Poetry and Ideology in Central Asia

The Role of Central Asian Poetic and Literary Traditions in the Development of National Ideologies in the Post-Soviet Period

The new Bolshevik regime in Petrograd confronted the rising tide of nationalism head on, making Russia the first world power to endorse and take up the mantle of anti-colonialism. They set themselves apart from the imperialist Russian past by actively encouraging and fostering non-Russian national identities within the new Soviet empire. The Soviet policy of korenizatsiya (indigenization) resulted in the delimitation of national boundaries conforming to selected national identities, and promoted through the dissemination and consolidation of national languages and customs. The region where this policy was most incompatible, and thus where it made perhaps its largest impact, was in the vast un-delineated expanse at the center of Asia, known as Turkestan.

In the 1920s the Soviets went about drawing national boundaries in what had formerly been the territory of Russian Turkestan and Russia’s two self-governing clients in the region: the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Khiva. Out of this domain the Russians eventually created five new titular nation-states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Though they were constructed along ethnic lines, they were anything but homogenous (a typical example being Uzbekistan, in which Uzbeks make up only about 71% of the population). Somewhat incredibly, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union these cobbled-together multiethnic states have all managed to stay together. Only one, Tajikistan, was subjected to the nightmare of civil war, which, as awful as the war was, seems to be quite a good track record for a set of nation-states with no demonstrated history of national feasibility suddenly saddled with independence. Since the end of the Tajik civil war in 1997, the five ex-Soviet Central Asian republics have been relatively free of conflict, with only a few low-level simmering Islamist insurgencies and two relatively peaceful regime-changes in Kyrgyzstan. Absent are the ongoing violent frictions and breakaway movements that continue to mar the ex-Soviet states in the Caucasus.

In order to secure the preservation of both their nations and their own positions, the five presidents of these five newly independent nation-states faced two main challenges. Rather than nation-states, the Central Asian republics have been described as “nationalizing states,” emphasizing the process that was necessary to construct new ideas of nationhood in countries that had not been independent for centuries, if at all. It was necessary to assert their eponymous national identity authoritatively and convincingly, to make the case for an autonomous and independent nation, while at the same time doing so comprehensively, in a way that would not drive members of minority nationalities to rebel or secede. The other main conflict was between change and continuity. It was essential to demarcate the new order from the old to demonstrate the legitimacy of their new nations. This was a difficult task, considering that (initially at least) all but one of the five presidents had been First Secretaries of their respective republic’s Communist Party and they were charged with building independent nations along the institutional foundations and ethnically-defined territorial boundaries left by the Soviets. The Russians, after all, were the ones who had created the idea of an Uzbek nation out of what had previously been the Uzbek tribe. The test was to expunge the leading Russian role in the history of their nation’s formation and replace it with a narrative that emphasized the nations’ antiquity and singularity, and then to try to present a convincing argument for their own place in this history and ability to resurrect the nation’s forgotten (some might say imagined) greatness. This goal has been accomplished, with varying degrees of success and authoritarianism, through a collaboration that consisted of appealing to old pre-national Central Asian cultural traditions of authority, such as the tradition of epic poetry, propagated through the mechanisms of Soviet-era propaganda. Seventy years of pervasive Soviet ideological indoctrination set an easy model and precedent of continuity for similar projects of national inculcation.

The epic tradition has long had a central place in Central Asian culture. Heroic epics are passed down and performed by bards, called akyns by the Kyrgyz and Kazakh and bagshys by the Turkmen. The bards through their epics were the purveyors of cultural heritage, especially before the introduction of writing. These poetic epics, telling the stories of heroes and oracles – among them Alpamys, Geroglu, and Korkut – passed down narratives of the past and its place in the present; understandings of tradition, and ethnicity; and the spiritual underpinnings of the world. As such, when the new regimes of the Central Asian republic sought out elements of ancient ethnic identity and religion to underpin their authority, they found that poetry and politics are endlessly intertwined in Central Asia. Poetry has long been central to Central Asian conceptions of political authority. Great historical figures such as Babur, founder of the Mughal Dynasty, doubled as poets, and so, perhaps more dubiously, the five founding presidents of the post-Soviet republics all published prodigiously as well. This paper will examine the role of Central Asia’s poetic and literary traditions in helping to shape the new republics’ national ideologies in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the relationship of these traditions to nation-building, the development of historical narratives, and notions of legitimization of authority. It will investigate these questions through three case studies: the revitalization of the Kyrgyz national epic Manas, the interpretation of this tradition in Turkmenistan’s Ruhnama, and the appropriation of poetry as political weapon by the opposition in Uzbekistan.


