What we have inherited is the nation state as conceptualised later on in the Soviet period. It is an ethnic nationalism centered on statehood, the premise being that a particular ethnic group should reside within its own state, and that it owns everything located on that territory.
– Kamol Abdullaev
On January 5, 2009, in his state of the nation address, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon publicly stated that his nation’s future prosperity solely relied on the successful construction of the Roghun hydroelectric dam. Rakhmon also announced to the world his intent to re-ignite construction of the Soviet-era project and “referred to the construction of the dam as ‘our national idea’ and a ‘battlefield’ for ‘national pride and honor.’” Located on the Vakhsh River in southern Tajikistan, Roghun is projected to be the tallest dam in the world at 335 meters in height.
The highly controversial nature of Roghun had made it difficult for Tajikistan to receive substantive funding from neighboring states and external organizations. Its extreme height, location in a seismic zone, and potential to reshape power relations in Central Asia have kept most potential external investors from committing to the project. Uzbekistan, located downstream from the project, has made accusations that Roghun would turn the dammed river into political capital that could be used against Uzbek interests. This led to cancellation of a Russian investment contract and a falling out with SinoHydro, a Chinese company initially interested in investment.
Forced to seek funding internally, Rakhmon initiated a vast public campaign to encourage investment in the dam project shortly after his 2009 public declaration. This campaign included country-wide billboard advertising. Through this aggressive artistic campaign, “President Rahmon [sic] has successfully harnessed nationalism—primarily of the ethnic Tajik variety—and, to a limited extent, religion (Hanafi Sunni Islam) as a means to win hearts and minds, maintain power, and ensure stability.” But through what ideological framework has Rakhmon attempted to turn his dream of Roghun into reality? In his quest to build Roghun, Rakhmon has utilized Socialist Realism to promote state-based nationalism, as defined by political geographic boundaries, in an attempt to actualize a national project.
This paper first discusses the historical application of Socialist Realism by the USSR within visual art. Second, it deconstructs the artistic campaign attached to Roghun. Third, it analyzes the government policies pursued in relation to Roghun. Finally, it extrapolates meaning derived from Rakhmon’s artistic conflation of Roghun with nationalism.
I. Socialist Realism Redux
Under Stalin, the USSR endeavored to take control of artistic expression in visual and literary art. Boris Groys, Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, argues that this culture of artistic imperialism regarded itself as point zero; the functional end of artistic innovation due to the proclaimed end of political and economic struggles. Thus, aesthetics and politics morphed into the same being, incapable of separating means from ends. Yet Socialist Realism never functioned to describe reality, but rather to actively shape it. The phenomenon depicts “that which has not come into being but which should be created.” In this sense, Socialist Realism is seen as developing as a mimetic function; that is, as Evgeny Dobrenko, Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Sheffield, explains, “Socialist realism [sic] describes a world to the existence of which only it bears witness.”
The world created by Socialist Realism “speaks not of ‘portraying’ positive or negative heroes, but of ‘incarnating’ them by artistic means.” The depicted leader occupies a position literally larger than life; Stalin’s image transformed into “the model for every builder of socialism, the true creator of the new life…the demiurge itself and thus the concluding stage of the dialectical process.” The identity of the artist fades into irrelevance; the leader of socialism takes precedence.
But where does reality reside within Socialist Realism? French theorist Albert Camus in 1959 described the phenomenon as having “no relationship to reality…Reality is openly put at the top of the list, but only so that it is easier to destroy.” Thus, Socialist Realism can seem to only exist in the sense that it is an artistic project incapable of fulfilling the intended endpoint of mimesis—construction of reality. If Socialist Realism actually did accurately depict, and effectively create, reality, then the term would constitute something altogether different. The phenomenon of Socialist Realism exists exclusively in its downfall and thus is marked by its impermanence and inherent inability to create enduring change.
Ultimately, the “goal of Socialist Realism is the production of socialism via the reworking of reality into an ideologically consumable product.” Certainly Tajikistan is not currently a politically socialist nation, but rather a country still transitioning into a Post-Soviet identity. Regardless, the vestiges of socialism remain at play in the promotion of Roghun through a strategy more pronounced than just propaganda. Instead, the application of Socialist Realism attached to Roghun is “a system that engenders a sort of reality, which obliges one to reexamine certain traditional approaches to the subject.” Whereas propaganda exists primarily with the purpose to elicit political change, Socialist Realism seeks to wholly mold the lived experience.
Similarly to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” prisoners of Roghun’s gaze must look at shadowy projections presented by grand puppeteers. These ephemeral figures slide across a screen of red, green, and white; the veritable flag of Tajikistan becomes superimposed upon the continued existence of the nation. Time will tell as to the transience of these images, and more importantly, the impermanence of Rakhmon’s construction of reality.
