Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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looking for colorful story-telling and descriptive language as if listening
to a modern Marco Polo will enjoy reading Elinor Burkett’s new book, So Many
Enemies. In this book, she recounts her brief teaching gig as a Fulbright
If you resent the louse, you should burn the fur coat.
The banked lecture hail
Uzbeks don’t pride themselves on humility, the way Kyrgyz do. Notoriously feisty, they consider their nation to be a cradle of civilization, a leader of the nonaligned political world and an emerging economic power. Their best and brightest—all trilingual or better, all spotlessly well groomed, confidence oozing out of their pores—weren’t about to take any guff from an American journalist, no matter that the dean had made her sound like a cross between Katherine Graham and Christiane Amanpour in his introduction.
to address the students and faculty about the image of Central Asia, the
I begin my lecture, I want to pose three questions that I promise I’ll get
back to: First, what is the primary religion of
skipped a beat, then continued: “As I was getting
ready to come here and talk to you about the image of Central Asia in the
Kazakhs were better represented, although most of the reports dealt with the
Olympics or the Russian space program. When
finished up my experiment with the word
let me remind you again: the Washington Post is one of the best
newspapers in the
perhaps the most important thing I can say about the image of Central Asia in
“Before I talk about why this was, on
what I think it means for
The provocation was intentional, of
course, so when the time came for questions, I gazed out at the audience, at
the young men in carefully pressed jackets and ties, the women in tailored
skirts and blouses, all of whom imagined themselves as future ministers and
ambassadors, and girded myself for a smart, informed attack striking to the
heart of U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia, if not in the Middle East and
Europe. I’d boned up on how Madeleine Albright had dealt with President Karimov’s overt persecution of religious Muslims. I’d
read about the tangle of oil pipeline plans that, rumor had it, were
I was convinced I was ready for anything when the first young man rose to a microphone, strutted actually, with the brashness of a young man who knew what he wanted to fight about well before I began speaking.
“Why did the
When the French judge in the pairs’ skating competition admitted to having made a deal to deprive the Canadian couple Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of the gold, my students, my neighbors and the woman who kept me in cigarettes had complained loudly, “Why do the American press lie about this?” And their ire flamed when Olga Koroleva lost to an Australian and two Canadians in the women’s acrobatic freestyle skiing.
Then came the Larissa Lazutina affair, when the wildly popular skier was disqualified because her hemoglobin was found to be suspiciously high. “Don’t they understand that she was menstruating?” earnest young men told me, as if well-schooled in the relationship between hemoglobin levels and menstruation. “The test was not done in the correct manner,” others argued, without any details, since the Russian media hadn’t told them what was incorrect about the manner in which the test was conducted.
Pravda opined that Lazutina was disqualified as revenge for her vociferous—some might say puerile—complaints about “fazed degenerates in uniforms who, in the state of antiterronist psychosis, had crowded the locker rooms of Russia’s female athletes, digging through personal effects,” the Russian description of the routine screening to which all athletes had been subject.
“Just think of it, they found hemoglobin in Lazutina’s blood!” Pravda continued. “Her blood was red! Of course, that could have been the result of the insufficient level of Coca-Cola in it.”
When skater Sarah Hughes took the gold away from Russian favorite Irma Slutskaya, I was ready to lock myself in the house. Putin was denouncing the Olympic judges, members of the Russian Duma were urging their team to pack up and come home, pundits were demanding that the resignation of the Russian foreign minister—and all of that moral outrage was being heaped on the few Americans left on the streets of Bishkek.
After the Americans defeated the
Russians in the ice hockey finals, I steeled myself for Putin
to imitate his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, race to
Long after Kiss, in full metal regalia,
closed out the games, the Russian media kept up the drumbeat. “
Pravda sounded an even more sinister alarm: “I dare say, deep in his or her heart, every Russian citizen has a bunch of scars on his or her national pride inflicted by so-called ‘biased judges.’
“Olympics as the school of hatred’ sounds truly terrible. Yet this is exactly what the organizers of Olympics have managed to turn the games into by treating our athletes the way they do.”
What was the agenda? Pravda asked rhetorically. “Gilding the idea of American leadership in everything without exception.
“May their objective be creating in ‘these Russians’ an inferiority complex, the feeling of being citizens of a ‘redundant’ country no one needs? May they achieve this forcing the Russians to endlessly and senselessly rummage through their resentments, in and out of sports, while the very taste of victory becomes forgotten?
