Monday, 5 September 2011

Hurramabad – a Russian Perspective on a Tajik Tragedy

"Hurramabad" is a collection of short stories on the theme of ethnic Russians in Tajikistan. The Russians of Tajikistan, who arrived as Soviet administrators and skilled workers, emigrated en masse in the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially in the lead-up to the civil war.

The English translation of "Hurramabad" includes seven short stories, only one of which does not have ethnic Russians as the protagonist(s). Russians (and other ethnicities) had many reasons for leaving Tajikistan. Fleeing a country at war is obvious enough, but there were many other factors, including rising nationalism and economic problems. I don’t suggest here that Russians were the primary victims of the war, as it was Tajiks, Uzbeks and Pamiris who made up the overwhelming majority of casualty figures. But many Russians were victims in the broad sense. Volos should know, as his family was forced to leave this country where he had been born and raised.

Volos’ book falls into the category of historical fiction, as real people, places and events form the backdrop for the fictional protagonists. But the fiction is barely fiction. “Hurramabad” is obviously Dushanbe, and the events in the book all match up nicely with what actually happened. That may lead some readers into not seeing as large a picture as those who know the history of Tajikistan. For example, in one passage men have a cantankerous debate about which public square to go protests at, an anecdote that lets the informed reader know that the date is April-May 1992. In another instance two Russian women discuss riots that occurred in February, an obvious reference to the February 1990 riots and demonstrations in Dushanbe. And “that snake Yusupov” is clearly Shodmon Yusuf, the then leader of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, who scared the hell out of ethnic Russians when he got on the radio and strongly hinted that bad things may happen to non-Tajiks (although in the novel the event is out of its proper place in time).

In the first short story an elderly Russian lady is being walked up a hill to a graveyard by her grandson. On the way to the grave of her husband she recounts – for the hundredth time – how she arrived in Tajikistan, or rather the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, in 1930. Her account of a boat ride up the Amu Darya and the Panj river is one of trepidation, as anti-Soviet Basmachis rebels still make incursions across the river from Afghanistan. She has no idea if her husband, sent as a Soviet administrator, is still alive. As she struggles up the hill towards the graveyard you are left with the image of a dying old woman who, despite not being a Tajik or other local nationality, knows nothing but Tajikistan, and who will never leave.

The second, and my favorite, is the story of a Russian man who never lived in Tajikistan, but who became enchanted with the country and desperately wanted to “go native” and stay in the country. Abandoning his wife and children in Russian he takes a low-paying job in a bazaar and marries a Tajik. He becomes fluent in Tajik, much to the confusion of locals who mistake him for Tatar, as almost no Russians ever bothered to learn the language, even if born and raised in Tajikistan. Desperate to be accepted, but considered an outsider by locals, the man suffers through his daily existence as the country falls apart on the streets of Hurramabad (Dushanbe). And then finally, there is a chance to be accepted as a local… and it’s not what he wanted.

In the next story, an old Russian lady welcomes what she thinks is a harmless grass snake into her home while expressing her desire to remain in Tajikistan, whatever the terrible consequences may be. Nothing is what it seems, especially the snake. I guess this is where the English and Literature students take over and pull out the symbolism, metaphor, whatever… I get it, but I didn’t dwell to much as I was eager to move on to the next story.

In ‘A Decent Stone for a Father’s Grave’ you already know what the story is about. Searching out a decent gravestone the Russian protagonist encounters locals trying to buy his possessions at a price suitable to be asked by a man desperate to leave the country and who can’t bring all his possessions with him. The greed and opportunism of a local prospective buyer of the Russian man’s car is then put into perspective when the Russian finds out that the Tajik man who could build the gravestone to his specific needs was executed on the street recently.

The other stories include the kidnapping of foreign journalists by a local warlord, the trading of a kidnapped Tajik girl for a weapon, the theft of a Russian man’s dream house by armed commanders of the winning side, and the account of a man waiting to leave to Russia.

And the writing style? It’s quite clearly realism. The descriptions of activities on the streets and in the bazaars is nothing grand, but it’s gives you a clear image in your head. And the stories are mostly of very small events punctuated by the crisis droning on in the back ground. Things seem normal, and then you are given passages like this:

“The crucified city was howling in fear and pain; the air itself seemed full of violence, rape, and robbery. It would have been better if the telephones had not been functioning at all, because rumours of what was going on in the outskirts of Hurramabad were enough to drive you mad.”

But at times the characters’ – and indeed the author’s – love for the land is clear:

“ ‘I’m a foreigner here now,’ Dubrovin forced himself to say, shrugging his shoulders. He frowned as he repeated the word to himself. A foreigner, a foreigner! He found it to be a meaningless aggregate of sounds, because everything around him gave it the lie: this hilly, jagged land lit by a reddish moon in which two generations of his ancestors had been laid to rest; the hot violet sky in which the pure stars twinkled moistly; the smell of sunbaked dust and camel thorn; the chirring of the crickets; the outbursts of barking dogs in the kishlak”.

Volos is not often this florid in his writing style, and he wisely saves it for the right moment. Overall, you are given a vivid image of the place and time. You may not get all the references, and having been in the country may help you to imagine things more “accurately.” But you should get the same satisfaction even if you don’t understand the war, the country, or even the sprinkling of Tajiki. And despite the cruelty on the part of some of the locals, the book does show affection for the people and the country – so many of which were victims of the civil war.

(Christian Bleuer,

My next destination is, inevitably, much better known than Tajikistan – and similarly the author is likely to be more familiar to many than Volos. I am travelling to Afghanistan, courtesy of the novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khalad Hosseini (also known for his debut novel “The Kite-Runner”).

And so I brave the charms of Dushanbe airport once again, catching a Kam Air flight at 5.30 in the morning and arriving in Kabul, Afghanistan an hour later (for the eye-watering amount of $230 economy). I spend a few hours in the new International section of the airport before heading to the slightly dowdier domestic terminal to catch another Kam Air flight to my destination, Heart (another hour-long flight leaving at midday for a slightly less eye-watering $122.)

Herat Airport also known as Herat Airfield, was established in the 1950s with American aid Herat Airport was initially used for military purposes. Later it was opened for civil use, although it has had to be extensively repaired following Allied forces bombing in 2001. It is now opened up to international air flights and is known as Herat International Airport – although it retains its militaristic feel, a reminder of the country’s recent and ongoing conflict…

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