Inside Story

History, heritage and the ageing dictator

Uzbekistan is still writing and rewriting its own history, reports a recently returned R.J.B. Bosworth

R.J.B. Bosworth 31 October 2013 3609 words

Being Uzbek: tourists and pilgrims in Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s second-largest city. R.J.B. Bosworth

PRESIDING over the third of five barriers to the waiting lounge, the uniformed official at Tashkent airport was dourly insistent. “Two books you brought into the country, where are they?” I fished in my backpack and brought out a copy of Dombey and Son, my planned reading on the eight-hour flight back to London. Since it was old and came in a box (I’d picked it up at a secondhand shop a few weeks before), and either his English or his literacy was not refined, this only seemed to increase his suspicion. He paused, breathed hard and then, half recognising that an elderly professor might not be committed to subverting the Uzbek nation and polity, found a way out. “And the second one?” he snapped. The other novel I’d confessed to bringing into Uzbekistan, on the form we were trying to reconcile, I had passed to my wife, who had been waved through some minutes earlier. But, fortunately, someone in our group of visitors had given me an anodyne tourist guide that I could pull from my sack instead. For my interrogator it was much more recognisable than Dickens, and he gave a twitch of relief. “OK. Pass.”

The brief encounter was a fitting end to a fortnight in Uzbekistan, a post-Soviet state whose leader, Islam Karimov, an orphan boy born in Samarkand in 1938, made his track to the national summit in what might have seemed an exemplary Soviet fashion (even marrying a Russian). Officially, I had come to the place, along with quite a few other tourists, to view its Islamic art and architecture at Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and other gorgeous sites, as well as to contemplate the business of the “Silk Road” and, ideally for the state that granted me my visa, to purchase some of its current products. But as a biographer of Mussolini and a historian contemplating a general study of dictatorships, I found it impossible not to be drawn into an examination of Uzbek state and society as it impinged on a doubtless ignorant visitor who kept his eyes open. This tourist was less interested in “the Uzbek past” than in its current forging and representation under a president who had risen to the top before communism fell.

The quotation marks are needed because Uzbekistan is very much a nation in the building. It owes its existence and its borders to its conquest in the nineteenth century by imperial Russia, an empire embraced by the Bolsheviks when, in 1920, they advanced into “Turkestan” to eliminate a last base of armed opposition and, as they saw it, to raise the locals from barbarism to the rational modernity of “scientific socialism.” The Soviet Union’s own history would in its turn be vitiated by the Soviet state’s inability to renounce empire – a situation worsened by the regime’s erratic and confused approach to national self-determination, not a subject well framed by the theory of Marxist internationalism.

In practice, Uzbeks were among the winners after 1920. A peasant people with few claims to a specific historical literature, the Uzbeks serendipitously acquired the second-most ample territory of the “-stan” republics, lands that would eventually be revealed to contain rich supplies of oil and gas, or could grow massive amounts of cotton, irrigated scientific socialist–style, with whatever eventual environmental catastrophe. And so, from the 1920s, it became necessary to imagine an Uzbek national community and invent a “timeless” tradition for it, a task made all the more urgent since there had never before been a state with the borders that the Uzbek Republic had been given.

My readers will catch the reference to Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm, and to the extensive literature probing the fate of peoples grouped together as nations at different times since the first application of this modern ideology and practice in the French Revolution. Certainly students of European fascism know that by 1938 the Wilsonian version of self-determination in interwar Europe, in what the American president had envisaged as a happy yoking of the nation with economic and political liberty, had failed to take root. Except in Europe’s Western borderlands, every state from the Rhine to the Black Sea and from Helsinki to Athens had fallen under an authoritarian or fascist leader who cancelled liberty while doing his best to homogenise his heterogeneous subjects into a single nation. Mark Mazower’s brilliant and moving microcosmic account of the fate of the peoples of Salonika/Thessaloniki, Salonika: City of Ghosts, Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430–1950, is the best path into this world.

IT MUST therefore be of little surprise to find current-day Uzbekistan echoing with the manufacture of a usable past. It is, after all, the most numerous of the -stans, with a population of thirty million. Of that number, perhaps 30 per cent may be Tajiks, although officials only admit to 5 per cent, and the regime severely discourages the use of the Tajik language, even though it is Karimov’s first tongue. (The president’s Uzbek is said to be heavily inflected by the Tajik of his home city.) Any reckoning of ethnicity is further afflicted by the fact that a majority of the population of the city of Osh, over the border in Kyrgyzstan, is Uzbek, a situation that earned headlines in 2010 when the locals unleashed a pogrom against them.

