Montreal Gazette
Sunday, October 21, 2001
Page: A1 / FRONT
Section: News
Column: Levon Sevunts in Tashkent
Dateline: TASHKENT, Uzbekistan
Source: The Gazette

Aelita and Vladislav Cherepennikov still remember the days in the early ’90s when strangers would tell them to go back to Russia.

“People would come up to me on the bus and tell me that my place was in Russia and not here in Uzbekistan,” said Aelita Cherepennikova, a retired hydro-dam designer, as we settle for the traditional Uzbek tea in her apartment.

Ten years later, after an exodus of skilled Russian professionals left a void in the country’s economy, health and education systems, strangers beg her and other Russians to resist the urge to leave Uzbekistan, Cherepennikova says.

The Cherepennikovs are a part of the dwindling Russian-speaking community, which grew smaller and smaller as people left Uzbekistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, fearing the rise of militant Uzbek nationalism or even worse – Islamic fundamentalism – that would leave them on the margins of the society.

The war in Afghanistan, which could spill over to Uzbekistan as the Taliban regime has threatened to attack any country that provides military bases to the Americans, has only added to their general sense of unease.

Tashkent, the sprawling capital of Uzbekistan, is an oasis of Westernization in a predominantly Muslim nation, where Russians and Russian-educated Uzbeks form the backbone of the secular fabric of the country.

Tashkent was once the fourth largest city in the U.S.S.R.

It remains one of the most multicultural cities on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Russian – the lingua franca of ethnic minorities and the language of preference for a large part of Uzbek intelligentsia and professionals – can be heard everywhere.

Tashkent, founded more than 2,000 years ago, became a bastion of Russian expansion in central Asia after falling to the advancing imperial army in 1865.

Since then, Russians have been on the forefront of city’s social, economic and scientific development: Tashkent’s first hospital and first public library were opened by Russians at the end of the 19th century.

The Cherepennikovs are part of that tradition. They recounted with pride all the hydro-electric dams they’ve helped to design and build in Uzbekistan and all over the former Soviet central Asia and in Afghanistan.

But as Uzbekistan struggles to define itself after achieving its independence, people like the Cherepennikovs find it hard to adapt to the new realities and feel left out.

In Uzbekistan, this struggle for a new identity has been reflected in a mad dash to reinstate the supremacy of the Uzbek language, rename the streets and cities, adopt a Latin alphabet instead of the Cyrillic – in short, to erase as much of the Russian influence as possible.

Hard Script to Follow

For the Cherepennikovs, who unlike many of their friends decided to stay, this meant brushing up on their Uzbek skills and a daily struggle to remember new names of old and familiar streets, including their own.

“It was hard enough to learn Uzbek with the Cyrillic script, now we have to get used to the Latin script,” Cherepennikova said.

Sometimes she has to team up with an Uzbek to understand what a new sign says.

“Many Uzbeks still don’t know the Latin script and my Uzbek is still rusty,” Cherepennikova said. “So very often, I come across Uzbeks who can’t read what it says on the sign. Then I read aloud for them and they translate it for me.”

But many of Cherepennikovs’ friends and neighbours decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble and simply left the country. Their departure created a void Uzbeks find hard to fill.

“Uzbeks, who are renowned for their talent as land cultivators and traders, and the Russian-speaking community, which consisted mainly of professionals, agreed on an informal division of labour,” Cherepennikova explained, as we emptied countless tea cups in her tiny two-bedroom apartment filled with books wall-to-wall.

Despite the rapid growth of Uzbek intelligentsia during the 70-year-long Soviet rule, that division of labour remained largely intact and was even reinforced by two cataclysmic events.

During World War II, Tashkent played host to tens of thousands of evacuees from parts of the Soviet Union occupied by the Germans. They became the backbone of the rapidly developing military and heavy industry in Uzbekistan, most of which was based in Tashkent.

After the devastating earthquake in 1966 that destroyed most of the city, volunteers from all over the Soviet Union poured in to help with the reconstruction. Many stayed, contributing to the ethnic mix of the reborn city.

The exodus of Russian-speaking professionals in the ’90s thus endangered not only the future of Uzbekistan’s industry but also hurt many ordinary Uzbeks who had come to rely on their Russian doctors, teachers and university professors.

Question Karimov’s Tactics

But despite the favourable change in public attitudes, many Russians still fear a backlash or of being made an easy scapegoat for Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s repressive tactics.

While many Russians are beholden to Karimov for keeping in check Uzbek nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, they also feel that Karimov has gone too far.

Some are afraid that Karimov’s heavy-handed tactics in suppressing any opposition to his rule has created enormous tensions inside Uzbekistan that threaten to explode into an ugly civil war similar to one that devastated neighbouring Tajikistan.

According to human-rights organizations, Uzbekistan has about 7,000 political prisoners., Organized political opposition is not tolerated and the state exercises tight control over the media.

“We had more democracy during the Soviet rule,” said Vladislav Cherepennikov. “We are turning into a police state. There are more police on the streets than ever before.”

The clampdown on the Islamic opposition has also meant a repression of the independent press.

“We live in an informational vacuum,” Cherepennikov said. “We stopped reading the local press and watching local TV long time ago. It’s all cheap Soviet-style propaganda. If you read our newspapers, you’d think that we live in the best country in the world.”

Cherepennikov said their only source of objective information is Russian television, which they get via cable TV.

“It’s sad, but we have to get the news about Uzbekistan from the Russian media,” Cherepennikov said. “If you’d rely only on the local media, you wouldn’t even know that there is a large contingent of American troops here.”

But all of that is not enough to force Slava Potrapelyuk, deacon of Complete Gospel, Tashkent’s largest Pentecostal church, to leave his native Uzbekistan.

“I’m not a politician,” Potrapelyuk said, as he supervised about a dozen parishioners washing the floors and walls of the church with an almost religious fervour. “But I believe that God has a big future for this country.”

For Djasul, a Russian-speaking Uzbek and a clerk at the Pentecostal church, Karimov’s policies have brought a freedom to practice one’s religion never experienced before.

But Djasul, 23, who was born into a Muslim family but converted to Christianity, refused to give his last name for the fear of some unspecified “problems” he might encounter from the omnipresent security services – even though he heaped praise on Karimov.

“They warned us not to give any interviews,” he said, without specifying who those “they” are.

Speaking in a new prayer hall, built in the heart of a residential neighbourhood of one-storey houses with lush Uzbek orchards, Djasul said that thanks to Karimov’s government, nobody can harass him for converting to Christianity.

“Karimov stood up to Islamists and he told them that this is a secular country,” Djasul said. “I can take the Gospel and walk in the city and nobody can say anything.”

He conceded, however, that many of his Muslim friends stopped going to the mosque for the fear of being branded fundamentalists and being harassed by the police after the 1999 bombings of government buildings attributed to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a fundamentalist group associated with Osama bin Laden.

“Nobody goes to mosques, people are afraid that they’ll be followed by the secret police,” Djasul said. “After they found guns in some mosques, they started rounding up people even for having a beard.”