In interviews with Roberta Micallef – who studies comparative literature and identity in the Turkish-speaking world – Uzbek writers stressed the role of the Uzbek Writers’ Union in leading the march toward independence, and viewed the link between literature and the nation as irrefutable. The literary community was instrumental in the search for a pre-Soviet Uzbek identity, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s the poet Muhammad Ali published his famous poem about Timur, discussion of whom was largely proscribed by Soviet authorities. Ali’s poem presented Timur as part of Uzbekistan’s deep and glorious cultural roots, describing the light that still emanates from his tomb in Samarkand. When the poet was called upon to explain himself, he assured the authorities that he only meant to glorify Timur’s architect.

Since independence this exaltation has been not only endorsed but actively promoted by the Karimov regime. Timur’s equivocal legacy of culture and conquest has been recast as a golden age of the Uzbek nation. An enormous statue of Timur replaced Karl Marx in the center of Tashkent, along with a large globe featuring Uzbekistan at much larger than its actual scale. Countless historical novels and biographies about the age of Timur are published as part of this wider project to link the new Uzbek nation-state to a more glorious past when it was conqueror, rather than colonized.

National Epics in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan

Just as authority has been transferred from pre-modern historical figures in several cases (notably Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) the timeworn tradition of the epic has been revitalized to undergird the legitimacy of the modern Central Asian states. In one case, Kyrgyzstan, the thousand-year-old epic of Manas has been revitalized and celebrated as evidence of the age and high level of cultural achievement of an ancient Kyrgyz nation. In another, Turkmenistan, the tradition of the historical epic was recycled and refashioned in the service of the personality cult of President Niyazov.

Celebrations of the one thousandth anniversary of Manas, the national Kyrgyz hero, took place in Awugust of 1995. Though the precise date of the epics’ composition is unknown to closer than about two hundred years, the occasion was well-timed to coincide with President Akayev’s re-election campaign and provided a useful forum for the glorification of both the Kyrgyz nation and its current leadership. The poem, consisting of some five hundred thousand poetic lines is among the longest in the world (compare, for example, to the Odyssey’s 11,000 lines). The Epic of Manas is, in the words of anthropologist Ewa Wasilewska, a veritable “steppe encyclopedia of customs, traditions and historical facts.” The epic is demonstrative of various cultural ideals of ancient Kyrgyz, and contains several historical layers contained within it: the 9th/10th centuries (overthrowing of the Uighur state), 15th/17th centuries (Kyrgyz battles with the Kalmyks) and 19th century (when it was first written down). The story has been interpreted to contain the germ of the original and very old Indo-Aryan and Zoroastrian conceptions of the struggle between good and evil. For the average Kyrgyz these details are less important than the sense of national longevity and significance that it provides. The importance of the thousandth-anniversary celebrations in 1995 were that Manas had “put their nation on the map of the world in the past and through the celebrations of 1995 he leads the nation to recognition again.” In the process of the celebrations, the hero’s name was bestowed upon Bishkek’s airport, a university in the capital, and the highest honor given by the nation: the Order of Manas.



All five of the Central Asian republics’ first presidents – Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan, Emomalii Rahmon of Tajikistan, Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan – are published authors with numerous books to their name. Nazarbayev authored six books, including a two-part tome titled In the Heart of Eurasia, and unveiled new lyrics to the national anthem that he had written himself for the occasion of his third inauguration. The official website of the Kazakh government has an entire page dedicated to the “creations of the president.” Akayev, a physicist by training, released a book called Economics Through the Eyes of a Physicist as well as works about ancient Kyrgyz history. Rakhmon likewise has written four volumes on Tajik history, in addition to being a singer, crooning such lyrics a, “I was sitting on the corner of the roof of your house/you did not call me/I was thirsty to see your face/wanted so much to see your face/but you did not look my way.” Karimov, formerly an economist, has published twelve books, mostly on economics, but also tomes called My Homeland and My Support and Allah is in Our Heart and Souls.

