[Patrick Foley and Jacob Lassin]

Sandwiched in the middle of Central Asia lies Uzbekistan. On the map, it sits next to the other Central Asian republics, remnants of the Soviet Union with their clearly delineated borders and titular ethnic groups claiming to represent primordial nations which have existed on this land for eons. Uzbekistan is no exception to this and claims a long and venerable national history, but exactly where does this appellation come from and what happened in Uzbekistan before the neat lines were drawn by the Soviets?

Origins of Uzbeks and Uzbekistan

The early Uzbeks or Uzbegs as they were known at the time were the last nomadic conquerors of Central Asia, an area that had been no stranger to invasion and conquest. They took their name from Özbek or Uzbek Khan, the 14th century leader of the Golden Horde at its zenith (Allworth, 9). These Uzbegs were a “group of Moslem, Turkic-speaking, nomadic tribes of mixed Turkic, Mongol, and Iranian origin” (Becker, 4). Muhammad Shaibani-khan, oneof their leaders had taken all of Central Asia and after his

death, his successors split the land into the Khanates of Bukhara and Khiva. These two khanates remained relatively stable until their dissolution in 1920 with the Mangit tribe leading Bukhara and the Kungrat tribe in control of Khiva. One of the only lapses in the status quo was the  emergence, due to increasing autonomy, at the end of the eighteenth century of the Khanate of Kokand in the Fergana Valley (Becker, 5).

Khiva and Bukhara were quite similar to one another, in both Khanates Sunni Uzbegs were in the majority and made up the social and cultural elite. Both states were autocratic and Muslim in character, though they were by no means carbon copies of one another. Bukhara maintained little geographic unity. It was a land of oases separated by deserts, fertile valleys, and formidable mountain ranges. There was great cultural, religious and ethnic diversity in Bukhara as well. Other Turkic groups such as the Turkomans and Kirgiz lived alongside the Uzbegs and there was also a sizable population of Iranian-speaking Tajiks, the first settlers of the region and Persians, Jews and Indians, who were important in the mercantile sectors of the state (Becker, 7). The Tajiks were largest minority group in Bukhara and not only was their language differed from the ruling Uzbegs, as did their Shia religion was as well.

The large, geographically diverse territory of Bukhara meant that population and administrative centers around the country were often separated by deserts or mountains (Becker, 7). This provided the impetus for Bukhara to develop both a “highly organized central administration and a large degree of provincial autonomy” (Becker, 7). Bukhara had an elaborate bureaucratic system with the kush-begi or chief minister at the top and a myriad of subordinates and officials with their own subordinates in the provinces carrying out the tasks of governing the emirate. The emir, the monarch made all final decisions and maintained strict control over all affairs of state, even in the most trivial of state affairs (Becker, 8). The emir kept the officials and begs (provincial governors) in check because their income depended on his discretion and favor, so none dared to stray from the emir too greatly for fear of losing a good deal of money (Becker, 9).

Khiva was a more compact and unified territory, which made its governance significantly easier than that of its neighbor. Khiva, like Bukhara had a diverse population, with Sunni Uzbegs making up a majority and Turkomans a sizable minority like the Tajiks in Bukhara. Khiva, however, did not have the religious diversity present in Bukhara, as Khiva was almost exclusively Sunni with Shiites and non-Muslim populations almost nonexistent (Becker 10).  Also, the Khans of Khiva and Bukhara both maintained autocratic powers. However, due to the compact geography of Khiva “its central government was able to hold a virtual monopoly of power, leaving a minimum of delegated authority in the hands of the provincial administration” (Becker 10).

Russian Conquest

The independence enjoyed by the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Khiva were not to last however as their large western neighbor Russia began to expand in to Central Asia in the middle part of the nineteenth century. However, real action was delayed due to fears of provoking the British again so soon after the loss in the Crimean War and the cautious nature of the new emperor Alexander II and his foreign minister A.M. Gorchakov who resisted General A.A. Katenin’s push to invade Bukhara and Khiva (Becker 15).

But, this resistance to expansion in the Russian government did not last. There was far too much at stake as Russia became increasingly anxious about the moves of the Turks and British which appeared to infringe on Russia’s destiny. Russia’s “mission civilisatrice” and its need for international and domestic prestige pushed the issue to the forefront of the state’s policy priorities (Kappeler, 194). In May 1864, Russian troops moved southeast and occupied areas belonging to the Khanate of Kokand and in 1865, in defiance of the orders from St. Petersburg, these Russian troops took the important trading center of Tashkent, the future capital of Uzbekistan (Kappeler, 195). For Russia, the conquest of Central Asia resulted in very few military problems and casualties, “it was said that only about 1,000 Russian soldiers died, whereas their opponents suffered a far greater number of casualties” (Kappeler, 196). Rather quickly, Russia gained a great deal of new territory as well as many new ethnic and religious populations. Little changed internally for these areas when they became Russian protectorates. The emir and khan retained absolute power over their dominions and they remained independent in international law, but the emir and khan had to cede a great deal of territory and allow for Russian merchants to enter their markets, pay high war reparations, and have Russian “political agents” assigned to the two courts (Kappeler, 196).

