What do I mean by history? I mean dates. History is a day, a month, a year. Who are you if you can’t name the day and the year you were born?

In the USSR, Dushanbe was an example of a perfect city, a leading city. People then had respect for this city as a capital city. Then after independence, more people came to the city and quality of life started going downhill. Back then, almost the entire city was composed of ethnic Russians — maybe not the entire city, but a lot of the city. They all left, and who came to take their place?

During the Soviet Union, it was almost impossible to get theater tickets in Dushanbe, they all sold out so fast. Everyone would hear about performances at the Mayakovskiy Theater, at the Opera Ballet, and if you went the day they announced the performance to try to get tickets, they’d already be sold out. There were so many theaters here — there still are. The Puppet Theater, the Youth Theater, Opera Ballet, Mayakovskiy, the Philharmonic…you’d hear from your friend about a performance of Zol and Rudaba and say, “Oh lovely; I’ll take my wife and the kids this weekend.” Now — have you gone to the theaters? No one’s there. They’re empty, except for students on field trips.

And everyone read. Everyone was always reading. Books back then were so inexpensive; even laborers read two or three books every month. Down in the kolkhozi if you went during lunch break, you’d see every worker reading a newspaper or a book. We didn’t have the internet back then — ugh, the internet! You can’t learn anything from the internet. The internet is just crap. Until you read books you don’t know anything.

Now none of our students read books; most of the university faculty don’t even read books. Today 95% of university students don’t give a damn about their studies. It’s only the 5% who have government scholarships to attend university who work hard. The rest — they think, well, I’ve paid, what more do I need to do?

The level of culture in this city has really decreased. Dushanbe used to be a cultural center, for all sorts of people — Russians, Tajiks, Georgians, Armenians — there used to be so many Jewish people in the city! The city has changed because all these qishloqis live here now. It’s the biggest problem facing Dushanbe. We’ll need maybe 20 or 30 years to get them accustomed to city life. It’s a big issue, but it’s one that cities all over the world face — villagers flood into the cities without any idea what it means to live in a city and they bring the level of culture down. This happens everywhere.

Does that mean that one of the roles of the city is to civilize its inhabitants?

Dushanbe in the Soviet Union was a civilized place. Does that mean it’s not civilized today? Not civilized today?! No, of course it’s civilized today!

In the USSR, say 98% of people in Dushanbe received free housing. I received a government apartment because I worked at the Academy of Sciences. My name was on a list; I waited and eventually I received an apartment. My second apartment, I had to pay a little money for it, but only a very, very little. Now, it seems, everything has its price. In the USSR, you could go to the doctor for free. School was free. Housing was free. You had the right to go on vacation. If you were a worker, or if you’d given birth to ten children or more, you could choose to go to a sanitorium on vacation. I traveled five times a year to different international conferences. Now, the laws say that healthcare is free, but we all know you have to pay when you go to the doctor. The laws say that education is free, but there are private schools now and even at public schools you have to pay. Housing is incredibly expensive — there’s such a housing shortage in Dushanbe; so many people came into the city in the 1990s. The city was never meant to house this many people. It’s no wonder people have so much nostalgia for the USSR.

Do you have nostalgia?

Well, I still get to travel to international conferences, maybe once a year, if there’s money left over in the university budget. Maybe I’m not as nostalgic as others.

Who makes a city, the citizens, the state or commercial interests? Who constructs a city’s identity on a day-to-day basis?

Well, artifacts have been found in Dushanbe from over 2000 years ago, but in general before it was the capital of Soviet Tajikistan, there was nothing really here, just a Monday market…Then in the Soviet Union, people received their apartments from the state but then they remade them in a style that accustomed them. Does that answer your question?

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