Matters are further complicated by the existence of four separate Uzbek enclaves in Kyrgyzstan, while there is a Tajik enclave in the Namangan province of Uzbekistan, east of Tashkent. In its far west, in the desert that approaches what used to be the Aral Sea, Uzbekistan also acknowledges the autonomous province of Karakalpakstan. Its population was nomadic in origin but may have been in most senses Kazakh until the Soviets defined them as Karakalpaks (“Black Hats”). In regard to the old imperial masters, the number of Russians in Uzbekistan has fallen steadily since independence, and is now reckoned at only 5 per cent, although the Russian language remains in common urban usage and is, for example, deployed, along with Uzbek, for announcements on Uzbek Air, the national carrier. It may also be used at Karimov family dinners.

These manifold ethnic intricacies set Uzbekistan within the story of empires and decolonisation, along with that of nation invention. In Central Asia, as elsewhere, lines drawn by imperial administrators on maps bear little relation to social reality. But the complications of the nation are not merely local. The Stalinist regime, that “paranoid state with enemies, too,” was given to parking “border peoples,” whose loyalty it distrusted, in the -stans. Up to 500,000 Koreans and more than 100,000 Meskhetian Turks, for example, were found homes in Uzbekistan. The Turks were victims of racist attack as early as 1989, and most left then or following Uzbek independence. Although quite a few Koreans have also departed, many remain and help to foster the flourishing trade between Uzbekistan and South Korea.

For the Soviet regime, the most pressing issue was religion, which was viewed as the proof of Uzbeks’ “backwardness.” Traditional credulity and ignorance must urgently be liquidated; belief in Islam was an opium of the people whose yoke a scientifically socialist education would lift forever. Despite such an intention, statistics today say that Uzbekistan is 89 per cent Sunni Muslim. Karimov and his government, however, are still palpably hostile to religious fundamentalism and its more ordinary practice. Imams can only cry the muezzin on Fridays and, at least in my recent experience in the country, even then they are seldom heard. Many famous mosques are reduced to being museums, applauded (and reconstructed) as vehicles of national history and sales outlets for tourist trinkets rather than as holy sites of Islamic belief. Out in the countryside, where peasants still live in mudbrick houses, few mosques are to be seen, especially where the translation of the world of the collective farm, or kolkhoz, into a capitalist modern agriculture moves with evident delay. What stirs beneath the surface in such places is hard to know – experts do suggest that deep religious belief lingers – but the other -stans are more accommodating to Islam and the country does have a border in its south with Afghanistan. Can the Taliban, it is easy to whisper, be far away?

The current rulers loudly say no. In 2005 the regime committed what is damned by human rights campaigners as the “Andijan massacre” in the east of the Fergana valley, the country’s agrarian and population heartland. Hundreds of the supporters of the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, the Party of Islamic Liberation, working for the re-establishment of the Caliphate throughout the Muslim world, died amid allegations, never rebutted, of torture. One vociferous critic of the Karimov tyranny was Craig Murray, the British ambassador in Tashkent, 2002–04, whose book Murder in Samarkand detailed the repression while spending rather too much time on the breakdown of Murray’s marriage and the transfer of his affections to a younger local woman. The regime’s secret police are thought still to be focused on eliminating religious dissent.

Other, more banal, traits of dictatorship are also present. The economy stutters. Unemployment and underemployment flourish. However pledged to neoliberal privatisation and claiming respectable growth rates, the regime readily retreats into state command. The currency is not convertible and many families survive on remittances from two million or more economic emigrants to Russia. Corruption is rampant. The BBC and Guardian sent me on my way to Heathrow with stories of the deals of Karimov’s two, allegedly rival, daughters, the younger of whom, Lola, lives in a villa in Geneva, reportedly purchased in 2010 for £29 million. She is married to businessman Timur Tillyaev, whose first name (as we’ll see) may be a pledge of his patriotism. The elder, Gulnara – who, among a quiver of degrees, holds a masters from Harvard (the United States has drifted in and out of a special relationship with the regime) – is founder and chairperson of “The Forum of Arts and Culture in Uzbekistan,” an organisation proselytising the country’s usable past at home and abroad. Her greed is thought hard to satiate, even if, for example, she dreams of making Tashkent into the fashion capital of the region.