Under Russian Rule

After the Russian conquest of Uzbekistan, very little changed initially in the daily lives of inhabitants of the area. As previously discussed the lands that remained under the dominion of the khan and the emir remained firmly in their grasp. Cotton production did increase substantially under Russian control to meet the demands in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and the rest of Europe (Becker, 196-7).

However, often easily quelled uprisings occurred in Central Asia and Uzbekistan which increased Russian vigilance in Khiva and Bukhara. This increased vigilance in turn led to greater Russian interference in the domestic affairs within the khanate and the emirate. Conditions at the end of the nineteenth century were far more restrictive than at the outset of Khiva and Bukhara’s time as protectorates and many Uzbeks looked for ways to oppose Russian rule.

Jadidism, an Islamic reform movement centered on progress and self-improvement, emerged in Central Asia. This new conceptualization of the world hinged on the idea that Muslim societies needed to adopt European values and knowledge or be left behind and suffer even more difficulties in the modernizing world (Khalid, 42). Jadids, in a move reminiscent of Protestants, determined that all educated Muslims should return to the source texts of their faith, rather than relying on centuries of commentaries and glosses. This represented a radical departure from the way Muslims traditionally practiced in Central Asia, with the learned ulamas (Muslim religious scholars) holding all religious authority. Both Muslim elites and Russian observers saw the Jadids as disrupting the stability and order that pervaded in Central Asia, making their task of reform more difficult (Khalid, 47). Jadidism did hold a great deal of influence in the region and for many Uzbeks it was the only organized fashion with which to oppose Russian rule.

Revolution and Uzbekistan

The February Revolution in Russia and the subsequent abdication of Tsar Nicholas II was greeted in Central Asia as a new age of new freedom and independence for the population, especially among the intellegentsia. Jadids especially were excited by the imposition of the Provisional Government and felt that since they were the ones the right knowledge and understanding to lead their communities into the modern age (Khalid, 52). The more conservative ulamas pushed back, fearful of losing their privileged place in Uzbek society. Despite the tensions between the two groups neither sought full independence from Russia (Khalid, 53).

As Russia descended into all out Civil War, the emir of Bukhara began machinations to maximize autonomy from Russia In doing so he turned to some of the most conservative elements of Bukharan society and unleashed a series of repressions against the Jadidist reformers which sparked them to act towards revolutionizing Central Asia (Khalid, 53). The Bolsheviks, seeing an opportunity to influence other aspects of the empire, became allies with the Young Bukharans, one of the most organized of the reformist groups. However, this relationship was quite uneasy as the Young Bukharans strove for national renewal and Islamic reform, whereas Bolshevik ideology was decidedly against nationalism and religion (Khalid, 53). In the end the Bolsheviks saw young reformers as a better option than a monarch and in 1920 invaded Bukhara, deposed the emir, and installed the Young Bukharans as the new rulers, setting up the Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic (Khalid, 53). A similar process occurred in Khiva with the khan stepping down in 1920 and the declaration of the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic.

The 1920s were a time of great enthusiasm in Uzbekistan, especially among Jadids and other reform minded people. This was an opportunity to change their society and to govern states, which were of and for the inhabitants of Bukhara. This development spurred reformers to put a great effort into changing the educational and social make-up of these countries (Khalid, 57). However, internal tensions were still quite high making the transition exceedingly difficult. In addition it became clear from the outset that  “Soviet Russia never intended Bukhara and Khiva, whatever their form of government, to enjoy more than the appearance of independence” (Becker 297). From the capital of the Turkestan ASSR, Tashkent, later the capital of the Uzbek SSR and later of independent Uzbekistan, Soviet Russia began exerting power over Bukhara and Khiva and took control of their internal security even imposing a Bukharan Cheka (Becker, 300).

Soviet powers made moves that consistently sought to undermine the independent governments of the Bukharan and Khorezmi Soviet Republics. In public discourse on both sides there was great desire for Bukhara and Khiva to join the Soviet Union, when they were finally socialist and ready (Becker, 307). For the most part the Bukharan and Khivan governments were rather compliant, willingly following the Soviet Russian model. In the end Stalin had his way, in order to strengthen Communist rule, in redrawing the map approximately along ethnic lines, creating the five Soviet Socialist Republics of Central Asia which would become the five independent states of that region in the present day (Becker, 309).

Soviet Integration

While Russia gradually exerted influence in Central Asia throughout the nineteenth century, the process of incorporation took a drastic step forward in the twentieth century. In October 1924, Uzbekistan joined the Soviet Union as the constituent Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. The creation of Uzbekistan was a complicated process because of ethnic tensions between the Uzbeks and Turkmen within the territory dating back centuries. The Soviets were motivated by a desire to divide Central Asia into a set of ethnically homogeneous states. However, the borders drawn by the Bureau for Central Asian Affairs in the 1920s were arbitrary, inefficient, and confusing given the mixed composition of the population (Keller, 79). As a result, carving out a state that compartmentalized and contained only those individuals of one particular ethnic group proved impossible.

