Originally posted on the now defunct Tajikestan.com  


Linguistic Internationalization

The process of the differentiation between Persian and ‘Tajiki’ in Soviet Central Asia lasted longer than thought. In spite of renaming the language and changing its script, its obvious oneness with Persian of other lands remained vivid.

In the spirit of ‘internationalism’ a massive stream of Russian and other foreign borrowings flowed into the language replacing their Persian equivalents, and specific Russian characters were introduced in the newly-modified Cyrillic alphabet. The upshot was tremendous. Even the name of the state changed from “Jumhuri-i Shuravi-i Sosialisti-i Tajikistan” to “Respublikai Sovetii Sotsialistii Tojikiston”.

The Linguistic Conference of 22 August 1930 in Stalinabad (Dushanbe) chaired by the Russian Orientalist Aleksandr Semenov came to the following conclusions:

–          the new Tajik language should emerge from the existing language of Tajik newspapers, journals and books and not be completely re-invented;

– this language should be comprehensible for all Tajik speakers in the Soviet Union. The necessary simplification of the language could be achieved by approaching the language spoken by Soviet Tajiks;

the language would have to abandon certain forms which until then had been common characteristics of the Persian/Tajik written language both inside and outside the Soviet Union (Paul Bergne, The Birth of Tajikistan: National Identity and the Origins of the Republic).

Those ‘certain Persian forms’ were abandoned indeed, but survived in the masses’ spoken language. For instance, the Persian subjunctive prefix ‘be-’ (‘bi-’) excluded from the ‘modern literary Tajik’ survived the Soviet linguistic hurricane among ordinary Tajik people and it is still in use. Numerous Turkic elements such as “-mi” question particle and broken sentence structures penetrated the ‘new language’ to alienate it from the language of Persians abroad.


Andreas Kappeler and Edward Allworth, the authors of the Muslim Communities Re-emerge, believe that all those measures (to establish a ‘normative Tajik language’) were aimed at neutralizing “Pan-Iranism” among Tajik intellectuals, that is, “the consciousness of deep commonality of the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Central Asian Persian-speakers with the people of Iran and Afghanistan.” Sadriddin Ayni’s self-designation as “farsi” (ma farsiyan) in one of his articles heightened the new authorities’ concern. Ayni’s compendium of Tajik literature (Namunai Adabiyate Tajik) gave rise to intense debate and some Russian ‘scholars’ rejected Tajiks’ claim for any kind of literature prior to their Soviet history. The compendium contained poems by Rudaki, Ferdowsi, Hafez, Sa’adi, Nezami, Kamal Khojandi, Sayf Isfaragi and many others.

“By 1930 the Namuna had been banned and in many cases destroyed,” says Paul Bergne in his book. Sadriddin Ayni was labelled as a “reactionary monarchist” by authorities. To prove his loyalty to the Soviets Ayni had to publish unassailably pro-Soviet novels Odina and Dokhunda in 1930. In return, all poets mentioned in Ayni’s Namuna were recognized as Perso-Tajik classic literary figures. But their heirs in Central Asia were to be kept in minority.

“Did all the Tajiks die?” 

Soviet census is a painful issue that would absorb hundreds of pages, if we choose to write about it. But it should be mentioned here that Tajiks, who had no allies in the new Slavo-Turkic union, were among the main victims of the Soviet population counts and their number decreased drastically between 1917 and 1926 censuses. The chief secretary of the Tajik Committee of the Uzbek Communist Party at the time believed that the ‘biased and unfair’ 1926 census was a tool of Uzbekization. As a result, millions of Tajiks in Samarkand, Bukhara, Surkhan-Darya and other Persian-populated areas of Uzbekistan turned into Uzbeks overnight.

