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State-building myths in Central Asia

Article by Francisco Olmos

October 1, 2019

State-building myths in Central Asia

Countries all over the world have gone through the process of forming and developing national myths that give them their raison d’être, inspiring its citizens looking back at the forefathers. From the legend of King Arthur in Britain, to the Reconquista in Spain or Charlemagne in France, myths based to a greater or lesser extent in history have evolved throughout centuries and have permeated the psyche of its citizens, especially since the 19th century. The Central Asian republics on the other hand had to create and adopt their myths abruptly when they became independent.

The current borders of the Central Asian republics where created in the 1920s and 30s by the Bolsheviks along ethno-linguistic lines that were all but clear. Nationalities, as the Soviets understood them, were a term unknown in the region, where individuals were defined by their family, tribes or places of origin rather than on ethnic terms. As a result, there were Persian speakers that where heavily Turkified, Turkic speakers that were Persanised, Turkmen tribes that identified themselves as Uzbek, Uzbeks who said they were Turkmen and with a confusion on the nomenclature of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz where some of the issues the Soviet authorities faced when drawing up the borders for the different Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) in the region.

Overnight, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan became sovereign nations and had to begin a state-building process that included creating a national narrative, which was an important factor for the nations’ cohesiveness. In most cases, the leaders of the republics looked back at the past in search of national heroes and splendour, overlooking actual historical facts and using them to their advantage for their own political purposes. As we will see, the way this was done varies from country to country owning to their different historical, demographic and political situations.

Uzbekistan, the land of Tamerlane  

Of the five Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan is the prime example of the use of a single historical figure to provide its narrative with a spine. It was Amir Timur (better known in the West as Tamerlane) who was chosen by then President Islam Karimov to be the country’s national hero.

Timur was a 14th century Turco-Mongol conqueror that established the last great Central Asian Empire that in its heyday stretched from Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) in the west to India in the east. Born in Shahrisabz (modern-day Uzbekistan), Timur was a skilful military leader that created his empire through a number of successful and ruthless military campaigns at the same time as he embellished his capital, the fabled Samarkand.

The choice of Timur, a brutal yet successful conqueror, as national hero suited Karimov’s aspiration for regional supremacy, for which it competed with Kazakhstan, as well as to its nationalist policies in country that had a sizeable Tajik-speaking minority. In addition, while Timur was a ruthless emir, he did create a powerful state during his lifetime, something which President Karimov, himself an authoritarian figure with a dismal human rights track record, aspired to and perhaps wanted to be compared to. Parallels between both rulers, intended or not, do not stop there. None of them were actually Uzbek, with Karimov believed to possibly be of ethnic Tajik origin[1] and Timur’s case explained below, and their legacy started to crumble soon after their deaths.

Timur was an obvious choice for Karimov and his government. However, there are problems with the conqueror being considered the founder of the Uzbek nation. In the first place, as mentioned above, he was not Uzbek. He was part of the Barlas tribe, a Mongolian confederation that had been Turkified after years spent in the region. As a matter of fact, the Uzbeks were enemies to his successors and in the late 15th century eventually settled in present-day Uzbekistan. From a historical perspective, the Uzbek Shaybanid dynasty that ousted the Timurids and established the Khanate of Bukhara in the 16th century would be a more accurate historical choice. Despite being a regional powerful state during that time, giving such a refined and effective ruler as Abdullah II Khan (r. 1583 – 1598), the Khanate of Bukhara or its neighbour, the also Uzbek-ruled Khanate of Khiva, cannot be compared with Timur’s grandeur and role in history. Uzbekistan needed a strong and even feared ruler, and Timur, despite historical and even linguistic and ethnic inaccuracies, fitted the part.

While Timur is the main character used by the Uzbek authorities in their nation building process, other historical figures have been used to create a narrative around Uzbek culture. The most prominent of those has been the poet Alisher Nava’i (1441-1501), famed for using a Turkic language instead of Persian as was common at the time. In this case, the project had already been started by the Soviet authorities who saw Nava’i as the great representative of the Uzbek language. As part of their project to create states along ethno-linguistic lines, the Soviets renamed Chagatai, the Turkic language used by Nava’i, as ‘old Uzbek’ despite the fact that it was a different language to the actual Uzbek spoken by the Uzbek tribes, who rapidly adopted Chagatai.[2] The modern Uzbek is a continuation of Chagatai and was not known as ‘Uzbek’ until the Soviets renamed it as such. Therefore, taking advantage of the narrative already established during Soviet times, it was only natural for Nava’i to continue his role as the founder of Uzbek literature.

