Reviews

In 1893 a detachment commanded by Colonel Ionin achieved a raid on the mountain Panj River, where was established a permanent post of Russian frontier-guards.  This event was to entail considerable geopolitical consequences, since only two years later was signed the British-Russian agreement on the division of the two rivalling powers’ respective spheres of influence, which formally put an end to the “Great Game” between them for dominance over Central Asia.  The Eastern Pamir and a part of the Western Pamir on the right bank of the Panj were transferred under Russia’s control.  (Later on, in the 1920s they were to form the Autonomous Region of Higher Badakhshan—GBAO in Russian acronyms—inside the Soviet Socialist Republic of the Tajiks.)  The territories located on the left bank of the river were included into the Afghan province of Badakhshan.  In 1991, Tajikistan became independent, and in 2005 the Russian troops left the Afghan-Tajik boundary, including its Pamir segment.  The “Russian page” of local history was definitively turned over.  Nowadays the Pamir and pre-Pamir area focus the interests of a full series of big and small countries: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, China and Afghanistan.  The processes that can be observed there have the most immediate impact of these countries’ nearest neighbours, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.  At the same time the region is a scene for a number of western and international organisations, among which the big trans-national Isma‘ili “Empire” of the Agha-Khan.  As to the strong Russian presence of the past, it is still felt from place to place:  Many local inhabitants have a good grasp of Russian language, and experience a strong nostalgia for the Soviet period.  However, actual possibilities are not exploited by Russia’s politicians for exerting the latter’s influence upon local population, nor for collaboration with other countries:  The former home country has forgotten about its colony, to which until a recent past it had been ready to make a lot of sacrifices.  A region of primary geopolitical significance has ceased to interest the Russian society.

The book under consideration here is the result of the first attempt made since 1991 to bring the readership’s attention to these special relations that have existed in the past, and should perhaps still exist between Russia and the Pamir.  This collection of research papers has been put in bed thanks to an initiative by a group of scholars from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of Russia, under N. Emel’ianova’s informal leadership, with the participations of authors from different countries since among them can be found people from Dushanbe, Khorog, and Toronto.  The most varied disciplines and genres are represented as well, from history to simple travel accounts, through philology, studies on religions, archaeology, ethnography, geography, and philosophy.  A majority of the texts are made of unpublished materials collected in the course of archive or fieldwork that both entail now big difficulties, require experience and audacity.  What did appeal all these researchers to the Pamir?  To scholars’ eyes and from many viewpoints the Pamir appears a unique place, to which neither traditional scientific schemes nor ordinary stereotypes can be easily applied.  It is a laboratory of some sort for the experimentation of innumerable hypotheses and theories.  Let’s see with more details those tackled by the Pamir Expedition.

The first of them is the self-identification of the populations of the Pamir.  It is dealt with by B. Lashkarbekova in her paper “K etnolingvisticheskoi istorii iranoiazychnykh narodov Pamira i Vostochnogo Gindukusha [Contribution to the Ethno-Linguistic History of the Iranian-Language Peoples of the Pamir and of the Western Hindu-Kush].”  Studying the origin and development of independent Pamir (East Iranian) languages and dialects—she numbers eleven of them, classified into five groups—the author deals with the issue of the ethnic membership of these languages’ respective bearers.  And she puts forward a surprising conclusion:  According to her, there is no simple answer to the question on the ethnicity of the people of the Pamir.  The point is that the consciousness of the Pamir population presents itself as a multi-storey pyramid.  First, they bind themselves with the ethnic and cultural community commonly named “the Tajiks” (a huge majority of whom speak a dialectal variety of Persian, a western Iranian language).  Inside this “genetic and cultural community” one can find a distinct entity: the Pamir community (pamisrkaia obshchnost’) determined by the cultural and religious (Isma‘ili) specificity of its members.  This is the second level of self-identification.  The third one is made of the linguistic and everyday life components.  According to it the people of the Pamir bind themselves with eight numerically small communities: the Sughnanis, Rushanis, Bartangis, Sarykolis, Yazghulamis, Ishkashimis, Munjanis, Wakhis.  Compact groups of populations related to these ethno-linguistic categories can be found nowadays in four countries: Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan.  The overall number of these communities reaches a number of 240-250 thousand people.  Such considerations contradict the most common-place—especially in Tajikistani state structures—representations on the human being’s unique and exclusive ethnic identity.  Contrary to what is suggested by official statistics printed since independence in Dushanbe, we see in the Pamir varying communities of people endowed with an identity organised into a hierarchy, with a large space for wavering from a storey to another one, according to the situation or context.

