“Oh, I haven’t been to ‘the Stans’ yet,” an American woman tells me in a rooftop bar in London. We are making polite small talk, the kind where you speak in six-word sentences because the sun is beaming directly onto your face and the conversation feels suffocating. I have just informed her that I am from Uzbekistan, and watched a familiar black hole form in her mind as she tried to come up with a relevant observation about my country. The moment she refers to Central Asia as “the Stans” — a phrase I’ve heard so many times before — I grip my drink a little harder. Smiling politely, I hurry the conversation along because I don’t have the energy to explain why the term is so frustrating.
There are seven countries in the world whose name ends in “stan”: Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. The suffix istan itself comes from the Persian language, which means “a place abounding in”. Aside from these Central Asian countries, there are also republics and subnational areas scattered around the Middle East and Asia ending in “stan”: Tatarstan and Dagestan in Russia, or Iraqi Kurdistan. In many ways, “stan” is an equivalent to “land”, just as you’d find in Ireland, Finland, England, Scotland, or Poland. But you’d never hear anyone saying that they want to travel to “the lands”.
Etymology aside — and it would be pedantic just to concentrate on that — most people don’t realise that the term is incredibly loaded. Fictitious names of countries ending in “stan” seem to follow a common trope in popular culture, usually depicting “cultural backwardness” in games, films and TV series. Some examples include “Kamistan” in the TV show 24 and “Urzikstan” in the 2019 Call of Duty release. These made up words can also be rooted in Islamophobia, like when London gets called “Londonistan” because of its Muslim Mayor, or Bradford is nicknamed “Bradistan” due to its large population of British-Pakistani Muslims. “Dumbfuckistan” was a term used for the states that voted for George Bush in the 2004 American election. And, of course, who can forget the infamous Sacha Baron Cohen film Borat, in which he portrayed Kazakhstan as a backward, sexist, and racist feudal society? Is it surprising that in 2014 Kazakhstan’s president even wanted to change the country’s name to Kazakh Eli?
When referring to “the stans” as a distinct term, Afghanistan and Pakistan are usually left out of the picture. What people really mean is the five Central Asian countries which were part of the Soviet Union. To many Westerners, these countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — are exotic bucket list destinations that “all sound the same”. Here’s the thing: they’re not.
By reducing a vast geographical area to a nickname, we lose recognition of the distinct cultures, histories, and identities that all of these countries have. In the process, we are also forced to flatten the contours of our own identities. I was born four years after Uzbekistan declared independence in 1991, and I’ve also lived in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The Soviet buildings in these countries may be similar, but the culture, food, traditions, and people certainly differ.
Even though Uzbekistan has been influenced by the many cultures that have passed through it, my recollections of home feel distinct. When I think of Uzbekistan, I think of eating qatlama patir (a hard bread) dipped in sugary tea while sitting on my grandparents’ tapchan (outdoor bed) in the garden. Sunlight filters through the various fruit trees – each summer we collected bucket loads of ripe black cherries which we gave to family and neighbours. I think of the many road trips we took into the mountains or to Charvak, when I was always in the backseat of some Nexia, lying horizontally on everyone’s legs so I wasn’t sick. We stopped off for snacks in the middle of nowhere, finding street sellers who sold kurut (hard cheese balls) and watermelons. One of us would raise them up to our ears and tap them to see which was the sweetest. In the depths of winter, when white snow eventually turned to grey mush, we would get ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve by preparing an assortment of Uzbek and Russian dishes. There would be lamb, spinach, and pumpkin somsas, bowls of olivye and pod shuboy, a compulsory shurpa and plov as well as an assortment of cakes my grandmother spent several days baking.
30 years on from the fall of the Soviet Union, contemporary factors have compounded global ignorance on Central Asia. Inward-looking policies and the long shadows of censorship have kept Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan hidden from the rest of the world.
It is painful to see these memories — my own, very Uzbek experiences — disregarded. It is even harder knowing that these generalisations are just one part of a larger trend. For generations, outsiders have chipped away and weakened Central Asian identities. The “sameness” of Central Asia has always been something imposed on us by others.
