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The essence of Central Asia

A review of Buran. Kirgiz wraca na koń. (Buran. Kyrgyz gets back on the horse). By: Wojciech Górecki. Publisher: Wydawnictwo Czarne, Sękowa, Poland, 2018.

Wojciech Górecki, who is one of the most talented Polish reporters covering Eastern Europe and Central Asia, has just released a new book. Interestingly it comes out half a century after another Polish reporter, Ryszard Kapuściński (often nicknamed the “Cesar of reporting”) travelled to the most exotic republics of the then Soviet Union: Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In his ventures, Górecki visited the same places as Kapuściński.

January 2, 2019 - Zbigniew Rokita - Books and ReviewsIssue 1 2019Magazine

Already having written earlier books on the Caucuses, he now spent most of his time in Central Asia – a region which tends to be underreported and yet it is a never-ending borderland, a place which, in the last few decades, has become a territory of such grand ideas as pan-Turkism, nationalism, Islamism and liberal secularisation.

Keeping distance

It is common for reporters who write stories about their travels to fall in love with the places they visit. As a result, they fall into the trap thinking that everything there matters most. Thus, they have difficulties getting to the core of the problem. Górecki is different in this regard. He began studying the former Soviet Union before the fall of the communism over 30 years ago. He made endless trips to the Soviet republics and post-Soviet states. For all his travels, he was always well-prepared utilising his skills as a reporter, but also his knowledge as a historian and an analyst. These different perspectives allowed him to keep some distance and maintain his relationship with the region.

Today, we can no longer talk about the post-Soviet space in terms of a cohesive territory. Just in the same way as we cannot look at the Balkans or South America in those terms. However, the truth is that, for many of the post-Soviet states, there are still common features which Górecki senses very well. He points out that it was not only the West that took advantage of the East but also the other way around – there were eastern nations and states that took advantage of the West. To explain this Górecki writes: “The September 11th attacks were a godsend to Central Asian governments: since then they could accuse their opponents of having relations with the Taliban to keep their mouths shut”. This is the same tactic that was adopted by Vladimir Putin when he invaded Chechnya and thereby gaining popularity among the Russian public.

Górecki also deconstructs western megalomania, which assumes the West is a point of reference for every nation in the world and the only available alternative is a local dictatorship. As a result, we can read that, for the Tajiks, the centre of the world lies in Moscow, but their field of sight reaches also Beijing, Teheran and Kabul. They only know the West from Russian TV which, of course, presents a very biased interpretation. Górecki’s resemblance to Kapuściński lies in the fact that they both cover regions that are less often travelled and less known.  Such is the case with Turkmenistan – a country that the world needs desperately because of its energy resources and to ensure stability in the region. Thus it is not condemned by the West, even though it should be in some areas. On a side note: next to Eritrea and North Korea, Turkmenistan is regarded as the most oppressive state on the planet.

Reverse nation-building

The most interesting part of the book includes Górecki’s reflections on the memory of Central Asian nations. He stresses the role that the Soviet Union played and describes how it was both a prison of nations and their breeding ground. It set up the standard to a certain level and turned some groups (i.e. tribes, clans) into nations (as was the case in Central Asia and Azerbaijan) while reining in other nation’s aspirations (for instance, in Lithuania and Ukraine).

Nation-building was based on the existence of the national-republics – Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan. In this way, numerous tribes were pushed into “national frames” as the goal was to create socialist societies.

In Central Asia national identities became stronger decades before 1991, but no modern nations emerged in the steppe, as it is sometimes argued. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the already mentioned Turkmen were left alone to integrate the concepts of nationhood and statehood, rooted in the Western Enlightenment, but through the lens of a vulgar, Russian form (i.e. Homo Sovieticus). Yet they clearly did not know how to handle them. Lacking a developed elite and urban tradition, the new leaders of these territories often did not have the skills to manage their land.

Górecki argues that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nation-building process continued in Central Asia. However, it was in reverse to what had taken place in the West. In Central Asia (but also in Belarus) it was usually one man who took power and built the state. And, indeed, the countries of Central Asia have long been governed by such leaders as Emomali Rahmon in Tajikistan, Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, Islom Karimov in Uzbekistan and Saparmurat Niyazov first and now Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow in Turkmenistan. These men established despotic rule in their respective Central Asia states. While analysing Rahmon, Górecki argues: “He came to a belief that he had built this state – he assembled it together from different pieces, rewrote its history and brought it to contemporary times. Finally, he chased away his enemies as if they were luring for his position, thus also for his Tajikistan”. While exploring this phenomenon, Górecki points to other interesting cases and phenomena. For example, he unveils, quite interestingly, how the Tajiks of Afghanistan influenced their cousins in Tajikistan: “They got to know each other better – ironically – thanks to the Soviet intervention which started in 1979 – at that time the Iron Curtain was also dividing the Panj River. At that time, the locals, who were recruited by the army as interpreters, discovered how many legends, customs and prayers they had lost and how impoverished their language had become… And they understood that they were a colony. The Tajik awaking did not start with perestroika but with the war in Afghanistan. This was not only a national, but also a religious, awaking.”

