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Red Army advance

While this immense effort and expense was poured into Dushanbe, the view outside the new capital was very different. Just half an hour's ride from the city, were scenes of terrible destruction. As the Red Army moved through Tajikistan in the 1920s, securing the territory for the Union, often violently, it met both incomprehension and anger from villagers, many of whom lost their land and livelihoods. Very many families fled the country finding sanctuary mainly in Afghanistan.

Some young men took up arms. They became anti-Soviet partisans - known as basmachi - as did thousands of others in other parts of Central Asia. The long basmacbi campaign followed tactics familiar to guerrilla groups all over the world. They ambushed Red Army horsemen and sabotaged their settlements, they scattered great quantities of leaflets to warn the local population against what they considered an alien, occupying force that would destroy their way of life and violate their religious beliefs. Many invoked the name of the old king, Alim Khan, and promised his triumphal return from exile in Kabul. But Alim Khan was really more a figurehead than a leader for the basmachi and the movement thrived on powerful local figures.

The Red Army took dreadful reprisals on the surrounding villages. 'Houses and other buildings are destroyed and ruined. Walls are levelled to the ground ... Fields, gardens and melon patches are full of weeds and fallow,' notes a Soviet committee sent to make an assessment in the Tajik countryside in the 1920s. Whole villages had been deserted in the highlands and on the plains between Dushanbe and the Amu. About one house in two stood empty in the old market town of Qurghan Tappa; fifty villages around it were abandoned. Little more than fourteen thousand people lived in the town of Fakhrabad - more than half the population there had been. Irrigation canals were destroyed and the amount of land under cultivation was halved. As much as a third of the population of the plains had disappeared; of these, Soviet accounts estimate, about half had gone to Afghanistan and half had been killed. Few places in Central Asia were hit so hard by the coming of communism as rural Tajikistan. Much of the countryside never caught up in the years that followed. Three generations later, in the 1990s, the gap between the Soviet city and the farming poor would re-emerge with terrible consequences.