Why Tajikistan's Last Jews Are Staying Put Despite Waves of Change
The secret synagogue of Tajikistan is not hard to find once you know where to look. Like much in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s small and humdrum capital, the building is on a street whose name no one uses and where few strangers venture. From the outside it could be just another upscale house with a lush courtyard, walled off from the patchily paved street with a high gate. But inside, the two aging caretakers nurture nostalgia for their little-known and disappearing past.
Yakov Matayev, 59, a Bukharan Jew native to Central Asia, and Zheniya Robieyeva, 63, of Ashkenazi descent, ritually roamed the house-turned-synagogue on a tour in September. The two friends showed off the empty guest bedrooms and bathrooms, and the parlor converted to a sanctuary replete with rows of vacant seats and a wooden ark.
Matayev and Robieyeva told me they are two of just 300 Jews left in Tajikistan. Other estimates suggest the population is closer to 150 now. No matter, it’s a sharp fall from the estimated 15,000 who lived here in 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Robieyeva was also on her way out: She’s family-less here now, and was waiting for a visa to join her son in Germany. Her other child, a daughter, is already married in Israel. With Robieyeva go further remnants of a time when identities and religions looked different here, Islam and Judaism included.
The lives of Matayev and Robieyeva trace the oft-forgotten times of the Jews of Central Asia where, under the heavy hand of Soviet policy, Ashkenazi Jews dispersed across the Soviet Union and mixed with Central Asia’s long-standing Muslim majority and Jewish Bukharan communities. In Tajikistan it was certainly not always easy or peaceful, but neither was it impossible, as is often now conventionally recalled.
Today, Robieyeva, like any Tajik, has every reason to want out: Tajikistan, the poorest country in Central Asia, is not an easy place to live. The country is coveted for its breathtaking mountains that attract tourists from all over, Israelis included, and for a culture that mixes Russian, Persian and Turkic influences. (The language is part of the Persian family, yet written in Russia’s Cyrillic script.) But Tajikistan is also deplored for its corruption and poverty, with barely any jobs available and at least 1 million men going to work in Russia yearly instead.
It didn’t have to be this way: The same repressive president, Emomali Rahmon, has ruled since a five-year civil war (1992—1997) that erupted after the Soviet Union’s fall. It was a regional and resource-based battle that in part pitted Rahmon’s side against an Islamist opposition. Now Rahmon rules with the backing of the United States, Russia and a lot of international aid. For Washington, support for Tajikistan is largely about its proximity to Afghanistan (its southern neighbor) and Iran (one country over to Afghanistan’s west). For Moscow, it’s about keeping alive spheres of political and economic interest.
All the powers involved largely ignore Rahmon’s attacks on political and religious freedoms, in ways that recall the Soviet Union. Rahmon argues that limits on citizens’ rights are needed to stop the threat of Muslim extremists. His government was seriously shaken last May when Tajikistan’s own chief of security defected to the Islamic State group in Syria. Others warn that Tajiks, who were cut off from many of their religious traditions under the Soviets, are easy targets of misinformation. But Central Asia-watchers caution that Rahmon’s recipe of banning opposition, coupled with the failure of the state to meet peoples’ basic needs, is the really dangerous and combustible mix fueling discontent.
“Tajikistan is in full-blown crisis, I would say, in terms of the health of its economy and its human rights and religious rights picture,” Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch told me. “And the Jewish community is along for the ride.”
Seated in the house-turned-synagogue, Robieyeva and Matayev didn’t dwell on today’s Tajikistan. Robieyeva insists she’s positively optimistic about the future, even as she is preparing to leave. She claims the synagogue has many international visitors, even though it currently lacks a rabbi and rarely attracts the 10 Jewish males, or minyan, that is required to hold a formal daily or holiday service. And she won’t criticize the president, who, despite international outcry, in 2006 controversially razed Dushanbe’s previous 1940s-era synagogue, along with other Tajik homes and businesses, to make room for a presidential palace. The current house-turned synagogue became the small Jewish community’s current home in 2009, when the president’s brother-in-law donated it to Dushanbe’s Jews as compensation, a move praised by local diplomats.
Instead, Matayev and Robieyeva prefer to dwell on the past.
Matayev’s family came to Tajikistan during the Soviet era, when religion and ideology were subordinated to the ruling Communist Party’s official state atheism. He can’t exactly recall when, but sometime before his birth, in 1956, Matayev’s parents made their way from the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan to Tajikistan’s then-fledgling capital city, settled only about three decades prior.
Samarkand was one of the centers of Bukharan Jewish life, a more than 2,000-year-old community indigenous to Central Asia. Cut off by the region’s mountainous terrain, Bukharan Jews developed their own dialect, a blend of Persian and Hebrew, and religious traditions infused with Arab, Persian and Central Asian influences distinct from today’s binary Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide. Despite their long and deeply entrenched presence, the Bukharan Jews were subject to waves of persecution over centuries of conquering Turkic, Arab, Persian, and Russian rulers. The Communists’ strict state control of all religion, in a way, put Central Asia’s Jews and Muslims on the same plane.
