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The Historiography Of Visual Memory In The Context Of Tajikistan

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The concept of memory came onto play at the turn of the 1970s, and there are a number of reasons for its rise. Among the principal factors that played an essential part in the development of the memory boom are The Holocaust and the idea of the ‘duty to remember’. Memory is now an indispensable feature of the historiographical landscape.

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In the last generation or so, historians have made a big step in the studies and research interests by starting to include not only political milestones and socio-economic trends but also the history of everyday life, the history of material culture, cultural heritage, and the like. These researches in the relatively new fields would have been incomplete or incomprehensive were they based on traditional sources such as archival documents, produced by administrations and stored in archives. An increasing use is therefore being made of a broader range of evidence, in which images have their place alongside literary texts and oral testimonies.

Franziska Seraphim makes the obvious, but nonetheless important point that images function differently from texts; ‘we see with memory … Images tend to tap into the habits of mind (as distinct from critical thinking) … to make sense’. John Berger, however, says about images that ‘no other kind of relic or text from the past can offer such a direct testimony about the world which surrounded other people at other times’.

The fall of socialist rule in Eastern Europe and disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 has caused trauma to many generations. The massive revision and rethinking of history across almost three decades ever since still raise issues of identity, belonging and home. When history is being questioned and manipulated, and power holders decide who should remember what , photography and images have become handy in defining the roles of individuals, communities and nations in a particular historical event or epoch.

According to Pierre Nora, modern memory is archival, and relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image.

For over seventy years Tajikistan was part of the USSR, and its place in the scholarship of visual memory is regarded in the context of Soviet Union, and now, oddly enough, of Russia. This is mainly due to the fact that a vast majority of literature is now kept in the largest libraries and archives of Moscow and St. Petersburgh.

In Russia, the historiography of visual memory dates back to early 1990s. The focus of studies and researches is on the Soviet people’s way of life, clothing, festive culture, family relationships, urban and rural life, gender and the like during those times.

The studies of Soviet everyday life have increasingly become dependent on the photographic evidences. Moreover, in the 1990s – 2000s, the Russian historiography was enriched with publications, where photography was identified as the main source for studying Soviet everyday life. And this seems quite logical, since the twentieth century can be fully considered the century of photography, which became an indispensable part of every family by the turn of the centuries.

In modern Russian historiography, there has been a significant quantitative increase in visual research. Firstly, this was possible due to the increased availability of photographic documents for the community of historians and the development of source research. More than that, researches started turning to the available studies conducted by foreign specialists in the field of the theory and methodology of photography.

The existence of photography and the degree of development of its problems is one of the key factors of the historiographic situation that affects the subject of research and its source base. The lack of information about the composition and content of photo collections complicates researches in this field. Archival study of photographic documents in Russian historiography in the 1990s was carried out in an inseparable complex with audiovisual documents; in the 2000s, photographs were viewed as independent historical sources.

The beginning of the study of photographs of family archives in Russian historiography falls on the 2000s. In modern Russian historiography, the greatest reflection is found in the family albums of city residents. The existence of photographs of the people living in rural areas is practically not researched.

During the 1990s and 2000s, photography made its way from illustrative material to one of the main types of sources for the study of Soviet everyday life. The shift in attitude towards photography was due to the “anthropologization” of the humanities and social sciences, the development of visual research in Russia, and the development of problems of the contexts of the existence of photographic documents in archives, museums and family (home) collections. The key subjects of research were individual problems of family history, social life, and extreme everyday life in photography. In Russian historiography based on photographic sources, the urban daily life enjoys most of scientific attention, the rural one is only fragmentary. Studies of problems of everyday life in the Soviet era is most often limited to the first half of the twentieth century. This indicates the need to expand the chronological and territorial framework of research.

During the Soviet era the study of everyday life based on photographic evidences was extremely uneven. This mainly due to the fact the development of research was largely influenced by the general trends in the historiography of wars. Scientists turn to everyday life during the years of famine in the Volga region, blockade of Leningrad and battlefields of the Great Patriotic War. The most researched issues are those of everyday life of photographers in the years 1941-1945, the ideological function of photography, the daily routine of captivity. Out of sight of researchers in the study of extreme everyday life are photos of family archives.

Just like the historiography of Soviet visual memory would come down mainly to the political events and the period of war, the role of Tajikistan was no other but of one of fifteen constituent republics. The first mention of Tajikistan, and its capital city Dushanbe in particular, dates back to 1931. That year, one of the most famous and popular photo magazines of the Soviet Union, “USSR in Construction” (СССР на стройке), the first of a kind in the Soviet Union, dedicated a whole issue to Tajikistan.

In those early years, many magazines could afford themselves a “luxury” of dedicating up to forty-eight pages to one topic, which would make it possible to reveal it in photographs in a diverse and in-depth manner. The journal practically did not have long and tedious texts but was full of exceptional and extraordinary for those times photos of such masters as Eugene Chaldea and Max Alpert. The author of all photo essays prepared for the magazine about Tajikistan was Max Alpert, an outstanding Soviet photographer, the founder of Soviet serial reportage photography.

The hard copy of the issue of this magazine, however, is not available for a Tajik audience. Digital copy is not in open access either. There is a high probability, that it is stored in some of the large libraries or archives in Russia. Which adds to the constraints in the attempts to research the topic in the context of Tajikistan during and after the Soviet period using the magazine as a starting point, thereby making contribution to the visual memory knowledge about the country. The photographs from that particular issue used in articles and social media along with numerous other images of Soviet Tajikistan, are rather used in a nostalgic milieu. The historiography of visual memory in the context of Tajikistan as a separate entity is a niche yet to be filled.

10 Jun 2021

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