In his book, “Moscow’s Heavy Shadow: The Violent Collapse of the USSR,” Dr. Isaac McKean Scarborough, an assistant professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Leiden University, reflects on the collapse of the Soviet Union from a perspective not often considered in Western understanding. He focuses on Soviet Tajikistan’s response to Moscow’s reforms and the effects of glasnost and perestroika on the far-flung republic. Scarborough explains that the general feeling in the West that life in the USSR was bad and citizens wished for the system to collapse did not align with the reality. Life in the USSR was quite decent by the 1970s and 1980s, and dissatisfaction stemmed from the stagnation of improvement rather than an irreversible decline.
Gorbachev’s reforms were carried out thoroughly in Tajikistan, leading to noticeable economic changes. Perestroika led to lower production, the founding of private businesses, and early signs of recession. On the other hand, the republic’s leadership sought to avoid criticism through glasnost, promoting their own candidates in the new electoral system and resisting political liberalization to preserve the status quo. This paradoxical situation resulted in confusion and denial within the republic.
The unexpected and bloody riots that took place in Dushanbe in February 1990 were dismissed as spontaneous or uncontrolled, aligning with the tendency to find simplistic causes of political violence and to blame outside forces rather than understanding the motivations and frustrations of the people involved. This refusal to address the root causes of conflict contributed to deepening the crisis in Tajikistan.
The reluctance of Tajikistani leadership to let go of its connection to Moscow can be attributed to a desire for stability, security, and familiarity. The leaders were in denial about the collapse of the Soviet Union, and this reluctance to embrace independence shaped the circumstances that led to the civil war. The unresolved tensions from the late 1980s and early 1990s ultimately fueled the conflict.