Land of the unknown

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Central Asia is a remote and mysterious place, where the heavy hand of Soviet rule still pervades but, as Michael Church reveals, ancient traditions are managing to survive

Considering how much we know about many of the world's remotest places, the ignorance of Central Asia is remarkable. This vast area - Kazakhstan alone is as big as Western Europe - has great economic importance, being one of the world's largest sources of oil. It was the ground on which Russia and Britain fought for political power in the 19th century, and it's the ground on which the USand Russia - and, increasingly, China - are now engaged in a diplomatic tussle.

Five centuries ago, when the Silk Road trade route connected the Far East with the West, the region's cities were notable centres of civilisation; after 70 years of Soviet rule, its constituent countries are rediscovering their identity. The majority of their populations are Muslim and, on the whole, moderately so. As the place where East meets West, these countries are the cockpit in which history's next phase may be determined - what happens in Central Asia will matter to all of us.

The region's borders are hard to define: it extends as far north as the Tuva Republic, as far east as the Xinjiang region of China, south to Afghanistan, and west to the Caspian Sea. Its kernel is that cluster of states which Stalin arbitrarily carved out of what was formerly Turkestan: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

Colonised, first by the Greeks, then the Chinese, followed by the Persians, then the Turks, Central Asia was fertile terrain for the new religion of Islam in the 8th century ce. Its southern city of Bukhara was a world centre of Muslim culture until the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan burnt it to the ground in the course of establishing his sway over the region. But his empire crumbled after his death in 1227, and the next great power in Central Asia was his distant descendant Tamerlane (1336-1405), a Tatar sheep-thief who became ruler of all the lands between Turkey and China. His cruelty was legendary - he built city walls from his enemies' severed heads - but so was his appetite for culture. The architectural glories of his capital, Samarkand, are still intact today.

Newly discovered sea routes made the old Silk Road redundant in the 15th century, and the region went into economic decline; for the next three centuries it was riven by feuds between warring dynasties. In the mid-19th century, the newly emergent Russian Empire moved into this power vacuum.

The American Civil War had shut off Russia's cotton supplies, and Central Asia's cotton fields were close at hand. Russia was also looking for markets for its manufactured goods.

From nomadic life to collective farm The inhabitants of the fertile southern parts of this empire were used to a settled communal life, but the Turkic-speaking dwellers of the bare northern steppes of Kazakhstan and the mountains of Kyrgyzstan found the Bolshevik yoke unendurable were nomads, who lived by raising horses, cattle, sheep, and goats, routinely wandering in search of food. Their version of Islam was a thin veneer over their real religion, Tengrism. The Tengrist world consisted of 17 strata above, forming the "realm of light"

(where the souls of the virtuous deceased lived) and nine below, forming the "realm of darkness". Tengri - the supreme creator - resided with other benign spirits in the top stratum of heaven. More spirits lived on earth, in springs and on mountain-tops. Communication depended on the help of a shaman, or visionary healer, who could cast spells with his poetry and his horse-hair fiddle. The clan structures were based on encampments known as auls, and several clans formed a tribe, ruled by a sultan; a confederation of several tribes would be led by a khan.

Tsarist Russia abolished the position of sultan and divided the land into districts, without reference to tribal boundaries. In 1914, Central Asia's cattle and cotton were requisitioned for the Russian war effort; when people resisted, whole villages were massacred. The Bolsheviks were just as repressive, and no less hated. In 1917, they viciously put down a short-lived independent government in the Uzbek city of Kokand, which might have led to a westernised state. Instead, out of the vast Central Asian land mass, historically subdivided by clan loyalties rather than by geographical or political frontiers, Stalin created five new nations, thus orchestrating the unnatural birth of the "stans".

The Soviet regime outlawed shamanism on pain of death, and corralled the Kazakhs into collective farms, which were designed to put an end to their nomadism; but the effect was disastrous - rather than give up their herds, people slaughtered and ate them, causing famine and disease.

In Bukhara, there was a more direct challenge to Soviet rule in the form of the Basmachi fighters - forerunners of the Afghan Mujahidin who repelled the Soviet army in the 1980s. In the 1920s, Uzbeks and Tajiks flocked to the Basmachi banner. Their leader, the Ottoman Turk Enver Pasha, died in 1992 at the head of a final suicidal charge.

