They cared for cattle more than kids -Tajik President recasts the Soviet era

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Whilst popular opinion across the former Soviet Union generally remembers the Soviet period with more than a hint of the rose-tinted glasses – see this summary of an EBRD survey in 2016 or this Sputnik News story on my blog from August 2016 – one man is seemingly on a mission to upend these conceptions. And he’s someone that people have to listen to – because it’s no less than the President (and Leader of the Nation) of Tajikistan himself.

In his annual address to Parliament at the end of 2016, President Emomali Rahmon apparently delivered a blistering attack on reports from the Soviet period, denouncing their claims that education in the country was operating to a high standard as “lies”.

In an article on the address [ru], reliable local news agency Asia Plus reports that the President told the audience that the Soviet authorities were more concerned with increasing livestock and collective farm numbers than with building schools or hospitals. This from a man who worked on a collective farm for around 20 years from the mid-1970s before entering politics and thus knows his cattle.

Meanwhile, Rahmon’s government has built or reconstructed over 2,500 schools over the last 25 years. In 2016 alone, a total of 540m Somoni (US$64.5m) was spent on building/reconstructing 201 schools and providing new school places for 39,000 students. Furthermore, whereas in 1991 there were 13 higher education institutions with 70,000 students, there are now 39 institutions educating 170,000 students. [Put aside, for now, your questions about relative vs absolute growth (the Tajik population has grown continually from 2m in 1960 to 5m in 1991 to over 8m today) and quantity vs quality.]

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Soviet poster from the 1950s (source) comparing education in the USSR favourably to education in the USA. Top caption (with cheerful girl) reads: “In the USSR, school building in urban and rural areas increased by around 70% between 1951-55 compared to the previous Five Year Plan period.” Compare this to the glum American boy facing a closed school at the bottom, where the caption says “The US allocates 1% of its budget to education compared to 74% to military spending. There are more than 10 million illiterate people in the USA and around a third of children do not go to school.” Propaganda at its finest. And obviously there are no connections between the choice of this poster and the issue at hand in this post.

 

 

 

Although the official version of the President’s speech [ru] makes no reference to cattle or explicitly to the Soviet period (perhaps the oral speech was somewhat different from the written address to enliven it?), there is a definite sense that the past is being rewritten in the President’s image. The written version of the speech is littered with statistics that aim to quantify the regime’s achievements. This, arguably, is a common tool employed by political and other leaders and thus unsurprising to see such rhetoric in use in Tajikistan too. Little wonder that the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics” has gained such purchase over the years. Or to give it its new American name, “alternative facts“.

Lest we digress on to the uses and abuses of statistics and comparison, I will end by drawing your attention to one quote from the written version of the speech (not mentioned in the Asia Plus article). Although it is not connected to education, I think it speaks volumes about the rewriting of Tajikistan’s recent history. If you’re unsure or unconvinced, read this article which emphasizes the multi-faceted and national drivers of the civil war after you read the quote.

В начале 90-х годов прошлого века Таджикистан под воздействием вмешательства некоторых зарубежных стран, осуществляемого под лозунгом демократизации общества, столкнулся с острыми внутренними конфликтами, этот процесс довёл нас до навязанной гражданской войны и братоубийственной трагедии.

[In the early 1990s, Tajikistan experienced an acute internal conflict under the influence of intervention by some foreign countries with their banner of societal democratization. This process brought us to an imposed civil war and fratricidal tragedy.]

 

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