Notes from Tashkent: Researching the Uzbek National Revival

by Ken Petersen

Throughout the academic year of 1996-97, I had the opportunity to conduct research in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Funded by a grant from ACTR/ACCELS, I spent nine months working on my Uzbek and researching the writings and activities of the early twentieth-century reformers who called themselves the Jadids. The majority of my work took place in the Navoi State Library and at the Institute of History at the Uzbek Academy of Sciences.

Although I encountered my share of bureaucratic hassles, I was pleased to find the open reception that I received from the scholars with whom I worked. In choosing to study the Jadids, I had become involved with a hot topic in the Uzbek scholarly community. After the formation of the Soviet Union, many of the prominent Jadid reformers had been liquidated in Stalin's purges and vilified by Soviet historiographers. Following independence, they have joined the ranks of Central Asian historical figures such as Amir Timur in serving as symbols for Uzbek national revival. The appearance of an aspiring scholar who was interested in examining Jadid writings was warmly welcomed by many of those involved with the process.

Tashkent was my first experience living in the former Soviet Union. I came to the field of Central Asian Studies after having spent several years living and working in South Asia and the Middle East. Consequently, what struck me the most about life in Uzbekistan was the distinctly "Soviet" quality that seemed to dominate public life. There is little on the streets of Tashkent to indicate that, prior to this century, this region had been deeply integrated with its Southern neighbors. To witness how great the cultural rift has become between the Central Asian Republics and the rest of the Turco-Iranian world, one has simply to cross the Amu Darya into Northern Afghanistan. The last stop before the border is Termez, which looks largely like a very small version of Tashkent. From Termez, it is a short trip to the Friendship Bridge and the gateway to Afghanistan. Some three or four kilometers beyond the bridge, the traveler arrives in the town of Khairaton where he (or she, if she is very adventurous) finds himself in an entirely different world -- gone are the ubiquitous poured-concrete square buildings and wide boulevards. Vodka is conspicuously absent from the shelves of stores. The men who mill in the dusty, ill-kept roads wear baggy shalwar kameez and bright turbans instead of Western clothing and dopis, the traditional Uzbek skull cap (and there isn't a gold tooth for miles). Women are virtually not to be seen -- those that do appear in the streets wear heavy, concealing burqas. In general, life is ruled by an earthy, non-linearity that stands in stark contrast to the cold, square modernity on the other side of the Oxus.

The effects of Russian/ Soviet experience in Central Asia are visible in almost every facet of life. The Soviet road to modernity brought higher levels of education, improved health care and countless other benefits. At the same time, it separated the people from many elements of their own past and culture. As leaders in Uzbekistan struggle to forge an independent modernity, they are looking to their pre-Soviet past to retake some of their lost heritage.

Ken Petersen is a Graduate Student in the Department of Near Estern Languages and Civilization, University of Washington.