Central Asia's ex-nomads may have spent most of the 20th century in politically-frozen inanition, but the Soviets finally got their comeuppance. By using the Kazakh steppes as their testing-ground for weapons of mass destruction - everything from plague and anthrax to nuclear bombs - they provoked the first popular protest movement in the USSR. In 1989, demonstrators at Semipalatinsk forced an end to all Kazakh tests.

However, that Soviet legacy is now a global threat (despite clean-up efforts by the US), with large amounts of untreated radioactive material and vials containing plague lurking in lightly guarded laboratories. On the other hand, the Anti-Plague Institute in the Kazakh city of Almaty has now embarked on a joint project with Liverpool University and the Wellcome Trust, in which research into the bacillus - which lives in the hides of marmots on the steppes - will be pursued for peaceful purposes: out of great evil, good can come.

New beginnings

The new republics which emerged from under the Soviet umbrella have had a hard time in their first 15 years of independence.

Membership of the Soviet Union had given them an excellent education system and health-care service, and civic life had a solid economic underpinning.

When that was removed, instant poverty resulted, for urban professionals as well as for the peasantry.

The new leaders are all former Soviet bureaucrats who have continued to rule in the Soviet manner, stifling freedom of speech and repressing publications which attempt to challenge the status quo.

It looks likely that President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, who has just been overwhelmingly re-elected for a further seven years, will hand power over to his daughter Dariga when he finally departs from office.

The people of Kyrgyzstan, until recently the most politically relaxed of the stans, last year chased their president, Askar Akayev, out of office, as a punishment for his flagrant corruption.

And in May last year, anti-government demonstrations in Uzbekistan, where many workers earn less than $2 a day on collective farms, were put down with a ferocity comparable with that of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in 1989. Human rights abuses have long been an open scandal in Uzbekistan, where, a couple of years ago, it was reported that two imprisoned dissidents had been murdered by immersion in boiling water.

Turkmenistan is ruled by Saparmurat Niyazov, whose running-down of education and health-care services has been paralleled by the increasingly bizarre North Korean-style personality cult which he has built up. The president has renamed the month of January after himself and April after his mother. His golden statue in the capital rotates to face the sun and his subjects are largely denied internet access or any information from the outside world.

Dissent is also not tolerated in Tajikistan, which still bears the scars of its recent civil war (1992-1997). Apart from Tajikistan, all these countries' rulers have amassed vast personal wealth, none of which ever trickles down to their impoverished and disenfranchised subjects.

Trouble ahead

For Western governments, these men represent a dilemma. They are sitting on oil the USdesperately wants, and their lands occupy a position of key strategic importance: hence the USmilitary bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (about to be kicked out of the latter country because of America's mild criticism of its endemic human-rights abuses).

When Craig Murray, former British ambassador in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, drew public attention to president Islam Karimov's repressive policies, he was recalled by Jack Straw and induced to quit his job. The alliance in the War on Terror outweighed questions of human rights.

Yet, as increasing numbers of commentators are pointing out, by aligning themselves with Central Asia's oppressors, Western governments are laying up trouble for themselves.

As one member of the European Parliament's Uzbekistan relations committee has put it: "By supporting Karimov, we are helping to create the very thing we fear - Islamic fundamentalism." Karimov is giving the fundamentalists their chance by virtually criminalising Islam.@51 Subhead: 8.5

Cultural revival

Perhaps the most hopeful aspect in Central Asia now, as in Iran, is that young people are looking towards the world beyond their borders, through books, films, pop music, and, when it is allowed, the internet. Meanwhile, traditional Central Asian culture, particularly music, is making a comeback. Indeed, in Kazakhstan, it never disappeared.

Until the Soviet era, Kazakh culture was largely oral. Nomad bards purveyed epics and ballads, and even functioned as newspapers, accompanying themselves on the two-string dombra lute, together with the jew's-harp, flute and zither. They sang of the delights of nature, and celebrated the horse in words and sounds, with their winged horse, Tulpar, recalling the ancient Greeks' Pegasus. In Kazakh epics, the hero's horse is his friend and adviser, and is often a hero himself.

These epics were, for centuries, regularly sung in big public competitions, in the form of a duel between two individual singers or two singing groups.

And we actually have Stalin to thank for the fact that these art-forms, which offer a hotline back to a pre-Tsarist world, are still preserved intact. Like Enver Hoxha in Albania, Stalin and his henchmen realised that folk-songs could easily be put to Communist use - all you had to do was write new words. So, whereas the original contest-songs dealt with jousts between warrior-heroes, the Soviet ones celebrated jousts about productivity between factories and farms. The music remained its old magical self.

