Uzbekistan: The Former Soviet Republic’s Silk Road Glory Days a Faded Memory
By Ian Williams
Bukhara’s Kalon Mosque and Minaret, from which condemned prisoners were thrown (photo I. Williams).
OTHERWISE unknown, the British Arabist diplomat James Elroy Flecker immortalized the Central Asian cities of the Silk Road with his poem, “The Golden Journey to Samarkand.” His merchants sing as their caravan embarks from Baghdad:
We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
Symbolizing the antiquity of the Silk Road oases strung along the sere Central Asian desert is the Magok-i-Attari mosque in the Uzbekistan city of Bukhara. A palimpsest in brick, the mosque has served at different times throughout history as a Zoroastrian fire temple, Buddhist shrine, Arab mosque, Mogul tomb, and now a carpet museum with all the layers visible inside.
Even if they were not to be found in that building, Nestorian Christians and Bukharan Jews lived in the neighborhood as well. The latter are sometimes suggested to be the descendants of the converted Khazars, but even though there are now more of them in Brooklyn than in Bukhara they keep alive their own distinctive traditions—which include being custodians of Uzbekistan’s musical history. They left for opportunity, not because of persecution, and maintain friendly relations with the regime in Tashkent.
Over the millennia, Persian kings of kings, Alexander the Great and his generals, Sassanians, Arabs, Iranians, Mongols and most recently Russians have been through, leaving their marks behind them. For some untold centuries what is now Uzbekistan was a center of learning, where ideas passed to and from India and between China and the Arab lands along the Silk Road.
Although for thousands of years Uzbekistan has been a crossroads country, under its perpetually “re-elected” President Islam Karimov it has been stalled at the junction for almost two decades. As a result, for far too many Uzbeks the real golden road is the one that leads to construction jobs in Moscow, store counters in Qatar and kitchens and hotels in London. Getting out is the main aim of most of the educated young people we met.
This, however, requires a Soviet-style exit visa, as well as an entry visa to get into another country—which is no easy task, since the foreign consulates are well aware that there is more money to be made washing dishes in Brooklyn than in being a professor in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan’s President (seemingly for life) Karimov began his career as a loyal Soviet apparatchik and became an Uzbek nationalist almost inadvertently, when it became clear that Moscow was no longer interested. Thus the first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan became the president of the independent republic and had to play off the various forces within the society. Essentially, he renamed the Communist Party, let Lenin lapse, but kept Leninist discipline.
A Fossilized Political Structure
* Samarkand, before and after restoration (photo I. Williams).
The regime’s political structure is fossilized in Soviet times, and since independence it has been more concerned about maintaining power than expanding the economy. At least on paper, it maintains all the pervasive regulation of communist times, such as the internal passports and exit visas for its citizens and registration for visitors, domestic or foreign. Rather than being the basis for an efficient police state, however, these regulations serve more as profit points for the government, which levies fees and fines for imprisonment, or, just as commonly, for the individual bureaucrat or police officer who will overlook their flouting for a bribe.
On the way out my wife was held at the airport in Tashkent for not registering her presence in her mother’s house with the local militia. They tried to shake her down for $20 or so (it would have been $700 for me, as a foreigner), but she pointed out that she had no money, two children, and a foreign husband—who was busily taking notes in the corner on his laptop. The inspector eventually sighed and entered in long hand in a big ledger that she had been warned.
* Wads of cash for a meal (photo I. Williams).
“Foreigners don’t understand these things,” my wife was told when we went for airline tickets and were told there were no seats available on the flight to Khiva. She was called back so the clerk could explain that for a small token of appreciation, $10 in fact, the tickets would suddenly be there. It would be pointless going to the police about it. The green-uniformed militiamen are everywhere, zealous in stopping drivers for real or imagined infractions, but every time one of my drivers was stopped, there was nothing that a dollar or so in bribes would not excuse.
In fact since the biggest banknote, a 1,000 soms, equals about 70 cents, it is an effective counterinflationary restraint on bribery. Even a restaurant bill involves bundles of notes looking like a Medellin cocaine transaction, so it would be difficult to pay larger bribes discreetly. As it is, the resigned citizenry looks upon them more in the nature of tolls and tips than amoral bribery.
