The Five Stans: Throwback to the USSR

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 History:

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.

Soviet Rule:

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:

Its capital, Dushanbe, was unremarkable save for the over-the-top gaudiness of its newest tourist attraction, the Navruz Palace, built to showcase local craftsmanship in rooms reminiscent of tasteless Las Vegas interiors. A palace in name only, its stated purpose is to  host conferences and weddings and show to gobsmacked visitors. Allegedly built by private funds, all mysteriously related to the current president, the enthusiastic guide indicated it awaits UNESCO heritage status. I suspect it will be a long time coming.

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:

Presidential Portrait

Almaty, Kazakhstan:

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.

Pretty yes, particularly exciting or illuminating, no.

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.

Presidential Promotion

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.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan:

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.

Alo-Too Square

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:

Marx and Engels
Another homage to the USSR

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.

A block away is the burned out remnant of the Prosecutor’s Building, destroyed in 2010 by rioters protesting against the corruption of the then president, who eventually fled the country and found refuge in Belarus.

The former Prosecutor’s Building


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.

Next: Lebanon


Uzbekistan: In search of a tyrant

Imagine one of the worst mass murderers in history, responsible for the slaughter of 17 million people, 5% of the world’s population, without gunpowder or nuclear weapons, many dying painful, grotesque deaths involving decapitation, being burned alive, having their insides brutally ripped out and prominently displayed giant mountains of victims’ skulls as a caution to others. Most nations would be ashamed of such a legacy, relegating such villains to a past best forgotten. Not so Uzbekistan, where its national hero is Timberlane, the prolific executioner whose exploits were exceeded only in the 20th century by the estimated 70 million who died during WW2.

Timerlane (also known or spelled Emir Timer, Timurlane or Timer-Lane) was not completely evil. He promoted Islam and was responsible for Islam’s resurgence in Central Asia in the 14th century, where he established many madrases – Islamic schools – and constructed fabulous mosques. His craftsmen created some of the most gorgeous buildings, many in Samarkand, which was referred to as the most beautiful city in the world in the 15th century. He fostered education, the sciences and astronomy. He captured large swaths of land in India, the Caucasus, Iran, Turkey and, in a strange twist, his defeat of the Ottoman Turks in 1402 at Ankara so weakened the Ottoman Empire that it failed in its later endeavors to capture Christian Europe.

Uzbekistan’s embrace of Timerlane is not completely unjust. He was partly Uzbek on his mother’s side, his father a Mongol descendant by marriage of Ghengis Khan. Timerlane was born in what is now Uzbekistan, came to power in Samarkand and made it his capital. Equally important, Uzbekistan needed a national hero when it became independent from Russia in 1991. Although the region enjoys a long history going back to Neolithic times, the Uzbeks were a fairly recent arrival, likely being one of many Turkic tribes who settled in the area in the 10th century, although others claim the Uzbeks did not arrive until the 16th century. During its time as a Soviet Republic, Stalin did his best to quash the Uzbek identity, scattering Uzbek people throughout the USSR, settling other ethnicities including many Russians in Uzbek-speaking territories, and making Russian the official language. It is not surprising that the newly formed independent country desired a hero that could unite a country, conveniently sidestepping his less positive sides.

The Tour:

I visited Uzbekistan in September, 2019 as part of a 5 country tour called “The Stans” organized by the Canadian company, Adventures Abroad. Advertised as for the over-55 crowd, at 59 I was by far the youngest of our 17 strong group. I think the oldest was 83. The relative older age range was reflective of most of the other tourists in the areas. Either because of restrictive visa requirements or the expense in flying here, backpackers were rarely seen and most visitors seemed to be seniors.

The major attraction for me of the Stans is its history as the Silk Road, the name given to a variety of overland trading routes linking the Far East to Europe, Turkey and India. Used since at least the time of Alexander the Great, camels starting in China traversed the deserts of Central Asia to Byzantium, laden with silk, spices and paper and returning with horses, wool and grapes. Along the roads, great cities with names like Samarkand and Merv gave refuge to weary travellers for centuries, provided a repository for ancient literature and scientific knowledge while Europe languished in the Middle Ages, and sparked a golden age of Arab art. More sinisterly, the Silk Road also transported the bubonic plague to Europe in the 6th century. In the 15th century, the Ottomans banned trade along the routes, a move that encouraged Portuguese navigators in the 16th century to discover faster sea routes and make the overland roads obsolete.

