Stalinabad (now Dushanbe), Tajikistan

Jacobi’s Stay in Stalinabad: October 27 to December 3, 1932

Lotte Jacobi, Abdurakhim Khodzhibaev (center), The First Chairman of the Council of the People's Commissars of Tajikistan, at a Desk with Other Men, Stalinabad (Dushanbe), Tajikistan, October-November, 1932.

After a week-long trip by train from Moscow, Lotte Jacobi recorded in her Daybook that she arrived in Stalinabad (now Dushanbe), the capital of Tajikistan, on October 28, 1932. She said that she went to Tajikistan at the invitation of Abdurakhim Khodzhibaev, the first Chairman of the People’s Commissars of Tajikistan, whom she had met in Moscow through Egon Erwin Kisch and his future wife Gisela “Gisl” Lyner (Jacobi 6). Two months later, Jacobi went to Stalinabad as Khodzhibaev’s guest. This was the beginning of a month-long stay in the Tajik capital. She photographed prominent local politicians, such as Khodzhibaev and Nusratullo Maksum, chairman of the Central Executive Committee of Tajikistan, and their families, as well as typical Intourist sites—farms, factories, infrastructure construction projects—as well as people in the bazaar and street scenes. While Stalinabad does not boast the colorful history and former Timurid glories of Bukhara and Samarkand, two Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan also visited by Jacobi, it nevertheless became an important city in Tajikistan by the early 1930s.

Lotte Jacobi, Banquet in the House of the Party, 15th Anniversary of the October Revolution, Stalinabad (Dushanbe), Tajikistan, November 7, 1932

Surrounded by snow-peaked mountains, Dushanbe is located high (elevation 2316 ft.) in the fertile Hisar Valley where the Kofarnihon and Varzob Rivers meet. Archaeologists have found evidence of habitation dating to the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrians (256 to ca. 130 BCE) and ancient Iran: the Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus the Great (550-350 BCE) and the Samanid Empire (819-999 CE) (Hughes 511). The name Dushanbe comes from the Persian (and Tajik and Farsi) word for Monday, the day of its weekly bazaar and a large annual fair. In the nineteenth century, Dushanbe was a regional center for trade. Following the Russian Revolution, the Red Army took control of Dushanbe in 1921, and the city was designated the seat of Soviet power in Eastern Bukhara.

Lotte Jacobi, People in the Bazaar, Stalinabad (Dushanbe), Tajikistan, ca. November 1932

Lotte Jacobi, Baker, Stalinabad (Dushanbe), Tajikistan, ca. November 2-22, 1932

When the Soviets carved Tajikistan and Uzbekistan out of Soviet Turkestan, Tajikistan was left without any major cities. Tajiks were concentrated in Bukhara and Samarkand, but the Soviets placed those cities in the Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic (Nourzhanov and Bleuer 40). Therefore, when they created the Tajikistan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in 1925, it needed its own capital. So, the Soviets made Dushanbe, at the time only a village, the capital. Then, in 1929, Tajikistan became a full-fledged Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), and Dushanbe was renamed Stalinabad, “City of Stalin.” Under Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), the city grew rapidly, to 60,000 by 1930 (Kunitz 243). The Soviets then reassigned Russian, European, and Central Asian politicians connected to Moscow to run the government of Tajikistan, and as the Soviets developed the region for the cultivation and processing of cotton and silk, they deported thousands of people to Stalinabad to work on collective farms and in factories. As the Polish-American scholar Joshua Kunitz observed in 1931, “The population is swelling. Every train disgorges into the city hundreds of new workers” (242).

Lotte Jacobi, Men Building a Road in Stalinabad [House of Farmers Peasants is in the background], Stalinabad (Dushanbe), Tajikistan, ca. November 1932

Turning a village all-but-destroyed by the Red Army into a capital of the new Tajikistan ASSR turned out to be a daunting task. When the Basmachi (Muslims who fought against Russian rule) succumbed to the Red Army in 1924, only 40 houses remained in Dushanbe (Hughes 515). In 1929, Dushanbe’s Communist Party Committee knew the work that needed to be done; they described the new capital as a “town that was built on an empty land, in a town that has no past, in a town without historic monuments, without mosques and churches” (Quoted in Kassymbekova 71, Gough 97). Kunitz reported that in 1931, “one can still see a cluster of tumble-down, insect-ridden mud huts which the natives jestingly call ‘The Kremlin.’ That was the first seat of the Tajik government” (241). Thus, by necessity, the Soviet government built the new capital from scratch. This tabula rasa situation was both fortuitous and calculated. They no longer needed to confiscate sad buildings for administrative purposes. There were no historic Islamic buildings and Muslim neighborhoods to tear down. Creating a new city was also advantageous, as there was little need to erase existing social structures, such as religious buildings. The new government could build an entirely new city that would then serve as a model for the Sovietization of Central Asia.

