In Search of Identity in Post-Soviet Central Asia

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Vladimir Pachkov, SJ

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In his book on Central Asia’s golden age, Lost Enlightenment, Stephen Frederick Starr recounts an event that occurred during the civil war in Tajikistan in the 1990s.[1] One day, in Dushanbe, the country’s capital, Starr was crossing one of the city’s central streets when he saw some government soldiers with a brand new flag. He asked them what flag it was, and they told him proudly that it was the new banner of the Republic of Tajikistan. It depicted a crown and seven stars. When asked about the meaning of these symbols, the soldiers could not answer the question, but they told him that they would take him to the person who had designed the flag, who did not live very far away.

And so they took him to that man, a Catholic of Lithuanian origin who ran an antique shop. When Starr asked him how he came up with the idea of including seven stars on the flag, he explained that during his studies in Lithuania he had been very interested in the literature and the history of Persians and Tajiks, as well as Turks. Thus he had learned that the best known personalities of literature and science – the so-called “Persians” – actually came from today’s Central Asia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and eastern Iran (Khorasan). Thus he decided to include seven stars in the flag of the Republic of Tajikistan, which had recently become independent, as a symbol of the writers and scholars of the ancient golden age of Central Asia.

The most surprising thing was that this idea was welcomed with enthusiasm by the Tajiks themselves, who were trying to rediscover their identity and their links with the historical moment when Central Asia was at the center of the world not only geographically, but also intellectually. The end of this opening had meant the end of an era, and the nostalgia to rediscover it was an expression of the will to stand up to religious fundamentalism, which had already stifled the first Enlightenment and was still a danger.

After gaining independence, the countries of Central Asia had to rediscover their national identity, or even invent it, since none of them had ever existed within their current borders. Add to this the fact that, during the period of the Soviet Union, new elites emerged who had little sympathy with the religious ideas of Islam that had prevailed in those regions before the Russian conquest.

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