Uzbekistan today appears to be a thriving country with gold and natural gas resources, some wonderful tourist destinations, a diverse mix of people and tasty food, but it has survived some very hard times throughout the ages. I described some of its ancient history in my last blog, but some of the most challenging times have been in the last 25 years since the crumbling of the USSR.
As our guide in Uzbekistan described it, people awoke one morning in 1991 to hear Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake playing over and over on TV and radio, the way the USSR usually announced the death of an important person. This went on for three days, with people thinking it must have been a really important person, but finally they were informed that, in fact, it was the USSR that had died!! For us in the West, this was news to celebrate—our Cold War rival had destroyed itself from within! But for the people of the republics, it was a time of extreme uncertainty and anxiety. Suddenly these small states were responsible for their own economy, education, health care, transportation systems and all that had been tightly controlled the day before.
It was a challenging transition, a period when people lost jobs and life savings. Uzbeks often had to sell family jewelry and heirlooms to feed their families. Many Russians, who had been settled in the satellites by Stalin, fled back to Russia in panic. Life was unpredictable as industry and agriculture were reorganized to survive without Soviet support. Many older people yearned for the relative stability of the Soviet era, and some still do.
The president at the time, Soviet-groomed Islam Karimov, remains the president today through three election cycles that many consider rigged, and the government has been accused of nepotism and corruption. He seems to have created a sense of prosperity, however, and obviously has used resources to build infrastructure and invest in education. Because he will not run again in 2015, there is concern about the country’s future leadership right now. Great hope is placed in the leadership of the generation born since 1991; they are well-educated and have never known life under the Soviets, but they are still barely in their 20s.
Gradually over 23 years, Uzbekistan has become a place where its citizens can rightfully feel pride in its accomplishments and the hard work they have contributed to building the country. The cities are clean, public areas are well-maintained, trains and planes are modern and run on time. There is little crime. Although many still struggle economically, we saw no beggars or signs of extreme poverty, and the literacy rate is 99.3% Many older people still look to Russia for travel and higher education opportunities for their children, but many in the youngest generation are learning English and hoping for opportunities in Europe and America. We spent a delightful evening with the teenage children of our guide and their friends, who welcomed the chance to practice their English with our group of travelers and to ask endless questions about life in America and how we perceived their country. Their intelligence and drive helped our group feel optimistic about Uzbekistan’s future. However, because of a lack of good jobs in Uzbekistan at the present, Russia drains off Uzbek talent by offering easily- obtainable work visas.
In Tashkent, the capital, we saw that symbols had been important in the creation of the new independent country. A lovely park in the city center, which had still had statues of Lenin when we were there in 1998, had been redesigned. Now we entered through pillars topped by a statue of a phoenix, symbolic of the new beginning. Most moving is the new memorial to the unknown soldier. Instead of the soldier in a Soviet uniform, paying tribute to the Great War of 1941-45, there is now a graceful statue of a grieving mother in front of an eternal flame. Sheets of bronze embellished with the names of soldiers lost in war hang along a wall. Nearby a fragrant forest of native trees has been planted. All in all it is an elegant and hopeful tribute to this new nation.
1. If you had an opportunity to rebuild your country for some reason, what would you want to keep and what would you want to change about it?
2. The future leaders of Uzbekistan did not grow up under the Soviet regime. Is it important for them to study the USSR of the past to guide their country into the future?