II. Art as Far as the Eye Can See
Every winter, Tajikistan suffers debilitating electricity shortages, putting many citizens in the cold. On November 22 of 2012, Rakhmon pledged to provide adequate electricity access to all citizens at all times of the year. In the image above (Figure 2) Rakhmon looks stately, poised and watchful over his land. Including himself in the image in conjunction with the text demonstrates to the viewer that the country needs energy independence, and energy independence relies on Rakhmon. Similar to images heralding Stalin at the inception of Socialist Realism, a clearly isolated and heroic leader is a common component of this form of art designed to foster a cult of personality. These types of portraits tend to exhibit “a kind of pretended spiritual pathos which is evoked by mysteriously blurred backgrounds-landscapes, skies or townscapes.” Rakhmon takes the foreground (Figures 2,3,6) to ensure his own relevance to the project, while keeping the scenic view of Roghun in the background. In his application of Socialist Realism, Rakhmon presents himself as the undisputed leader ushering in the future of his nation.Since “Rogun [sic] has been officially designated a ‘national project,’ and there appears to be near-unanimous agreement within Tajikistan that it needs to be finished…even opponents of Rahmon’s [sic] administration are reluctant to criticize the share scheme too vocally.” Murray Edelman, Political Scientist and Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argues that “the link between problems and preferred solutions is itself a construction that transforms an ideological preference into a rational government action.” Thus, by Rakhmon elevating the national importance of Roghun, the project “has become insulated from public criticism, and infrequent attempts to question the rationale for such a high dam are denounced as unpatriotic and anti-national.” Thus, the purpose of Roghun is not only a utilitarian project designed for energy independence; it also serves to promote nationalism based on condemning those who oppose Roghun. Here Roghun transforms into a source of pride and prestige for the country and as an unquestionably good addition to reality, regardless of the financial cost, estimated at $3 billion, roughly half of the country’s GDP. Rakhmon’s smiling face in front of the dam conveys absolute confidence in the project. The certainty of this imagery endeavors to convince the viewer of Roghun’s projected positive effects while downplaying the difficult tangible realities associated with construction, which are not limited to financial costs, but include displacement of thousands and massive coercion of the citizenry. As part of the aesthetic project of Roghun, future projections are a huge motif in the text of these billboards and what a glorious future it will be with Roghun according to these images. Yet this brand of futurism predicts more than just what should physically exist; it seeks to prescribe a way of life. The billboards below (Figures 4,5) show what can be accomplished through hard work and cooperation among Tajiks in the name of a prosperous future. Eyes to the horizon, and ever cognizant of tomorrow, Roghun promises to secure Tajikistan’s future by conflating Roghun’s projected energy production, and prioritizing its construction; he also equates this with protecting the nation’s children. The mimetic function of Socialist Realism demands this literal chronological orientation and simultaneous metaphorical conflation of present with future; the goals of tomorrow are depicted today in order to facilitate the transcendence of now.
More than just the transcendence of time, these billboards exhibit the transcendence of space through depictions of land mastery. Just as the USSR’s public works projects often emphasized the triumph of technology over the natural world, Roghun means to domesticate the land, taking the strength of water to power the conveniences of modern life. Clad in a hardhat and pointing off into the distance, Rakhmon appears to be an expert on hydroelectric power plants and to be personally managing the construction of Roghun. Behind him stretches a valley and river with diligent workers operating heavy machinery to clear the land for the dam’s construction. Both Rakhmon and Roghun become larger than life; the architect and the edifice tame the land because their very livelihoods depend on it. In the most dramatic of statements (figure 7, below), Roghun becomes the literal life and death of Tajikistan.
III. Coercion as Modern Socialism
The purpose of this art, ultimately, comes down to the bottom line – money. Just as the very future of Tajikistan depends on constructing Roghun, Roghun depends on financial investments. On January 6, 2009, Rakhmon made a television address to ask for his people to give to Roghun. Whether these investments were given willingly or not, however, seems an afterthought in the wake Roghun’s necessity. Instead of just accepting the meager investments given by those wealthy enough to invest and still live comfortably, the government pursued a policy to make investments mandatory, thus incorporating the financial aspect of socialism and the ultimate economic goal of Socialist Realism.The Tajik government has resorted to quite a few methods in order to syphon funds from the public. State media outlets “launched contests for the best poems and songs venerating Rogun [sic] and its benefits to the ailing Tajik economy.” Nation-wide text messages reminded people to invest. Even the “sales outlets were like festivals. Share purchasers received free plov (a hearty, traditional Central Asian food) as musicians played ethnic Tajik melodies and professional dancers and city residents, securities in hand, danced.”
