Visit to Uzbekistan

It is always nice to get back and find you haven’t been burgled. The locks were secure, the windows intact, and with a song in my heart I opened my bank statement. It all seemed pretty satisfactory, if a tiny bit emaciated, and for a second or two I let my eye run down the list of outgoings. Funny, I thought. What was this ‘payment to Egg’? I seemed to have been making all sorts of payments to something called Egg. In fact, Egg had received several grand from me. I looked closer, the beginnings of suspicion frosting my heart. – £754. Che? Two big payments of more than £500 to a credit-card firm called Capital One. Hmmmmm. Another payment to Egg, of £1,000! Aaaargh. With the cry of one who finds a great tapeworm coiled in his innards, I twigged. I was being diddled. Someone had stolen my debit-card details. All the time we were in Uzbekistan, he or she had been living it up at my expense. I rang Barclays Premier emergency helpline, scrubbed the card, and asked what they could do to catch the thief. ‘Not a lot, I am afraid, sir,’ said the fellow. I just can’t believe it. These computer johnnies are so expert at following electronic trails that they can tell in a trice what websites you may or may not have visited five years ago – and now the bank says it can’t even tell whither they electronically dispatched all my hard-earned dosh. Well, I say to hell with it. I am going to pursue this. I am going to catch the little swine and, as Samuel L. Jackson says in Pulp Fiction, I am going to smite them with a terrible vengeance. Still, as banking disasters go, it’s better than the time Barclays contrived to pay my entire salary to someone else called Johnson.

Amazing how the world changes, eh? There we were in former Soviet Central Asia, the heart of what Ronald Reagan once rightly called the evil empire. We were standing on the smashed-up old roof of a summer palace of Tamburlaine the Great (1336-1405), looking out at the pleasant green spread of a town called Shahrisabj. For more than a week we had been travelling in Uzbekistan, and we had hardly met another Westerner. Now I became aware of some large freckly girls in trainers, consenting to be photographed with the jabbering natives, and hulking sweaty-nosed black GIs. That’s right: it was the US military, from the base at Karshi-Khanabad. Just think, I said to my children. When I was a nipper this place was full of Russian troops, not Americans. Hundreds of feet below us, on the commie piazza, was a gigantic statue of Tamburlaine, Uzbekistan’s major contribution to world history. You know what, I told them, 15 years ago, that wasn’t a statue of Tamburlaine, that was Lenin; and yet here’s the funny thing. Round the statue were noisy Uzbek wedding parties, beautiful girls in white, and their grooms in black tie. Now, I said to the children, the wedding parties come to be photographed with big bronze Tamburlaine just as they came to be photographed with big bronze Lenin. What conclusion do you draw from this about human nature? ‘Well,’ they said brilliantly, ‘it shows that people want someone to look up to, and it doesn’t really matter who it is.’ Correct! I said. You may think it odd to put up statues to Tamburlaine, who was famous for his pyramids of skulls. But in the mass-murderer stakes, of course, he comes a long way behind Lenin.

If you go as a tourist to Uzbekistan (and I very much hope you do) the main items you are shown are the mosques and madrasas and whatnot. These often turn out to have been built by Tamburlaine (qv) and are of really astonishing beauty. Domes of turquoise and eggshell, arches and colonnades, all arranged with effortless rhythm and elegance. There is nothing like it on earth. But as you stare at them, you are struck by a kind of inertness. There is no cheesy smell from the carpets; no mosquito drone from the muezzin; in fact, there are no religious observances going on at all in these monuments. Stalin’s archaeologists lovingly repaired the sites; Islam itself was stamped on in a way that was brutal, repressive and quite amazingly effective. The Koran was banned. The last veil was burned in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan in 1959. Polygamy was outlawed. Modern Uzbekistan is robustly secular, flowing in pissy Uzbek beer and blind-making Uzbek vodka, with bottle-blonde Uzbek girls tottering by in high heels. We looked at their tiny skirts, and it was amazing to think that Afghanistan was just a few miles down the road.