While Górecki’s book certainly provides us with some answers about Central Asia, his reporting also shows this region is very difficult to understand. He writes: “There are clan and tribal divisions. Thus, researchers into Kyrgyz politics need to know which ones of them live in peace and which fight like cats and dogs. They need to know the politicians’ genealogical trees as the arrangements between clans determine alliance and coalitions, voting in the parliament and nominations.” Similarly, one of the explanations as to why Nazerbayev, Kazakhstan’s president, moved the capital from Almaty to Astana is that he wanted the country’s capital to be located on the territory of a different zhuz – tribal division. Górecki explores these mechanisms and, in this way, his work resembles Kapuściński’s writings. It lacks pathos. What the two writers have in common, despite their very different styles, is their similar inductive thinking.

Defending memory

Nations grow stronger by shared memory. In Central Asia – like the old Soviet joke says – the past is difficult to predict. This is true also because the past is still alive and determines the future. Thus Górecki writes: “The five-volume history of Turkmenistan is already ready and cannot be published – I am told by one of the civil servants – it is constantly being re-edited, things are added, other things are removed. And then the government changes the course and the whole process starts anew.”

Looking at the example of Armenia, Górecki discusses the interesting problem of taking control of memory. Specifically, while in the early 20th century there were three million Armenians living in Ottoman Turkey, after the 1915 genocide their number was only a few several thousand. However the truth is that the genocide mainly took place in Anatolia which, after the First World War, stayed under the Turkish control. This means that the Armenians who, at that time, lived in the Russian Empire and who later created the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and today’s Armenia, were not directly affected by the genocide. Those who survived settled around the world and until today keep fighting to the preserve memory of the genocide. However, the inhabitants of today’s state of Armenia do the same even though the atrocity did not take place on their land. A similar situation can be seen in Ukraine where the memory of the Great Famine is mostly fought for by the regions which, at the time of the events, did not even belong to the Soviet Union. Such is the case with Lviv.

Górecki’s story on defending memory and heritage is indeed beautiful. It includes an example of the art museum in Nukus, in Uzbekistan’s autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. The museum was established there in the Soviet Union by Igor Savitsky. In Górecki’s book we read: “The paintings that were unacceptable in Moscow, Leningrad, Kyiv or even Tashkent could be displayed in Nukus; here the censors were not on such high alert.” Savitsky travelled across the Soviet Union, buying up paintings that were doomed for oblivion and destruction as they were authored by repressed artists. He gathered over 50,000 works of art. After his death in 1984, his followers collected an additional 30,000 – all of which can be seen in the museum today.

Kapuściński wanted to write a trilogy about tyrants. He presented portraits of Iran’s Reza Pahlavi, Ethiopia’s Selassie, but did not manage to prepare an analysis of Uganda’s Idi Amin. Górecki also likes to write about dictators and describes what happens not only to the dictators themselves, but the states and the people they govern. He captures their essence without getting overwhelmed by details. At the same time, he resists the temptation of repeating local absurdities. Take the example of Niyazov who ruled in Turkmenistan from the time of perestroika until 2006. Niyazov argued that the Turkmen invented the wheel and that their state is 5,000 years older than it really is. Niyazov himself wrote a book whose reading three times was meant to be a guarantee for those who wanted to get in to heaven. Górecki suggests that the book was even to replace the Koran. Knowing that Niyazov’s successor is not any better, he nevertheless shows the despots in a wider context. In so doing Górecki tries to understand the essence of despotic rule and seems to be asking many important questions: had these Moscow colonies aimed at independence, would they be ready for democracy? Do all communities turn into nations, in the western understanding of the term? Can western concepts be transplanted into eastern realities?

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Zbigniew Rokita is a Polish journalist specialising in Eastern Europe. He is the author of a recent book titled Królowie strzelców. Piłka w cieniu imperium – a report on Eastern Europe of the last century shown through the prism of sport and politics.

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