I. Scarborough: Moscow's Heavy Shadow

Moscow's Heavy Shadow. The Violent Collapse of the USSR

Scarborough, Isaac
Anzahl Seiten
274 S.
€ 130,43
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Till Mostowlansky, Geneva Graduate Institute and Kyiv School of Economics

These days, if one strolls along Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main thoroughfare, one inevitably passes by artifacts and open-air exhibitions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: a car perforated by enemy fire, a memorial to the destroyed city of Mariupol, statements in support of the Azov regiment, a bust of Taras Shevchenko mounted on tank traps. Amidst all this stands a gigantic poster, designed in the style of a stamp, on which a little black cat sets a map of the Russian Federation on fire – blue and yellow matches in hand. On the map, Russia is falling apart as a result of the cat’s pyromaniac action, collapsing into dozens of minority territories. The map on the poster connects Ukraine’s violent present with the call to finalize the disintegration of “the evil empire.”

Isaac Scarborough’s historical study, “Moscow’s Heavy Shadow”, is deeply interconnected with the symbolism of the 2024 poster on Khreshchatyk. To be sure, the book is primarily concerned with Tajikistan and its economic and political trajectory toward large-scale violence in the 1980s and 1990s. Nevertheless, Scarborough opens the book with a reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which he views “as simply the most recent bloody chapter of the violent collapse of the USSR” (p. ix). As he sets out to show, Tajikistan has its own place in this genealogy of ongoing demise. Yet it is clear – the particularity of the case notwithstanding – that Tajikistan features in a long list of late or post-Soviet conflicts, from Georgia to Chechnya to Nagorno-Karabakh to Ukraine, that are all linked through the USSR’s unfinished ending.

Moscow’s Heavy Shadow is structured into eight beautifully written chapters. Scarborough’s approach is as unconventional as it is impressive. Taking the perspective of Tajikistan as a “periphery” within the larger Soviet framework, this is not a standard history of the USSR’s disintegration. While developments in Tajikistan are clearly foregrounded, the book is not restricted to what happened there during the perestroika and the early 1990s. Rather, Scarborough moves between economic and political decision-making in Moscow and simultaneous reactive and parallel processes in Dushanbe. This approach makes for a thrilling and unsettling read: the extent to which politicians in Moscow, including Gorbachev, were oblivious to context and events in Central Asia during the perestroika is both puzzling and disturbing (p. 14).

The book begins with a 1980s view of Tajikistan. It becomes apparent that at the same time as people in Moscow, Kyiv, and other metropoles of the USSR experienced an economic downturn and shortages, citizens in Tajikistan were finally “content” with the Soviet project (p. 10). After decades of hardship, the final years of Soviet rule in Tajikistan were seemingly the most palatable ones (which, to some extent, explains continuing nostalgia for that period). Thus, as Chapters 1 and 2 show, while in the metropole, “there was money but nothing to spend it on” (p. 38), rising living standards in Tajikistan rendered the idea of economic reform incomprehensible. As perestroika traveled south, the decision-makers in the center of Soviet economic planning remained uninformed about and arrogant toward views in the perceived periphery. The resulting reforms, discussed in Chapter 3, were felt across the Tajik SSR. Even in small-town Khorog, the administrative center of Gorno-Badakhshan at the China-Afghanistan border, the local sewing collective had to let go of workers (p. 50).

In Chapters 4 and 5, Scarborough explores how, in the process of continuing economic decline, violence and political dissent spread across different Soviet republics. Amidst protests in Minsk, violence at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, conflicts in Uzbekistan, and unrest in the Baltics, Tajikistan, too, developed a political movement by the name of Rastokhez, or “Rebirth.” Demanding economic sovereignty, Rastokhez was linked to protests and riots that resulted from rising unemployment rather than nationalist sentiment (p. 99). Nevertheless, even in the final, tumultuous years of the USSR, leaders in Tajikistan still expressed support for a strong federation as a successor organization to the USSR.

As Scarborough discusses in the final part of the book, Tajikistan’s Soviet elite attempted to “remain in Moscow’s shadow” as the USSR’s disintegration began to materialize (p. 124). This struggle to continue practices that had already ceased to exist elsewhere in the USSR, however, proved futile. As it soon turned out, in Dushanbe no one was in control. In Chapters 6 to 8, the book turns to a fine-grained analysis of the factors that led from the USSR’s gradual collapse to the violence of the Tajik civil war (1992–1997). Scarborough’s detailed economic analysis is particularly helpful here, which leads him to reject typical explanations for the civil war, such as the emergence of regional identities and the distribution of resources.

In contrast, he foregrounds two different factors: the effects of total economic collapse and no monopoly on violence. Both resulted from a lack of preparation by political leaders in Tajikistan, which led them to resort to bartering with other countries to operate the basic infrastructure of the country. Thus, with unemployment soaring and a decline of already low living standards in 1992, violence spread because there was nothing left to redistribute. In addition, the decision of Tajikistan not to form its own army proved disastrous. In the 201st Motorized Division, Tajikistan had a significant military force stationed in its territory when civil war broke out. However, instead of taking control of this force, the Tajik government effectively ceded control of the 201st to Russia by inaction. This lack of readiness to anticipate, or at least face, the USSR’s collapse resulted in a long and bloody war that continues to haunt Tajikistan and its people.

Moscow’s Heavy Shadow is an important contribution to the history of Tajikistan. It also provides a fresh new perspective on the collapse of the USSR from its margins. Scarborough thereby broadens ongoing discussions of the not only heavy but also long shadow of Russia’s relations with its former colonies in a nuanced and eloquent fashion. He manages to draw attention to the neglect, inequality, and dependency emanating from the center without denying Tajikistan agency or noting internal failures. Thus, one can only hope that historians of the USSR who have thus far organized their research around views from the Russian metropole take note.

Given the urgency to better comprehend violent conflicts in formerly Soviet “peripheral” spaces, the book is both timely and conceptually novel. Certain shortcomings are thereby unavoidable. For instance, Scarborough builds his argument around the interaction between what politicians in the USSR perceived as center and periphery. Yet this emphasis leads him away from a critical examination of power imbalances in Tajikistan itself. The view presented in “Moscow’s Heavy Shadow” is one from Tajikistan’s capital city, Dushanbe. While occasionally venturing out into the country’s own peripheries, the dominant gaze is not a radically decentered one. An examination of regionally varied, direct links with Moscow could have contributed to an even more fine-grained picture. This minor criticism notwithstanding, Scarborough’s work generates insights that will reverberate across the USSR’s unfinished collapse – and beyond.

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