A Short History:

Tourists have been visiting since Marco Polo in the 14th century. I joined the new wave of tourists eager to sample The Five Stans: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgzstan. Each country shares something of a common history: early Neolithic settlements, Hellenized by Alexander the Great and his successors, the start of global trade and silk roads during the Roman times in 132 BC to satiate the Roman desire for silk and inhabited by Persian speaking Zoroastrians until the Arabs captured and converted most of the area in the 7th century. In the 13th century, Mongol tribes led by Ghenghis Khan and a century later, Timerlane, first destroyed the great trading cities, then rebuilt them. The 15th century saw the immigration and settlement of Turkic speaking tribes and a variety of Arab empires. Both Russia and Britain turned their ambitions to Central Asia in the 19th century as the Great Game played out with Russia eventually emerging victorious.

The region was artificially carved into the Five Stans by Stalin, worried that a single, Muslim republic might pose a danger to the USSR. The USSR forced its usual Sovietization on the area, nomads were required to move to collective farms, intensive cotton farming led to environmental catastrophe and ugly rectangular apartment buildings dominated newly appointed cities. It wasn’t all negative: compulsory education, modern, free healthcare, roads and telephones were introduced. Upon the collapse of the USSR in 1991, each of the Stans declared independence but their newfound rulers with parties called the People’s Democratic Party or the like were all authoritarian dictators in the Stalinist mold.

Today, Uzbekistan has mostly unshackled the chains of Soviet subjugation. Uzbek is the main language (Russian is secondary), the Cyrillic alphabet has been replaced with Latin, the currency is the Som, religion is allowed (the country is 90% Muslim) and the free market economy is thriving. One of our guides loved to tell jokes about the USSR, none of them flattering, but he had studied Russian in university and was fluent. Few in Uzbekistan want to return to the Soviet days.


In a move to make traveling easier, Uzbekistan recently removed visa requirements for 120 countries, so I breezed through formalities at the Tashkent airport in less than 10 minutes, being welcomed to the country without questions, but with a smile, by the immigration officer and waved around, not through, the luggage scanning machine. A late night ride followed first along a wide, paved highway, then a broad boulevard before stopping at a modern hotel.

While this city of 3 million has a long history, much of it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966. The result is a small old city and loads of Russian era Soviet Realism office and apartment blocks which are slowly being replaced in the center by more interesting architecture.

In search of the real Timerlane, I walked to the Timur Museum, housed in a round white building, topped with a turquoise green dome, indicative of the new, Uzbekistan architecture. The museum was disappointing, lots of portraits of famous historical rulers, none of whom I’d heard of, a few traditional costumes, some ceramics, historical Korans and a map showing Timerlane’s conquest.

Modern Uzbek Architecture-The Timur Museum

Far more interesting was the nearby statue of Timerlane, astride a horse. The facial depiction is considered accurate. In a strange convergence of history’s nastiest dictators, Stalin was fascinated by Timerlane and his legend. In 1941, he ordered his tomb opened to determine if the body truly belonged to Timerlane and to reconstruct Timerlane’s face using the skull. An inscription on the tomb translates to “Whoever Disturbs My Tomb Will Unleash an Invader Møre Terrible Than I.” Two day after the tomb was opened, Hitler and the Nazis attacked the USSR.

Timerlane’s statue in Tashkent

Beyond the homage paid to Timerlane, not much in Tashkent interested me. A newish Mosque, a madras, a market selling fresh produce, dried fruit and meat, with carcasses of freshly slaughtered sheep hung from metal bars. In one corner, men baked bread in giant tandoori ovens, then the ladies sold them for pennies.


Nukus: The Savitsky Gallery

We flew over the Zkarakul desert to Nukus, the capital city in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, where the majority are ethnically and linguistically different from most Uzbeks, more Mongolian in features and background. I was expecting Silk Road cities and cavernasi and camels, so I was surprised where we stopped in front of a large, modern building, the Savitsky Gallery, aka The Uzbekistan Fine Arts School. It was the pet project of Igor Savitsky, an artist from the Ukraine who lived in Nukus between 1950 and 1984. He fell in love with the area and painted numerous landscapes, but also acquired, legally and not, works of Russian artists who had run afoul of official Russian guidelines for art. Thus, many of the paintings portray communism and the struggles of the workers in a less than flattering light. The Russians left Savitsky and his growing art collection alone – Nukus was too remote for them to know, or care, about some rogue artworks. The Nukus Museum now houses one of the world’s largest and finest collections of Russian avant-garde artistry.

Before and after USSR censorship at the Savitsky


Finally, we arrived at Khiva, an iconic Silk Road city of 90,000 people. We approached the ancient walls, then passed through one of 4 gates into the old city and were met with adobe houses, sandy streets and a dizzying array of decorated, dark blue tiles covering towers, domes, over doorways, everywhere we looked. Alas, there was little evidence of Timerlane’s handiwork. Although he had visited the city, he basically razed it every time he came.