In 2001 Saparmurat Niyazov, the former President-for-life of Turkmenistan, released the first part of his tome, called the Ruhnama (Persian for “Book of the Soul”) consisting of his poetry, nuggets of wisdom à la Mao’s Little Red Book, and a unique take on Turkmen history mixed with autobiography. Niyazov, easily the most deranged of Central Asia’s post-Soviet authoritarian presidents, made the book’s release date a national holiday and installed it as national holy book (quotes from the Ruhnama appear next to Qur’anic verses in the country’s main mosque) and textbook for Turkmenistan’s schoolchildren. The so-called reform of the educational system was taken under the pretext of purging remnants of communist ideology, replacing it with the peculiar blend of nationalist/personality-cult indoctrination of the Ruhnama. Typical exam questions might ask, “‘Turkmen nation’ of the sacred ‘Ruhnama’ consists of 60 pages, and the chapter ‘The State of Turkmen’ 16 pages more. How many pages are there in the second chapter?” or to recall “Wise sayings and poems about plants in the Paternal books of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great.”

The Ruhnama, to a great extent, seems directly inspired by, if not modeled after, the ancient heroic epics of Central Asia. Both in form and content it represents a clearly continuous cultural narrative from these pre-Islamic epics and the tradition of Islamic thought and Qur’anic study in Central Asia’s great Silk Road cities. Niyazov proclaims that the Ruhnama, “should be a source of power and striving to reach the targets of Turkmen’s golden age.” Niyazov’s poetry within the book is evocative of this earlier tradition, “Where are the mountain-like valiants who rose against the black mountain?/Alas, sorrowing are the stately valiants that fought against the bad lot!/Many heroic and wise fell martyred, so that I was left behind lonely, abandoned/Even the dessert bent double with pain, moaning. Can you hear, Jygalybeg?” Even the autobiographical section of the Ruhnama takes on the poetic force of an old epic. He writes of himself as a superhuman hero of lore, a tale of accomplishment through sheer force of will and wits, “I have thanked God a hundred thousand times since I was five years that I inherited honor, nobility, patience, highness of spirit…This became a fountain that will never try up for my Turkmen people, my sacred land, my motherland, for the past and present, for its future generations, which started as a spring but turned into a river.”


Poetry and Legitimacy in Uzbekistan

When Karimov’s security forces massacred peaceful demonstrators in the city of Andijon in May 2005, the role of literature in legitimating authority came to the fore, though this time on the opposing side. Andijon, in the Ferghana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan, is identified with its long literary and cultural tradition. It was the birthplace of the Jadidist Abdulhamid Cholpon and of the Mughal Emperor, and poet, Babur, who wrote a poem entitled “Andijonim qoldi mening” (“My Andijon Remains”).
Karimov’s regime has been especially diligent in dictating precisely what “authentic” Uzbek culture consists of and how a “good” Uzbek must behave. The regime, in its paranoid efforts to keep close watch over religious behavior, issued a law in 1998 that required all places of worship to be registered with the government, which led to the closure of many unsanctioned mosques. Andijon was particularly hard hit, with 2158 of its 2200 mosques forced to close their doors. In this climate a math teacher named Akran Yuldoshev published a pamphlet on how to lead a virtuous life as a Muslim, which gained popularity among wealthy local Muslims and spawned a group called Akramiya. The Uzbek government labeled Akramiya an Islamic fundamentalist group and arrested some Andijon businessmen involved with the organization. Thousands of protestors took the streets in a large peaceful march to the city courthouse. After the sentences were handed down, a group of armed men stormed the old KGB building, set loose the convicted businessmen, and called for more protests in the town square. The next day the Uzbek security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds to thousands (accounts give varying numbers).

After the events of March 12-13, 2005, Karimov painted a narrative of an Islamist insurgency in Andijon that, when it began taking hostages, was broken up by government forces, with 187 killed, but “not one peaceful citizen.” Alternate accounts in the form of songs and poem soon emerged that challenged the authority of the official story. Sarah Kendzior’s piece “Poetry of witness” identifies several of these.