It won’t last, of course. There are many wonderful things about Uzbekistan, but two drawbacks. The food is quite disgusting, consisting either of lamb ‘ploff’, or of a slimy lamb and noodle soup called ‘lagman’, or lamb shashlik, all of which coat your skin and hair in a ghastly lamby sheepfat emulsion. The second problem is that it is a police state, with checkpoints everywhere and a grim human-rights record. There is no secular opposition (the last time President Islom Karimov stood for election, he received the votes of 95 per cent of the electorate, including that of his chief opponent), and the result is that religion provides a focus for dissent. Slowly the mosques are opening, and the anti-religious thaw is accelerating since it began in 1993. Whatever happened this year in Andijan, when Karimov’s troops slaughtered between 80 and 300 people, Islamic revivalism was there in the mix. For the older generation, used to the iron certainties of communism, it is all very troubling. Our guide in Bokhara is a distinguished lady in her fifties, who is proud to have worn her red Pioneer tie, and to be an atheist. ‘I don’t agree with people who curse the Russians,’ she says. ‘I think they did a lot of good. Now people don’t learn Russian any more, just Uzbek and English. It is very sad.’ I see trouble ahead. I see chronic friction between the secular russified majority and a growing Islamist minority. Perhaps that is one reason why Karimov is now kicking the Americans out of their base, and turning back to Moscow. Whatever you say about the Russians, they have no qualms when it comes to abusing human rights, if that means cracking down on Islam.

I also discovered on my return that Peter Oborne has exercised his sovereign right, as political editor, to slip in no fewer than two columns in praise of Ken Clarke; and I therefore feel bound to say that I share his admiration but for many powerful reasons that will in due course be set out in these pages it is my policy and therefore ex officio the policy of this magazine that the next leader of the Conservative party should be David Cameron.

18 thoughts on “Visit to Uzbekistan”

  1. I trust you were in Uzbekistan in some official capacity, Boris. Karimov’s human rights record over recent years has been nothing short of outrageous, with the massicre at Andijon being the tip of a depressingly large iceberg.

    The only reason nothing of note’s been said about this is the West is Karimov’s support for The War on Terror (TM) and Uzbekistan’s strategic position in Central Asia.

    With friends like that…

  2. Youth undoubtedly has its place in politics Boris; the trouble is it doesn’t know its place. Pro tem , until the worst is over, it is far better to let Ken take the strain, and David follow in his train. I don’t want to be in permanent support of a heap of also rans, I want to be a supporter of a future, ( and not too distant),Tory Government.
    Radical change ; radical policies : that is the way forward, and Ken Clarke is the man to lead.

  3. A group of some 30 bloggers marked Uzbekistan’s Independence Day on 1 September by writing about human rights, the environmental catastrophe of the drying up of the Aral Sea, and the possibility of international sanctions against Uzbek cotton.

    A complete list of contributions is at:

    My own short entry is at:

    There is an excellent blog that covers Uzbekistan called Registan net, named after the great square in Samarkand:

  4. I hope I’m not repeating anything that Simon has posted at those links above, but G W Bush had Karimov to the White House, and gave him $500 million. There is also the fact that the USA were (and for all I know still are) flying ‘suspects’ there for interrogation, despite its record on torture and the fact that the State Department had blasted the place on its human rights record — before adopting it as an ally in the “war on terror”. They were very, very slow to make any statement after the Andijan episode. We all know what’s in and around the Caspian Sea area, and what the strategic interest is.

    Hyprocisy thy name is Bush.

  5. There has also been considerable British involvement. We have been helping to train their army (both in Britain and in Uzbekistan) – the same army that massacred the peaceful protesters in Andijan.

    Craig Murray, the former British ambassador has detailed his objection to our use of intelligence derived from torture in Uzbekistan on his blog:

    Whatever efforts the Americans and British have been making behind the scenes to get the Karimov government to moderate its behaviour have been a complete failure as the Americans have now been told to get out and the Uzbeks have aligned themselves with Putin and the Chinese (to whom they sell their cotton).

  6. No comment on Uzbekistan. I didn’t read that far. I’ll get back to it.

    But PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE Boris – GO AFTER THE BANKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Thanks for the nod to Craig Murray’s blog.
    I’d seen him interviewed a few times, and read him in … I think the Guardian.

    I knew the Americans lost their airfield there, but didn’t know they’d cut all connections.

    I’m off to browse. 🙂

  8. On another topic Boris has written about the difference in attitudes to the Soviet Union under Stalin and Germany under Hitler. It depends on your defintion of fascism I suppose but as far as I can see both were fascist. In order to defeat one fascist power the UK and USA allied with another. People were fairly aware of the reality of Stalin’s regime. A lot of shameful things happened such as deportation of people back to the Soviet union to face more or less certain death.

