While in Uzbekistan, I saw a few interesting things about the self-perception of the country that seems to be fostered, at least as a top-down approach. Of course my observations are biased and untutored and the usual caveats apply. Still, the degree (and peculiar kind) of nationalism that seems to be promoted by the government was very noticeable.
As an example: on September 1st 2011, Uzbekistan celebrated its 20th anniversary as an independent nation. I arrived two weeks later and stayed for two weeks. The celebration posters proclaiming 20 years of independence were still there and there was no intention of taking them off. Uzbekistan has formally repudiated its association with the Soviet Union. Its history museums, for instance, speak directly of Soviet occupation and Soviet repression without any qualifications or hedging. A few of the people I spoke to also saw Uzbekistan’s time in the USSR as an unqualified evil. The repression of Islam is a particular sore point, from my understanding even for relatively secular people. Makes sense since religious devotion simply festered underground for several generations only to spill out as soon as a breach was made. This is all quite different to views on Soviet power that I saw in Kyrgyzstan, which were a lot more conciliatory.
The irony is that despite this repudiation, Uzbekistan has retained a lot of Soviet institutions. It is almost certainly way closer to the USSR than contemporary Russia is. For starters, there is a strong planned element to the economy with the requisite black market. However, there’s also the heavy bureaucracy of entering/leaving the country, the ridiculous hoops needed to exchange money, the fact that the government sets an official exchange rate that does not reflect reality and so on. The photo below is of a sign that reminded me of the Soviet government-employee mindset: a public toilet that’s closed for lunch between 1 and 2.
Just as worrying was the mythology of Uzbek history and hero-worship that was everywhere. The worship of Amir Timur (Tamerlane) surpasses Manas worship in Kyrgyzstan. Part of the reason seems to be that a highly dictatorial leader (Karimov) has taken Timur as a stand-in for himself (or vice versa). The praise to Timur’s strong leadership, innovation and so on is basically Karimov speaking through Timur. The centre of Tashkent has an Amir Timur museum recently built by Karimov. A traveller I met described it very well: “The whole museum is basically a poster that says ‘Karimov likes Amir Timur’.” Below is a particularly blatant painting that places Karimov’s face into the collage along with Timur’s.
There are two particularly troubling aspects to this besides the fact of hero-worship (which is bad enough in itself). The first is the degree to which the Uzbeks are a constructed nation. Of course, every nation is constructed to the extent that national identity is a social label that need not have much relationship to (say) genetics. However, this applies particularly to the Uzbeks. Ethnically, Uzbeks are a Turkic tribe that moved into present-day Uzbekistan well after Amir Timur’s death. The Timurid empire was also Turkic but of different tribal composition. Timur spoke Chagatai, a language dubbed “Old Uzbek” by Soviet scholars. True, tribal and ethnic affiliations were likely fluid. However, the idea of applying the identity of a single tribe (the Uzbeks) to all the Turkic people in Uzbekistan seems to date to early Soviet times. When carving up the republics, Stalin essentially created the 5 identities (Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Turkmen) thereby collapsing a complex structure into 5 identities for the 5 republics.
The long and the short is that most of the historical figures and famous landmarks revered in Uzbekistan were not built by Uzbeks in the more precise ethnic sense. Again, there’s always a difference between colloquial nationalities and anthropological labels. But this appropriation was weird. Another revered figure is the poet Alisher Navoi. He was the father of Chagatai colloquial literature, however he lived in present-day Herat, Afghanistan (the capital of the Timurid empire at the time) and was either an Uzbek or a Uighur. Not that it’s weird to have Uzbeks revere a poet whose poems they can understand and appreciate, but all of these details seem to fall away very easily.
The second troubling part of hero-worship is the utter whitewashing of Timur’s atrocities. These are completely not mentioned and in fact our guide was careful to point out how nice Timur was, how the monuments weren’t built with slave labour and so on. And yet death toll estimates from his conquests range from 7 to 20 million people. Historical death tolls are notoriously bad but taking the conservative number suggests this was approx 1.5% of the world’s contemporary population. This puts his conquests on par with low estimates of WWI and WWII in terms of relative death toll. And from the number itself, it’s obvious that a huge proportion of this was civilians. If you’re still not sure, I invite you to see this contemporary account, especially “Preparation for the Conquest of Delhi and the Massacre of 100,000 Hindu Prisoners”.