Tajikistan, Samanid irredentism

Contrary to the other republics, which are of Turkic origin, Tajikistan is culturally and linguistically Persian. Rather than steppe empires and conquerors, the Tajik authorities had to look elsewhere to find their foundational myth, and it was an easier task. Once the civil war was over in 1997 and state-building could get properly started, President Emomali Rahmon looked towards the Samanid Empire for inspiration.

The Samanid Empire (819-999) was the last great Iranian state in Central Asia, with apologies the 12th century Ghurids. At its zenith, the Samanids were the powerhouse of their day and ruled from their capital at Bukhara over most of modern day Iran, as well as Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics. Before them, the region had fallen under the influence of the Arabs and after them it would be the different Turkic states who would take over. Resorting to the Samanids as the founders of the Tajik nation was a logical strategy which had a more solid base than, for instance, the Uzbeks claiming Timur as one of their own. Ismail Samani, the greatest of the Samanid rulers, has become the main character in the country’s history. He has given the name to the Tajik currency (the somoni), the highest mountain in Tajikistan, and a large statue of him stands proudly in the capital Dushanbe.

However, modern day Tajikistan is but a shadow of what the Samanids were. The Soviet delineation that created the Tajik SSR left the Tajiks with no major city. The great cultural lighthouses of Bukhara and Samarkand, the former capitals of the Samanids, who the Tajiks claim as their own and where sizeable Tajik-speaking populations still live, were given to Uzbekistan. By associating Tajikistan with the Samanid Empire in an effort to stress the importance of the Tajiks who once dominated the region, the government implicitly claimed the territory once occupied by the Samanids, and that includes Samarkand and Bukhara in neighbouring Uzbekistan.[3]

Reaching out of Tajikistan’s current borders has also been attempted by Rahmon and his government in cultural terms. The poet Rudaki (859-940/41), is rightfully seen as the main beacon of culture in Tajikistan. Born not far away from Dushanbe, he is considered to be the first great literary figure of neo-Persian literature and his poetry is read not only in Tajikistan but in the wider Persian-speaking world. However, Rahmon’s claim that Persian intellectuals like Ferdowsi, Hafiz, Omar Khayyam, Rumi and Avicenna, among others, are Tajiks can be considered taking a step too far.[4]

Turkmenistan, a living myth for the Turkmen

Out of all the Central Asian republics, Turkmenistan had one of the hardest tasks in creating a historical narrative as a result of its tribal structure prior to the Soviet-era and a lack of a historical state. Nevertheless, the Turkmen state did use a number of historical figures like the semi-mythical Oguz Khan, the father of the Turkic people, and Sultan Sanjar, the Seljuk ruler who established himself in Merv (in present-day Turkmenistan). However, the main founder of the Turkmen nation was not a distant figure who had been dead for centuries but Turkmenistan’s own first president, Saparmurat Niyazov.

Niyazov established an eccentric personality cult around him to cement his power at the head of the country. Without a strong family clan to support him, he ensured all authority in the country rested on him. He adopted the title of Türkmenbaşy (Head of the Turkmen), made himself ever-present in the life of ordinary Turkmens and wrote a pseudo-spiritual and revised historical guide called Ruhnama that became mandatory for students. Niyavoz established himself not only as the political leader of Turkmenistan but also as its historical and even spiritual reference point.

As in the case of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the Soviet authorities promoted literary figures in Turkmenistan as they were seen less contentious than historical leaders. In Turkmenistan’s case it was Magtymguly Pyragy (1724-c.1807), the undisputable master of Turkmen literature. Magtymguly not only wrote his verses in Turkmen, rather than Persian, about love, religion and spiritualism, but he also tried to promote the unification of the different Turkmen tribes ‘between the Amu-Darya and the Caspian.’ If one historical figure represents the desire for a unified Turkmen nation that is Magtymguly, but political motives have relegated the poet to only a literary role. 