The second issue that has brought attention of the volume’s editor is the Isma‘ili faith and community in the Pamir.  No less than seven papers are devoted to it: T. Kalandarov, “Religiia v zhizni Pamirtsev xx veka [Religion in the Life of the Pamir People in the Twentieth Century];” M. Roshchin, “U pamirskikh ismailitov [Among the Isma‘ilis of the Pamir];” E. Khodzhibekov, “Repressii 30-kh godov xx veka i ismaility Badakhshana [The Repressions of the 1930s and the Isma‘ilis of Badakhshan];” Mir Baiz-Khan, “Znanie, traditsiia i vospitanie: otnoshenie Nasira Khusrava k musul’manskomu ucheniiu [Knowledge, Tradition and Education: Nasir-i Khusraw’s Look at Muslim Learning]:” N. Emel’ianova, “Badakhshanskii dvnevnik [Badakhshan Diary];” ibid., “Kul’tura i religiia Darvaza (po materialam polevykh issledovanii 2003 goda) [The Culture and Religion of Darwaz (through Field Materials of 2003)].”  Though written on different themes, these works nevertheless sketch a global picture of the history and present practice of the Isma‘iliyya in the Pamir.  The Isma‘iliyya remains alien to numerous standard perceptions of Islam, if not of religion in general.  Nowadays, it is notably an original confession-corporation with a complex structure and numerous ramifications including institutions, regional representations, special programmes and grants, councils of leading and professional managers.  At the head of this trans-national organisations is the “living God” Agha Khan iv, whose decisions appear definitive and not open to question.  The faithful act simultaneously as employees of the confession-corporation, and its co-owners:  The rich pay a part of their income to the Agha Khan Foundation (infra AKF), whence the poor receive from the latter’s budget some indispensable means.  In the Pamir several projects of the AKF are being implemented.  The latter’s properly religious, educational and societal activity is managed by the Committee for the Isma‘ili Path and Religious Education (in English acronyms, ITREC).  As to the economy, it is handed by a particular structure created in the framework of the Monitoring of the Support to the Development of Mountainous Regions (MSDSP).  However not all the Pamir people belong to the Isma‘ili faith:  For instance the Yazghulamis who in the past were Isma‘ilis are now for the most part Sunni.  Conversely, among the Tajiks of the GBAO and of Afghan Badakhshan not belonging to the ethnic groups of the Pamir, and speaking in western Iranian dialects can be found a lot of supporters of the Agha Khan.  Moreover, in spite of the traditionally conflicting relationship between Sunnis and Shiites, a whole set of programmes of the AKF are intended for both confessions.  The unusual form of religion entity constituted by the confession-corporation is the result of the lasting existence of the Isma‘iliyya in a context marked by the geographical dispersion of the supporters of the dynasty of present-day Agha Khan, of the continuous repressions by orthodox Islam (then of aggressive atheists in the USSR and in the People’s Republic of China), and of necessary efforts to make their faith as unnoticeable as possible, and adapted to a hostile milieu.  It is for this very reason that the Agha Khan and his close ancestors showed quite well integrated into Western culture and into the European way of life.  The Isma‘ili faithful and their leader showed capable of using modern political and economic institutions for preserving their faith and unity, for creating inner stimuli for the transformation and modernisation of religious practice in the context of a global world.  As a result the Isma‘iliyya, though remaining in the framework of the fundamental postulates of Islam, could find its own path to modernity—a highly significant and captivating fact, worth of a careful and objective study.  Apart in this religious set stands the paper by B. Bubnova and N. Konovalova, “Drevnie solnechnye kalendari Pamira [Ancient Solar Dictionaries of the Pamir],” in which the authors have been reconstructing the ancient calendar representations of the Pamir people out of a combination of archaeological and ethnographical data.  This peculiar study allows us to perceive the link that has been preserved between the past of the Pamir populations and their present, and to understand the dynamic of change in the local culture.