“According to Shotemur, soon after the delimitation of 1924, Uzbek newspapers claimed that Tajiks could be found only in the Pamir (in the Tajik ASSR), and that “people who believe there are Tajiks in the rest of Central Asia are insane.” Shotemur described how Uzbeks engaged in the systematic “persecution of Tajiks and the Tajik language.” The situation became so bad, he argued, that at the time of 1926 census “it was impossible to step forward and say that Tajiks existed in Uzbekistan,” let alone tell a census taker that you were one. Other Tajik leaders agreed that such circumstances had led to false census totals. Bukhara and Samarkand were famous throughout the east as Tajik cities, but the 1926 census showed them to be Uzbek. “Did all the Tajiks die?” asked Abdurahim Hajibayev (another Tajik Communist leader –twc). “If so, it must be as a result of un-Soviet policies.” (Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union).

Awakening Interrupted

Nevertheless, prevailing anti-Persian sentiments of the Soviets failed hamper Tajiks’ affinity towards their Persophone brethren on the other side of the border. Later, in 1970s, academician Babajan Ghafurov (Bobojon Ghafurov), the former First Secretary of the Communist Party of Tajikistan, contended that, in fact, Central Asia was the cradle of the medieval Persian language and culture. According to him, ” Tajik had already acquired its main characteristics and was spoken in Central Asia, north-eastern Iran, and northern Afghanistan before the Arab conquest began in the seventh century, although the language was called “Persian” rather than “Tajik”. In the centuries following the Arab conquest, Persian displaced a number of other Iranian languages spoken in Central Asia. These displaced languages had a lasting influence on the vocabulary and pronunciation of the Persian dialects spoken there, making them markedly different from dialects spoken further west. It was only these eastern dialects which first bore the name “Persian”. (Jo-Ann Gross, Muslims of Central Asia: Expressions of Identity and Change).

Ghafurov succeeded to prove Tajiks’ pivotal role in the creation of Persian civilization in his great work Tojikon.

Tajik academics went further while defining their new identity or rather tracing back their real ethnic designation. The author of Muslims of Central Asia describes the Persophile upsurge in the post-perestroika Tajikistan:

“A Tajik professor, writing in a large-circulation newspaper, has defined “Iran” as not only the name of a particular twentieth-century state but also the much larger area, from the Indus and Syr Darya to the borders of what are now Turkey, Iran, and Syria, that formed the original homeland of all the Iranian peoples, including the Tajiks (Dodkhudoev, 1986). A related argument is that the Tajiks were a large and powerful people in the past, inhabiting north-eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Xinjiang, and other areas, in addition to Central Asia (Siddiqov, 1984)… The head of Tajikistan’s Academy of Sciences until recently, Muhammad Osimi (Russian spelling: Asimov) has stated that Persian, Dari (Kabul Persian, a lingua franca in Afghanistan) and Tajik are essentially a single language despite numerous differences in specialized vocabularies and spoken dialects, adding that, “our classical literature, which was written in Dari Persian language is the common property of the Iranians, Afghans and Tajiks alike” (Rajabi, 1987:4)” (Jo-Ann Gross, Muslims of Central Asia: Expressions of Identity and Change, 1992).

This sentiment reached its culmination in 1989, when Tajikistan became the first Central Asian republic to formulate a language law. It was the fourth such law in the entire Soviet Union preceded only by those in the three Baltic States. The law passed on July 22, 1989 under the pressure of massive demonstrations that demanded the main language of the republic to replace Russian as the official language. The law granted the language its original name ‘Persian’ in brackets – tajiki (farsi).According to the law, the Foundation for Tajik Persian was established in the same year. The Cyrillic was also supposed to be replaced by the Perso-Arabic script by 1996. Even now Tajik intellectuals recall that day as a golden moment of their cultural euphoria in the 20 th century. Indeed, it was just a moment not meant to last forever.

A five-year bloody civil war (1992-1997) interrupted Tajik cultural upsurge. Provincial neo-Communist forces came to power not without the Russian and Uzbek support and the process went backwards. An anti-Persian mood became prevalent and all Persian writings were wiped off the streets. In 1994 the Tajik parliament amended the 1989 Language Law, stating that the name of the state language was now called only Tajik (tojiki). And the plan to return to the Perso-Arabic script was abandoned indefinitely.