Kyrgyzstan, an epic history

While some of the republics, namely Uzbekistan, pursued a nationalistic policy from the beginning, in Kyrgyzstan the process was more gradual as a result of the ethnic composition of the country. Rather than creating a national narrative based on the titular nationality, Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akayev, ideated the motto of ‘Kyrgyzstan is our common home.’ By doing so, Akayev wanted to accommodate the non-Kyrgyz living population to prevent their exodus following independence. At the same time, he started building a narrative for the Kyrgyz to help him retain his hold on power and that got a regular boost prior to the general elections the mid-1990s and early 2000s.[5]

Contrary to Uzbeks or Tajiks, Kyrgyz could not look back to a powerful empire. While different important states, such as the Karakhanids and the Kara Khitai, had occupied what is now modern day Kyrgyzstan prior to the Mongol conquest, they were not related to the Kyrgyz. Akayev decided to turn to literature instead in the form of the Epic of Manas.The narrative poem tells the adventures and struggles of Manas, a hero who battles his enemies and invaders of his land through around half a million verses. The character of Manas fits better with the nomadic heritage of the Kyrgyz than any other historical figure and benefitted the nation-building process with Manas possessing the positive attributes of a warrior, husband, father and a staunch defender of the unity of a nation against foreign enemies. Problems arose when the Kyrgyz authorities claimed that Manas as such actually existed, celebrating in 1995 its millennium anniversary and building a museum dedicated to the hero around a 14th mausoleum, where tradition says he was buried. However, the earliest manuscript of the epic dates back to the late 18th century and the plot seems to narrate events that took place in the region a century earlier.

In addition to the promotion of the Epic of Manas, whose eponymous hero now lends the name to different landmarks across the country including Bishkek’s airport and a mountain peak and whose story is represented in the flag of the country, Akayev promoted the celebration of the city of Osh’s 3,000 anniversary and the disputed 2,200 years of the Kyrgyz nation, none of which had the same repercussions as the poem.

Kazakhstan, the resurging khanate

While Kyrgyzstan had to deal with a diverse population post-independence, Kazakhstan’s case was more extreme. Kazakhstan was the only former Soviet republic where the titular nationality did not represent the majority of the population, with almost as many Russians as Kazakhs. Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, ably navigated the situation, not carrying out nationalist policies and striving for the different ethnic groups to coexist peacefully to avoid multi-ethnic conflicts.

As the years went by, the demographics in Kazakhstan changed. Emigration of non-Kazakhs coupled with the return of ethnic Kazakhs that lived in other parts of the USSR, or further away in China and Mongolia, meant that Kazakhs became by far the majority in their country. While still pursuing the policy of harmony among the different ethnicities, Kazakhstan started to look back on its founding figures. This process was probably accelerated by Vladimir Putin’s remarks in 2014, after the Russian intervention in Ukraine, in which he said that Kazakhs had never had a statehood. Nazarbayev implicitly responded the next year by celebrating the following year the 550th anniversary of Kazakh statehood, when he stated that ‘the anniversary of the Kazakh Khanate shows that the Kazakh nation and the Kazakh state have a long history.’[6]

The Kazakh Khanate that Nazarbayev alluded to was established in 1465 by Kerey and Janibek, two tribal leaders that broke away from the Uzbek Khanate. The nomadic Kazakh Khanate occupied roughly the same extension as modern day Kazakhstan and flourished in the mid-16th century after which it entered a steady decline before being incorporated into the Tsarist Empire. While the Kazakh Khanate did not have the characteristics of a modern state that Nazarbayev defended, it was the best option the government had, coupled with the promotion of the nomadic culture in the territory of Kazakhstan, through which it tried to include non-Kazakhs.  

Despite promoting the khanate through events, festivities and even films, Kazakhstan has not pushed as far as other countries have with their newly founded national myths. While Timur and Ismail Samani are strongly present in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan respectively, the Kazakh authorities have not sought the same for Kerey and Janibek. The country still has a diverse population, with a strong Russian presence in the north, and exacerbated nationalism can lead to instability.

The five Central Asian republics that emerged from the USSR had to create their own founding myths in a short period of time. In each of the countries, it was the political aims of the ruling classes that determined the national narrative the country should follow. The myths emanated from the top of the government and were promoted through state institutions, media and popular culture. While the different national identities are well established now, new rulers may seek to make minor alterations to the narratives in order to diminish their predecessor’s influence and make their own mark.

I would like to thank Almaty-based journalist Joanna Lillis for her insights on Kazakhstan’s state-building process



Photo by David Mulder, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.

[1] Bruce Pannier, Orphaned Dictator: The Making Of Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov,  RFE/RL, March 2015, https://www.rferl.org/a/the-making-of-islam-karimov-uzbekistan/26917396.html

[2] Akhilesh Pillalamarri, “The Weird Case of the Uzbek Language”, The Diplomat, February 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/02/the-weird-case-of-the-uzbek-language/

[3] Foltz, Richard. 2019. A History of the Tajiks. London: I.B. Tauris

[4] Marat, Erica. 2008. National ideology and state-building in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Stockholm: Silk Road Studies Program

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lillis, Joanna. 2019. Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan. London: I.B. Tauris

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