Following Tsarist Russia's conquest of Central Asia, some of the Russian bureaucrats, scientists and professionals who arrived to govern the newly acquired territories brought cameras with them. Their photographic record of Central Asian life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is helping contemporary scholars and enthusiasts in the region make a connection with the past.
The images in this photo essay were uncovered by Davlat Khudonazarov, a prominent Tajik filmmaker, in the Russian State Archive of Photography and Cinema. They aided Khudonazarov's making of the documentary film, Birth, which portrayed the sweeping social and political changes experienced by Tajiks during the 1920s.
Tsarist administration of Central Asia tended not to meddle with local customs. Radical changes in the region came only after the Bolsheviks consolidated their grip on power. The commissars changed alphabets, destroyed culturally significant buildings and cracked down on Islamic worship in an effort to forge a new, homogenous Soviet identity.
Kremlin leaders did not fully succeed in creating a universal Soviet identity. Nevertheless, more than seven decades of Communist rule did considerable harm to cultural traditions in Central Asia. As states in the region Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan struggle with state building in the post-Soviet era, images like the ones in this photo essay open a window on a lost cultural world.
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