Lotte Jacobi, Man Speaking from a Tall Podium at a November Gathering [Celebration of the October Revolution], Stalinabad (Dushanbe), Tajikistan, October-November, 1932

Jacobi’s photographs of Stalinabad are important for how they document the creation of the new capital. Even today, much of Dushanbe’s current infrastructure and urban planning was built by the Soviets (Hughes 514). Located on the high bank of the Dushanbinka River (a section of the Varzob River) that bisects the city, Soviet Stalinabad was laid out on a European-style grid, with government buildings on the main Lenin Avenue, which ran north from the new railway station and bisected the center of town (Ulugova). They needed to build infrastructure; they needed building materials, which they brought in by camel and train. (The first rail connection to Dushanbe, the Termez-Dushanbe Railroad, was completed in 1929.) Kunitz described building the city of the future: “The site of the city is cluttered with stacks of brick, with piles of lumber, with mountains of stone, gravel, cement. The streets are ripped open—pits, holes, ditches, swamps…. Still the outlines of a modern industrial city are visible” (242). Architects came from Russia, Ukraine, and Germany to design new buildings based on types imported from Europe—government buildings, theaters, a train station, a post office, and so forth—in the typical Stalinist-neoclassical style, with a few Central Asian decorative motifs thrown in. In the suburbs, they built housing for the Russians and Central Asians who moved to the new capital to run the government, as well as for the Central Asians forcibly relocated to work in agriculture and industry. One can see all of this in Jacobi’s photographs.

Lotte Jacobi, Scene from a Tajik Theater, Stalinabad (Dushanbe), Tajikistan, ca. November 2-22, 1932

Jacobi also captured the social fabric of the city. The day she arrived in Stalinabad, Jacobi immediately became engaged with local events. She wrote in her Daybook that she attended a reception at the “Leningrad Academy,” the Stalinabad branch just established in 1932 of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union in Leningrad. She photographed politicians, such as Khodzhibaev and Maksum, their families, a silk factory, nearby damns at Varzob and Qurgonteppa, and kolchoses (collective farms). She also photographed actors and musicians, people in the bazaar, and newly unveiled women at the celebration on November 7, 1932, of the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. By Jacobi’s arrival in 1932, the last year of Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, she could observe people working in the construction of buildings, roads, bridges, and dams, and a hydroelectric plant that supplied electricity to the city. Thus, Jacobi’s stay gave her the opportunity to see the capital undergoing the transformation from an agricultural village off the Silk Road to becoming the economic and cultural center of Tajikistan.

Lotte Jacobi, Group of Children at the Celebration of the Fifteenth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Stalinabad (Dushanbe), Tajikistan, November 7, 1932

Lotte Jacobi, Group of Women and Children at the Celebration of the Fifteenth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Stalinabad (Dushanbe), Tajikistan, November 7, 1932

It is notable that Jacobi chose not to focus on the unjust treatment of Tajiks and other workers, or on the hierarchical order of Soviet enforcers, politicians, and local people she witnessed in Stalinabad. Nor did she focus on living conditions. Kunitz, on the other hand, described the terrible conditions in Stalinabad he observed when he was there on a tour in 1931 with some other communist writers, including Kisch (Kunitz 11-12). He wrote about poor drinking water and sanitation, terrible working conditions in factories, missing compensation for workers, lack of food and supplies, and meagre amenities in the suburban housing projects (243-245). There was malaria and TB, and also violence—Kisch said when he traveled there, he carried a gun! (Despite Cultures 44, Kisch 144). As an intelligent and observant woman, Jacobi no doubt knew what was going on behind the veil of tourist propaganda, which she nevertheless was supposed to reinforce with her photographs, taken as they were under the auspices of the agency Soiuz Foto with extra encouragement from Khodzhibaev. While emphasizing modernization, even when juxtaposing it with traditional ways, her photographs of Stalinabad are neither as descriptive nor blunt as Kunitz’s observations. However, her photographs still often reveal the less glamorous side of the “Tajikistan in construction” she witnessed: grueling work, poor living conditions, poverty, and almost total illiteracy.

