Vienna, March 9 – The Yaghnobs, the last survivors of the pre-Turkic Sogdian civilization in Central Asia and the last nation to be forcibly deported by the Soviet government, are now rapidly dying out after some of them have moved back to their traditional villages in highland Tajikistan, a Moscow journal reports.
“Ogonyek” says in its current issue that the 70 families are “practically all that remains from the onetime great and powerful people which lived high in the mountains in the north of Tajikistan” and that because of poverty and harsh conditions, a significant number of them may not survive until spring (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1327527).
This small group, the journal continues, ”live now as they did millennia ago,” planting small fields and herding stock, doing without any money because “no one pays them” and because “there is nothing to buy,” with the nearest store being more than a day’s hike from their villages which are located above 3500 meters.
The Yagnobs today have neither schools nor air links to the outside world. “The majority of their children are illiterate, and not all of them are likely to survive until spring.” Fourteen Yagnobs have died from respiratory illnesses during the current severe winter, something that “Ogonyek” observes is “an enormous loss for a small people.”
The Moscow magazine provides only the briefest background to its account. “In the 1970s,” it notes, the Soviet authorities “forcibly resettled” the Yaghnobs in the valleys and put them to work in the cotton fields. But some Yaghnobs, unhappy with that life, have returned home “to the mountains” and restored “approximately 10 kishlaks out of the 33” they had before.
In reality, the Yaghnobs, while now much reduced in numbers, have a long a proud history of living their own lives and resisting efforts by outsiders to impose their will on them. When the Bolsheviks established their power in Central Asia in the 1920s, the Yaghnobs were able to remain outside their orbit largely because their homes were in such inaccessible places.
But in 1970-71, Moscow “forcibly deported the entire population of the Yaghnob valley to the cotton plantations in the area of Zafarbod on the northwest border between the Tajik and Uzbek SSRs,” an action students of the region say was motivated by both politics and economics (yaghnobi.wordpress.com/2007/10/15/history-of-the-yaghnobi-people/#more-106).
By bringing several thousand Yaghnobs into the cotton fields, the Soviet authorities believed they would gain greater control over them and over the territory from which they had been deported often by helicopter and at gunpoint. And the powers that be saw the Yagnobs as a useful source of labor in the cotton fields.
“Between 400 and 700 Yaghnobis died during their first year in Zafarabod,” an American investigator reported. And some of them fled “the harsh desert climate,” “inadequate housing, lack of sanitary drinking water, and exposure to tuberculosis” to their mountain homeland “only to be deported again.”
In 1990, the Tajik government approved the re-establishment of the Yaghnob villages, and since that time, Dushanbe has promoted the Sogdian heritage the Yaghnobs represent “as part of a new national identity.” According to the Yaghnob site, there are only 300 Yaghnobs left in the mountains, but there are also 6500 in Zafarabod where they maintain their language.
(For more on this remarkable case of survival and repression, see Leslie Donovan’s thesis on “The Causes and Consequences of 1970-1971 Forced Migration of the Yaghnobis in the Tajik SSR” (California State University at Dominguez Hills, 2007), and Thomas Loy’s published memoir, “Jaghnob 1970” (Wiesbaden, 2005).