The third issue is made by both the social and economic situation, and by ecology in the Pamir, to which are devoted two papers: U. Okimbekova, “Sotsial’no-ekonomicheskoe sostoianie bysokogornykh raionov afganskogo Badakhshana [The Social and Economic State of the High Mountains Districts in Afghan Badakhshan]” and Kh. Mukhabbatova, “Sarezskoe ozero: puti resheniia problemy [The Sarez Lake: The Ways for Solving the Problem].”  Far from industrial centres, the mountain districts of the pre-Pamir have shown, in a period of accelerated technological and social change, in the most remote periphery of the world-wide development.  In spite of the efforts implemented during the Soviet period for the development of the Higher Badakhshan, the gap in the respective living standards of the Pamir and other regions, far from regressing, increased on the contrary.  This became an obvious fact in the first years after the end of the Soviet period, when the civil wars in Afghanistan and in Tajikistan put the mountain economy on the eve of an overall crash, and famine almost appeared in the Pamir.  Thanks to a common action of the international community, of the AKF, and of neighbouring countries the worst scenario could be avoided, though the problems of backwardness, poverty, isolation, and perilous natural life conditions, far from disappearing, continued to maintain an extreme pressure.  The high mountain lake of Sarez, the waters of which are capable of breaking their natural stone dam and to throw their destructive flow upon the peopled territory of the Western Pamir, provides at the same time and example and a clear image of the overall situation in the region.  As in the past, this little corner of our planet lies under the permanent threat of varied kinds of catastrophes and cataclysms, social, economic, and natural.  It is incumbent to all the countries that have interests in the Pamir to solve the most pressing problems, whence the work on more remote perspectives, which needs a lot of financial investments and new ideas, remains at the stage of projects and good wishes.

It is a pity that in this collection the highly sensitive issue of the migration of the people from Badakhshan has not been sufficiently treated.  Tens of thousands of people from the Pamir are nowadays obliged to seek for a better lot beyond the limits of their historical fatherland.  Some have found a shelter nearby, in the other regions of Tajikistan, where the Pamir people enjoys an excellent reputation for their high education, their taste for culture and art.  Some could leave for Europe or Northern America thanks to the AKF’s support.  Some have settled in Pakistan, where the Isma‘ili community traditionally occupies strong political and economic positions.  Many also live now in Russia, a lot of whom have received the Russian citizenship.  The historical themes of relations between Russia and the Pamir are evoked by three articles: M. Arunova, “K istorii rossiiskogo pamirovedeniia [Contribution to the History of Pamir Studies in Russia],” D. Khudonazarova, “Pervyi russkii pravitel’ Pamira (Pamiati Eduarda Karlovicha Kivikesa) [The First Russian Ruler of the Pamir (In Memoriam Edward K. Kivikes)],” and Kh. Khushkadamova, “Istoriia tadzhiksko-pamirskikh ekspeditsii 30-kh godov v odnoi perepiske [The History of the Tajik-Pamir Expeditions of the 1930s through a Correspondence],” as well as through a study by a Soviet intelligence agent in Afghanistan: Iu. Sidakov, “Vospominaniia ochevidtsa [Memoirs of a Witness].”  Perusing these materials, one measures what a complex and remarkable period had ended under our eyes: noble officers of the Tsar, progressive scholars, well-educated special services!  Not all this recent past, it goes without saying, has been as bright as write these authors who smooth things over, intentionally or not.  However, time has perhaps come for beginning to reassess the consequences of Russia’s presence in Middle Asia and in the Pamir, and to establish a subtle balance between successes and misconceptions.  Without predicting the results of future studies, one can say that despite a number of negative facts (like the repression of the faithful), Russia could modernise the Pamir society, increase living standards, pave the way to reformation in culture and economy—which appears at first glance if on compares the Tajikistani Pamir with the Afghan one.  It is important to preserve the memory of that past, and not to lose the attained results.

It is of course difficult to call the present collection of papers a coherent work doted with a strong structure and a full treatment of the most varied issues touching all the aspects of the history and life of the population of the Pamir.  It is rather a gathering of studies in which a wide range of subjects and problems have been sketched.  New expeditions and archive works will be necessary in the near future.  It remains to be hoped that the study of this captivating region will continue, and that the Russian tradition of its study will not be interrupted, strengthening and attaining a new quality.

Sergei Abashin, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Moscow
CER: I-7.4.E-643