Meanwhile, in Kyrgyzstan, the national epic, "Manas" - whose recitation in full can last a week - is now recited with backing from ensembles playing instruments which had, until recently, been almost forgotten. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has set up music schools in which instrumental masters can pass on their art to children, thus ensuring these traditions have a future. And there's a dynamism about these nomad musics, which the rest of the world is beginning to appreciate, as evidenced by the fact that the Tuvan throat-singing group, Huun-Huur-Tu, are now international stars.

However, as Theodore Levin (who introduced Huun-Huur-Tu to the West) demonstrates in his new book Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: music and nomadism in Tuva and beyond, there's a wealth of wisdom yet to be tapped in the Tuvan musical philosophy. Levin describes going on a search with a Tuvan throat-singer for a stream with whose sound he could most perfectly blend his vocal timbre for a recording. One stream reminded him of the Indian tabla drum, but was too monotonous; another ran too fast; the right stream ran over curiously rounded stones which created a welter of suggestive sounds, to which the singer added yet more stones to vary the effect. The result, as the singer added his own vocal harmonics, was - as the book's accompanying CD proves - a singularly beguiling magic.

This is just one small facet of an eco-friendly culture that is in tune with nature - cherishing rather than exploiting it. The ordinary people of this part of Central Asia, with their exemplary animal husbandry and their sacred rocks, trees and streams, have much to offer the rest of us.

Further reading

The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia, by Lutz Kleveman. Atlantic Books.


Beyond the Oxus: The Central Asians, by Monica Whitlock.

John Murray pound;19.99

Life Along the Silk Road, by Susan Whitfield. John Murray


Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: sound, music, and nomadism in Tuva and beyond, by Theodore Levin. Indiana University Press pound;21.99

The Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia, pound;17.99

Suggested listening Songs from the Steppes: Kazakh Music Today, Topic Records, TSCD929


Population: 15,185,844 (July 2005 est.)

Ethnic groups: Kazakh (Qazaq) 53.4%, Russian 30%, Ukrainian 3.7%, Uzbek 2.5%, German 2.4%, Tatar 1.7%, Uygur 1.4%, other 4.9% (1999 census)

Religions: Muslim 47%, Russian Orthodox 44%, Protestant 2%, other 7%

Languages: Kazakh, Russian

Independence from the Soviet Union: December 1991

GDP - per capita*: $7,800 (2004 est.)

Unemployment rate: 8% (2004 est.)


Population: 5,146,281 (July 2005 est.)

Ethnic groups: Kyrgyz 64.9%, Uzbek 13.8%, Russian 12.5%, Dungan 1.1%, Ukrainian 1%, Uygur 1%, other 5.7%

(1999 census)

Religions: Muslim 75%, Russian Orthodox 20%, other 5%

Languages: Kyrgyz, Russian

Independence from the Soviet Union: August 1991

GDP - per capita*: $1,700 (2004 est.)

Unemployment rate:18% (2004 est.)


Population: 7,163,506 (July 2005 est.)

Ethnic groups: Tajik 79.9%, Uzbek 15.3%, Russian 1.1%,

Kyrgyz 1.1%, other 2.6% (2000 census)

Religions: Sunni Muslim 85%, Shi'a Muslim 5%, other 10% (2003 est.)

Languages: Tajik, Russian

Independence from the Soviet Union: September 1991

GDP - per capita*: $1,100 (2004 est.)

Unemployment rate: 40% (2002 est.)


Population: 4,952,081 (July 2005 est.)

Ethnic groups: Turkmen 85%, Uzbek 5%, Russian 4%, other 6% (2003)

Religions: Muslim 89%, Eastern Orthodox 9%, unknown 2%

Languages: Turkmen, Russian, Uzbek

Independence from the Soviet Union: October 1991

GDP - per capita*: $5,700 (2004 est.)

Unemployment rate: 60% (2004 est.)


Population: 26,851,195 (July 2005 est.)

Ethnic groups: Uzbek 80%, Russian 5.5%, Tajik 5%, Kazakh 3%, Karakalpak 2.5%, Tatar 1.5%, other 2.5% (1996 est.) Religions: Muslim 88% (mostly Sunnis), Eastern Orthodox 9%, other 3%

Languages: Uzbek, Russian, Tajik

Independence from the Soviet Union: September 1991

GDP - per capita*: $1,800 (2004 est.)

Unemployment rate: 0.6% officially, plus another 20%

underemployed (2004 est.)

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