Lotte Jacobi, Girl Looking out a Window, Stalinabad, Tajikistan, ca. October-November, 1932

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan declared its independence, and nationalist sentiments erupted. As a result, many changes were made to Stalinabad. The city’s name was changed from Stalinabad back to Dushanbe, which today remains the capital and is the largest city of Tajikistan. Now, it is undergoing the erasure of the Soviet era through urban development and the destruction of early Soviet buildings from the 1920s and 1930s, including the famed House of the Farmers (which was later repurposed as the Mayakovsky Theatre), the Central Post Office, and other government buildings, in favor of taller, more modern, glass and steel buildings (Sherman). In addition, the government in Tajikistan has looked to the distant past for its identity: to its predecessors in imperial Iran, specifically in the Achaemenid and the Samanid Empires. In the 1990s, the government renamed Dushanbe’s districts and streets in order to celebrate its Persian past and honor contemporary Tajik heroes. Lenin Avenue is now named Rudaki Street, after the 9th/10th-century Persian poet. The landscaping around the capital complex now evokes the image of an Islamic paradisiacal garden (Hughes 516, 519). In the center of the city, a triumphal arch celebrates the Samanid emir Ismoili Samani (849-907) (Hughes 520, 521). Ironically, the Tajiks are erasing the memory of the Soviet era to once again create a tabula rasa and start anew.

Map & Cities

Contributors: Eleanor Hight, Marina Schneider

Works Cited:

Adineh, Esfandiar. "Demolishing Dushanbe: How the Former City of Stalinabad Is Erasing Its Soviet Past." The Guardian, 19 October 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/oct/19/demolishing-dushanbe-former-stalinabad-erasing-soviet-past.

Atkin, Muriel. “Dushanbe.” Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. VII, Fasc. 6, pp. 598-601, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/dushanbe.

Bellat, Fabien. DOUCHANBÉ Palimpsestes urbains au Tadjikistan. Galda Verlag, 2022, 9783962032135. ffhal-03790189f.

Hughes, Katherine. “From the Achaemenids to Somoni: National Identity and Iconicity in the Landscape of Dushanbe's Capitol Complex,” Central Asian Survey, vol. 36, no. 4, 2017, pp. 511–33, https://doi.org/10.1080/02634937.2017.1319796.

Jacobi, Lotte. “Something that provokes…like a negative.” Excerpts from the transcript of an interview with Ute Eskildsen and Sally Ann Stein, Deering, NH, July 20-22, 1977. Transcribed by Margit Kleinman, 1990. German translation by Margit Kleinman, “Etwas, das herausfordert . . . wie ein Negativ,” in Ute Eskildsen, Lotte Jacobi, 1896–1990 (Essen: Museum Folkwang, 1990): 6–15. Many thanks to Sally Stein for supplying a copy of the English version.

Kassymbekova, Botakoz. Despite Cultures: Early Soviet Rule in Tajikistan. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.

Kassymbekova, Botakoz. “Drinking for the Revolution in Stalinabad.” Historische Anthropologie, vol. 28, no. 2, 2020, pp. 250–69, https://doi.org/10.7788/hian.2020.28.2.250.

Kisch, Egon Erwin. Changing Asia. Trans. Rita Reil. A A. Knopf, 1935.

Kunitz, Joshua. Dawn over Samarkand: The Rebirth of Central Asia. Covici, Friede, 1935.

Nourzhanov, Kirill, and Christian Bleuer. Tajikistan: A Political and Social History. ANU E Press, 2013.

Sherman, Anna, and Maxime Fossat. “The Tajik Artisans Guarding the Country’s Cultural Legacy.” New York Times (Online), Nov. 3, 2022, updated Nov. 17, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/03/t-magazine/tajikistan-artisans.html.

Ulugova, Lolisanam.From Stalinabad to Dushanbe: How Has the City Changed? An Interview with Gafur Shermatov.” Voices on Central Asia, 25 March 2021, https://voicesoncentralasia.org/from-stalinabad-to-dushanbe-how-has-the-city-changed-an-interview-with-gafur-shermatov.