“Is what is happening an attempt to substitute sports war for Cold War?”
The night before I’d left on my
embassy-sponsored lecture tour of
“All this stuff about freedom and democracy doesn’t mean you’re so perfect,” he grunted after an exegesis on the unfairness of the Olympic judges. The hostility had caught me off guard, since Sergei, a former member of the Soviet Navy, had always been warm and chatty.
“Is there anywhere else that’s better?” Dennis inquired, as gently as possible.
“No,” Sergei conceded without a moment’s hesitation. “But Americans are too proud of their nationality.”
Having been yelled at by taxicab drivers griping that George Bush had bribed the judges, railed at by students convinced the judges had been corrupted by pity for America, and accused, in some unstated fashion, of personally helping to reignite the Cold War, I’d been looking forward to spending the day at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy arguing about Afghanistan, oil pipelines and the Kyoto Treaty. But I couldn’t leave the young Uzbek’s question hanging.
“How do you know that the Americans cheated?” I turned back on him. “What’s the evidence?”
The young man guffawed. “It’s been in all the Russian newspapers, and I saw Larissa Lazutina on television stating that she had taken no drugs,” he blurted out, as if he’d just pulled out a secret trump card.
“Do you think she’d tell the truth if she had cheated? And do you believe everything you read in the Russian newspapers?”
I didn’t need to hear his response. By then I’d learned that while Uzbeks, like Kyrgyz, might be skeptical about what their own journalists wrote, they treated the work of Russian journalists with the instinctive respect obedient children accord to wise grandparents.
The young man stormed out of the lecture hall in full pique, ceding his place at the microphone to a faculty member. He, too, caught me off guard.
“Why does the
I had no idea what the professor was talking about, and said so.
“According to your
The light dawned. “Did you read the Los Angeles Times article?”
“No,” he conceded. “But I read about it in the Russian press.”
“Well, let me read it to you,” I said,
pulling the piece out of my briefcase. I don’t normally carry around random L.A.
Times articles, but I, too, had read reports about it in the Russian
media— headlined THE USA IS GETTING
READY FOR THE NUCLEAR WAR—and had downloaded the original for
comparison. The “plans” in question were the “Nuclear Posture Review”
conducted every six years by congressional mandate. According to the L.A.
Times, the latest review set out plans for what the
“Why do you think the Russian press failed to mention that these were not offensive plans but retaliatory ones?” I asked after reading the whole article aloud slowly and with careful enunciation.
The young faculty member who’d brought up the issue shuffled momentarily, then smiled and replied, “They must not have understood the English correctly.”
After a one—hour break for lunch, I returned to the podium to find a student waiting at the microphone.
“You asked why Americans should know
How did he know that? President Islam Karimov had laid it all out for him so frequently that it had become a local article of faith:
That cheery overview was the tip of the
iceberg of what Uzbeks heard on television, on the radio and read in
The economy is booming, the nation
already almost se!f-sufficient
in grain and gas. Investors like Daewoo, Mercedes-Benz and BAT tobacco are
beating down the door of ministries in
A few clouds darkened the horizon of the official portrait, of course. Egged on and funded by foreign powers, Muslim extremists were imperiling Uzbekistan’s prosperous democratic future with their plans to impose a theocracy But Karimov insisted that they would not prevail because he, the president, in his infinite wisdom, was rounding up anyone associated with those “enemies of the State” to ensure a peaceful and stable transition to democracy and capitalism.
The unofficial story line went more like this:
An old Communist Party apparatchik appointed party chief by the Supreme Soviet in 1989, Karimov was elected president in 1991 and reelected in 1995 and 2000 with vote counts that proved him to be almost as popular as Saddam Hussein. Karimov played at democracy as if it were a grand game, creating, dissolving and banning a rotating series of political parties to create the illusion of an opposition. The charade was an elaborate dance that convinced absolutely no one since all four recognized political parties were kept so tightly under Karimov’s thumb that the bills he submitted to the Oliy Majlis, the parliament, always passed unanimously
When the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the last presidential election as corrupt, Karimov shot back, “The OSCE focuses only on the establishment of democracy the protection of human rights and the freedom of the press. I am now questioning these values.”
