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Central Asia’s Soviet Hangover

June 6, 2010
by Gail Bensinger
a statue of Lenin

Stalin’s fading, but the ghost of Lenin lingers on.

In Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyztan, a statue of Lenin has been moved from its prominent perch in front of Parliament around back, to a plaza built atop a bomb shelter dating from the 1950s. In Ashgabat, the surreal capital of oil-rich Turkmenistan, a statue of Lenin next to the national theater stands with its arm raised, atop an enormous tiled platform emblazoned with a plaque to “Leninizm”—in Latin letters, not the Cyrillic of Russian script.

Nearly two decades after the breakup of the USSR, the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan—are still taking the measure of their various states of independence. This huge swath of mountains, grasslands, and desert lies between the Caspian Sea and the Western border of China; south of Russia; and north of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Most are led by one-time Communist apparatchiks who have held onto power via elections with no substantive opposition, in what the CIA dryly calls “authoritarian presidential rule.”

A case in point: The bloody opposition protests in April that forced Kyrgyzstan’s president to flee the capital was hardly a democratic transfer of power. The huge U.S. Air Force cargo planes lined up on the tarmac at Bishkek’s airport are a reminder that America considers that country a crucial link for waging war in nearby Afghanistan, while a Russian military base elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan is a reminder that the Kremlin considers the ex-Soviet nations to be part of its post–Cold War sphere of influence.

The citizens of all five countries speak Russian, which was used in schools and for all government business for more than 70 years. Their populations reflect an ethnic diversity that is at least in part a legacy of forced resettlements of entire communities in the Kremlin’s shuffleboard approach to dividing and conquering. Yet they all share a hangover from what people refer to as “in Soviet times”—a verbal touchstone sometimes spoken with wistfulness, sometimes in resentment.

“The older generation is nostalgic for the Soviet Union. The young people appreciate the opportunity to take chances,” a young Uzbek graduate student with a pony-tail and a thousand-megawatt smile said of his generation.

The Soviets, and before them the Czars of all the Russias, were just the latest in a multi-millennium-long line of conquerors and colonialists that includes Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. But they’ve left behind a kind of split universe—big, bustling cities with museums, amusement parks, and traffic jams, where stylish young people talk on smartphones. In sleepy country towns, men drinking tea lounge on platforms that look like bedframes set up by the side of the road. The cuisines are delicious, varied, and copious, all washed down with local wine, beer, and vodka. The best shopping is in bazaars where the cabbages were as big as my head and flies circled lazily around displays of slaughtered beasts hanging on sturdy hooks.

The region is beset by earthquakes, so the results of periodic rebuilding could be described as mostly Soviet-shabby, while the grids of squared-off streets are a legacy of imperialist Russian military occupation. Those two periods of Moscow’s domination are juxtaposed in Panfilov Park in Almaty, which was Kazakhstan’s capital until 1997. The cheerfully ornate Russian Orthodox Zenkov Cathedral recalls the czarist past, before the practice of religion was banned by the Communists. Across the street, a World War II memorial is in the grim social-realism style of jutting chins and bulging muscles churned out by Soviet sculptors.

For the adventurous traveler, “the ’Stans” hold many pleasures. The drive from Almaty across the border to Kyrgyzstan slices through gorgeous landscapes of craggy mountains, tumbling rivers and grassy steppes still used as pasturage for flocks tended by nomads on horseback. An occasional yurt stands by the road leading to Issyk-Kul, the second-highest alpine lake in the world. During the Cold War, the lake was used to test underwater ordnance, much of which is still down there somewhere. Our guide told us that fishing in the lake is banned so stocks can be replenished, but I fantasized about two-headed fish that glow in the dark.

The Soviet Union’s horrific experiences during World War II account for two of the most prominent public monuments in the center of Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. One is a promenade in central Independence Square featuring giant bronze plaques on book-like hinges, inscribed with the names of the thousands of Uzbek war dead. The other is the elegant Alisher Navoi opera house, built by Japanese prisoners of war garrisoned far from the fighting in the Pacific. An out-of-season production of The Nutcracker, with its familiar Tchaikovsky score, showed the lingering influence of Russian culture, but no new Nureyevs leapt in the corps du ballet.

The highway southwest from Tashkent follows the route of the “golden road to Samarkand,” today lined by cotton fields. This, too, is a legacy of Soviet times. Bureaucrats in Moscow decided to grow the water-intensive crop in the deserts of Central Asia, irrigating the region from the inland Aral Sea, now virtually dried up—one of the worst ecological disasters in modern Central Asia.

This “golden” highway shares its route with the fabled Silk Road of old, which sent goods and ideas flowing between China and Europe before sea routes supplanted it. The caravans have been replaced by modern horse-power, but a lone camel standing forlornly in the dirt parking lot of a roadside snackbar looked left over from another century.