    Now this may sound very utilitarian. However I think the alliance of the UK and USA with the Soviets was a good thing. While it was on, the west had to pretend that the great Soviet Union was fighting for freedom etc.. At this point fellow travellers usually try and make me feel ashaned by talking of the great sacrifice of the Russian people, which slides over to the Soviet people and then to the Communists, and sometimes as far as ‘Uncle’ Joe. The Russians fought desperately for many reasons, many for Mother Russia, some, but many fewer I think for the Soviet union, and many others because the alternative to going forward was a bullet from the Comissar. Incidentally once the tide of war had changed should we have not been as grateful to those German soldiers who slowed up the advance of the Russians to the West?

    The other options were it seems

    1 an alliance with Germany against the Soviet Union
    2 no alliance with either power but keep on fighting
    3 surrender.

    The problem with such utlitariaism is that it usually comes into play as the only or the main or an important way to conduct conflicts. It is erosive of the morality of open societies to use it. It puts them into moral peril. The urgent problem is then to weigh up the utilitarian argument against the degree of peril. If the UK and USA had become closed totalitarian societies then that would have been a disaster.

    Even if all the people on your side are ‘good guys’ the very use of war brings utilitarianism to the fore. For example I have read that the UK government allowed ceratin operations to go ahead even though they knew the Nazis knew about them. The reason was that the UK government knowledge had been obtained through the work of Bletchley Park and to acknowledge this by cancelling specific operations would have alerted the Nazis to the fact that the code had been cracked.

    Now this is not be complacent at all. The state in open societies must be held to account. At the same time the state’s primary responsibility is the defence of the realm aka the open society. I have no idea of the extent of involvement of the UK and USA in Uzbekistan
    or what advantages accrue to us in the war against state and individual terrorism. However I reject the ‘smoking gun’ theory of showing that the open societies are evil – find them engaged in one dodgy deal and that proves it. The converse theory of the ‘widow’ mite’ – apologies to those who use this story in the original way – which is that when a closed and oppresive society does one good thing then that shows they are not so bad after all, is possible even less attractive.

  9. Scaryduck: “I trust you were in Uzbekistan in some official capacity, Boris.”

    I disagree with the idea that we shouldn’t visit countries with poor human rights records. In my experience, foreigners are almost always welcome in places where there have been problems. People who have suffered want to tell their stories to visitors from the outside world. Even contact with officials can be worthwhile, as a large number of them are often anti-regime themselves.

    Incidentally I rather hope Boris was NOT there in some official capacity. The less we all have to do with current British government policy towards Uzbekistan the better!

  10. Jack Ramsay says that there should have been a measure of gratitude toward the Wehrmacht for their stubborn resistance against the Soviet advance on Western Europe. I do not follow the logic of this statement, due to the following.

    The Americans were in the position to be able to advance much further East than they in fact did. They even withdrew some troops from further East, apparently because of a prior agreement between the so-called, ‘Big Three’, allied powers, thus allowing the Soviets to enter eastern parts Berlin when the Western Allies could have held more territory. The exact reason for this decision was not made quite clear. It was certainly grounds for heated discussion at the time, I remember my father complaining about the decision, whilst not understanding the reason for his complaint
    The Germans were of the opinion , long after the war, that Churchill had wanted to take what was left of the surrendered Wehrmacht on side , and advance into the Eastern countries. The saying was , and I heard it many times , “Churchill hat gesagt “, ” Wir haben den falschen Schwein geschlachtet “,( “Churchill had said”, “We have slaughtered the wrong pig”); meaning that there should have been a continuation, or rather reversal, of the war, but this time, against The USSR. This belief was for many years widespread currency in the then West Germany : whether it was correct or not, perhaps we shall never know.

  11. Macarnie

    Thanks for the information. I was not aware of this and I am happy to accept from you that it is (was) the case.

    My logic was based on the following.

    (1) Many Communist fellow travellers say that we should be grateful to the Soviet Union, whatever its faults, for putting up stiff resistance to the German army, thus entailing a higher concentration of troops on the eastern front than would otherwise have been the case. They do this by pointing out the great suffering borne by the soldiers of the Soviet army and there is a silent implication that this transmits to the Soviet Union.

    (2) When the German army retreated then the amount of progress the Soviet army made was dependent on the resistance of the German army.

    (3) The less progress the Soviet army made the better it would be for post-war Europe.

