We’ve now visited, though some fairly briefly, four of the five “Stans,” the Central Asian republics that were once part of the Soviet Union, and I thought that it was worth doing a comparison, similar to my post of 5.7 on the states of the Persian Gulf.
Religion. All of the Stans are essentially entirely Islamic, but each having lived within the Soviet Union means that relatively few seem to take the religion and its proscriptions too seriously. Although we saw little pork being eaten (other than by resident Russians, Koreans and other “non-native” ethnic groups), alcohol flows freely, including especially vodka and beer. The most religiously conservative country is probably Uzbekistan, whose Fergana Valley is likely the most traditional region in the Stans, while as an ethnic group the Kyrgyz, often living in the wilderness, feel the least Islamicized. The only non-Sunni area, I believe, is the (Shiite) Ismaili Pamirs (post on Ismailis to come).
Crumbling infrastructure. The Stans were largely undeveloped in terms of modern infrastructure before the arrival of the Russians, and the departure of the Russians, who provided substantial financial support and investment in the region, has meant that the Stans have suffered greatly in maintenance of public works. Other than Turkmenistan and perhaps Kazakhstan, the Stans simply cannot afford to maintain themselves at the level of development and wealth that they enjoyed as part of the Soviet Union. This is most apparent in remote and rugged Tajikistan, which was the poorest republic of the Soviet Union. Because of the serious drop in living standards suffered at the time of independence, which was multiplied by a bloody civil war, many Tajiks, we were told, are nostalgic for the Soviet era. Western development assistance has played a role in supporting Tajikistan, but it has not been sufficient, as the electricity/fuel shortages of the previous winter showed. We found ourselves wondering whether the Tajik city of Murgab in the high Pamirs is even sustainable, now that it has lost its mission as a Russian military outpost–the setting is in so many ways inhospitable to human habitation, especially at such urban levels.
Police/Military presence. I found myself feeling sorry for Central Asians because of the omnipresence of the police and military. There is nothing about the region in particular that would suggest heavy-handed, corrupt, autocratic regimes–I think all the machinery was just inherited from the Soviet Union. We personally witnessed bribes in all the Stans that we visited except Turkmenistan (not that Turkmenistan is so clean–we later heard of tourists who had been ripped off by Turkmen customs officials). Of the Stans, Tajikistan felt the most like a police state, with numerous police checkpoints and a security force still referred to as the KGB. On the other hand, Tajik officials generally seemed quite polite and friendly, whereas the Uzbek government is infamous for human rights violations and corruption. Turkmenistan has the worst reputation as a police state, but during our short stay it really didn’t seem that bad to us–people seemed like they were quite freely going about their lives, even if under a paternalistic government and an 11 p.m. curfew. Kyrgyzstan is arguably the most “free” of the Stans we visited (hotels didn’t even ask for passports and registration of foreigners has been abolished), but this didn’t mean that the officials were any friendlier or less corrupt.
Food. The cuisine is essentially the same across the region, with the same dishes, both native and imported, found in each country. We did think that food in Kyrgyzstan was marginally better than in the other Stans that we visited. See post of 7.5.
Language. All of the major Central Asian ethnic groups are Turkic and speak Turkic languages, with the exception of Tajikistan, which speaks an Iranian language. Although Kazakh, Turkmen, Uzbek and Kyrgyz are distinct languages, it seemed to us that very many Central Asians professed to speak more than one–and so I believe that the languages are probably more similar to each other than, say, the Romance languages of Spanish, French and Italian. While Tajik is very similar to Farsi and not at all related to Turkic languages at a linguistic level, I thought that the inflection with which Tajiks speak sounded surprisingly Turkic–but this could have been in my mind. [Speaking of connections between Turkic and non-Turkic languages, it recently occurred to me that questions end with a “mi” in Turkish and a “ma” in Chinese, and that “water” is “su” in Turkish and “sui” in Chinese–if this is not a coincidence and there is a reason for this, please let me know!]
Wealth. I do not know how things were within the Soviet Union, but the Stans are diverging in terms of wealth. We did not visit Kazakhstan, but we were told by numerous travelers that things are seriously expensive there. It is unclear how wisely the gas revenues of Turkmenistan have been spent, but the extraordinarily cheap fares for the squeaky new sleeper train in Turkmenistan showed that the Turkmen are clearly benefiting in at least some ways from their country’s newfound money. Tajikistan was the poorest republic of the Soviet Union and remains poor–it is hard to see how the country could catch up given its serious disadvantages in location and terrain. Traveling from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan, or from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan, it is startlingly apparent how relatively modern and developed Tajikistan’s neighbors are. As one Kyrgyz woman living in the Tajik Pamirs put it, “life is hard” in Tajikistan, with scarce electricity and such basic pleasures as fruit.
Level of Russification. Ethnically, the Russians are most present in Kazakhstan, where they make up about a quarter of the population, and, while we have been to neither Kazkhstan nor Russia, it is likely Kazkhstan that is the most Russified in other respects as well. Among the Stans that we visited, however, Kyrgyzstan felt the most Russian, with the most Russian language in use, alcohol consumption at its highest, surly (or lack of) customer service and a general lack of apparent happiness in the urban population. Uzbekistan feels the least Russian, there having been something of a conscious campaign to make the country more Uzbek, including by abolishing the Cyrillic script that was used for the Uzbek language in Soviet times in favor of the Latin alphabet.