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Uzbekistan Rewrites History to Fit Present

By News Briefing Central Asia
  • Tamerlane astride his horse in central Tashkent. The medieval Central Asian warlord has found himself appropriated as a symbol of power by the modern Uzbek regime. (Photo: Ehedaya/Wiki Commons)
    Tamerlane astride his horse in central Tashkent. The medieval Central Asian warlord has found himself appropriated as a symbol of power by the modern Uzbek regime. (Photo: Ehedaya/Wiki Commons)

Academics in the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan have completed the process of revising history books to match the latest official ideology.

The rewriting process has been rushed through since the beginning of the year, when President Islam Karimov ordered the creation of a new Public Council on Contemporary History.

The Institute of History, part of Uzbekistan’s Academy of Sciences, has formulated a somewhat selective narrative to meet Karimov’s present needs. The redrafting process has been a feature of post-Communist Uzbekistan, just as it was whenever the ideology shifted during decades of Soviet rule.

Uzbekistan, whose name and borders were devised by the Soviet authorities in early 20th century, now has a history of independent statehood dating from the Late Bronze Age. The medieval conquests of Amir Timur – better known as Tamerlane in the West – are a highlight, outshone only by the rule of Karimov, cast as the feared warlord’s spiritual heir.

Although Karimov was the last Communist Party boss of Soviet Uzbekistan, the system of which he was part is now redefined as Russian occupation. His consolidation of authoritarian power after 1991 is rebranded as a national “struggle against Communism”, and he becomes "father of the modern Uzbek nation".

Many people are saddened to see the regime trashing 70 years of Soviet rule, for various reasons.

One history teacher in the capital Tashkent noted that “the latest textbooks even blame the Soviet authorities for the ‘hujum movement’ [in the 1920s], when they gave women here a chance to cast off the veil and wear ordinary clothes”.

A history lecturer regretted the blacking-out of Tashkent’s role in the Second World War, when it offered shelter to scholars, writers, musicians evacuated from western parts of the Soviet Union including the besieged city of Leningrad – and benefited itself from the cultural infusion.

Obid Kurbanov, a historian in Tashkent, was disappointed that the official history ignores the help that other parts of the Soviet Union offered to the city when it was devastated by an earthquake in 1966.

"We used to give detailed lessons about the collective effort that gave the city a new image," he said. "Now there’s a paltry amount of information about the disaster."

More ominously, the latest written texts fail to mention recent conflicts, such as the 1989 clashes in the Fergana Valley that led the Meskhetian Turks to leave Uzbekistan en masse, and the 1990 bloodshed between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan.

A history lecturer at a Tashkent university said staff were required to adjust their teaching to fit the latest version of the past.

"We now have to say that the last 20 years have been the best period in the history of Uzbek nation," she said. "No view that’s critical of these developments is allowed."

For the average citizen, the unpredictability of the past can be confusing.

Barno, a 47-year-old woman from Jizak region, would have gone to school in the Soviet Union, and realises the version of history with which she is familiar will be little use to her 15-year-old daughter.

"Timur used to be a medieval tyrant, but now he’s a great ruler,” she said. “And it gets even harder to explain events that we have personally witnessed. We’ve seen a lot of things, and we have our own, different take on them."

This article was produced as part of News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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