Uzbekistan’s Brave New World

By John Mcleod | November 29, 2002

Tashkent – Mubin, an editor at Information Weekly, a nondescript tabloid specializing in pop music and sports, invited me over Sunday evening for dinner. It’s Ramadan now, and he warned me not to be late, as he’d eaten his morning meal at 4:30 am and would be counting the minutes till 5:11 pm. After a tasty ploff, prepared by his lovely, retiring wife, Nargiza, we went out on the street to smoke a joint and meet with his neighborhood friends for the traditional evening hanging out session. A scene which is repeated in thousands of neighborhoods across the Muslim world.

Hasim, a chubby and friendly forward on their local soccer team (most Uzbeks are avid soccer fans), eagerly asked me about the Toronto Maple Leafs, how much a driver earns in Canada, etc. – the typical questions which I’m asked countless times. An electrical engineer by training, he earns much more now as a budding capitalist, emptying cash each day from pinball machines he owns in the neighborhood. He then announced, with a laugh: "I’m off to America soon." When pressed further, he explained that he had applied to the American Embassy for the 2nd year in a row for the green-card lottery.

Like virtually all young men here (and many women), America is the magical heaven on earth, where they can earn lots of money and come back to live like kings. That prompted me to ask, "What do you think about Bush’s plans to attack Iraq?"

"That’s just to gain control of the oil there," he said in a matter-of-fact way.

His friend Salim piped in, "Afghanistan, Iraq… the US has lots of weapons. It’s got to use them up. War’s good for the economy." I thought that wasn’t far off the mark considering their only sources of news are word of mouth and official Uzbek news, which is slavishly pro-American.

Somehow the conversation came around to what it was like ‘before’, i.e., before the Soviet Union collapsed. "Life was secure then. We had communism and didn’t realize it," said Hasim sheepishly. "You didn’t think much about money. Studying was free. Now our kids have to hustle to pay for everything. They don’t have time to study properly. Or play."

"And the US had to think twice before bombing another country into oblivion," I couldn’t help adding.

"We were part of a powerful country that the world respected," said Salim. "Where are we now? A backwater, cut off from the world."

It was getting nippy, so Mubin and I made our farewells and joined his family. As the youngest son, he settled in to the family home when he married, and he looks after his energetic, no-nonsense mother, this being the tradition here. In fact, she needs little looking after, though she’s pushing 80. The garden is a riot of color in the summer. She just finished a biography of her father, who studied in Turkey until 1925, and as with so many of the intellectuals of the Soviet Union, disappeared during the ‘30s one day and was never heard from again.

Despite this, Barno opa [opa means elder sister, a term of respect] never suffered as a child of an ‘enemy of the people’, and the family, though devastated when he disappeared, fantasized that he had gone back to Turkey, somehow. She became a noted journalist, joined the Communist Party, and lived a full and interesting life, a strong, independent woman who had no need for ‘women’s lib’. She had read Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin, but only learned the fate of her father when the floodgates opened under Gorbachev in 1989 – over 50 years later. He had been arrested along with 80 other leading Uzbeks, and was one of 15 who were spirited off to Moscow and shot without trial for advocating a pan-Turkestan independent republic.

"But didn’t you know about the gulag?" I asked her. "Didn’t you suspect that he had been repressed?"

"No," she said. "We knew that there were many unjust arrests and murders under Stalin, but I never thought this had happened to my father."

As a result of this shattering revelation Barno opa welcomed Uzbekistan’s independence, and supports Karimov, refusing to bemoan the collapse of the SU that had done so much – both good and bad – for her. She accepts the entrenching of a petty dictator (who incidentally was a destitute orphan and yet was able to rise to be president), the extreme censorship of media, the jails full of ordinary believers. In her twilight years, she doesn’t worry about the radical economic changes and the brave new world growing up around her. What’s important to her is that her father’s picture is in the Museum of the Victims of Colonialism, which lumps Russian and Soviet periods under one imperialist yoke. It’s hard to blame her.

Nonetheless, I suggested that it was a tragedy that the Soviet Union collapsed. Mubin’s sister, Sayora, readily agreed. She is a professional pop singer and would have lived comfortably in Soviet times, with her charming personality and talent. Their mother remained silent, but Sayora’s husband, Temir, an erstwhile Communist Party member, launched into a critique of the Soviet Union as state capitalist. He is a budding businessman, and during perestroika, was active in organizing a ‘trade union of entrepreneurs’. As we are both economists, I started to protest at his obvious misuse of terms.

"Of course, it wasn’t a trade union in the real sense of the word, but at that time, we had to use acceptable terms to organize," Temir explained smoothly. You know the type: he would have fit well into the ideology section of some Soviet ministry, and now, if his English were better, he would be snapped up by Satchi & Satchi to dream up ads in Uzbek for Dentamint. He struck me as having less of a grip on reality than the street-smart Hasib, and a lot more pretensions.

"Yes, poor Gorby," I said rather undiplomatically and proceeded to poke holes in his trade union for entrepreneurs and his theory about the SU. "Gorbachev had these naive ideas that if things were loosened up a bit, people would honestly work together, form real cooperatives, and the reforms would succeed. Instead, everyone grabbed what they could and Yeltsin tore the whole system down."

Maybe they were just being polite, but no one dissented. Even Barno opa didn’t have a good word for Yeltsin, except that by scuttling Gorbachev’s attempt to salvage the Union, he had paved the way for Uzbekistan to become independent.

Such a stew of contradictions – the worship of the American dream, the cynical awareness that the US is selfish and violent on a world scale. People who lived well under a harsh but egalitarian system, but whose personal tragedies and susceptibility undermined their faith in it. They have to come to terms with their brave new world, and it’s not easy.

But the chief cook and bottle-washer here, . Uzbek president Islam Karimov, always has the last word. In August, he told parliament that "the shadow of the USSR" was a major reason for its present problems. He hailed the new generation growing up free of "the totalitarian heritage" of the Soviet Union.

"Having visited one of the schools," Karimov said, "I asked the children, ‘Do you know who Brezhnev was?’ They answered, ‘No, we don’t’. Then I asked them, ‘Who is Gorbachev?’ They again said that they didn’t know. And I told them that they are doing great."


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