Yet behind these reports of gentle encouragement to invest, the whole campaign essentially existed as “state sponsored extortion.” The government coerced those on government payroll to work gratis, intimidating them into donating their wages for shares of Roghun; payments were even withheld from salaries. A teacher from Dushanbe
explained that they simply had no choice; they either bought shares or they lost their jobs for not investing in Roghun. Another teacher stated that government officials came to their apartment and threatened to cut off their electricity if they did not buy shares of Roghun. According to a 2010 US Department of State Human Rights report; even “customs officers at Dushanbe’s international airport were required to buy Roghun shares amounting to many times their monthly salaries, with the expectation that they would need to extract bribes to obtain money to buy Roghun shares.”
While those on government payroll were the most vulnerable to extortion, coercion spread through all of society. “Poor villagers had to pool resources to buy one share at TJS 100 ($22.70). Students had to buy between one and four shares. University professors were forced to buy as much as TJS 4,452 ($1,000) in shares; some doctors had to spend as much as TJS 22,261 ($5,000). The country’s few large companies were told to pay many millions of dollars.”
Unfortunately, “the ‘voluntary donation’ initiative [fostered] indignation among the population, some local observers say.” As such, “high-level government officials insisted that the purchases were voluntary, while first-person accounts from low-level officials admitting their use of coercion indicated precisely the opposite.” Thus, when people bought shares, it “[was] not happening out of their will, but out of fear that there [would] be repercussions of their disobedience to the authority of the leadership.” In this regard, images on billboards leapt from their screens and created a culture of fear; mimesis in action.
Figure 9 “Have you gotten your shares of the construction of Roghun???”Urging the population to do their national duty and buy shares, the images above (Figures 8,9) demonstrate Socialist Realism in content and collectively, they serve to demonstrate it in form. That is, the aesthetic aspect of the billboards depicts the characteristics of Socialist Realism, while the proliferation of these billboards serves to keep Roghun an omnipresent figure in everyday life. Other billboards advertising sales of Roghun shares “[claimed] that individuals and organisations from every segment of society [were] lining up to buy it.” Government reports attempted to galvanize investments through the bandwagon approach; they tried to make buying stocks desirable by making it seem as if everyone was doing it.
Despite an intensive campaign to extort funds from citizens, “the positive picture Rakhmon portrays about the financial capacity of the general public in Tajikistan is in no way near to reflecting the reality on the streets.” In a televised address of October 2009, Rakhmon claimed that of the 1.3 million households in Tajikistan, 1 million had the financial capacity to invest at least $1,500 in Roghun. This projection is quite high, considering that the sum is one and a half times the average annual wages of Tajiks, half of whom live under $2 a day. Yet after only a month of opening Roghun shares to the public, Narzullo Abibulloyev, the Tajik Ministry of Finance’s Head of the Budget Department, claimed to have issued $1.3 billion worth of shares. In reality, however, Rakhmon’s regime only managed to raise just less than $200 million from the general public throughout the duration of the campaign, while an estimated $3 billion is needed to complete construction. After nearly three years of forceful fundraising, the government “stopped selling shares earlier this year  due to a lack of demand.”
Yet some were asked to give more than financial support; they were asked to give up their space for Roghun. In 2010, nearly 1,500 families counting to 6,538 individuals were forced into a resettlement process. It is predicted that by 2015 nearly 7,000 families in the Roghun flood zone will be resettled. Though purportedly given financial restitution and low interest loans, a meager check is no compensation for the fact that nearly 20,000 people, primarily farmers, are being forced to make new livelihoods on arid land.
IV. Roghun: A Liminal, National Space
Through a very public art campaign, Rakhmon attempted to instill a sense of the importance of Roghun in the Tajik nation. Using the techniques of Socialist Realist art, Rakhmon is positioned as the architect of Tajikistan’s future and the billboards present a zero-sum scenario. Though the dam is not yet functional, this art seeks to sell Tajik viewers on the unquestionable truth of Roghun.
What makes Roghun a manifestation of Socialist Realism is precisely its improbability; it occupies a space which both exists physically and as a specter of the nation. Both tangible and beyond grasp, Roghun’s liminal existence since its 1959 inception will likely remain just that— an incomplete, yet ongoing project.
Acknowledgments: Special thanks go to Geoff Husic, who very graciously translated these billboards on such short notice. These images were neither taken by nor belong to me. I want to thank Glenn Dodge for allowing me to use his photographic work.
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