Uzbekistan’s tourist cities have worked hard to keep up the landmarks showing how rich in wealth and intellectual achievement this region once was. When the Soviet Union was young, Lenin decreed that the monuments of Central Asia had to be saved. In the 1960s, after Stalin died, the Kremlin restarted restoration programs, but much of that work has been dismissed as heavy-handed—for example, plastering over old brickwork rather than repointing it. And some of the most valued artifacts, such as the world’s oldest Koran in book form, now housed in Tashkent, were subjected to a tug of war with Russian authorities.

“After independence, we have a renewed interest in our culture,” said Makhsuma Niyazova, an archaeologist and curator of the Bukhara State Museum. In Soviet times, she said, there were “a lot of excavations, but politics influenced what got studied.… Archaeologists from Russia decided what was for their museums and what was for our museum.” Now, she added, scholars and curators welcome the help of Westerners bringing modern archeological tools with them.

At the end of the golden road lies Samarkand, where the contemporary city meanders around venerable places such as the Registan, one of the world’s great public spaces. Three opulently tiled portals with huge arches open harmoniously off a formal plaza, each leading to a courtyard and a school of Islamic theology. One dates from the 15th century and the others, two centuries later. One small mosque is still in use, but most visitors are Uzbek or foreign tourists.

The Shah-i-Zinda is a grand avenue of the dead, an ascending walkway flanked by tile-covered mausoleums dating from as early as the 14th century, where giggling schoolgirls now pose for photos. Elsewhere in Samarkand, an excavated observatory dating from the 1420s houses a pair of 90-foot-long rails that look like the biggest swoop of the roller-coaster on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. It’s all that’s left of a giant astrolabe, the world’s most advanced device for mapping the heavens before the invention of the telescope. It was built by the phenomenally gifted Ulugh Beg, remembered more as a mathematician and astronomer than as a ruler of the empire assembled by his grandfather—Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane. Elsewhere in Asia, Timur is remembered as a barbaric plunderer who waged constant war. But in Samarkand he is a homegrown hero who brought back the riches from his campaigns and kicked off a golden age.

Bukhara, farther to the southwest, played an important role in the “Great Game,” the tug-of-war-and-politics between the British and Russian empires that consumed Central Asia for most of the 19th century. A tyrannical Bukharan ruler who decided he was being insulted by Queen Victoria, held two British envoys in an underground prison called the Bug Pit before having them publicly beheaded in 1842. The restored Bug Pit is still there, complete with unhappy-looking mannequins, next to a jail with a creepy display of torture implements.

Old Bukhara has been a UNESCO heritage site since 1993, and many of its most historic buildings have been restored. A complex of old bazaars that once served the Silk Road trade now houses shops and stalls selling the products of revived traditional crafts—natural silk dyeing, metalwork, miniature painting, musical instruments, and the like. Some structures that were put to secular purposes by the Soviets have been restored to religious use, including the Kalon Mosque, the city’s largest mosque.

For connoisseurs of megalomania, Turkmenistan’s capital is a must-see. Central Ashgabat is designed to fulfill the over-the-top vision of Saparmurat Niyazov—the self-proclaimed Turkmenbashi the Great, or Leader of the Turkmen. He may have died in 2006, but no one speaks his name without that “great” add-on because, as one guide told me, “We have to.” Nearly identical medium-rise buildings clad in white Italian marble, most of them empty apartment blocks, line avenues built for more traffic than they bear. Niyazov scattered huge golden statues of himself around the city, but the most notorious one was 35 feet tall, stood atop a 250-foot tripod monument called the Arch of Neutrality, and rotated 360 degrees daily to track the sun, being lit by lasers after dark. It was ordered removed earlier this year so that the city center could be spiffed up for celebrations of Turkmenistan’s 20th anniversary of post-Soviet independence in October 2011.

To find real life in this artificial city, you must go to the Tolkuchka bazaar, where goats, sheep, poultry and camels are sold in a pungent livestock market. Across a parking lot full of used cars for sale is the main bazaar, where practically anything anybody could need is available. Sightsee at your own risk; stout housewives and old men with canes knock you aside if you’re blocking their way.

Since Niyazov’s death, some of his more bizarre accomplishments—renaming the month of April after his mother, for example—have been reversed. Words like “crackpot” or “whack job” might spring to mind, but visitors are warned not to talk about politics, and the Lonely Planet guide asserts that all hotel rooms are bugged. Indeed, this is probably the only place in Central Asia where Stalin, if he were still around, would feel right at home.

Gail Bensinger is a former foreign correspondent and current freelance writer.
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