By Alexandra Ten
The following oral history interview formed the basis for Ten’s essay, “Owners and inferiors: Influence of Nationalism on the Lives of Ethnic Minorities in the Post-Soviet Uzbekistan.”
Interview with Olga Ten
- What were the first changes in your life when the Soviet Union collapsed and Uzbekistan became an independent country?
When the Soviet Union collapsed and Uzbekistan gained independence, I was in the middle of my sophomore year in the medical university in Kazan, Russia. Due to my Uzbek citizenship, I, among other students from Uzbekistan, was forced to leave Russia and go back to my home country. Suddenly, we became aliens in our former fellow country and nobody wanted to see us there studying in local universities anymore. Luckily for us, a few hundred students from three medical universities in Kazan were divided into several groups and admitted into the first medical university in Tashkent, Uzbekistan to the same year as we were in Kazan, so we did not have to apply as freshmen. Nevertheless, we were not welcomed there either. As Russian-speaking students without proper knowledge of Uzbek, we were required to retake all of the exams we had already passed in Kazan because they wanted to check everything we had studied so far. Even the Dean of Students explicitly indicated his negative attitude towards us and once said: “We don’t need you, Russians, here, and we’ll try to cut you out by the end of the year.”
- How did the policy of nationalism in Uzbekistan affect both your everyday life and the process of studying in the medical university?
Well, most of the locals, i.e. Uzbeks, were radically opposed to ethnic minorities such as Russians, Tatars, Koreans, Jews and Armenians. Professors in my university used to mark down their grades including mine (although I studied both medicine and Uzbek language really hard and then spoke it fluently). When we took the exams, they would always ask us something completely irrelevant to the topic of the exam, whereas the locals received good grades without a proper understanding of medicine. For example, some Uzbeks in my university asked me if humans had 4-chamber hearts or not and then I wondered: how could they treat patients if they did not know the basic knowledge of medicine, or its very “alphabet”? As for my everyday life, locals used to insult minorities in different ways: they would often shout “return to your Russia”, or a bus driver would not stop at the station if there were only non-Uzbeks.
- What difficulties in seeking employment did you face after you graduated from the medical university?
Right after I graduated, I was enrolled into an internship (i.e. medical residency in the US) but only because hospitals were required by universities to allow students complete the internship in order to obtain the official title of “doctor.” I studied hard and I did my best to show my professional skills and ability to work while I was an intern and soon, I was offered the position of neurologist. But my example is one of the few exceptions: most of the minorities could not find a job after an internship and locals occupied the positions. For instance, my little brother, who is two years younger than me, became a doctor-ophthalmologist too, but could not find any work in hospitals. He was so desperate to make some money that he agreed to work in a private optical shop as a consultant that even did not require a medical degree.
- How do you think locals found jobs so easily without proper knowledge and qualification contrary to the employment difficulties ethnic minorities faced?
Most of them were able to find jobs (not only in the medical field, but in engineering or teaching as well) just because of their true, Uzbek, ethnic background and also their knowledge of the Uzbek language that became official after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, sometimes even locals did not know Uzbek well and they often asked me to help them write medical charts and diagnoses in professional Uzbek. Everybody perfectly understood that their network among locals strengthened after Uzbekistan became independent and they used all of their connections to build a career.
- Did you feel comfortable at your new working place or did you feel oppressed by locals?
I did not feel either comfortable or secure at the hospital where I started my career. We faced an ultimatum to learn Uzbek in as little time as possible, otherwise, we would be replaced with locals. Some people did not even get a chance to learn the language. For example, elderly hospital workers were fired immediately because everybody was sure they could not learn the language quickly. After some time spent in the hospital, I was able to obtain a position in the research institute, but soon I was transferred to the Department of Medical Statistics by my new manager, where I had no interaction with patients at all. He explained his decision by saying that there were no prospects for me there and I should forget about my career as the Candidate of Science (i.e. Doctor of Philosophy) because no Korean would ever be able to get a doctorate. After that, I decided to quit but the head of the institute did not even let me do that. He wanted to use me as a good and professional employee without any prospect of promotion. So I stayed and tried to save some money because I knew there were no other opportunities for me outside of the research institute.
- Despite your employment in the hospital and in the research institute, what other difficulties did you and your family face after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
The collapse of the Soviet Union made soviet ruble (Russian money) completely worthless. All of the money that my parents had been saving for me and my brother lost its price and the new currency called the Uzbekistani som was created. If, for example, before 1993 when the government started issuing soms, a few thousand rubles were considered to be a good fortune, after 1993, we were able to buy only some bread with this amount of money. Banks officially stopped giving saved money to us, and we lost all the money in our bank accounts. What’s worse, both my parents were fired because they did not speak the Uzbek language and were then replaced by locals. My father had to give up the idea that he would be able to find a position as an engineer, and agreed to work as a helper in a shop for an extremely low salary.
- When did you first think of migrating from Uzbekistan?
When we were forced to go back to Uzbekistan in my sophomore year, I wanted to actually return to Kazan in order to graduate there, but I could not do that so I had no other choice but to stay. A year or so after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the majority of my classmates left Uzbekistan for Germany, Israel and the USA. However, those were mostly Jews or others, who already had relatives abroad, and I understood that I had to figure out another way to escape from this terror.
- What do you think were the most crucial reasons of your decision to leave the country?
I simply saw no future either for my family or for my future children there. My father then told me: “You can get married but you must not have children because you will give birth to slaves” and I agreed with him. A low salary blended with difficulties at work, and the discriminative attitude of locals also made my life much more stressful and I was often explicitly told that I had no chances to build a career. I was so depressed by being mistreated even though I had a good education and the diploma of a doctor – just like any other local. What’s more, we were afraid for our lives because, as I already mentioned, Uzbeks often insulted us and we were scared that one day they would physically hurt us. We no longer felt protected and safe in our home country, so I made a decision to leave that terrible place.
- Did you ever hesitate whether you should stay after you made this decision? And were you ready to sacrifice everything including job and saved money and move into a country a thousand miles away from your family?
I never thought twice about my decision to leave Uzbekistan for the United States. I wanted to emigrate no matter what it would cost me. I knew so many people who had moved there and became happy. Once I got my business visa and bought a ticket, I was sure I was never coming back. I perfectly understood that I had to begin a new life in a strange country where I had no family or friends, but the living conditions in Uzbekistan were so severe that they made me leave everything I had accomplished behind. In 1999, when I came to New York City with one suitcase and only five hundred dollars in my pocket, I was determined to build a new life in a secure and safe place where my family and future children could prosper and be happy.