Similarly, although the country has also preserved some aspects of the Soviet social net such as a universal health service, it is generally accepted that medical staff deserve something extra from the patients and their families to supplement their abysmal salaries. And while across the country the government is building new schools and universities, additional payments—bribes—to teachers and professors may be necessary if you want to graduate. I met alleged university lecturers in English who could not speak the language. Luckily I did not have to call upon the services of a recently graduated brain surgeon.
* Colorful clothes and a traditional puppet show reflect Uzbekistan’s Silk Road heritage (photos I. Williams).
Insofar as there is an ideology for Karimov’s state, it is a resentful nationalism. While this does evoke a sympathetic response from a proud population, it is not enough for him to risk an election. Of all the ‘stans, the Uzbeks have been more intent to reassert their identity against the Russians. With the twin spurs of local chauvinism and economic immiseration driving them, most Russian expats have hightailed it for home. The Russian language is rapidly being replaced by Turkic Uzbek, which has adopted its fifth script in 70 years: from Arabic, to Roman, to Cyrillic, then to Turkish Roman and now to a more standard Roman script. (Karimov did not like the Turkish version.)
Replacing Lenin with Timurlaine as the national hero may have a certain gruesome appropriateness for those who consider the Bolshevik leader a ruthless mass murderer, but even so Timurlaine, the builder of skull pyramids and destroyer of cities, is not everyone’s idea of a 21st century icon. His wooden coffin is on display in the Samarkand museum—as part of a display of Uzbek woodwork!—but his body was reinterred in the lavishly restored Gur Emir, his tomb. Timurlaine’s statue has replaced Lenin’s in many of the de-Sovietized town squares.
Unlike neighboring Kazakhstan, whose nomadic Islam was worn lightly, the cities of Uzbekistan traditionally have been architectural and intellectual monuments to Islam—and the Gur Emir is just one of a huge complex of mosques, madrassas, and khans for wandering dervishes and merchants, and monuments.
With no reliable supplies of building stone nearby, the architects used mud brick for the massive but delicate piles, which they protected with ceramic tiles in predominately blue shades. Those huge minarets towering above the desert must have been like lighthouses for the caravans of two-humped Bactrian camels trudging their way through the scrub, although the biggest one in Bukhara served a more nefarious purpose: the emirs used to throw from the top condemned prisoners sewn in sacks. These are deservedly world heritage sites—the Registan in Samarkand is like having three cathedrals surrounding St Peter’s Square, but the buildings, while huge, are not intimidating. They are open and welcoming, with garden courtyards, wells and fountains to shield worshippers and travelers from the desert blasts outside.
In fact, most of the people in these cities of the Silk Road are actually Farsi-speaking Tadjiks, although most of them also speak Uzbek to avoid upsetting the new nationalism of the republic. Although ethnic Uzbeks in the north tend to combine impassivity of expression with generous hospitality, in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva their welcoming smiles survived Soviet suspicion and Uzbek tradition. The great miracle and ice-breaker was our six-month-old, carried in a back harness—universally regarded as the greatest innovation in transport since the local camels got their extra hump.
But in Bukhara the local kids happily accepted our five-year-old in a soccer match in the shadow of the minaret from which malefactors were thrown. Much more welcoming, they made sure he had easy runs at the goal—he was a guest, after all!
Water is a big issue for Uzbekistan. When our friend who met us at the airport told us, “The water in Tashkent is quite good—you can drink it if you boil it,” we should have taken it as a warning. We saw what he meant at the Saramboy Choikhana, or teahouse, on the road between Khiva and Bukhara. Deep in the desert, the brackish water is trucked into this waystation for travelers on the long trek. The outhouse was two planks that ran into an open pit, visible and smellable just on the other side of the wall. Our driver recommended distillation before drinking the water, and bringing one’s own food.
Even Marco Polo in his day would have had problems with water on the road, but it has become worse for the same reason that the Aral Sea is now a shrinking pond whose former seabed is being blown toxically about the region, while the irrigation techniques are causing salination of croplands.
