What is ‘historical ethnography’? The amphigoric denomination of a discipline largely practiced in the Soviet period. It was then called by the Russian word kraevedenie (in Tajik: kishvarshinosi that can be approximately translated as “local lore”), and consisted at the same time of the collection of oral traditions, historical geography, of local and regional history, and of ethnography as it used to be practiced in the USSR. (One of the ethnographers’ main preoccupation then consisted of the identification of native populations for retracing their respective ‘ethno-geneses’.) During the past fifteen years, ‘local lore’ has been submitted to deep transformations, in particular of its institutional framework and public command, that have exerted a direct impact on its very content. At the same time, one can observe striking continuities with some conceptual lines of the Soviet period. The present work on the rural district of Asht, in the region of Soghd in Northern Tajikistan, offers an interesting illustration of this double phenomenon.
Written in one go, the text is deprived of any inner division, even more of a table of content. It begins with a narrative of the district’s history from its origins to the early Soviet period, based on recent academic publications duly signalled in footnotes. In conformity with local history as it is practiced in Tajikistan since the end of the Soviet period, the study goes on with an evocation of the district’s nineteenth-century learned milieus and madrasas, through literary repertories (tadhakir) and some diwans of local poets published during the past forty years. (See notably, by Mulla Ma‘dan Punghazi, the leader of a local community who was particularly revered for his successful intermediations towards the Khan of Kokand ‘Umar Khan: Ash‘ori muntakhab, ed. D. Ahmadov, Dushanbe: Irfon, 1966; Faizi osor, Dushanbe: Donish, 1993.) This part is followed by paragraphs on the historical geography of Asht, of its neighbourhoods and numerous rural satellites, based on local legends and the data of modern history and archaeology; on the economy of these varied places in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; on the presence of literary circles, Islamic sanctuaries, traditional educational institutions that continued to function during he Soviet period. The book interestingly ends with short biographical notices on local notables of the Soviet period: a way of assessing the continuity of a local community consciousness through the upheavals of contemporary history.