Baku, May 9 – At a time when Moscow appears to be increasingly sensitive to any criticism of the Soviet or Russian past, two very different Central Asian countries – Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan -- have taken dramatic steps to call attention to the impact of Russian and Soviet imperialism on their societies.
Last month, the Kyrgyz parliament called for the commemoration of “A Day of Memory of the National Uprising of the Kyrgyz People” to remind them of the events of 1916 when the Kyrgyz and other Central Asians rose in revolt after the tsarist authorities attempted to draft them for service in World War I.
That long-ago event set the stage for efforts by peoples in that region to become independent of Russia 18 months later, efforts whose suppression by Bolshevik troops at Kokand sparked what the Soviets called the basmachi movement, a broadly popular uprising lasted far longer – well into the 1930s – than any other revolt against Moscow.
But the Kyrgyz action elicited an explosion of criticism by Russian nationalist groups – see, for example, www.bpc.kg/news/3409-30-04-08 -- and a denunciation by the Russian foreign ministry so strong that the Kyrgyz legislators felt compelled to adopt an appeal to the Russian Duma and Federation Council explaining why they felt they had acted within their rights.
The Kyrgyz declaration argued that in taking this action, legislators in Bishkek had “in no way gone beyond the framework of Kyrgyz sovereignty and of friendly relations with Russia” and had done nothing to “politicize the fraternal relations between the peoples of the two countries” (www.regnum.ru/news/992297.html).
Moreover, it continued, Kyrgyz officials cannot understand the “position of the Russian foreign ministry” which had said in its statement that “the preservation of the history of Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz people is ‘counterproductive for today’s friendly relations between our countries and peoples.’”
An even more dramatic example of Central Asian interest in talking about the impact of Russian imperialism in the region occurred this week when the office of President Islam Karimov announced that the Uzbek government had decided to add two new buildings to the complex of that country’s museum of victims of the Russian colonial regime.”
That museum, which was opened in 2002 and which regularly hosts groups of students from the country’s schools, is, in the words of this announcement, “devoted to the memory of the thousands of [Uzbek] compatriots who fell as victims to [Russian imperial] oppression in the colonial period” (www.centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1210065960).
The additional buildings will allow the curators to show more of the museum’s holdings to visitors, officials said, and also to divide them between “the colonial regime” of the nineteenth century and “the Soviet period of [Uzbekistan’s] history when the cruelest repressions took place.”
The location of the museum in fact highlights the latter. According to Tashkent historians, the current museum is situated on the ground where the Soviet secret police conducted “mass shootings of ‘enemies of the people’ during the 1930s.” And the message implicit in that location is made crystal clear by the descriptions of the exhibits.
“In conducting its colonial policy,” one reads, “the Russian Empire above all destroyed in the conquered country its statehood and converted it entirely into its colony. The tsarist autocracy began to steal the material and spiritual wealth of the region, suppressed national and human rights as well as the religious faith and national culture of the indigenous peoples.”
Such comments and their official sponsorship rival anything found in the Baltic countries or Eastern Europe and almost certainly will elicit Russian nationalist and possibly Russian foreign ministry criticism in the coming days. But regardless of whether that happens, the Uzbek action, like the Kyrgyz one, has an important message for outside observers.
The notion, widely held in the West, that the Central Asians are entirely deferential to the Russians is simply wrong, a product of the confusion on the part of those who held it between the traditional politeness of the peoples of that region, on the one hand, and their real attitudes about important subjects like Russian colonial rule, on the other.