While I was in Uzbekistan, the Guardian carried a further report critical of partnerships arranged by such British universities as Cambridge and East Anglia. The Westminster International University in Tashkent has been operating since 2002, endorsed glibly by then British prime minister, Tony Blair, as “an encouraging and positive project enabling us to build partnership through our shared value of higher education.” In what might seem a warning to such academic venturing, Transparency International’s 2012 index put Uzbekistan 170th on its list, ahead only of Myanmar, Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia. Allegations of the use of slave child labour had been so common that major Western firms, including H&M, Adidas and Burberry, had joined a boycott. As I traversed the country, the harvest for 2013 continued. Small children were not visible from the main roads, but the country’s secondary and tertiary institutions were closed while students “spontaneously” joined the national task of bringing in the cotton with many patient donkeys and few signs of modern technology.

IN SUM, the background file that I took with me as a tourist of contemporary Uzbekistan bulged with warnings that I should be wary of the official line about the prettiness, antiquity and saleability of the nation’s history and heritage. I might allow myself to marvel at the famous sites of Islamic art and architecture and buy a silken jacket, but I should not be persuaded that my trip bore only past messages.

In the course of my fortnight, I travelled by bus from Tashkent to Khiva, then flew east to the capital and was taken by car across the Fergana valley to Andijan and back. Along the way, two things were obvious. Every fifty or so kilometres on every highway, there was a military/police roadblock where passports could be inspected, luggage reviewed, travelling justified. Our official guide explained that the aim was to stem the opium traffic from Afghanistan. But, at such moments, I was seeing a working dictatorship in what was always, for a foreigner, a very “safe” country. No beggars or street people hindered the view. I could watch BBC TV in my hotel rooms and, like Uzbeks, I could use the web, but no foreign newspapers were anywhere on sale and few locals seemed to read the government newssheet.

The other feature of the roadscape was advertisements, one after another along the highways. Some were modern capitalist, for Nestlé and other multinationals. (The richly appointed stores of most international name brands featured in many cities, although customers seemed rare indeed.) But the great majority of the placards were moralisingly devoted to nation building. Typically, they were adorned with a slogan hailing national independence and the people’s unity across an image of some famous historical site and one or other of the country’s lavish new public buildings (many of which are rumoured to reverse the façade-ism common in the West by consisting of a new frontage covering an old Soviet building). Occasionally, a wise saw was attributed to Islam Karimov. His visitations to a new railway station or a provincial museum were also grovellingly recorded, although his personality cult was less aggressive than might have been expected. Rather, it was History that really mattered; the current ruler was always seconded by the ghosts of past heroes, carefully summoned into life for their modern nationalising message.

CHIEF among these figures is Timur (Tamerlane or Tamburlaine, as he is more familiarly known in English, the protagonist of a Christopher Marlowe play about a shepherd who conquered the world). Timur lived from 1336 to 1405, dying as he endeavoured to add Ming China to vast dominions that stretched from Delhi to Smyrna on the Mediterranean. In the course of his military life, he (and his soldiers) were thought to have killed seventeen million people, about 5 per cent of the global population. He was born in a village near what is now called Shakhrisabz, across a mountain pass from Samarkand, and although this latter city became his beautified capital, Shakhrisabz is still being lavishly “reconstructed” in his memory. Tourists are told it is the best place to buy scarves and other locally woven textiles, and UNESCO made it the fourth of the country’s world heritage sites, along with Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, in 2000.

Ethnically, Timur was a Turkified Mongol with a tribal base, and only in the loosest of historical definitions an Uzbek. Nonetheless, in modern Uzbekistan, where the statues of Lenin and Marx that once adorned key city squares have, perforce, been melted down, three large statues of this conqueror give historical weight to Tashkent, Samarkand and Shakhrisabz. On the equestrian version in the capital, a caption explains in multiple languages that the Great Man embodied “Strength in Justice,” a cosy epitaph indeed.

Timur’s empire soon fragmented. But two of his “Timurid” descendants are recalled in Uzbekistan. Ulugh Beg (1394–1449), a part-Persian grandson of Timur, was the nearest example in the Islamic world of a Renaissance prince, a mathematician and astronomer, who rejoiced in his own observatory at Samarkand (rediscovered by Russian archaeologists in 1908 and another place where “restoration” busily continues). The city’s most renowned sites – the Registan square, the Guri Amir mausoleum and the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis – owe much to him (and modern restorers).

