Reviews

This beautifully edited and richly illustrated book offers the viewpoint of a European expert of development issues, a participant in the humanitarian actions of the Agha Khan Foundation (infra AKF), on the modes and issues of economic, social and political transformation in post-Soviet Badakhshan.  Let’s tell it first:  The author’s ignorance of vernacular languages, as well as of Tajik and of Russian brings him to innumerable approximations, incoherence and mistakes, notably in the transcription of proper names and vernacular words.  These discrepancies have been aggravated by the preservation of the German orthography of the original text for place and personal names: e.g., “Darwâs” instead of “Darwaz”, “Wandsch” instead of “Wanj”, “Mirza Sudscha” for “Mirza Shuja” . . . . (Usually these sorts of things are corrected by the international readers’ teams at Routledge, and one is surprised that task has not been implemented in this case.)  Besides, the author’s neglect of the rich existing bibliography in Russian language also limits the scope of his historical or ethnographical considerations.  However, F. Bliss manages to share with the reader the result of his particular experience over ten years of intense transformation of Tajikistani Badakhshan.  The result of a fieldwork from 1995 to 1998 and in 2005, the book has greatly benefited from the cooperation of local worthy—for instance of the khalifa of Roshorve (in Bartang) who instructed the author for hours on the traditions of the Pamiris, of their agriculture, of their methods of animal husbandry and of their private life—which enhances the present work’s documentary value, and makes it a major source on the rapid economic and social evolution of the Autonomous Region of Higher Badakhshan (GBAO in Russian acronyms) during the two past decades since the launching of Perestroika.

The historical narrative sketched in the introduction and developed in the first chapter unfortunately remains Euro-centred, since based on the late nineteenth-century ‘discovery’ of Badakhshan by the British and by European travellers.  However, it provides telling illustrations of the sharp degradation of life standards in the GBAO after the collapse of the Soviet system of integrated economy—the ‘founding drama’ of the present period.  The book’s first chapter, on the general features of Higher Badakhshan, shortly revives a century-long debate on the source of the Amu Darya, before developing on the landscapes of the Pamirs from a cultural-geographic perspective.  The author properly stresses the high “variations in the amount of land available from one valley, one village to another.  Formerly, this phenomenon was sometimes balanced by the fact that kolkhozes and sovkhozes owned land beyond the villages [in the Ghund and Bartang Valleys], but since privatisation, owners must sometimes travel long distances to reach their fields (39)”.  Variations according to the altitude are also well illustrated, enhancing the specificity of valleys like Wanj and Darwaz through a specialisation in fruit cultivation in the Soviet era—which very much limited the basis for autonomy after 1991.  Paragraphs on the population of the Autonomous Region stress the role played by the Soviet administration of economy in the existence of significant permanent settlements, especially in a place like Murghab with its 7,000 inhabitants, mostly dependent on humanitarian help since the disappearance of subventions for kolkhozes.

The chapter on the ethnology of the Pamir discusses in passing the notion of “race” before dealing at length with traditional agriculture and cultivation methods.  Here the author shares a great deal of his personal inquiries and experiences, making praiseworthy efforts for identifying the vernacular vocabulary—though local languages are rarely identified, and an erratic transcription often makes difficult a basic identification of provided technical terms.  Among his overall observations the author notes that harvesting, before the Soviet era as again today, no doubt suffers especially from insufficient manpower (110).  This situation has driven to a reactivation of local solidarities, notably in the form of traditional tabaq-groups:  “Work is begun by several neighbours on one field and goes on daily until all the fields belonging to group members have been harvested.”  A general revival of traditional techniques has also been observed in connection with the conditions created by the collapse of the Soviet system.  For instance the current lack of transportation means that no milk can now be brought from the pastures into the villages; the author has been surprised to observe that in the Roshan district, ancient butter-making techniques that are known from publications from around 1900 were being revived (121).  Sprinkled over the book, these observations make the most convincing part of the work, with key chapters on ‘Economy and society in the Soviet system’, on the ‘economic collapse’, on ‘international development aid’, and on ‘development constraints and prospects’.  As part of the GBAO’s role as a window to the south, mechanisation served the political aim of demonstrating the efficiency of Soviet industry and agriculture.  The result was that on the one hand modern combine harvesters were used, and on the other hand the number of agricultural labourers needed in a sovkhoz continued to drop, although in practice their numbers rose because of employment policies.  At the beginning of the 1990s the collective debts of all the sovkhozes was so high that privatisation of a collective farm as one entire unit was completely unthinkable (250-1).  After his interesting historical overview, the author provides a significant element of chronology for immediate history, stressing that it is in 1995 that sovkhoz managers have realised for the first time that the absence of subsidies from Moscow was not just going to be a temporary misfortune, but a permanent state of affairs—which brought them to stay away from state-run institutions and instead to distribute some of their produce directly to their workers, in lieu of wages, then to nascent markets.  Now almost all sovkhozes have been dissolved, which gives the new farmers (in most cases the term ‘landowner’ is inappropriate) a large degree of peace of mind, even though the Land Reform Law No. 544 still “makes it possible for land to be confiscated by the state under certain circumstances”—such a vagueness is definitely not of a jurist and, unfortunately, this core issue of the legal status of land and of its evolution from Collectivisation to our days has been eluded more than really treated.