Russian influence existed in Central Asia before the Soviets, and most of the region had been swallowed up by the Russian Empire by the late 19th century. It’s not uncommon to see traditional Russian theatres and churches scattered around the southernmost point of this old empire, which today is recognised as Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. But when the Union was formed in the 1920s, new borders were created by the Soviet planners and eventually, the five Central Asian countries we know today were recognised as separate entities. These borders did not align with the khanates which previously made up Central Asia, leaving displaced ethnic enclaves that still spur contemporary conflict in the region. Riots in Osh (a Kyrgyz town 5km from the Uzbek border) resulted in the death of more than 1000 people in 1990. Similar clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents took place in 2010. Even today, there are tensions along the Tajik and Kyrgyz border.
The Soviets preached equality and friendship among their newly-demarcated nations. In the words of my family, they even encouraged the continuation of native languages and identities. Generationally, there are differing opinions on Soviet influence in Central Asia. Older people who lived through Soviet policy are often nostalgic for ‘simpler times’: being part of a wider community, as well as higher levels of education (75 per cent of the USSR was literate by 1937, compared to 56 per cent in 1926). Sceptics, as well as those who were born after the Union’s collapse, question the lasting effects of authoritarianism and censorship.
Yet however much we sugarcoat the history of Russian presence in Central Asia, the desire to establish access and control to resources and trade routes was, simply put, colonisation. That meant Russian language and culture inevitably dominated the region through education, architecture, the arts and politics, watering down local practices. Muslim women were forced to burn their hijabs when the Soviets introduced the Hujum, a series of anti-religious policies. Russian became the lingua franca of politicians, artists, and professionals; Russian film and literature filled school textbooks and dominated the airwaves. Some Russians would disparagingly call indigenous Central Asian populations “tuzemci” meaning “aboriginals”.
This legacy of cultural erasure has had a lasting impact on many people’s personal identities today. I ask myself often: Why is it that even though I spoke Uzbek fluently as a child – my native tongue, a language which sounds like a beautiful blend of Turkish, Arabic, and Persian – it was eventually replaced by the Russian I learned in school? Why is it that I can recall countless Russian authors, musicians, and artists, yet struggle to come up with a handful of names of those who roamed the same lands for thousands of years? Why is it that when I think of Russia, I see her as part of my history, but she doesn’t even look my way? Why do I speak Russian fluently when I’ve never had the chance to visit the legendary cities I’ve grown up reading about? Of course, moving to the UK at the age of 10 seriously disrupted my learning of the Uzbek language and history. But I do find it fascinating that even after moving abroad, it was the Russian language that stuck with me more than anything else.
Elsewhere, it was only recently that I found out that my name — Shadijanova — used to be Shadikhojaeva. In Central Asia, “Khoja” was the name of an honorary class, originating from caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman, and Ali. But my ancestors changed their name to lie low when the Soviets came. (My mum’s side of the family owned parks and acres of land in Margilan, a tiny village in Ferghana, but these were taken when the Soviets began redistributing wealth.) My father’s side of the family came from a line of religious leaders, but the Soviet repression of religion resulted in younger generations losing interest in their faith.
In the face of all this, sweeping generalisations sting. Changes both to our names and our histories make it difficult to understand who we were before the Soviets. It’s a bittersweet feeling: through the levelling of material wealth, legacies have inevitably been erased. A tangled century of Russian involvement in Central Asia has made the natural course of history more complex, muddying our identities. When so many of us are still trying to figure out who we are, it’s painful to be reminded of the reasons why to some, we are simply all the same.
Thirty years on from the fall of the Soviet Union, contemporary factors have compounded global ignorance on Central Asia. Inward-looking policies and the long shadows of censorship have kept Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan hidden from the rest of the world.
If the socio-economic realities were different, then perhaps the connotations of “the Stans” wouldn’t be as negative. Regionalisation, which already exists between some of the nations through trade — something which is vastly improving in the region since the establishment of a new Uzbek government in 2016 — could be an answer to many modern problems in Central Asia. As long as it’s on the terms of its own people, the idea of a unified Central Asia could, in theory, be reclaimed. Yet for now, Central Asia faces multi-generational identity crises as various countries battle institutional corruption and growing inequality within their new economies. The region is also fraught with issues relating to the climate crisis and more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.
The history of Central Asia is complex — wonderfully so. No one should require a PhD in history to jump into its richness of stories or culture. But by being accurate in the language we use, we honour not only Central Asia’s complicated past, but also the futures each country faces.