Lenin leers from every corner of the basement in one of the oldest buildings in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s dusty capital of 800,000 souls. The Soviet leader—embroidered in gold thread on a silk banner, inked from a woodblock print, tinted on a postcard, painted on a poster—hangs manifold but silent in the Soyuz Bistro, a 24-hour stolovaya, or cafeteria.
Across from me, Qoib is loudly ripping the Soviet Union a new one. He pounds the table to make his point, almost upsetting a rapidly-cooling bowl of solyanka, a sweet-and-sour beef soup.
“Under the Soviets, we were like cows! We lived like cows! They fed us, sheltered us, shepherded us like cows.” A delivery person for the bistro, Qoib widens his eyes until his irises are swimming in a sea of white. “The whole country was a prison camp. Anyone who says he wants the U.S.S.R. to come back, I question his intelligence. I seriously question his intelligence.”
It’s 2 a.m. and I am 21 hours into the 24-hour stretch I plan to spend in this canteen. I am charting its tides, eating its fare, and interviewing its patrons, all with the goal of answering one question: how do you explain this place? How, in a country where the legacy of the Soviet Union is increasingly anathema, is it possible for the Soyuz Bistro—literally, Union Bistro—to exist as a cornerstone of everyday life in Dushanbe?
I’m wired on sugary Nescafé and syrniki, fried balls of sweetened cottage cheese. The interplay of fluorescent light, white-on-white walls, and highly-polished tile floor is positively Camus-esque. Qoib’s neat beard quivers. His vehemence and his eloquence are particularly astounding in light of the fact that out of everyone I’ve spoken to in the past 21 hours—diners, cooks, bums, government officials, shopkeepers, students, villagers—he is the only person with a bad word to say about the U.S.S.R.
Qoib, the bistro’s driver, hates the Soviet Union.
Soyuz Bistro is a special place in this sun-blasted city. Founded 12 years ago by a man named Zafar on the bones of a former Soviet canteen, the bistro’s something of a landmark for Dushanbinci, as the city’s residents are called. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been here.
And while ironic Soviet kitsch may be big business in parts of the world—especially Russia, where Gorky Park hipsters sport ironic net bags in the tradition of Soviet babushkas—that’s not the case in Tajikistan. There are no students framing Brezhnev posters, no breathing wax figures of Lenin, no kids decked out in U.S.S.R. apparel. This isn’t to say Tajikistan is empty of Soviet ephemera; far from it. Reminders of the Soviet era are omnipresent, but they are far from ironic.
In order to become kitschy, things need to fall so totally out of style that they are subsumed into a black hole of their own tackiness, from which they emerge decades later, crystallized in cult appeal. But a lot of the quotidian stuff that made up the texture of Soviet life never fell out of use in Tajikistan.
Supermarkets never stopped carrying U.S.S.R.-brand ice cream. Billboards exhorting national unity never came down. And restaurants never stopped dishing out Soviet food. Zafar’s choice of décor is totally devoid of irony. The way he tells it, Soyuz runs on unadulterated nostalgia.
“It was a better time, at the beginning of the Soviet Union,” he tells me. “Now, you need to have money to do anything, you need documents to travel. Back then, it was all easier. Maybe some of our patrons will look at these posters and be reminded of how it was.”