Question: Where in the world are dead poets deemed deserving enough to merit a grand monument—but not to have their names written in their own language?
Answer: The Wall of Tajik Greats, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
In the 1980s, as the Cold War was entering its final decade, Soviet authorities tried to shore up their place in history with a new wave of architecture across Central Asia. The Soviet Modernist style created massive, stolid buildings enlivened with heroic statues to distract from the use of cheap materials in construction. In Tajikistan, this took the form of the Writers’ Union building of Dushanbe.
Designed by a Russian architect, the Writers’ Union façade contains nine niches, seven containing single life-sized statues, and two featuring pairs. The 11 men represented are not Soviets but Tajik intellectual heroes, almost all of them poets. The central figure is eighth-century Rudaki, known as the Adam of Persian Poetry for his influence on the way Persian lyrics were written and published. (Learn more about him below.) Among his companions: famed astronomer-writer Omar Khayyam, and Ferdowsi, whose 11th-century Book of Kings is the longest epic ever written by a single author.
The Soviets enshrined these men as proof that they were champions—and arbiters—of the fine arts, even while remaining ideologically pure. Most of the writers included long predated the Soviets, so their work did not overtly conflict with Communist ideals. The two 20th-century writers, Sadriddin Ayni and Mirzo Tursunzoda, were ones who played well with the Soviets, with Ayni named the National Poet and Tursunzoda immortalized on the currency.
When the Cold War ended and the USSR dissolved, Tajikistan had to rethink its heroes. The writers—already enshrined and a source of pride—became seen as the soul of the nation. While the country has wrestled with political freedoms in the post-Soviet era, artistic achievements have retained special status and the Writer’s Union is now one of the most influential organizations. The state actually still sponsors contemporary poets, providing housing and a stipend for selected writers officially deemed “the intelligentsia.” While some argue that this relationship between artist and authoritarian leaders is too cozy, it gives Tajik a rare distinction as one of the only nations on earth to pay poets.
13 Facts about Rudaki, the Greatest of the Great Tajik Writers
- In 858, Rudaki was born in a tiny village. His gift for music was well-known and his lyrics became repeated far and wide.
- He was famous for expressive verses, including, “Look at the cloud, how it cries like a grieving man. Thunder moans like a lover with a broken heart.”
- Though Rudaki was not the first Persian poet, he created the first Persian epic form, set the model for lyric poems, and was the first to issue a diwan, a set of complete collected poems by one poet.
- In his 40s, his fame earned him the attention of the ruler, Nasr II, who invited him to live in Bukhara, becoming perhaps the earliest known model of the state-supported poet.
- Made wealthy by his position, he devoted all his time to writing, producing 1.3 million verses, including a translation into Persian of the Indian Panchatantra fable, 52 odes to Nasr II, and multiple epics.
- Though Muslim, his poetry in the court age tilts toward the secular, encompassing the affairs, intrigue, and conspicuous consumption of the elite class.
- A recurring theme is that he is unlucky in love. Of one woman, he wrote, “She likes it if I'm thrown to the lions. I can't stand it if a fly sits on her. She tortures me. But my love for her and loyalty to her never leave my heart.”
- Things don’t improve in his romances with men. He asks a male lover, “My heart is a grain, your love, a mountain. Why crush the grain under the mountain?”
- He also often wrote about alcohol, opining how, “The miser becomes generous, the weak becomes brave. After one sip, a rose garden will bloom on pale cheeks...”
- Being a buddy of Emir Nasr II came with a high price for the poet: when the ruler was deposed, Rudaki was blinded as punishment for their association, and he broke his back trying to avoid his fate. He died soon after.
- Rudaki’s influence never waned. He was read by Omak Khayyam and Rumi, both who became more well known in the West, and both quote his images in their work.
- When the Soviets left Dushanbe in 1991, Lenin Ave was renamed Rudaki Street, to honor the Adam of Tajik poetry, exactly 1050 years after his death.