Robieyeva’s Ashkenazi family, in contrast, descended from Jews further north. Her maternal grandfather first fled Poland’s pogroms for Russia early in the 20th century, she told me. He served in the fledgling Red Army and soon after was sent to Tajikistan to quell the Basmachi movement, a failed revolt by Islamists in the early 1920s against Bolshevik Russia’s intrusion. Within a few years the Russians were there to stay, and so was Robieyeva’s grandfather, who liked the region. After settling in Uzbekistan, Robieyeva’s grandfather made his way to Tajikistan, where he worked building the train lines, according to Robieyeva.
After the war in Dushanbe, Robieyeva’s family worked to rebuild. Her grandfather set up new factories and infrastructure for the Soviet Union, while her mother studied to become a doctor at the newly established university.
Robieyeva’s father, meanwhile, came to Tajikistan to develop Soviet factories after serving in the Red Army during Word War II.
Robieyeva, who was born in 1952, went on to study opera and still speaks with an expressive drama that recalls her artistic training. Like most Ashkenazi Jews of that era, Robieyeva did not attend Dushanbe’s old synagogue or even identify publicly as Jewish; in this way it was easier for Bukharan Jews, whose traditions had developed here over generations, to keep their indigenous practices alive under Soviet repression, Matayev said.
“[Tajik] people remember the Jews and love the Jews,” Robieyeva told me in Russian through a translator. She listed the names of famous Bukharan actors and singers from Tajikistan and recalled, as others do, how Jewish doctors, professors and engineers were part of the core force industrializing Dushanbe. “The Jews played a big role in the development of the republic and culture. They [Tajiks] miss them.”
Today there is still a well-kept Jewish cemetery adjacent to the overgrown Russian cemetery that extends into the hills around Dushanbe. At the Jewish sites, several caretakers maintain rows and rows of graves. The faces of the dead are sketched on headstones in the Soviet style alongside Tajik, Bukharan, Russian and German names engraved in Russian and, after a certain point in time, Hebrew letters.
Robieyeva and Matayev’s childhood friends, now dispersed around the world, likely won’t be buried here. In the years before and after the Soviet Union’s collapse, most of the then 15,000 Tajik Jews left for Russia, which offered them citizenship, or for Israel and America. It was a region-wide exodus to flee limits on freedoms and seek out new opportunities: Around half of Uzbekistan’s 35,000 Jews were soon gone, according to Alanna Cooper, a professor at Boston University who has studied the Bukharan Jewish community. Today, more than 50,000 Bukharan Jews live in New York City. From there they fund the upkeep of Dushanbe’s cemetery and synagogue. Some still return for graveside visits.
It was not only the Jews leaving at this time: In 1992, the Tajik civil war broke out, Tajik being the only former Soviet republic in which this happened. The violence dragged on until 1997 and killed more than 50,000 people along the way. The fighting stoked a brain drain that even today limits Tajikistan’s efforts to rebuild.
Robieyeva, unlike most others, remained. She did not leave when the Israelis airlifted Jews out in 1992, or when opposition rebels shot and killed her 34-year-old brother because they wanted the car park he owned, or when others killed her husband, a businessman, for reasons she still does not know. She did not leave when her son and daughter went to Israel, part of the permanent Jewish exodus of the young. She did not leave because her mother’s health was too fragile and she could not leave her behind, she told me.
Now there’s a mosque visible from inside the synagogue, one of the tens to sprout up in the past two decades, in part with Saudi and Gulf funding. Women are also veiling in ways that mirror Saudi and other Middle Eastern trends, rather than local Tajik custom. These changes occur both despite and because of Rahmon’s attempts to control religious expression. He’s banned beards and overly Arabic names. Children are banned from mosques and all sermons are regulated. In September, Rahmon outlawed the country’s last legal Islamist opposition party, which was created in a power-sharing deal after the civil war, in response to fighting in Dushanbe led by a longtime political opponent and party leader.
Both Matayev and Robieyeva said they don’t face anti-Semitism these days. In Tajikistan the Soviet tradition of anti-Semitism, rooted in Christian-dominated parts, had little local resonance. Still, in such an isolated country with an abysmal education system, misinformation about Jews circulates easily — especially as memory of the community dwindles and regional influences and interests shift. In a way, Matayev and Robieyeva’s nonthreatening status is a different kind of propaganda tool: The government can point to them and claim they are tolerant, argues Nate Schenkkan of the watchdog human rights group Freedom House told me, all the while keeping down independent thinking.
Matayev is set on staying: His children from his deceased first wife live in Israel, which he often visits, and life with his second wife is settled here. Robieyeva is set on going: She’s living in the synagogue as she awaits the final paperwork. In the meantime she’s written a poem about the synagogue. It rhymes in Russian, but in English it goes something like this: “The community has lived, lives, and will live here. Your favorite local synagogue is flourishing. It will never forget you and will remember you, our colorful mountainous province.”
Miriam Berger is a freelance journalist with a focus on the Middle East. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org