A poetic monument to Soviet post-modernism (Tajikistan)


A poetic monument to Soviet post-modernism (Tajikistan)

This short poem was discovered as a doodle in a literature textbook for 10th grade in school #14 in Sharora in Ghissar District, Tajikistan in the early 1990s. The poem can be dated back to the 1980s-90s when vandalization of school textbooks, desks and other kinds of property was a wide-spread phenomenon in the USSR. Late Soviet vandalism was embedded in a broader Western context of urban subcultures of resistance such as graffities and street performances and more Soviet cultural phenomena such as stiob and chernukha— black humor and sarcasm directed against generally accepted social norms. This poem was most likely produced in a context between liberalizing youth of the perestroika period and still rather conservative institution of primary and secondary education which sought to instill respect and veneer towards high culture and communist modes of participation (epitomized in oktiabriata and pionery movements). More importantly, the poem is a form of response to Soviet education policies towards language teaching. In 1989 the Tajik language was proclaimed as state language and became more present in the republic’s cultural and political life. Long before that, it had also been a mandatory subject for Russian pupils. In the meantime, the Russian language had been a mandatory subject for all non-Russian school-goers in Tajik SSR: Tajik, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz. In their exposure to the languages which were not native to them, schoolchildren had developed a rich repertoire of jokes, accents, humorous songs ironizing and mocking the languages. While most of such expressions were shared orally, they could also be found in textbooks.

Textbooks in the Soviet Union were free and were distributed in batches by school librarians at the beginning of each year. Each batch of textbooks covered an entire school curriculum for a given year. The monitoring of textbooks “health” was rather lax, and as a rule, schoolchildren were not held accountable for damaging or doodling on the textbooks as long as a cover of a book was intact, and an item was still presentable at the end of a year. It was nearly impossible to track down the perpetrators of vandalism because textbooks were passed down from one class to another without ever being checked and pupils would naturally blame their anonymous predecessors. As a result, thousands of school materials across the Soviet Union, along with bathroom walls, doors, and desktops were vandalized. If one was to speculate on the motivations of the school vandals, it would be safe to explain them as a part of the broader process of the fall of Soviet civilization symptomized in the hostility towards Soviet public spaces.

Sharora’s school #14, where the poem was first discovered, had been founded in the 1930s and named after Soviet military commander and statesman Grigorii Katovskii. At first it followed curricula in Russian and Kyrgyz to accommodate Sharora’s main population groups. In 1973 the school moved to a new, much larger building for more than 1000 school-goers and 100 teachers and staff. The languages of teaching were Russian, Tajik and Kyrgyz.
Nothing is known about the anonymous author of the text cited above. But his artistic intervention was celebrated among the school children as a small masterpiece of stiob — a particular cynical art movement of Late Socialism coterminous to Western post-modernist art.

Other textbooks found in Sharora (see images) were actively vandalized with obscene and grotesque caricatures, drawings over portraits of historical figures and scenes, manipulations with words and letters resulting in foul language and many other ways. As textbooks would move from one student to another, children would study the doodles with greater interest than the actual book content and add new doodles thereby forming an unconscious textual community, a school of correspondence.

This poem struck me not as an act of pure vandalism, but also as a poetic gesture that betrays an ambivalent relation to Russian culture in Central Asia that evinces both acceptance and rejection and that is both cynical and hopeful. It took as its basis the first and most recognizable lines of Nikolai Nekrasov’s poem Krestianskie deti and gave it a quasi-oriental tone. The result of this exercise reads almost natural and many school children would occasionally confuse the legendary doodle with the original quatrain.

The poem can also be treated as a monument to Soviet transnationalism which was one of the most definitive Soviet experiences and took many forms including internationalism as a diversity of peoples within an individual republic, friendship between the Union Republics, ethnic ambiguity resulting from inter-ethnic marriage and internal migration, and many other hitherto undiscovered forms. One of such forms can be termed creolization or ethnic, religious and confessional, and linguistic mixture whereby any unequivocal identification of a subject becomes nearly impossible. Creolization is a method of being and a form of connectivity across cultural and linguistic barriers.

I would like to present this small and otherwise negligible piece of text as an artifact of linguistic creolization in Central Asia and a reaction to the Russophone culture among rural youths in Tajikistan. I inferred from the text an expression of cultural otherness as well as an act of appropriation of Russian language and an unselfconscious political statement: Has anything changed for peasant children since Nekrasov?

Faruh Kuziev, Department of History, Central European University