• Peripheral Histories

Laboratory of Socialist Development - Decolonization and economic development in the Tajik SSR

Author interview with Artemy M. Kalinovsky


Artemy M. Kalinovsky's important book, Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan, examines the practices and politics of Soviet development in the post-war Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. To mark the book's publication in paperback in 2021, Peripheral Histories? editor Siobhán Hearne spoke to Artemy about de-peripherizing the USSR’s southern borderlands, contested visions of Soviet modernity, and the challenges of conducting oral history.


What motivated you to write about Soviet development in Tajikistan? How far did this study build upon your previous work on the Soviet-Afghan war?


Laboratory of Socialist Development grew out of some questions I had as I was wrapping up work on my first book, A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. I used to get questions when I presented my work at conferences about whether the possibility of spill-over into Central Asia was an important concern for Soviet leaders. Based on everything I had learned from archives, memoirs, and interviews with senior party leaders, diplomats, and intelligence officials, this did not seem to be the case. But I realized that I knew very little about the involvement of Central Asians in the war, or how the war affected Central Asia, and wanted to know more. And the other thing was that though the first book started out as a story of high-level politics and diplomacy, I realized fairly early on that there was this massive development and state-building effort going on, and that it had a much longer history than the conflict itself, and that to understand it you had to look much more closely at what was happening on the ground, how actors thought about these issues, what kind of struggles delivering aid or building infrastructure involved, and so on. I ended up writing two different papers trying to get a handle on those two questions. When I first went out to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan I was leaning much more towards the first project, but by the end of my first three-month trip I realized that it was the second set of questions I wanted to focus on, but now oriented on what was happening inside the USSR. My interest in how what happened within the USSR was connected with its foreign relations was still there, but I also realized that Afghanistan, despite sharing a border and all sorts of cultural and historical ties with three Central Asian republics, was was only part of the story as far as their international ties were concerned.


Map of Soviet Tajikistan

Laboratory of Socialist Development de-peripherizes the USSR’s southern borderlands by embedding developments in the Tajik republic within global histories of decolonization and developmentalism. How far were practices and ideas about socio-economic transformation within Soviet Tajikistan intertwined with broader trajectories of development in a global context?


To be honest I still do not have a good answer to this question. On the one hand, it is clear that many of the economists, social scientists, and planners I write about had international exposure, knew what was being discussed abroad, and so on. And as I argue, there are a number of interesting parallels between how paradigms on issues like labour, demography, and even environment shift within the USSR and what is happening within international organizations and in the broader discussions about international development. But is this a story of entanglement? If by that we mean that the Central Asian scholars were engaged in an ongoing dialogue with their counterparts abroad, I’m not sure. I have some evidence that they were, but for the most part it is almost impossible to prove that any given policy shift or intellectual shift was inspired by something happening abroad. And part of that may have to do with the fact that in the USSR it was usually safer NOT to say you were inspired by a foreign example, even if you were. So you get some hints from oral history, mostly, of how that could have worked, but it is hard to confirm with archival sources or publications. More broadly, it is clear that some of the doubts that these same people develop about Soviet approaches to development come from their observations of how things are done abroad, including in so-called less-developed countries. Beyond that, one of the interesting things that comes out of mapping out some of the parallels is the similarities in socialist and capitalist visions of development, as well as in the problems that people who try to implement those visions encounter.


The Nurek Dam project is at the centre of Laboratory of Socialist Development. Constructed between 1961 and 1980, the Nurek Dam was supposed to be the centrepiece of the Tajik republic’s industrialization. Tajikistani party leaders regarded the dam as a way to accelerate the development of their republic, and even Central Asia as a whole. For local communities, the project brought major investment in infrastructure and certain benefits in terms of money and resources, but also displacement, dislocation, and devastating environmental consequences. What can the Nurek Dam project tell us about centre-periphery relations in the late Soviet Union, as well as the relationship between the Soviet state and its citizens?

The Nurek Dam, 1974

One of the things I found, and that I tried to convey in the book, is that local actors had a much bigger influence on things than we sometimes imagine. Part of that comes from the contradiction in the ideology – yes, there is a top down party structure, and the USSR is quite hierarchical, but it also claims to be committed to equality among the different ethnics groups, which is institutionalized partially through the system of republics. And in the post-Stalin era, and with the background of decolonization, this matters quite a bit. But there’s another part of it, which is that the USSR is very ambitious in what it wants to do but has fairly limited knowledge about the population. And once it turns away from mass terror and dislocation as a tool of state-building and development, it needs much more fine-grained knowledge about its people. As a result, it is not just the party figures and state officials on the ground who are important because they can tell Moscow “here is what’s going on and here is what needs to happen,” but also the social scientists and others who are mobilized for this task.


That having been said, something like the Nurek Dam is still an elite project – yes, there are Tajikistani elites who are fighting for it, but that’s not the same thing as saying is Tajiks wanted the dam, let alone that people living around the dam site wanted the dam to be built. I don’t know if that’s unique to the Soviet Union- I think you could make this argument about most large development projects. And yet, there is also a desire to win local people over, which in turn affects how the project takes shape. I argue in the book that this comes from contradictions in Soviet ideology and priorities. Particularly in the post-war decades, there is this new emphasis on trying to show that the USSR is not a colonial power, and then in the 1970s on showing that while communist utopia was still a ways away, people were already enjoying the fruits of socialism now.


Soviet visions of modernity were tied up with economic development, namely the rationalisation of agriculture, the extraction of natural resources, increasing industrial production, and the development of infrastructure. Were there any alternative visions of development in circulation in Soviet Tajikistan in this period?


Yes and no. The paradigm you describe is really powerful, and it is very hard to escape it. But for the people who are developing it, translating into concrete policy within the republic, it also seems to promise a brighter future. It takes some time before they start to have doubts about elements of this program, and not until the late 1980s do you hear anyone talk about abandoning it wholesale. But within the broader paradigm there is quite a lot of debate.


There are certainly plenty of people who would like to organize life differently – to continue to organize their lives the way they had before the Soviet period. To some extent they bring these practices into the modern era; but there are also people who escape to mountainous areas where state control is minimal. Their voices are excluded from any discussion of what it might mean to make a good life. Even if they could speak to us, would they be speaking about development? Or would we need a different language to describe their vision on how to organize economic life? Eric Burton has done some interesting work in this regard, although for a different context that the USSR.


Postcard from Nurek, 1970s

Your book draws on an incredibly rich source base, including archival documents from Dushanbe and Moscow, memoirs, Soviet periodicals, and oral history interviews with former politicians, intellectuals, government officials, and ordinary citizens of the Tajik SSR. What were some of the challenges of conducting oral history interviews for this project?


There are the usual ones concerning access and finding people, but on the whole this was more a question of patience and persistence. The bigger issue is what you do with the narratives people tell about themselves. When I first went out to do interviews with diplomats for my first project, I was warned that they would try to “play a record” – they would have a line on whatever I wanted to talk about and they would deliver that line. But that’s not just true for diplomats or government officials - most people have a way of talking about their own lives that becomes more or less set over time. That can be valuable too, insofar as it pushes you to think about why certain narratives take hold and ways in which they reflect or diverge from dominant or official narratives. In the case of Tajikistan, we also have to remember that what followed the Soviet collapse was civil war, and that has to affect how people think about the decades that preceded independence. Which isn’t to say that oral history is not useful for gaining factual information – it can be, and often even incomplete information can point you to something in the published or archival record.



Artemy Kalinovsky is a Professor of History and Political Science at Temple College of Liberal Arts. Find him on Twitter @ArtemyMK


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