The Yagnobi people of the Yagnob, Kul and Varzob river valleys are thought to be the last remaining speakers of the ancient Sogdian language, and the Sogdians’ genetic descendants. They fled to the mountains following the Arab invasion in ad772, continuing to practise aspects of their Zoroastrian religion in addition to Islam. It is thought that as many as 25,000 Yagnobis may still survive in Tajikistan, though many of them have now abandoned their traditional way of life or intermarried with other groups.
Until the 1930s the Yagnobi lived untouched by the modern world, continuing their traditional agriculture as they had done for millennia. Their first interaction with the Soviets was the Stalinist purges, then forced resettlement in Tajikistan’s lowlands in the 1950s and ‘70s. Red Army helicopters evacuated entire villages, ostensibly to protect them from avalanches, but then forced the Yagnobi to work in searing heat on the collective cotton plantations. Villages were razed to prevent their inhabitants from returning, religious books were destroyed and, as a final ignominious act, Yagnobian ethnicity was officially abolished. Hundreds of Yagnobi families died in exile.
Since 1983 a small number of Yagnobis have returned to the Yagnob Valley, though many of their villages are still home to only a handful of families. The total permanent Yagnobi population in the valley is about 300 people, rising to 1,000 in the summer months. They live in basic mud brick dwellings, without electricity, scrape a living from subsistence farming and, to the delight of linguists and historians, still speak in the Sogdian tongue.