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World War II

In the small hours of 22 June 1941, German forces launched a huge multiple assault on Minsk, Kiev and Sevastapol and so brought the Soviet Union into the Second World War. German troops advanced quickly through the western USSR during the freezing winter that followed. Far away in Central Asia, the war had long lasting repercussions.

Some Tajiks, and their cousins the Uzbeks, Turkmens and other Central Asians, fought in the elite corps of the Soviet army. Some were young men from the most remote villages who left their valleys for the first time to serve in the faraway western USSR. 'Salam from Grozny' begins one letter home from Rahmatullah Azimov, a farmboy from the Tajik-Afghan border, in 1942.

To my brother, sisters and friends!
I am in the North Caucasus, in Chechnya, at the flying school. I am learning a lot here and I'm fine. I miss you all so much. I miss my country, my son and the warm weather. Please say hello to all my friends.
1 don't know when my training will finish - perhaps I'll be away another six months or so. Then we must go to the war, to the front. But don't worry, everything will be all right.
Your loving little brother.

Azimov was sent to fight soon afterwards. His plane was shot down over the Barents Sea and he never came home. Rahmatullah Azimov was hailed as a hero in his home town, Kulob, a symbol that Tajiks were now truly part of the Soviet Union.

The majority of Central Asians went to serve behind the lines, digging trenches, cooking and carrying supplies - at least in the early stages of the war. There was a reluctance to use many Uzbeks and Tajiks as combat troops, partly because many did not speak much Russian, and the officer corps was almost entirely Russian or otherwise Slav. As casualties mounted, though, between 1941 and 1943, far greater numbers were called up. Shepherds, farmers, and factory workers left for the front, even the mullahs exiled in the gulags of Siberia. Most had very little training. Some blew themselves up with weapons they could barely use. Very many lost their hearing.

Such servicemen played an important role in the development of Tajikistan. They were among the first Central Asians, outside a tiny elite, to see anything of the wider USSR beyond their own countries. They fought alongside Russians and made friends with them. They became tremendous patriots and still stand in annual parade in Dushanbe, their chests filled with medals, on Victory Day each May 9th. Look out too for the huge metal V for Victory monument in south-central Dushanbe, erected some years after the war to mark the contribution of the village-turned-capital.

Tajiks played their own special role in the war, in addition to serving on the common fronts. As the only Persian speakers in the USSR, many were sent to Iran to help operate the trans-Iranian railway line from the Gulf to the Caucasus. This Persian Corridor, built by British and Soviet troops was the only alternative to the perilous Arctic Convoys to Archangel. Vast amounts of supplies, trucks, uniforms, radio equipment and food passed along this lifeline to Soviet troops.

One fascinating but almost forgotten aspect of Central Asia In the war was the creation of the Turkestan Legion - a special Muslim unit of the German army. Founded by anti-Soviet nationalist intellectuals, it is said to have numbered about two hundred thousand men, recruited from the great many Central Asians taken prisoner by the Germans. For some, joining the Legion was a decision of principle. Most were probably simply trying to stay alive and out of German detention. The Legion fought in Italy, Greece and North Africa (as the Uzbek and Tajik graves there show) and its soldiers also served behind the lines as dog handlers, guards and cooks at detention centres.

Norman Lewis, a British officer who later went on to fame as a travel writer, crossed paths with the Legion when he was given the task of escorting 3,000 Tajik prisoners by ship to the Soviet base in Iran. These Tajiks had been wearing German uniform when they surrendered to the British, although at the last minute they had turned on the Germans and attacked them. During their ten-day voyage together, Lewis enjoyed the company of the Tajiks. 'Every day was a party,' he remembered. The Tajiks composed poetry, and turned zinc water bottles, mess cans, toothbrushes and combs into stringed instruments and drums. Gas capes and camouflage webbing became costumes for Tajik theatre, and so the prisoners played and sang their way to the Gulf. Lewis saw the Tajiks put into cattle trucks on a rainy day in the marshalling yard. He was sure that they were taken away to their deaths.