These photos from the Akramov family archive (Dushanbe, Tajikistan) depict an array of photographic practices from World War II, exemplifying how the war integrated Central Asian soldiers and their families into the broader Soviet collective in new ways.
Usmon Akramov was born in 1921 in Khujand. His father moved the family to Stalinabad (Dushanbe) to take a position at a bread factory. After completing high school, Akramov taught history and administered a school in Gissar, where he joined Osoaviakhim, the Soviet civilian defense organization, and eventually joined the Komsomol. He was drafted into the Red Army in 1939 and fought in the Winter War (1939-1940). At war’s end he joined the tank forces and trained to become a junior lieutenant-technician for a T-34 tank. In the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) he defended Moscow, saw action on the Southwestern and Voronezh Fronts. In a tank battle his right leg was maimed and he lost two ribs. He rehabilitated in Stalinabad, where he served in the city’s military commissariat to recruit troops. In 1943 he was recalled to the front, where he fought at Kursk, and in Ukraine and the Baltics with the 12th Guards’ Shepetovskii tank brigade with whom he was awarded the Order of the Wartime Red Banner, the Suvorov Order 2nd degree, and the Kutuzov Order 2nddegree. He died at the Battle of Dukla Pass and was buried in Czechoslovakia on October 30, 1944.
Usmon Akramov, December 4, 1940, enlisted soldier, tank forces.
For long memory
to dear mother
and father, brother
Everyone who sees [this postcard],
let them say that he was
at the time of judgment
Keep me in your memory.
На долгую память.
и папу, брату
[Tajik Latin text]
Agar har kas ki
Maro ba yod ora[d]
guyad ki Musafir
dar vaqti çang
. . . m . .
Maro ba jod
Usmon Akramov, August 10, 1942, tank sergeant
This picture of me I present to my dear father and mother to remember me
Your son Usmon
This picture was taken in the city of Sverdlovsk
[Tajik Latin text]
xudamro ba padar
va madari azizam
baroji jod ovari taq-
dim mekunam far-
zandi shumo Usmon.
In rasmro dar şahri
Usmon Akramov and front-line friends, mid-1944, likely in Lviv, junior mechanic-lieutenant for tank repairs.
The photos can be read in three registers.
First, they are family documents that invited Usmon’s parents and brother into his army experience, allowing them to measure his physical transformation, his progression in rank, and the war’s trajectory, from the expectant gaze of an entrant to the prestigious tank corps in December 1940, to the gaunt, hardened visage of a sergeant during the war’s most difficult hour and, finally, an assured junior lieutenant on the verge of victory in Europe. Refrains such as “keep me in your memory” reflect a photograph’s dual nature as transmitter of information and as object; a tangible form of Usmon’s presence in absence. The image’s shift to object is especially clear in Photo #2, which has been affixed to cardboard and cropped into an oval with crenellated edges.
Second, the photos reflect the photographic culture of the Red Army which, in the absence of personal cameras and film, was characterized by frequent visits to photo salons and the ritual exchange of portraits, or fotokartochki, among friends. Analogous photographic rituals occurred at home, where photos were received with soldiers’ letters. They became mementoes and talismans over which families kept vigil, or keep-sakes upon a soldier’s death.
Third, the photos reflect the assimilatory practices of an ethnic Tajik man in the Soviet army. The recruitment of a generation of Central Asian men into the army helped develop military service into a truly pan-Soviet institution. The army, and especially the intimate four-man collective of a tank was, above all, a Russian-language environment, yet Usmon’s use of Russian should not be considered mere “Russification.” Usmon’s naming practices in his letters and photos reflect the context-specific, layered nature of identities in the Soviet army, whereby he could be Sasha to Russian friends, Usmonjon to fellow Central Asians, Usmon huja to his family, and Usmon Akramov in state documents.
The Soviet army’s capacity to integrate diverse communities is exemplified by Usmon’s text on the back of Photo #1. One half reflects his mastery of Russophone photographic culture (small grammatical error notwithstanding), an aspirational reflection of his broader comfort in military culture. The rest of his correspondences were in Latin Tajik and signed using his huja honorific, signaling the family’s Islamic lineage, and a way for Usmon to underscore his familial devotion. The rest of the text is a poetic fragment that Usmon likely authored. The text recognizes war on the horizon in December 1940 and with it, his potential death. The language is informed by Persian poetic culture and infused by religious imagery. The author’s self-description as “musafir” (traveler, wanderer) renders his military service into a religiously comprehensible category for his parents. It is possible that the cryptic “. . . m . .” is code for “kiyomat” (Judgment Day), which he may have concealed out of concern for censorship or superstition. (An alternative reading would combine the mysterious “m” with the preceding “jav,” rendering it “javoniym,” and hence: “Remember me in my youth.”)
The first generation of Soviet-educated Central Asians called upon a religiously-informed cultural patrimony and one could read the poem as a subversive attempt to smuggle Islamic eschatology into Red Army correspondence. Yet the two texts – divided by a bold diagonal line – reflect complementary, not conflicting subjectivities. The Red Army integrated a wide array of unofficial linguistic, cultural, and religious practices. A proud fatalism was part of the Soviet tankists’ unique esprit de corps and Usmon’s religiously-informed poem was but one iteration of this new Soviet collective. Nor should we ignore the author’s purposeful inclusion of his family in a Russian-language community of sentiment that still animates Victory Day celebrations today.
Charles Shaw is Assistant professor of History at Central European University, Vienna. He wishes to thank Murtazo and Zikriyo Akramov for their kind permission to include their family photos in this exhibition, and for their assistance in translation. He also acknowledges the assistance of Jeanine Dagyeli, Faruh Kuziev, and Paolo Sartori for help in translation and paleography.