Thursday, January 20

Lenin Kaput

Our Russian driver Dima is super nice, proactively and unobtrusively helpful all the time. (In fact, all the non-official people we have met in Uzbekistan have been super nice, just as every official we've crossed has been quite the opposite.) As we drive around Tashkent, our conversation dwells on Uthman, or Kaffal of Chach, or the ancient history of Sogdiana, and Dima invariably quietly listens. When we pass the Orthodox Church of Tashkent, he speaks at last, with a big smile: "That," he says, "Russian Church."

A little later, we are passing Independence Square -- the largest public city square in the former USSR, in the middle of which stood the largest Lenin statue in the Soviet Union. That statue is gone -- now there is a globe with Uzbekistan in its place. Our driver guffaws and gives a theatrical shrug: "Lenin Kaput!" It is not hard to hear the anguish behind the laughter.

Soon after Uzbek independence, the Russian language lost its official status in Uzbekistan. Living standards dropped; the school, the electricity, the public transport taken for granted under the USSR suddenly seemed luxuries. Karimov started a process of reducing the presence of ethnic Russians in positions of influence. The revenge of the Sart has made Russians the new nomads in Central Asia.

Imperial Russia had conquered Tashkent in 1865. In the aftermath of the Russian humiliation in the Crimean War, a difference had opened up between the Foreign Office in St. Petersburg (which did not want to re-antagonize Western Europe in the time needed to recover economically) and Tsar Alexander II (who delighted in lavishing honors and medals on successful military exploits). Into this gap stepped in General Mikhail Cherniaev, who disregarded direct orders not to engage the Khanate of Kokand (then in lordship over Tashkent), figuring it was easier to get forgiveness than permission. Cherniaev's first attempt in 1864 was not successful; in 1865, he managed to capture the city's water supply. The elders of Tashkent sent for help to Bukhara. Cherniaev's response was to mount an assault on the city, his 2,000 troops (and 12 cannon) facing perhaps 10,000-30,000 Kokandian forces. The relative isolation from large Eurasian countries had given the despotic khans a false sense of preparedness; after 2 days of battle, it became clear that the semi-regulars of the khanate were far behind the professional Russian forces in organized military prowess if not in ruthlessness. Hundreds of Kokand soliders lay dead, vs. a few dozen Tsarist casualties. The city elders then arranged a surrender, recognizing Tsarist control over Tashkent in return for promises not to levy any new taxes, and not to billet soliders with civilians in the city. Upon hearing of the conquest, Alexander II was delighted; he decorated Cherniaev (in spite of his contravention of specific orders from military superiors) and remarked it had been "a glorious affair." There was less British indignation than feared, in the end "Lion of Tashkent" Cherniaev's fait accompli, and similar derring do by Generals Kaufman and Skobelev, opened the doors for a new empire in the East.

A colonial society was spawned. A cotton boom, a railway boom, and all-around industrialization resulted in an influx of settlers. In the first census of Russian Tashkent conducted in 1872, out of 2000 townspeople 600-odd were Orthodox Russians (the rest being Muslims or Jews.) Five years later, there were 14,000. Most of the new arrivals were urban poor from European Russia, braving 2,000 kms over uninhabited wasteland. According to Jeff Sahadeo's recent book on Russian colonial society in Tashkent:

The route to Tashkent from European Russia passed through two thousand kilometers of harsh steppe and desert territory and lasted anywhere from one to four months. Between the city of Orsk and the Aral Sea, the condition of the road was atrocious: sandy and dusty in summer, muddy in the spring and fall, and almost invisible in the winter snows. The steppe became increasingly desolate; corrosive, salty soil stung the eyes and inhibited breathing. Travelers then entered the Karakum desert. Kazakh guides directed the traveler to wells and around sand dunes, but carriages frequently stuck in deep deposits of sand, requiring hours of work to be dug out. Camels proved far more reliable than horses at traversing the desert sands, but their slow gait and surly behavior infuriated travelers. Postal stations, the only form of shelter, were no more than small dirty huts or tents maintained by local Cossacks or Kazakhs, who often lived elsewhere on the steppe, and remained abandoned for days. Stationmasters, when present, frequently robbed travelers. Dehydration and diarrhea struck frequently. Mennonites traveling in a caravan in 1880 lost eleven children to disease, in their words, in the “burning hell” of the Karakum.

A bristling Tsarist intellectual quoted in the book writes the new arrivals were "identified by their hungry faces, ragged dress, and mud-shacks on the edge of Russian Tashkent"; the upper classes clearly feared that the proletariat flooding in, "the dark, reverse side of our civilization", would threaten Russia's image as bearer of a superior St. Petersburg civilization. Along with the railway came railway workers, bringing not only their skills but also revolutionary thoughts on class (i.e. that they had more rights than the natives but no less than the aristocracy). A few decades later, Lenin would find the ranks of these workers throw up many leaders of the Bolshevik revolution in the East.

