Borgaz, the taxi driver ferrying me from Samarkand to Tashkent, is a bear of a man. His warm smile and infectious laugh make companionship easy. Born and raised in Samarkand, Borgaz has never left. Although fluent, Borgaz’s Russian is littered with grammatical mistakes. He laughs that his wife scolds him for speaking Russian badly to the eldest of his four children. Borgaz admits that his own Russian sounds uneducated.
A murmur of approval comes from Rana, the third person in the taxi. Also born in Samarkand, Rana has spent almost two decades in Russia. She first worked as a bartender in Moscow’s cosmopolitan drinking houses and more recently in Ryazan, where rent is cheaper and life is easier. Her fashionable light green suit and IQOS cigarette betray a personality at home in Moscow’s urbane culture. Rana’s Russian is faultless.
After a couple hours of hearty laughs, the conversation turns to politics. Specifically, the war in Ukraine. The born and bred Uzbek, Borgaz, parrots many of the tropes voiced on Russian state television. In short, ‘Zelensky and the West are to blame and have no chance of victory’. Rana lets Borgaz talk, interjecting occasionally to reinforce his point. I fight the opposite corner. It is a thankless task. None of us are giving an inch.
I’d had the same conversation several days prior with Raphael, the Director of the Jewish Synagogue in Bukhara. Whilst Raphael is a lifelong Bukhara resident, he has had more exposure to Western media. His children live in Israel and the USA. The synagogue is still considered home by many Bukharan Jews who have emigrated to New York, London and Vienna. They return frequently. Raphael has also been interviewed by the BBC, The Guardian and The Calvert Journal. He knows there is an alternative media landscape. And yet, when discussing the war, Raphael, Borgaz and Rana spoke as one.
The pro-Russian narrative in Uzbekistan struck me as strange. Although Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, it has a distinctly less Russian feel than the other former Soviet states which I have visited, including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Russian is clearly a second language. It is most often spoken either badly, or not at all. In the bazar at Urgut, a major residential town 40 minutes from Samarkand, Russian was almost non-existent. Surprisingly, French is just as helpful.
Uzbek food – plov and laghman – is distinctly Persian and Chinese influenced. The country does not share a border with Russia. It does share one with Afghanistan. Islam is the main religion. Mosques dominate the ancient cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. The tourist board’s poster image – the Registan – is a square surrounded on three sides by 600-year-old mosques. Uzbekistan’s flag is adorned by Islam’s crescent and stars.
Uzbekistan’s pre-Soviet Union history, or more accurately the history of the area of land now called Uzbekistan, is characterised by resisting Russian imperial invasion. During the 19th Century the Khanate of Khiva and Emirate of Bukhara fought countless Russian advances from the north. Khiva was even a slave city to thousands of captive Russian soldiers, much to the chagrin of Russia’s then-Tsar Nicholas I.
The juxtaposition was striking. How does the Persian-. Chinese-, Islam-tinted former Soviet state end up so blindingly supportive of Russia? This is especially poignant given the trajectory elsewhere in the region. In August this year Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev refused to speak in Russian at a summit. In a September address Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, a close Putin ally, even issued a veiled criticism of the war, noting that “the world today is complex. Independence, territorial integrity and even the historic existence of some countries and people are under serious threat”.
Over the next few years these tensions in Uzbekistan may intensify. English learning is on the rise. Western tourists are coveted. Additionally, Tashkent is seeking investment from Europe, Saudi Arabia and China. As these influences continue to grow, will people double down on their shared history with Russia or will it seep into a melting pot befitting of the country’s geographical location at the heart of the world’s largest continent?