The same can be said of local administration and justice, described through explanations on pre-Soviet charges, borrowed from varied Western authors.  If the aqsaqal is well-seen as a sort of “referee”, i.e. the holder of authority rather than of power (214), the evocation of pirs and khalifas as “Isma‘ili functionaries” in the Pamir does not convince—except interesting, though not developed notations on the genealogical transmission of authority among the khalifas during the Soviet period because of lack of contact with the Imamate:  Contrary to a lot of stereotypes on Central Asian Islam, the genealogic transmission of learning and authority curiously appears as what it often is, viz. a key feature of modernity (227, 262).  More information could easily have been collected on this aspect of the things through elementary questions to local pirs and khalifas whose opinion does not seem to have been solicited as to the history of Shiite Islam in the Pamir during the decisive Soviet period.  Because of this lack of documentary basis, most assertions do not exceed the level of mere, though sometimes captivating hypotheses—such as the idea that “there must have been a certain central authority amongst the clan and/or at least good organisation (213)” for permitting the well-organised uprisings of 1943 in Murghab and the eventual emigration to China and Afghanistan.  Fortunately, the chapter on the Kyrgyz of Murghab allows the author to develop his ideas on economy, demography and their mutual links.  For him, economic resources in the early years of the Soviet Union were significantly better in relation to the number of people and animals than they are today.  The sharp increase in the number of animals in the Murghab area, during the late Soviet period, means that the limits on natural resources have been reached or even exceeded in this part of Badakhshan.

The last chapters are a philippic against the sovkhoz system, considered responsible of innumerable inaccuracies of Badakhshan’s agricultural specialisations.  Indeed if at first sight the Pamirs appear suited to extensive livestock farming, this has turned out to be wrong in the Soviet period, first because it was impossible for sovkhozes to sell animals profitably because of the remoteness of the region; second, it was not possible to keep large numbers of cattle and sheep in such a harsh climate without providing extensive additional fodder: if large quantities of animal fodder used to be brought into the Murghab area, it was at high additional cost.  Among other key issues the management of state farms had not considered, and which seriously affected future development, were the maintenance of irrigation channels and the replacement of machinery and equipment.  “At first people had no idea of how to carry out the work manually, having been used to machinery; that is, how to employ traditional technology, which in any case had almost died out (285).”  During his first visit, the author noticed that people are gradually rediscovering methods used in Afghanistan, e.g. winnowing by hand assisted only by the wind.  Since 1995 he could observe the gradual revival of long-lost skills, sometimes through trial and error but also by applying knowledge gained from books, or learning from Afghans still competent in traditional technology (293).

It is in such notations that the author unveils the most captivating perspectives on the contemporary societies of Higher Badakhshan.  Too often, however, F. Bliss remains the prisoner of the discourse of his mainly oral sources.  Such is the case when he designates (337) the neighbouring lowland area of Kulab as “the new drug route to Dushanbe and Russia” in replacement of the Pamiri path:  Such an assertion remembers the worst traditions of inter-regional denegation of the late Soviet period.  Conversely, if the apology of the role played by the AKF in the current economic revival, for instance in the fact that production of food has reached a record level of 80 per cent self-sufficiency—a radical improvement if compared with the situation of 1992/3—elementary precautions should be taken before proposing an extension of its experiments to other regions of Tajikistan, like the Qarategin Valley.  As to the suggestion of developing tourism in the Autonomous Region of Higher Badakhshan, it does not take into account elementary parameters among which the lack of transportation means and the strict monopoly exerted by the oligarchy of Dushanbe on these same means.

Stéphane A. Dudoignon, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris
CER: I-8.4.E-740