Last year I got a wonderful opportunity to work on a Central Asian project covering the countries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Needless to say, the wanderer in me was extremely excited at this opportunity – I had heard a lot about Central Asia but only through books or stories or maybe some history. The mum in me was a bit doubtful though, about leaving the kids for long stretches at a time. The family deliberated and we all decided to jump into this new adventure called Central Asia!
Central Asia held a special meaning for me being part of the erstwhile Soviet Union. I was in my primary years when the Soviet Union still existed and there was a lot of cultural exchange between our countries. I remember mobile vans stationed at schools or other places that sold children’s books from the USSR. My favourites were Russian folk tales. A large part of my early years was spent reading about Baba Yaga, Buddhimati (wise) Vasilisa and Prince Ivan. To me it felt like an opportunity to go to a land which had fascinated me most of my childhood! But a land that was too far from me.
However, when I started booking my tickets I realized with shock how close some of these countries are! Almaty is a 3.5 hour flight from Delhi and direct flights to Bishkek and Dushanbe would be under 3 hours. Going to Tashkent from Delhi is probably just a little longer than going to Bombay! Each of these cities is beautiful and yet undiscovered by the Indian traveler. Though a very interesting subset of South Asians are very familiar with these countries. These are our medical students! On my first flight to Bishkek (via Almaty), I was surprised to notice a large no. of young Indian people. I was even more surprised when I realized that they were all also transiting to Bishkek! Upon enquiry, I found out that there are approximately 5,000 Indian students studying medicine in Bishkek alone! And they are such a high percentage of the total student population, that they get Diwali holidays as well! Anyway, I digress.
Central Asia remains unknown to most of the world even after more than 25 years of independence. Being part of the Soviet Union, Central Asia along with the other countries behind the iron curtain was hidden from the rest of the world. Even after the break up of the USSR, Central Asia remained under the shadow of Russia and being land locked and away from the Western Economic powers, did not receive much economic attention from the globalized world. Each of the five countries have followed their own path of economic and political transformation. Moving from centrally planned economies to being led by the market has not been easy and some countries are ahead of the others in this transformation.
Till date I have been to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Tashkent and Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and Almaty – only for a few hours (Kazakhstan). Each of these cities is beautiful in its own way and deserves a blog of its own. There is a lingering flavor of the USSR – in the buildings, in the city plans, in the systems that have survived through these years. But there is also a lot of newness as these countries strive to come out of their old identity. A lot of old buildings have been pulled down and beautiful new ones erected. (I simply loved the ones in Dushanbe) Many countries are resurrecting their old heroes – the statue of Ismoil Somoni was erected in 1999 in Dushanbe. Similarly a statue of Manas, another local hero was erected in Bishkek in 2011. These have come up in places that used to have statues of Lenin earlier.
I have had some of the most fascinating and educating conversations with various people during my visits. I was keen to to understand what they feel about the break up of the USSR. The new generation seems to have embraced the new world order while many from the older generation are nostalgic about the Soviet era. They remember the ease of jobs and services and how the basic needs of the citizens were taken care of. For example, the education system or provision of other public services. The state provided free education, day care and a job upon turning into an adult. The state’s role has now contracted and it is no more the main employer or provider of other services such as health care etc. These jobs have been turned over to the private sector. However, markets are not necessarily fully evolved in all the countries and many individuals also talk about increasing corruption or lack of quality of public services.
Most young people clearly prefer the merit based system and the opportunity to work hard and rise high. When a colleague said that it was very hard for anyone to be poor during the Soviet reign – I immediately became dreamy eyed till she went on and said that there was very little incentive for people to work hard and a disincentive for the brighter people. It reminded me of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and how well it brings out the fallacies of the Marxian principle “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need”.
On the one hand, there was no need to work hard, on the other, there was hardly any incentive to either. There was no encouragement to enterprise – in fact it was illegal! (I feel like laughing since all we talk now is about promoting entrepreneurship). You couldn’t run even the smallest shop – whatever one produced was for the state. Everything was centrally planned – down to what clothes people would wear! There used to be pattern makers at the national level who would decide about 30-40 patterns of shirts/ dresses/ pants etc., the kind of fabric and colour – and all Govt. factories would manufacture a certain number of each type of clothing! (Anyone from the fashion industry reading this!) Imagine every fifteenth person wearing identical clothes!
I found a slide online which elaborates on what I am saying (not sure of source so can’t give credit):
It was even more surprising when during an official discussion, my colleagues mentioned that people traditionally do not have the habit to save. It sounded odd to me (since in India – everyone is busy saving – either in their bank accounts or under their pillow or inside tin boxes!). The reason was even more baffling. Since the state was supposed to provide for everyone, savings were actually frowned upon. You were probably a bourgeoisie if you decided to save some money!
Another interesting aspect was the attitude towards religion. The Soviet Union followed a policy of state atheism which basically discourages all religion. It is different from secularism where the state is officially neutral in religious matters. In simpler terms, the Soviet Government told its people to practice religion within the confines of their houses and that nothing of religious nature was to be done publicly. There were of course mosques and churches, but fewer and far between. Coming from India, where we celebrate everything together, on the streets, this seemed to me fascinating, bizarre, peaceful and bland all at the same time! Central Asia is a traditionally Islamic region and twenty eight years later, the attitude of people towards religion continues to be muted, though some countries are more religious than others. However, most of the Governments continue to discourage overt religious activity.
OK, I have just realised that it is pretty late at night (1.53 a.m.) and this is becoming a very long piece. I still haven’t got a chance to talk about the people, their food or culture, but if I start doing that now, this blog will become interminably long and probably not end. So however abrupt this end may seem, I must publish it and sleep. I hope you have enjoyed peeking into Central Asia. I will definitely be back with more. And do think about taking your next holiday in one of the Central Asian countries. I promise you will not be disappointed.
So for now dobroy nochi. That’s good night in Russian.