The first half of my 3 week Five Stans tour was dominated by the blue tiled splendor of the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan and the over-the-top marble edifices of Turkmenistan. In the latter half, visiting Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, two new themes emerged: stunning mountain scenery and an odd reverence for all things Soviet that kept me humming Back in the USSR during my time spent there.
The region shares a common history. Settled thousands of years ago, such conquerors as Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Arabs and the Mongols all left their mark. Either in the 10th or 16th century, depending on who one asks, nomadic Turkic tribes from the Altai mountains invaded, mixed with the locals and, to varying degrees, either maintained their nomadic lifestyle or settled into farming. Khans or kings emerged, all Muslim, governing over their respective tribes.
Ironically, the US civil war is usually the impetus for sparking Russian interest in the area in the mid 1800’s. One consequence of the war was a global shortage of cotton. Russia, eager to fill the void, looked toward the cotton fields adjacent to the grand rivers, the Ural, the Amu Darya (the Oxus) and Syr Daryl and began conquering the region, eventually succeeding in 1895, when it created Russia Turkestan, roughly the area between Siberia and Afghanistan.
Nearly 100 years of Russian/Soviet rule followed. Monuments in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan and Almaty, Kazakhastan’s main city, pay tribute to the Bolshevik Revolution; others commemorate the contributions made by the Stans’ populace, where hundreds of thousands of young men were conscripted into the Soviet’s WW2 war effort.
Many Soviet policies had long lasting impact. Stalin, fearful of the potential danger of a large, unified Muslim republic within the USSR arbitrarily carved out 5 republics – the current Stans – and promoted nationalism in each; the ultimate divide and conquer strategy. He also moved a lot of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarus into Central Asia, many involuntarily. Quite a few gulags were situated in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, not always with negative results. A Kazakh national I sat next to on the plane decried the loss of these forced Russian emigres, saying they were some of the best doctors, engineers and scientists in the area. He claimed their deaths, mostly by natural causes, left a large hole in the region’s intelligensia.
Thanks also to the USS, the largest environmental disaster after Chernobyl is in Central Asia, the much diminished Aral Sea. Once the 4th largest sea in the world, aggressive Soviet irrigation of its feeder rivers towards the cotton fields has left the sea a shadow of its former self, with seaside ports now 20 kilometers from the water, hundreds of ships resting in sandy graveyards far from shore and a once thriving fishing industry gone. The sea keeps shrinking and no improvement in its outlook is in sight.
Not all of the USSR’s policies were negative. The Stans had been largely feudal before Russia; afterwards most of the population received free education, modern healthcare, jobs-for-life, pensions and the right to vote in largely meaningless elections. Although nomadic life ceased during the Soviet times, farms provided sufficient food and queuing for food or going hungry was not a problem. Infrastructure grew by leaps and bounds; railroads, highways and TV’s were introduced. In Tajikistan, the Soviets spent a lot on infrastructure because they never thought they’d leave. Soviet style apartments, government buildings and universities abound in its capital Dushanbe. Women are mostly equal, religions tolerated and there’s little apparent discrimination based on ethnicity.
Road to Independence:
Starting in 1989, former republics in the USSR began demanding independence, sometimes with deadly results such as in Lithuania and The Ukraine, where USSR troops were sent in to quell independence marchers, killing many protesters. Not so in the Stans, where no real move for independence had developed. To the contrary, in Kazakhstan, independence was “negotiated” between its future president and the USSR. In Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgzs were told, not asked, by the Russians they were leaving. Russia was finding it too expensive and difficult to keep the far-off Central Asia republics in their fold. Imagine Canada deciding it had had enough of Newfoundland and said it was divorcing it in 6 months. That’s what happened in 1991 to the Stans.
Thus, between August 31 and December 1, 1991, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan were cut loose from the imploding USSR and left to flounder on their own. While each took slightly different paths, their ensuing independence led to civil war (Kazakhstan), overthrows of corrupt government (Kyrgyzstan) and total economic chaos amid hyperinflation (everywhere). People, accustomed to being told what to do since birth, were suddenly required to think for themselves. Unemployment reared its ugly head. Suicide rates skyrocketed, as did alcoholism. It was a rough introduction to the new world and even today, there is a divide between the older generation harking a return to the communist days and the younger generation more comfortable with internet, English and capitalism.
Despite independence, each of the Stans has kept the former Soviet style of government with the head of state wielding dictatorial powers, widespread censorship and rampant corruption within the government.
Against this background, I visited Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
While possessing ancient and Silk Road ruins, Tajikistan’s biggest attractions are its mountains and lakes. A nature lover’s paradise, but for me, a reluctant hiker, the country’s vistas mostly offered good photo opportunities, such as the Pamir Mountains near Pendzhikent and at Khudzhand lake:
There were a few pretty parks, some newish buildings reminding me of white marble clad Ashgabat and the ubiquitous oversized portrait of the current president, watching over a children’s festival:
Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, is not the capital, but instead, the former Astana, recently renamed Nur-Sultan in honour of its long-time dictator/president Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev. In Almaty, the main tourist site was a quaint music museum with displays of local instruments and wooden goat shaped puppets that danced to the music.
In this majority Muslim city, the standout religious building is a Russian Orthodox Church:
There’s the obligatory soviet realism homage to the worker/cultures:
Of course, we visited another nearby beautiful lake, the Great Almaty Lake:
We attended the National Museum, where photos were only allowed in the lobby and the room devoted to Kazahkstan’s achievements, where President Nazarbayez is front and center. Thankfully, his sporting, artistic and driving exploits are not as prominently displayed as those of the Turkmenistan president in Mary.
Almaty did inherit Russia’s preference for ornate subways. We descended deep underground to a Silk Road themed station and rode the subway to the Bikaner station, named after the location where Soviet spaceships launch. Naturally, a film played in the subway station lauding the Soviet space program.
Of all the cities I visited in the Stans, Bishkek reminded me most of the USSR. Its main square, Alo-Too, formerly known as Lenin Square, is flanked on all sides by buildings bearing typical Soviet Realism, or as one writer terms it, brutalist, architecture with lots of square lines, monotonous, thick grey limestone bricks and little if any ornamentation. Around it rests an odd assortment of buildings: the National History Museum, the Ministry of Agriculture and 2 textile factories.
The Soviet love of massive statues celebrating communism is evident, as a walk around and near the square revealed numerous examples. The only nod to current conditions is the relegation of Lenin to behind the National Museum rather than the front:
Beside the square was a charming sculpture garden containing statues of famous Kyrgzs, none of whom I would have recognized even if I could read the Cyrillic alphabet. But it was nice to see depictions of people with Turkic and Mongol features, along with a few women.
Such occurrences are becoming commonplace; riots against a former president accused of corruption, abuse of office and enriching himself had taken place just a few weeks before, in August, 2019.Maybe the vestiges of the USSR are, at last, slowly disappearing.