By Patricia Lee Sharpe
When I arrived in Tashkent, the country was still officially mourning the the death of President Islam Karimov. Karimov, appointed Governor of the Uzbekistan SSR by Soviet President Gorbachev, parlayed that position into a brutal 25 year dictatorship over a newly independent country. The few ordinary people with whom I was able to manage a one-on-one chat in Tashkent (including the proverbial outspoken taxi driver with a sister living in the Bronx), mourned Karimov’s death because he had provided peace and stability without stinting on development. Others echoed that sentiment, which surprised me, but only at first. Without security, after all, both justice and happiness are fragile.
Unfortunately Karimov had also stayed in power by creating a durable climate of fear and repression, which led our Uzbek trip leaders to choose their words carefully and request that we not include them in group pictures. Even with Karimov gone, they couldn’t relax. Like all reasonably well-informed persons, they expected that a clone would inherit his power. But it could have been worse. The transition was being managed without violence.
Then, just as a city that had been shut down for the customary period of mourning was about to get back to normal, Vladimir Putin arrived, supposedly making a condolence visit on his way home from a Group of 20 conclave. Thanks to his motorcades, the center of the city was closed to non-official vehicles, including tour buses. The result for my tour group? More days of “death marches” in full sun at temperatures in the high eighties to reach itinerary sites.
Most of us on the tour were suffering severe withdrawal pangs from the lack of public information sources in Tashkent. Anything resembling a newspaper is non-existent in Uzbekistan. Even BBC news on TV is tailored to avoid alarming censors. But the official line was that Vladimir had dropped in to say a sad farewell to his good friend Islam Karimov. No one swallowed that story, of course. Not our guides. Not the few locals we managed to speak to. Not my very savvy tour group. We all knew that Putin was there to make sure that those managing the transition to a new regime were sufficiently aware of Russia’s importance to the country’s (and their) well-being. The USSR might have disintegrated, but Moscow still expected to call the shots.
Meanwhile, reminders of Russia’s role in post Silk Road Uzbeck history were constant and ubiquitous. Once written in an Arabic-like script, the Uzbek language had been switched to Cyrillic under the Russians, although the government is currently promoting the Roman script. The dizzying result is that “sign language” in Tashkent comes in both scripts. And because English is now being encouraged as a second language, many young people are no longer fluent in Russian. Nevertheless, my vocabulary of six or seven Russian phrases/words was very useful: Yes! No! Please! Thanks! Great! No matter! Cheers! Especially the latter. I rediscovered a taste for vodka, which flowed freely in this Muslim majority nation. (Uzbekistan is making some drinkable wine, too.)
Older adults, on the other hand, still find a good use for their knowledge of imperial Russian, especially when there’s business to be done. If you speak in Uzbek, I was told, you have to be emotionally effusive, which takes time. Using Russian allows you to be cold and efficient. My experience was a little different. Many of our hotels were run and staffed by Russians who treated guests as nuisances to be endured. Ditto the officials overseeing the immigration and customs process. They dallied over procedures and barked at impatient travelers. Again and again in Uzbekistan, I was reminded of the frustrations of trying to get things done in Soviet Moscow. By contrast, when I encountered Uzbeks in non-official contexts, helpfulness and friendliness were indeed the norm.
Most amusingly, the persistent Russian influence is strongly reflected in the body language, male version, of ethnic Russians and young men of Uzbek-Russian parentage. They carry themselves like Vladimir Putin himself, gruff, sullen, aggressively masculine, Mafia-like. As a woman, I felt vaguely uneasy in their presence. The Uzbek mode, by contrast, was comforting.
Why should anyone be surprised? Several centuries in a stifling Russian bear hug was bound to leave its mark on Uzbek life, just as English colonial rule, though officially ended some sixty years ago, continues to influence culture and politics in India.
But even as Uzbeks were recognizing the passing of Islam Karimov, they were also in the midst of proudly celebrating 25 years of independence. That’s a quarter of a century of freedom from Russia. If Vladimir Putin thinks he can treat these proud people as little more than neo-serfs, existing mainly to enhance his own position on the world stage, he is sadly mistaken. Uzbeks come across as proudly aware of their ancient history and its profound intellectual contributions to world culture, especially in astronomy and mathematics.
Although China is promoting economic projects related to its efforts to revive trade along the old Silk Roads, it’s unlikely that modern Uzbekistan will submit any more willingly to Chinese dictation.
A Tolerant Tradition
Let’s go back to those ethnic Russians who remain in Uzbekistan and add a few more genes to the ethnic mix. One of our Uzbek guides was pure Arab, he said. The other was of Tajik descent. Both happily identified as Uzbek nationals. Historically, they insisted, ethnic and religious tolerance were key Uzbek traits arising partly from the cosmopolitanism of trade but also from the role of Sufism, which continues to dominate Muslim practice in the area. When it comes to religion, our guides insisted, “we are not fanatics.” The laws of the land, they said, are designed to prevent children from being propagandized before they are able to think straight. There are no religious schools, and children under the age of sixteen not allowed to pray in the mosque.
Anti-clericalism was Soviet policy, too, but it’s notable that an independent Uzbekistan has not reverted to a repressive version of Shariah law. When members of our tour group mentioned that some Uzbeks had been accused of promoting terrorism, our guides reminded us of the sizeable Uzbek minority in Taliban-ravaged Afghanistan.
Interestingly enough, although many of us had been attracted to the tour in order to see with our own eyes the elegant remnants of the past in the form of blue-tiled mosques, madrassas and mausoleums, there were few minarets or domes, which is to say, few newish mosques to be seen, as we passed, via bus and train, through towns and villages en route to Bukhara, Samarkand, Kiva, Urgench. What we saw were cotton fields ready for picking and tidy, comfortable looking villages. The absence of domineering mosques is ambiguous, of course. It may be that a repressed Salafism is seething unseen. Or it may mean that the easy-going Sufi tradition continues to dominate.
In any event, as I traveled around with the group, I found myself infinitely more fascinated with a surprisingly prosperous contemporary Uzbekistan than with the beautiful, but too familiar monuments. I’d been told that Tashkent is a bore, not worth visiting, but I found it to be an utterly charming capital, full of parks and tree-lined avenues in harmony with the necessarily large bureaucratic buildings as well as the well-swept commercial streets. The female street sweepers, by the way, also reminded me of Moscow, especially their posture, hunched over old fashioned straw brooms.
I wouldn’t mind going back to Uzbekistan, but I’d go alone, traveling at my own pace, lingering to take tea with people, poking into quiet streets, doing all the things you have to do to really get to see into the heart of a place. But should you go, solo or with a group, remember to keep your papers in order. Some of our group wasted a lot of time straightening out glitches. Uzbekistan is still a post-Soviet police state, after all.