My professional meetings in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital city, are long. Because my colleagues and I don’t speak Russian or Tajik, we are always accompanied by an interpreter who translates from English to Russian and vice-versa. This gives me some time to scrutinize the gallery of portraits of the Ministers of Health who occupied the job since the early Soviet period: some energetic matrons in the first years of Communism, rigid pictures adorned with an array of medals after World War II. Interestingly, the country’s independence in 1991 is not marked.
This continuity with the Russian and Soviet period can also be seen in the cultural references. When I suggested that in some rural health centers the medical staff sometimes seemed lethargic and not strongly motivated, my counterpart recommended me to read one of Anton Chekhov’s short story, « Ionitch » describing the life of a young doctor full of high aspirations as he arrives in a provincial district but who, after going through romantic and professional disillusions, ends up rich but lazy and cynical.
At first sight, Dushanbe also seems like a harmonious mix of Russian and Tajik influences. At the bottom of snow-capped mountains, one walks in a few steps from long avenues lined by official buildings reminiscent of the elegance and the pastel colors of palaces in Saint-Petersburg to the morning market filled by the noises, colors, fragrances and savors of Central Asia. In Farsi, Dushanbe means “Monday”, a reminder that the city was founded where the market took place on the week’s first day.
In the country side, the village forms an honor row in traditional Tajik costume to welcome the official delegation. Children are dancing following the tambourines’ rhythm and young girls are offering the hospitality’s bread and honey. But after the visit and the lunch’s plov, it with vodka that the toasts are made. Walking in the Fan range, the splendid mountains encircling Iskandar Kul (Alexander’s lake), we encountered as many Tajik shepherds and peasants than Russian trekkers.
Andrei Volos’s « Hurramabad » a collection of seven novellas translated from Russian is also set at the confluence of the Russian and Tajik heritages. But the cohabitation is not, or rather is not anymore, harmonious. Volos is a Russian writer born in Dushanbe, a city that was called Stalinabad at that time. After studying in Moscow, he came back to Tajikistan and translated Tajik poetry. His short stories, very elegantly written in Chekhov’s tradition, tell the nostalgia in a Russian community in Tajikistan torn apart after the independence and by the civil war which followed in the 90s.
The first story, « The Ascent », describes one grand-son and his grand-mother climbing towards the grand-father’s tomb. The ascent is steep and at each pause, the grand-mother remembers her arrival from Russia in the 30s to be reunited with her husband posted with the Soviet army on the Afghan border along the Amur-Daria River. In « A Local Man », a young Russian scientist is sent on mission to a research institute in Tajikistan. Contrary to his colleagues who are only dreaming of coming back to Moscow, he starts loving the country, learns the language, marries a Tajik girl and asks to remain in this position. But mocked by his Tajik colleagues, his transfer is rejected. He doesn’t care, and remains in Hurramabad where, perfectly happy, he will end up slicing vegetables and preparing pies on the market.
« The House by the River » tells the story of Yamninov, a Russian who just finished to build with his own hands his dream house by the river. But the house attracts interest and during the civil war, one of the country’s new masters, an arrogant warlord, takes him to the notary and forces him to sell his property for a ridiculously low price. Yamninov uses the money to buy a machine-gun and awaits the usurper without fear, ready to die defending his house…