The city has been largely reconstructed. Successive invaders, first Arabs, then Russian cannon bombardments in 1873, destroyed much of the city and whatever was left over, earthquakes and natural wind erosion finished off. Despite the constant renovations, walking through the city takes one back to its heyday as a major stop on the trade routes, selling goods and slaves in the bazaars,

It was also a religious center, first for the Khorezym Persians between 200 BC and 700 AD, when Zoroastrians dominated the city. The Palace of the Kings, fire temples, the 8 pointed star and lack of in-ground burial sites are all telltale signs of the religion that was banished when the Arabs invaded in the 8th century but symbols of Zoroastrian remain, mostly incorporated into Muslim buildings.

Khiva embraced Islam and soon boasted 64 Madras, or religious schools and 50 minarets. Today, no active madras remain and just 13 minarets, victims of the Soviet policy of atheism and modern day apathy toward religion. The majority of Uzbeks are Muslim, but it is a secular state with a very moderate form of Islam being practised by most. Liquor is available, beer is brewed locally, and the hijab, completely veiling a woman’s face, is banned.

The palaces, former madrases and mosques provide the best example of the fanciful tile work. Most of the outside tiles are limited to white, blue and green, a result of the dyes used to create the colours and the high heat needed to set them. Other colours- reds, yellows, golds – would simply burn and turn brown.

A free show is put on for the tourists at the King’s Palace every afternoon, featuring a band, dancing, singing and a re-enactment of the king welcoming envoys with visitors bowing officiously and showing proper decorum in royalty’s presence. Corny yes, but I closed my eyes and allowed myself to be transported back 500 years.


Bukhara is another ancient trading center on the Silk Road. Timerlane was too late to destroy it -that feat was accomplished in the 12th century by Ghengis Khan. The city didn’t recover until the 16th century when it was made the capital of the region.

There are no walls, but plenty of domes and 3 prominent trading bazaars – one for jewellers, one for caps and the third for money changers. The domes provided ventilation in the summer in the days before air conditioning where temperatures soar over 50 degrees. The bazaars, with their unadorned walls after the Russians carted off mosaics and murals to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the heavily decorated madrases have been turned into stores selling traditional crafts: carpets, embroidered cloth and clothes, tall fur hats and carved wood.


We arrived, at last, at Samarkand, Timerlane’s capital, where he lived and devoted his energies to rebuilding it after Ghengis Khan destroyed it and beautifying it into an Islamic paradise. Five separate sites, mostly reconstructed after earthquakes, try to duplicate its glory days in the 14th century. First is the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, with its soaring tower. Named after Timerlane’s favourite wife, she is also suspected of directing its construction, with Timerlane absent so often on his war campaigns.

Part of Bibi-Khanym Mosque

Next is the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis begun to house the remains of a cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Later, Timerlane built about 15 mausoleums for his favourite wives, family members and important officials, all covered with magnificent tile work.

 Part of the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis

The Ulugbek Observatory is the third must-see sight. Constructed atop a hill for Timerlane’s favourite astronomer/scientist, Ulugbek, nothing remains of the original observatory, but a quarter of the giant sextant was uncovered by the Soviets and can be viewed. A small museum devotes itself to Ulugbek’s many accomplishments, including calculating the calendar to within seconds of accuracy, no mean feat in the 15th century.

Timerlane and some of his family are entombed in the Gur Emir Mausoleum. Tiled with ceramics and gold leaf, it is a dazzling monument to Timerlane’s love of Islamic art. Timerlane’s simple black tomb is the one Stalin opened in 1941.

Timerlane’s final resting place

The crowning glory is Registan Square, where 3 giant madrases, each more magnificent than the next, circle the square. Despite being damaged many times by earthquakes and neglect, the basic structure of the madrases remains and each have been restored to their imagined former glory.

Registan Square

I couldn’t leave without one more glimpse of Timerlane, so I walked to his statue and had my photo taken there, the larger-than-life Timerlane overshadowing everything around him.

Timerlane and me

Final Thoughts:

I came to Uzbekistan in search of the Silk Road and Timerlane and found both. Despite the cities and monuments being heavily restored, the reconstruction has been methodically completed in a manner that tries to remain true to the original. Not so Timerlane’s legacy, which has been whitewashed to such a degree as to make me wonder what else abut this country has been conveniently forgotten. I asked our university educated guide in Samarkand whether Timerlane’s massacring tendencies are taught to children in school. “No,” he replied, “but I was able to learn about him from other sources.”

I understand and appreciate the need for Uzbekistan to adopt a national hero, but to elevate a mass murderer to near sainthood without so much as a mention of his darker side is, to me, unfathomable and unfortunate.


Next: The Silk Road continues