    The conclusion I drew was that we should be grateful, in the same way, for the resistance of the German army at this point. (However I do not make the same sort of false and rather sly move from the soldiers to the Nazi state and ideology then controlling Germany as the fellow travellers do with the Russian soldiers and the Soviet state.)

    You have raised a matter of fact and I have no reason to doubt you.

    The point of my argument, as a rebuff to fellow travellers, still stands if I make (2) a reasonable counterfactual

    (2) Had there been no agreements concerning the carve up of Europe then, when the German army retreated, the amount of progress the Soviet army made was dependent on the resistance of the German army.

    This part of what I said was to make the point that just because the Soviet Union was one of the Allies in WW2 this does not alter in any way the nature of the Soviet Union or indeed the whole Communist enterprise. Nowadays fellow travellers make the same sort of argument for Cuba, usually involving the facts that it has been protected from globalisation – see the housing stocks to realise just how, Ernest Hemingway got drunk there – but he wasn’t a British football supporter so that was OK, Fidel looks like Santa Claus off duty etc. etc. – thus quietly ignoring the repression of the state there.

  12. Jack Ramsey:
    Whilst it is of course true that the Soviets, with a little bit of help from the red Army, did slow down the invasion of Mother Russia. What they ( CFT) are not so fond of admitting, is that were it not for Grandfather Winter, their own inbuilt V Waffe , the German advance would have continued through to Moscow and beyond.

    These same people deny, by their very reticence, that without the supplies of munitions from the Western allies,delivered so heroically through the murderously difficult seaways, by allied convoys, the Soviet Union would , probably, have collapsed. It was only after the fact that the Soviet armament industry began to get into its stride, that their dependence on Western supplies waned.

    It was all a long time ago, and the answers to the great question of , ” WHAT IF”, can only be guessed at, after all.

    There is however,no question about the sacrifices the Soviet people made. 20 million dead. All very humbling; and for a huge number of the proletariat to end up being the unwilling poverty stricken hosts of the parasitic Mafia cannot make their lot a better one.

  13. Macarnie

    I don’t think we have a major disagreement. I certainly agree about the convoys. I suspect that you are better informed than I on various points in ways that do not materially affect my argument with CFTs. But it may mean that I don’t even have to accept some of the premises they put forward.

    My only gripe is that you refer to the Soviet people – maybe I have done myself from time to time. We don’t usually talk about the Nazi people wrt. Germany under the Nazis. In both cases I would suggest that, despite both ideologies getting gut popular, though not majority support, one in a pustch and the other in an election, to talk of either the Soviet people or the Nazi people is to confuse a group of individuals, each with their own good and bad ideas, motives, judgement etc, with the respective ideologies. One of the tragedies of history is that the unthinking response of a mass of individuals at a time of crisis can lead to a heavy penalty that many of them, as well as many more others, regret later. When CFTs talk of the heroism of the Soviet people this is standard Leninist-Stalinist propaganda. If others spoke of the heroism of the Parliamentary Democratic this would be laughed out of court by the same post-modernists CFTs. (Actually I would laugh it of court but this is because states are parliamentary democracies or (red or black) fascist dictatorships, whereas peoples are more or less free or more or less not free).

    The reality of the heroism probably casts many of these soldiers is a far more sympathetic light, desperately surviving from day to day to fight with the very uncertain chance that by doing so they may have contributed something to the survival of their friends and families, possibly Mother Russia, but not for Comrade Stalin and the Party.

    I think this is worth banging on about. If you look back to the string on “Commies are getting a good press” you will find some truly convoluted arguments to show that red fascism is much nicer than black fascism and qualitatively different. If Prince Harry had worn the uniform of an East Berlin wall guard or an officer in the OGPU there would still have been raised eyebrows but perhaps more chuckles than po faces amongst the media and chattering classes.

  14. Jack Ramsey: sorry to be such a pain , but to refer to the people of the USSR (The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics),as Soviets, is in no way denigrating their nationhood, as would be the reference of all Germans as Nazis ( NSDAP). The one is a decription of the combined Nationalities of a people, and the other is a political party.
    A soviet (Russian= COBET) is an elected council, and in no way an epithet.

    Since the whole of the Soviet Empire was involved in the war , it would be incorrect to describe all of those involved as Russian.

  15. I think that the only man to lead the party is Boris Johnson himself. Intelligent, witty, popular with the electorate, Boris my man, you are the saviour of this opressed nation.

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