Dadaxon Hasanov (who Kendzior describes as Uzbekistan’s Bob Dylan for the way his career has followed the historical and cultural development of Uzbekistan) was at the center of the cultural project of asserting Uzbek nationality through the glorification of Timur as described above. His song “Vatanim” (My Homeland) began, “Turkistan is my original homeland/Temur is my ancestor/world-conqueror and sultan,” and concluded, “My homeland conquered the world/my homeland spread over the earth/let it sacrifice to you my body and soul.” His first performance of “Vatanim” in 1976 led the master of ceremonies to stop the concert, provoking a riot as thousands of concertgoers rushed the stage, Hasanov was put in prison for fifteen days and the song was banned. Hasanov continued his anti-Soviet political agitation and formed the opposition party Birlik (Unity) in 1988 along with a prominent poet named Muhammad Salih.

Hasanov wrote the song “Andijonda qatli om bo’ldi” (“There Was a Massacre in Andijon”) on April 14, the day after the events. The lyrics portray a clear continuity in brutality and repression from the Soviet era to the Karimov regime, “Uzbeks continue to sleep/Drowning in fear/As their dictators continue to shoot.” The lyrics depict protestors “torn apart like ribbons,” and challenge acceptance of the government’s version of events, both with the defiant title of the song and the exhortation, “Don’t say you haven’t heard, fashionable princesses/People are crying to you/There was a massacre in Andijon.” Hasanov’s style – a traditional, throaty singing style in Uzbek, interspersed with lyrics taken from literary Persian and Russian political terminology – is also effective in presenting a specific narrative vision of Uzbek history that stresses the continuity of political repression and control. For the song he was brought to trial on the charges of “threatening public safety and order” and “undermining the constitutional system,” and given a suspended sentence of three years with the promise that he will no longer write “politically motivated songs or poems.”


In June after the shootings, an unknown local poet by the name of Haydarali Komilov was asked to appear on the Radio Liberty (affiliated with Radio Free Europe) news program of Nosir Zokirov, a popular stage actor turned journalist. He read his poem on the massacre titled “Nima qilib qo’yding oqpadarlar?!” (“What have you done, you wretches?”) in which he highlights the sins of Karimov and his regime, saying that they are hypocrites who have abandoned their faith and “whitewash what is haram.” To the soldiers who fired on the protestors Komilov asks, “I can’t understand it – are you not Uzbeks like us?/Or just the impudent puppets of a president?/Do you have parents or are you a dog?/You have bitten your own people, you wretches!” The poet boldly subverts Karimov’s argument about the murdered protestors being Islamic fundamentalists and invokes the vocabulary of Islam – “haram” designating something proscribed in Islamic law, literally Arabic for “forbidden” – and equates un-Islamic (haram) behavior with a rejection of Uzbek-ness. The poet was arrested but then released and forced to publish the poem along with a letter (falsely) claiming that the journalist, Zokirov, had forced him to recite the poem on air. Zokirov was sentenced to six months in prison, and Radio Liberty was banned from operating in Uzbekistan.

Karimov’s regime is obviously well aware of the power that poetry has to influence the public’s perception of events such as the massacre in Andijon. This is a product of the long history Central Asia has of literary discourse formulating concepts of identity and fealty and in establishing orthodox narratives of history. By co-opting Komilov’s narrative through his forced repudiation of the poem and associating it with a foreign (Radio Liberty) agenda, the regime strove to wrest back control of the mantle of authentic Uzbek identity, and recast Komilov’s threatening narrative as the insidious work of outside (non-Uzbek) enemies. The disparity between the government’s strategy in dealing with Dadaxon Hasanov and Haydarali Komilov – keeping in mind that this is a regime with little qualms about jailing (or shooting) opponents – reveals the extent of the regime’s preoccupation with protecting its ability to define what it is to be Uzbek. Hasanov’s lyrics, which were scathingly critical of the regime but did not challenge its Uzbek-ness, landed him with three years in prison. Komilov’s poem on the other hand, with its attacks on Karimov’s Islamic identity and on the soldiers’ Uzbekness, threatened the essential source of the regime’s authority, and so rather than simply punishing the poet, the regime found it necessary to defuse Komilov’s narrative by labeling it as coming from outside the nation.