Neither Russia nor Kazakhstan requires visas for Uzbek citizens; "you can just get up on a bus and go", explained Nadia, who is half-Russian. According to the 2010 IMF GDP list, Russian per capita GDP is about USD 10000 -- i.e. in the neighborhood of Poland or Lithuania, and above the world average of around USD 9000. Kazakhstan's per capita GDP is USD 8000, i.e. similar to that of Argentina or Venezuela; Uzbekistan is at USD 1300, somewhere around India or Pakistan. Just before the fall of communism in 1989, 10% of Uzbekistan's population was ethnic Russian; by 2004, it was 4%, and it probably less today. Meanwhile, the Russian population in the East Kazakh Region of Kazakhstan alone (the traditional Russian-populated area) comprises 46% (vs. 49% ethnic Kazakhs) of that territory.

Kazakhstan has tremendous natural resources; the second largest reserves in the world of uranium, chromium, lead, zinc; the third largest reserves of manganese reserves; the fifth largest reserves of copper; ranks in the top ten for coal, iron, and gold; and has the 11th largest proven reserves of gas. As investment floods in to develop these, it is not hard to see Kazakhstan soon reaching the levels of per-capita GDP of Saudi Arabia (USD 16000), or more; making the Kazakh-Uzbek border resemble the one between the USA and Mexico.

From a news report:

"I have already taken my wife and daughter to Ust-Kamenogorsk. I'm selling our apartment here in Tashkent to join them there," Igor, 29, said. A certified engineer, he earned his daily bread in Tashkent as a self-appointed cabby. "A lot of our acquaintances and friends left for Kazakhstan. Besides, I want a normal salary paid for what I'm a specialist in. I'm fed up with how things are here where I never know if I'm going to earn anything or not. And I want to be able to speak my mind. We may even decide to move on at some later date. No, not to Russia - Kazakhstan is not any worse than Russia. We'll go abroad."

Igor hopes to be granted citizenship in Kazakhstan.

Motives of many other immigrants are similar.

"My daughter and me would have gone to Russia long ago, but there will be problems with citizenship and lodging there," hotel manager Irina, 45, said. "Besides, we do not have relatives in Russia. Cannot say that we have any in Kazakhstan, but in Kazakhstan one can make himself without help. I'm not saying there is any harassment here in Uzbekistan or something. It's just that we will have to leave Tashkent sooner or later in any case. There are lots of Russians in Kazakhstan. Salaries there are decent, and goods are not that expensive."

"Sure, it is possible to earn a fine salary in Tashkent too," translator Irina, 32, announced, "but living standards in Kazakhstan are higher. Consider Astana. It is practically a European capital! I want to live in Europe but nobody will let me leave Uzbekistan for Europe. It will be easier to accomplish that in Kazakhstan. I know, I asked around. Besides, I have relatives there encouraging me to come over. So, why would I stick around here?"

"I'm leaving to earn some dough for the time being. Still, I'm already thinking about settling there for good. There are lots of Russians there, that's what I like. Russians are rare in Tashkent nowadays. When I see one, I'm happy like I met a friend or something! It's different in Kazakhstan where Russian is a state language. That's great because I do not speak Uzbek. Everything will be in the Uzbek language here in Tashkent soon - I'm not even talking about regions. Well, I'll go and see what salaries there are like. I have some acquaintances who invite me to go there together," Nikolai, 22, said.

Obtaining citizenship in Kazakhstan for an ethnic Russian is not that easy. He or she must have lived in Kazakhstan for 5 years and have $8,000 in a bank. Kazakhstan does not want paupers which is only understandable.

All these and other difficulties notwithstanding, Russians are not alone to be leaving for Kazakhstan. There are also Uzbeks, Koreans, and Tatars. Some of them aspire for citizenship, others merely want to earn some money.

According to Andrei K. (his family moved from Tashkent to Kazakhstan not long ago), business opportunities in Alma-Ata are better.

"A lot of my friends moved to Kazakhstan to set up businesses here," Andrei wrote to Ferghana.Ru news agency. "In Tashkent, businesses are slowly strangled by bureaucracy. Every next government resolution is more moronic than the previous one. Absurd demands, the necessity to pass through administrative levels, etc. It takes between 10 and 20 days to have some shipment pass through the Uzbek customs - and that's official. You need approval from between 5 and 10 structures. Bureaucrats everyone. You approach them only to discover that someone is sick, another is away at some wedding, the third has a funeral to attend, and the fourth is picking cotton in the fields. Even when they all are present, all of them want their palms greased. Sure, Kazakhs and Kyrgyzes aren't exactly lily-white either but in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan problems like that are solved inside of half an hour."

Businessmen say that there is more economic freedom in Kazakhstan than in Uzbekistan. Nobody hunts down menial workers from abroad or organizes mass passport checks.

"I came here, rented an apartment, and found a job with a nice firm. That's all," cook Sergei Zherdev said. He has lived in the capital of Kazakhstan for over a year now. "Nobody has inquired about my citizenship yet."


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