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Modern Capital

The Three Modern Capitals, Alma Ata, Bishkek and Dushanbe
'Central Asia - A Traveller's Companion' by Kathleen Hopkirk

Dushanbe, the mountain-ringed capital of Tajikistan, stands 2,700 feet above sea-level, on the banks of the river Dyushambinka. It is a modern city, built on the site of three villages, one of which was called Dyushambe - 'Monday' in Tajik - after its weekly market. In 1929 it was linked by rail with Termez, on the Afghan frontier, and thus by a roundabout route with the old Trans-caspian railway, a dramatic improvement for a town whose previous communications with the outside world had been largely by camel. That same year it was renamed Stalinabad and declared the capital of the newly formed Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. After Stalin's death, the gradual revelation of his atrocities led to a flurry of name-changing, and the city reverted to a version of its earlier name.

Dushanbe was a temporary refuge for the last Emir of Bokhara, who fled there in 1920 after being overthrown by the Bolsheviks. In his haste he had left behind his harem, but he tried to delay his pursuers by dropping off comely dancing-boys from time to time. What the Bolsheviks made of these symbols of decadence is not recorded, but a Communist writer has described the shocked disillusion of the Emir's former subjects as he travelled through their villages on his way to Dushanbe:

The first day, peasants by the thousands milled around the house where the Emir was lodged, anxious to get at least one glimpse at the divine being they so often blessed in their Friday prayers. By the end of the second day, however, there was not a peasant left. They had all sought refuge in the villages, hiding their young wives and daughters, smearing dung over the faces of the prettiest youngsters.

Joshua Kunitz, Dawn Over Samarkand, 1936

The infamous Emir conceded defeat in 1921 and retired to Afghanistan.

In 1922 Dushanbe experienced high drama, for it was briefly captured by Enver Pasha and the basmachi. The latter were Muslim freedom-fighters who looked to Turkey for their salvation, in the face of first Russian and then Bolshevik oppression. During the First World War, Muslim peasants from Central Asia were conscripted into the Russian army, leaving no one to till the land or harvest the crops, and this caused resentment and uprisings in 1916. Things were no better under the Bolsheviks, who requisitioned the farmers' stores of food and cotton, precipitating a famine in which 100,000 people are believed to have perished. The brutal Tashkent Soviet alienated the entire Muslim population of Central Asia in 1918 when they sacked the ancient town of Khokhand, and ruthlessly suppressed an uprising in Tashkent itself. More and more flocked to the basmachi banner - probably 20,000 all told - though they were disorganized and had no single leader. For several years they harrassed the Bolsheviks with sabotage, ambushes and assassinations, but once the Communists had disposed of not only the White Russians but all their socialist opponents as well, they were able to devote more attention to crushing the basmachi movement. Capable generals like Mikhail Frunze were drafted into the area in 1920 and began to close in on the partisans.

By 1921 the movement seemed doomed. But then Enver Pasha, Turkey's former military supremo who had been disgraced after dragging his country into the First World War, turned up unexpectedly in Central Asia. Lenin, the arch-manipulator, planned to use this charismatic figure who was still revered by many Muslims to steer the natives away from dangerous ideas of nationalism and into the Communist fold. What Lenin did not realize was that Enver, although a military man, was also a dreamer, easily fired by heady ideas. So moved was he at being in the ancient cradle of Turkish civilization that he soon slipped away from his    Bolshevik minders and joined the rebels as their leader.

This gave a tremendous boost to the basmachi movement, and the neighbouring King Amanullah of Afghanistan began covertly supplying them with arms and trained soldiers. Both Enver and Amanullah had visions of a vast pan-Islamic empire encompassing both Turkey and Afghanistan, and most of the Central Asian states of Russia and China, though both privately planned to be its emperor. Few of the rank-and-file basmachi shared this grandiose dream, of course, simply wanting freedom from oppression and exploitation.

At first Enver was wildly successful and the Bolsheviks were seriously worried. In February 1922 he captured Dushanbe, and by the spring he controlled much of the old Emirate of Bokhara. The Bolsheviks even sent a 'peace delegation' to try and arrange a settlement, but Enver refused and 100,000 more troops were sent by Moscow to crush the movement for good. As the tide turned against Enver, Amanullah withdrew his aid and his soldiers - a cruel blow - and many of the basmachi themselves began to drift I    back to their villages. But Enver and his core of loyal supporters refused either to surrender or to flee. They made their last stand    in August near the Tajik village of Abiderya, dying in a hail of machine-gun bullets. The local mullah retrieved Enver's body and buried him beside the river in an unmarked grave. The Bolsheviks quickly reasserted their authority in Dushanbe and the Bokhara region, and the basmachi again became guerrilla bands, uncoordinated and leaderless, easily dismissed by the Bolsheviks as mere bandits.

Dushanbe was developed and industrialized during the Soviet period, and like other Central Asian cities it saw a great influx of industry from western parts of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. As a result its population increased by leaps and bounds: 5,600 in 1927, 42,000 in 1933 and over 100,000 in 1945. (It is now in the region of 600,000.)

Few Westerners had the chance to visit Dushanbe in the post-war period, but an exception was made for Mr and Mrs W. Coates, an elderly London couple sympathetic to the regime, who were taken on a VIP tour of Central Asia in 1949. It was a seven-day rail journey from Moscow to Dushanbe in those days, but they were rewarded by seeing the city from afar, rising in terraces from the river bank to the foothills of the Ghissar mountains, and overlooked by massive snow-capped peaks. Their favourable impression continued when they arrived:

The visitor cannot but be delighted at his first acquaintance with Stalinabad, as he alights at the large station, built in Eastern style. On the square he sees the usual modern means of conveyance - buses and cabs - inviting Eastern tea-rooms, pleasant and airy restaurants, and the shady boulevard bordered by the murmuring aryhs (canals). The first pleasant impression is heightened as the visitor proceeds through the city. The streets are wide, straight and lined with greenery - many of them are, in fact, delightful shady boulevards, with rows of trees and aryks running the entire length.

W.P. and Zelda K. Coates, Soviets in Central Asia, 1951

Today foreigners are brought in by air, but the proximity of the mountains makes the descent into Dushanbe a spectacular one. The Tajiks are a beautiful race, of Persian origin and speaking a Persian language. In the big covered market north of the Hotel Tajikistan they can still be seen wearing their national dress and in something like their traditional surroundings. Unhappily, at the time of writing, Dushanbe - like Tajikistan as a whole - is racked by political conflict, with this new nation facing an uncertain future.