An Ecological Disaster
The water problem is a hangover of the Soviet era dependence on cotton, which in turn is dependent on massive irrigation works diverting rivers to the fields. Moscow is now blamed for this ecological disaster, since it is not often mentioned that Karimov was a leading figure in the Uzbek Communist Party when these environmental atrocities were perpetrated. He now must balance the immediate social and financial costs of curtailing the government’s main source of revenue—and the mainstay, albeit at not much above subsistence, of the rural population—against the long-term environmental costs.
The cotton industry epitomizes the handicaps of incomplete reform. While it once was large-scale, mechanized and industrialized, privatization led to small plots, and most cotton now is harvested by hand. In an odd hangover, schoolchildren and college students alike are forced to pick the crop, and their labor became increasingly vital as the former Soviet machinery broke down without the resources for replacement.
But the state buys the cotton at a fraction of the price it sells it on the world market. The state gets assured revenue but, in an overwhelmingly rural country, the results do not percolate down to the farmers. Quite apart from the pervasive anti-entrepreneurial bureaucracy and corruption, this hybrid private-commandism is no way to create a dynamic modern economy.
There is little sign of a Karimov personality cult, which is just as well—he is about as charismatic as you would expect a former Brezhnev-era apparatchik to be. The government is concerned about what its citizens do, not what they think. However, its paranoia reflects its own deep feelings of insecurity. When the citizens of Andijon dared to protest in 2005, up to two thousand of them were gunned down—and posthumously accused of being Muslim fundamentalists.
Indeed, any unauthorized prayer meetings or uncontrolled congregations will bring the robustly fatal hand of the secret police down on the heads of people deemed to be Islamic militants, a catch-all phrase which covers all dissident activity.
Since Uzbek nationalism contained a strong element of Islamic reaction to Soviet-era atheism, that involved setting up what is almost a state “church.” In the Soviet era, the few mosques and the seminary for training imams were under strict state control. They remained so under the new dispensation, but greatly expanded in numbers.
At prayer times, especially in Ferghana, the small neighborhood mosques are packed with men covering their heads with the chopon, the square, easily folding hat that is traditional Uzbek headgear. Interestingly, there is no provision at all for women to pray in the mosques.
As in Iran, however, the old Zoroastrian tradition of Noruz is still a major festival, so strong that even the ayatollahs have been unable to stamp out this pre-Islamic fire worshippers’ fest.
The older Sufi traditions of the Silk Road prevail in Uzbekistan, with few headscarves on the women, and a general liking for beer and vodka. Oddly enough, several hosts recommended Kyrgyz vodka as preferable to and safer than Uzbek spirits, although that was in Ferghana—a fast smuggler’s drive across the border to Kyrgyzstan.
Uzbekistan’s place on the Silk Road and away from the puritanical Wahabi tradition is reinforced by its ubiquitous brightly colored silks and woolen rugs. A bride’s dowry begins with chests full of bolts of silk, and furniture for homes is mostly carpets on the walls and floors, with silk-covered cushions around the walls.
Karimov’s security is reputedly provided, or at least boosted, by Israelis. Despite the Episcopalian Islam of most Uzbeks, the regime was the first in the region to recognize Israel, and one of the few in the world to vote alongside the U.S. and Israel on Middle Eastern issues. That was in the early days, however, when Tashkent tried to counterbalance Moscow with Washington. Human rights issues put the brake on that rapprochement, but after 9/11, Karimov happily booked a seat on the Islamic Fundamentalist bandwagon. Casting itself as in the front line in the war against terrorism, like so many other autocratic regimes, any dissidence was conflated with fundamentalism and terrorism.
Location is everything in geopolitics. Being at the crossroads of Central Asia, and sitting on vast reservoirs of natural gas, gives a president for life a strong hand. After throwing out the Americans when they protested the Andijon massacre, Karimov is now being rewarded with overtures from Washington—not least since Kyrgyzstan took the Russian ruble to throw out its American base. (U.S. blandishments seem to have succeeded, however, as Kyrgystan’s parliament approved in late June an agreement allowing the base to remain open.) Karimov is under similar blandishments and pressure from Russia, while keeping close relations with China. The president seems happier now that he can use Beijing as another counterweight to Moscow—and happier still that he can use both to counter Western concerns about human rights.
Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations and has a blog at