Drawing these borders created tensions within the region. Contemporary Tajik nationalists still argue that the Soviet Union was decidedly pro-Uzbek, and granted certain privileges to the Uzbeks while repressing the pro-nationalist aspirations of the Tajiks within the territory (Haugen, 206) Meanwhile, Uzbeks contend that the borders actually inhibited their development. Despite these complaints, the Uzbeks did seem to receive at least some level of preferential treatment during the delimitation. The delimitation afforded Tashkent City to Uzbekistan and the Central Asian Bureau sometimes overturned the decisions of the Territorial Committee in favor of the Uzbek Republic (Haugen, 207). Tashkent was the major source of conflict between Uzbeks and Kazaks; the antagonism between the two sides reached a boiling point over the Tashkent question (Haughen, 200). Despite the lack of major cities, at least from the Soviet perspective, Uzbekistan was still at a greater advantage than its neighbors. The Central Asian Bureau believed that many Russians would move into the new Republic of Uzebkistan. Uzbeks were considered more culturally advanced than their neighbors, particularly the Tajiks, and thus seen as more deserving of an independent republic (Rasanayagam, 105). For that reason, a majority of the committee sided with the Uzbeks. However, only one out of every of ten citizens in Uzbekistan was either a Russian or newly arrived citizen by 1930 (Northrop, 128). Soviet authorities were displeased by the slow progress but it seemed necessary given the fear that, without Tashkent city, the whole delimitation experiment would fall apart (Haughen, 201).

While officials in the Soviet Union sometimes viewed Islam as a stepping-stone towards a proper Marxist worldview, anti-religious campaigns still occurred in Uzbekistan. Religion surely was not immune from Sovietization policies. For instance, several cells of the Union of the Godless, an organization dedicated to eliminating the presence of religion from all aspects of society,  appeared in Khojent, Bhukara, and Samarkand over the summer of 1927 (Keller, 155). Several schools were also built in Uzbekistan to spread anti-religious propaganda. However, most attempts at eliminating religion from the public sphere in Uzbekistan failed to achieve their desired effect. The low literacy rate in Uzbekistan made print propaganda generally ineffective. Anti-religious newspapers such as Khudosizlar, originally intended to spread the civilizing message in Uzbekistan, never found a wide audience (Keller, 163). Stalin also oversaw a campaign against religious officials in Uzbekistan, as well as the other Republics of the region, as demonstrated by the censuses commissioned from 1927-1939 (Keller, 240). The Soviets saw religion holding back the development of Central Asia. In this context, religion became a cornerstone of resistance to Soviet policies. The Hujum provides a perfect example. Local Muslims, who were able to depict themselves as traditionalists defending their cultural legacy from outsiders, met the unveiling campaign in Uzbekistan with great hostility (Northrop, 144-145). Attempts by the Soviet Union to meddle in religious affairs were unpopular with the people of Uzbekistan. Thus, the anti-religious initiatives were a source of stress between Russians and ethnic groups in Central Asia.

During the Second World War, the Soviet Union softened its stance against Islam in order to focus on defending itself from the German offensive (Rasanayagam, 79). Within this context, the Soviet republics in Central Asia were afforded a greater level of autonomy. Uzbekistan remained a part of the expansive Soviet Empire until its downfall in 1991. The effects of the shared experience under the Soviets still reverberate within Uzbek society. The Soviet Union’s role in the development of culture in Uzbekistan is hard to understate. The tradition can be traced back to the earliest stages of Soviet influence in the region.  The delimitation, for example, changed the composition of Uzbekistan from both a political and economic perspective (Haugen, 230). The state was constructed from a primordialist viewpoint, whereby the state contained a group of individuals joined together by a common identity based upon shared language, culture, and territory (Rasanayagam, 105). Shared identity is crucial within such a society. Religious officials in Uzbekistan model many of their own institutions after their Soviet era counterparts. The Imom Khatib, a council of supervisors that oversees activities of the mullahs, recalls the strategy of the Soviet Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults. Islam also factors prominently in society as a symbol of continuity. Citizens of Uzbekistan pride themselves on the resiliency of Islam, emphasizing the fact that their religious belief survived the anti-Islamic campaigns that occurred under the Soviet Union (Keller, 254).  The notion of Islamic tradition features prominently in the national narrative of Uzbekistan, and the continuity of religion is seen as the one true constant within a history characterized by prolonged Russian occupation.


Works Cited:

Arne Haugen, The Establishment of National Republics in Soviet Central Asia (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Shoshana Keller, To Moscow, Not Mecca: the Soviet Campaign Against Islam in Central Asia, 1917-1941 (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001).

Douglas T. Northrop, “Hujum: Unveiling Campaigns and Local Responses in Uzbekistan, 1927” in Provincial Landscapes: Local Dimensions of Soviet Power, 1917-1953 edited by Donald J. Raleigh (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001).

Johan Rasanayagam, Islam in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan: the Morality of Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Edward A. Allworth, The Modern Uzbeks: From the Fourteenth Century to the Present; A Cultural History (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1990).

Seymour Becker, Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Khiva, 1865-1924 (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004).

Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History (London: Pearson Education Limited, 2001).

Adeeb Khalid, Islam After Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).


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