The Yaghnobis


Iraj Bashiri

copyright 1997

Direct descendants of the Sughdians, the Yaghnobis live in the upper reaches of the Kuhistan region of Tajikistan (4,500 m. above sea level). Sunni Muslims in religion, the Yaghnobis speak both Yaghnobi and Tajiki. Their economy is based on agriculture and animal husbandry. According to the Soviet Tajik Encyclopedia, their lifestyle is much the same as that of their Tajik neighbors.

The population of Yaghnob proper is small in number for two reasons. First, during the 16th and 17th centuries groups of Yaghnobis moved to the Varzab region and settled in villages like Kupteppa, Zumand, Gharav, Ragh, and Dara. Other group moved to the Hissar region in villages like Mavlanjara Bala, Bishbulaq, and Kelitash. Those, however, were voluntary migrations.

During the stagnation years, but especially in the spring of 1970, the remainder of the Yaghnobis were forced by the Soviet government to migrate to the desolate Mirzachul region (Zafarabad) of northern Tajikistan (for Mirzachul, see note below). Pleas and cries that they should be allowed to live in their homeland did not move the officials who were determined to carry out the decree of the leadership. At Mirzachul, as a result of extreme heat to which the Yaghnobis' bodies could not adjust quickly enough, many died. Out of a family of 18, for instance, only one returned to the Yaghnob valley. Similarly, their language and culture became vulnerable to assaults by the Tajiki and Uzbeki languages of northern Tajikistan.

The reasons given for the migration of the Yaghnobis are varied. They range from forced resettlement to voluntary migration. What is certain is that Soviet authorities placed the Yaghnobis and their belongings into trucks and moved them. It is also certain that at the time there was a need for cotton workers in Mirzachul, especially when the number of sovkhozes grew (5 for cotton and one for forestry). But why would the upper echelon of the Soviet government want the elimination of the remnants of the Sughdian language and culture, especially if the 16,000 hectares of cultivation under Yaghnobis' jurisdiction provided potatoes, vegetables, meat, milk, and wool for not only Leninabad (now Khujand) but for the republic of Tajikistan as a whope? The Yaghnobis, it was argued, were uneducated. They did not enjoy many of the amenities that were readily available to the other Soviets. These amenities included roads, electricity, communication lines, schools, medical facilities, stores, post office, library, and the like. Moving into more developed regions, it was decided, would improve their education and, thereby, their liability to meaningful labor. This would also free their rich grasslands, natural growths that grew on the slopes, for the use by the cattle herders.

The future of the 300 Yaghnobis who have lost their families in Mirzachul and who have returned to Yaghnob to begin a new life is in doubt. If their other neighbors, the Orjanikizada Kolkhoz, for instance, and the Tajik government cooperate and build a road to bring commerce to Yaghnob and if the other amenities enjoyed by neighboring regions are provided, the Yaghnobis will survive. Hopefully, the rest of their people would return and they would resume their old ways. If not, the language and culture of the ancient Sughdians will be met with yet another set back. This one, delivered by their kin, the Tajiks, could be fatal. Their Aini neighbors ("Tajikistan" rayon) who, in the absence of the Yaghnobis, have constructed a make-shift road through Yaghnobi territory are very much interested in the future of the Yaghnobis. They wonder if they may have to surrender the slopes they use as pasture land for their cattle back to the Yaghnobis.


Saidmurad Khalzada, Sada-i Sharq, II, 1989, pp. 140-41.
"Yaghnobiha," Soviet Tajik Encyclopedia, vol. 8, 1988.

Note on Mirzachul

Divided between Kazakhstan (Chimkent), Uzbekistan (Syr Darya) and Tajikistan (Leninabad), Mirzachul is the lowest geographical point (250-300 m.) of the republic and a most windy place. The Zafarabad region of Mirzachul was given to Tajikistan in 1958 by Uzbekistan for the cultivation of cotton. It is irrigated by two major canals--Tajikistan I and Tajikistan II. The climate of Mirzachul is hot and dry (27.9° c.) during the summer and cold (-2.1° c) with little rain during winter.

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