The only organized opposition was mounted by Muslim fundamentalists bent on establishing a Taliban— or Iranian-style theocracy But Karimov’s predilection for blaming religious extremists for everything made it impossible to know just how many they were, or even how many had begun as nonpolitical Muslims who’d been pushed into rebellion by Karimov’s penchant for rounding up willy-nilly men with long beards.
Highly skilled professionals were driving taxis, and villagers were struggling to eat. Corruption was so rampant that teachers openly solicited “tips” from their students, and many a deputy minister owed his august position to the bribes that he’d paid. But no one dared complain publicly since the president, notorious for throwing ashtrays and cellphones at subordinates who brought him bad news or dismissing underlings whenever he needed a scapegoat for another failed policy, brooked no opposition. Critics who hadn’t already fled into exile were rounded up, beaten with planks studded with nails, subjected to electric shock and tried in courts that Stalin would have approved of, charged, of course, with being Islamic militants.
in private, Uzbeks acted like Uzbeks, which meant they weren’t shy about
grousing. During a meeting I had with women leaders in
At dinner that evening, in a private room of a restaurant plunged into darkness when the electricity failed, yet again, five Uzbeks regaled me with Georgian and Chuchik jokes, their brand of Polish jokes. By the fifth round of vodka, they were telling me stories about how many suitcases they had to fill with the virtually worthless Uzbek soum in order to purchase refrigerators or airplane tickets as the value of the local currency plummeted.
“This is the Uzbek model of a ‘strong currency,’” one man quipped. “It’s a currency that makes the people strong because they have to carry twenty pounds of it just to buy groceries.”
Late that night, we drove over to
The physician who cared for survivors
whose faces were stretched taut by keloided
scarring and whose shame confined them to the shelter should be an
international heroine, I thought, honored by women’s groups across the planet
and supported by foreign governments, NGOs and feminist groups. But when I
asked her to sit for an interview she declined. “I can’t let you write about
me. Officially I’m working with women who accidentally burn themselves on
their kerosene stoves. If you print something that embarrasses
The Uzbek government had abolished prior censorship, leaving editors theoretically free to print other bad news. But they’d been warned that they would be held personally responsible for what they published, and at least three journalists were in prison—for reporting on spousal abuse, typhoid and government corruption.
Yet Karimov’s critics are equally quick to defend much of what he did, The women’s leaders in Samarkand heartily agreed with his crackdown on “fundamentalists,” even though they acknowledged that hundreds of innocents had been caught up in his dragnets.And most Uzbeks applauded his decision not to plunge into economic reforms, convinced by Karimov that they would be consigned to the fates of their neighbors in Kyrgyzstan.
And they had succumbed totally, merrily
in fact, to the pride Karimov was instilling in the
Uzbek people, a sort of Central Asian brand of manifest destiny The founding
father of that august future was Timur, called Tamerlane in the West, the Uzbek national hero. It was Timur who broke the Mongol hold over Central Asia,
although he’d then gone on a nine-year rampage of looting and murder from
Russia to northern India, from China into Iraq. Inside
Timur sat majestically atop his bronze
warhorse in a square in the center of
Karimov basked in Timur’s reflected glory—what sense would it make to create it in the first place if you didn’t plan a little politically convenient basking? And he laid out his program for rebuilding a country based on its great and ancient history in Uzbekistan: Its Own Road of Renovation and Progress, a national best seller, needless to say.
My last afternoon in Tashkent, I took a cab back to my hotel, past mile after mile of the same concrete-block apartment buildings that would tell a traveler who’d arrived blindfolded that he was in the former USSR.A few were being resurfaced, turned into cheap parodies of Madison Avenue, and a handful of buildings reflecting Uzbek architecture, white columns and turquoise domes, had gone up.Yet despite Uzbekistan’s conceit about Tashkent—the largest city in Central Asia, the hub of Central Asia, the only Central Asian city with a subway—it looked as dreary and lifeless as Bishkek.
As we drove across town, my taxi driver tried to speak with me, although his English was only slightly more fluent than my Uzbek. After a mile or two of silence, during which he searched for the words, he asked, “You’re American, no?”
When I confessed that I was, he went on: “What do Americans think about President Karimov’s book?”
enjoyed earlier books by Burkett, and So Many
Enemies never disappointed. For a deeper understanding of
Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2004
ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2004 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/So Many Enemies.htm
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