Shah-i-Zinda is the most lively of such places. Various Timurid princesses are exquisitely buried there. So, too, it is said, is Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of the prophet. He was thought to have taken residence in Samarkand in the seventh century and was memorialised in the fourteenth. This sacred past means that pious Uzbeks join Western tourists in admiring the tomb and worship continues there more evidently than at most other sites.

A second Timurid accorded a modern purpose is Babur (1483–1530), boasting blood from both Timur and Genghis Khan, who turned his armies south from the Fergana valley to establish himself as the first Mughal emperor of India. From the 1980s, prompted initially by the hope of linking Soviet Uzbekistan to the USSR’s bloody and unsuccessful civilising mission in Afghanistan (Babur ruled for a while from Kabul), a memorial statue, library and park were developed a few kilometres southeast of Andijan. The memorial was given an ersatz history by the addition of soil from Agra where Babur died and was buried. Visitors today are also shown a small, sad collection of books about the conqueror in an exhibition room equipped with direly “wromantic” modern historical paintings of the Hero’s life.

Because the major significance of Andijan is religious, there are few signs of the Babur memorial outside in its attached fun park. Except in the most general sense of national glory, this hero’s military triumphs are hard to integrate into Uzbekistan’s current dilemmas. Equally unimpressive as a site of applied history is Kokand, another town across the valley, where the palace of Khudayar, the local khan 1863–1873, is being lavishly restored to look something like an Uzbek stately ’ome. Its purpose is not much deepened by an attached Uzbek historical museum going back to prehistoric times, which, like most such places in the country, looks unaltered since the Soviet era and is therefore lamentably ill-equipped with modern displays or with any serious reckoning with a credible past.

THE real focus on an Uzbek history, however, lies in the great centres of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, and for almost all tourists these are the places that matter in their visits to Uzbekistan. Because of its connection with Timur and Ulug Beg, Samarkand does bear a glorious political past. However simplistic their tale of conquests and the cultural delights that resulted, history and heritage in Samarkand can readily be nationalised into being Uzbek. But Bukhara and Khiva are renowned less for military victories than for their mosques and madrassas, their religious architecture, and their fame as global centres of the Islamic past.

An occasional political tale can be recounted. One is the emir of Bukhara’s habit in the nineteenth century of imprisoning enemies, among them the strolling British Indian soldiers, Arthur Conolly and Charles Stoddart, in a snake and insect pit before their execution; another is the Soviet bombardment of the city “Arc,” or citadel, in 1920, only very partially repaired by modern reconstruction. But the major past treasure of these two cities is religious.

A visitor is, however, unlikely to come away with much reckoning of the time when Bukhara was celebrated as a key site of Islamic faith and philosophy, the home of Avicenna (Abu Ali ibn Sina, 980–1037), a Persian polymath who helped to save, amplify and transmit classical Greek medical knowledge to the modern world. For all the eager reconstruction of Islamic art and architecture, the city centre today resounds not with religious or intellectual debate but with tourist sales. After all, those traversing the Silk Road must want to buy some record of their visit, and so maintain its history of business dealing and profit. Thus, a multilingual saleswoman regales visitors with the detail of how many months it takes a “girl” to weave a gorgeous silk carpet of “local” or other design and how easy it is, here if not elsewhere, to use an international card for purchase. Most of the mosques and madrassas of the place are occupied not with worship but with shops, and public piety is hard to see.

The much smaller Khiva, an oasis town, where most of the religious buildings were not erected until the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and have been ruthlessly restored in the last decades, is even more completely handed over to a Disneyland-style fate. It is emblematic that part of the cinema version of Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando, released in 1992, was filmed there (as “Constantinople”). Here, any past is indeed possessed by the present. Even more than Bukhara, Khiva is first and foremost a shopping mall.

The Karimov regime approves of group tourism (and is badly in need of foreign currency) but is scarcely willing to throw its borders open to visitors anxious to travel on their own account or ask taxing questions. In my own case, our group of six UK-based travellers regularly ran into other more numerous groups, at least one of them originating in Australia and New Zealand, as they took in (or were taken in by) the celebrated sites. Despite my scepticism, I am glad to have gone there. Any tourism is likely to market heritage best as history with the history left out, tall tales and untrue from the legendary past (to adapt the Disney phrase). But, in Uzbekistan, it does not take too much imagination to be alert to the manipulation. While shopping on the Silk Road, visitors might also wonder more generally how history is being forged in our contemporary neoliberal world. When it comes to usable pasts, are their own societies so different from the regime of an ageing leftover Soviet dictator, gone “national”? •