By Alexandra Ten
Alexandra Ten’s oral history analysis was written for History 1003 and nominated for publication by Emily Long Olsen, a Baruch Writing Center Consultant. This essay is the analysis portion of a larger oral history project based in part on an interview with Olga Ten.
“Nation” can be defined as an imaginary community in which members consider themselves as a distinctive group of people who share common traditions, hold common values and speak a common language (Class Lecture, March 2nd). Advocates of nationalism inspired people to work together in order to establish states based on the nation (Traditions and Encounters, 481). Sometimes, the more strongly nationalists identify themselves with a distinctive group of people, the more they become distant from minorities within their own nation, thus fueling conflicts (Traditions and Encounters, 482). For example, after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Uzbekistan declared its independence, Uzbekistan immediately started promoting nationalism and emphasizing the strength of the dominant ethnic group – Uzbeks – while neglecting non-Uzbeks. What’s more, the separation of Uzbekistan from the USSR caused disastrous economic difficulties in the Uzbek economy: the country experienced a crash in the industrial section while the creation of a new Uzbek currency, the som, only exacerbated the situation. People’s savings in Russian rubles lost their value and banks did not work properly to fix this problem (Ten). Ethnic oppression of minorities combined with overall economic decline pushed millions of Uzbek citizens to leave Uzbekistan. My aunt Olga’s story illustrates the ethnic minority experience in Uzbekistan at the time. Olga, who now lives in New York City and works in a medical office, had no other choice but to migrate from her home country, Uzbekistan, to the United States. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she was left with no job opportunities and was oppressed by Uzbeks only because she was Korean. As her life experience in Uzbekistan from 1991 to 1999 shows, complicated negative consequences of nationalism and overall economic decline deteriorated living conditions of ethnic minorities and resulted in their mass migrations from their home country.
Firstly, after Uzbekistan became independent, locals were given a great number of privileges, including preference in employment over ethnic minorities. According to the interview I conducted with my aunt, who migrated from Uzbekistan in 1999 to the USA, “most of the [non-Uzbeks] could not find a job after a [medical] internship and locals occupied the positions” (Ten). Despite equality of education and levels of qualification, Uzbeks had advantages over minorities because of their authentic Uzbek heritage. In consequence, discrimination followed my aunt even after she fought her way to the position of graduate student at a research institute. Once her manager, who was Uzbek, saw her potential and professional skills, he transferred her to the department that offered no real interaction with patients at all. He justified his decision by saying that “no Korean would be able to get a doctorate” and that she should forget about her career forever (Ten). Despite my aunt’s honors diploma, her knowledge of the Uzbek language, and her ambition to learn, nobody ever mentioned the possibility of her promotion; after fruitless efforts to quit, she decided to hold on to the position because she knew there were no better opportunities for her in the job market.
Another example of Uzbeks’ privileges in employment was provided by an engineer, who was interviewed in 2002 by the scholar Scott Radnitz. In the department where the engineer worked, the board of executives picked an Uzbek for the position of deputy simply because there was a requirement to place one of the locals despite the fact that “his knowledge . . . was absolutely nonexistent” (Weighing the Political and Economic Motivations for Migration in Post-Soviet Space: The Case of Uzbekistan, 666).
What’s worse, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbek authorities changed the status of languages: Uzbek replaced Russian as the official language of Uzbekistan. Rejection of Russian was a tool to demonstrate independence from the former USSR and the sovereignty of the new country. A special institution called The Uzbek Terminology Committee was created in order to control the translation of public places from Russian to the Uzbek language, such as renaming the subway station “Gorky” (which in Russian means “bitter”) to the Uzbek “Great Silk Road.” This minimized the use of Russian, even though minorities and some ethnic Uzbeks spoke Uzbek badly or did not speak it at all (Nation-Building in Uzbekistan, 30).
In the workplace, the Russian-speaking population “faced the ultimatum to learn Uzbek in as little time as possible, otherwise, [they] would be replaced with locals” (Ten). Despite this promise, employees were able to find other ways to eliminate minorities at work and made a decision to not even give this opportunity and time to senior staff. Instead, they were fired. For instance, both my aunt’s parents lost their jobs because they did not speak Uzbek although they occupied high-level jobs: her father was an engineer in a factory and her mother was a human resources manager (Ten). Even though locals that replaced minorities at work were assumed to know both domestic and professional Uzbek, some of them were not as proficient as they were supposed to be. As my aunt remarked, “they often asked me to help them write medical charts and diagnoses in a professional Uzbek language” (Ten). Thus, the policy of nationalism created a working environment where ethnic minorities simply did not have access to jobs they were educated for and where only locals could expect promotions. Ethnic Uzbeks gained high wages even though they lacked necessary knowledge and professional skills.
Secondly, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, radical nationalistic ideas among Uzbeks fueled ethnic conflicts such that minorities were considered “outsiders” and were severely oppressed by locals. According to an economist quoted in the Radnitz article, upon gaining independence, Uzbeks acquired a sense of ownership. This was true even for the younger generation which, according to oriental custom, was supposed to show respect for elders of any ethnicity. Uzbeks were sure they were becoming owners of the country and its citizens while others should be treated as inferiors (Weighing the Political and Economic Motivations for Migration in Post-Soviet Space: The Case of Uzbekistan, 663). For example, when my aunt came back from Russia to Uzbekistan in 1991, the Dean of Students in the medical university told her and other Russian-speaking students: “We don’t need you, Russians, here, and we’ll try to cut you out by the end of the year” (Ten). Even though my aunt was a very hard-working student and spoke Uzbek fluently, “professors in [her] university used to mark down [her] grades” and would always ask extremely difficult and irrelevant questions on the exams so non-Uzbeks would fail (Ten). In the meantime, locals got good grades even without the necessary quality of knowledge due to their connections to the dominant group. As an example of their incompetence, some Uzbeks even asked my aunt how many chambers a human heart had (Ten); this question showed that these students, who did not know the basics of medicine, would easily find jobs in the future because of their privileges whereas minorities struggled with low employment opportunities. Uzbeks used extended family connections and personal networks in their community for favors, especially, in the workplace. Some scholars refer to this favoritism as nepotism and even “clannishness” (Weighing the Political and Economic Motivations for Migration in Post-Soviet Space: The Case of Uzbekistan, 666). For example, as my aunt mentioned in the interview, after her brother graduated from the medical university with a high GPA and an ophthalmology degree but without powerful “friends” or relatives, he could only find a job in the optical shop, which did not even require the professional skills of a certified doctor (Ten).
Finally, locals’ negative attitudes toward ethnic minorities and the country’s financial situation deteriorated so much that people simply started leaving the country. As my aunt said, “the majority of [her] classmates left Uzbekistan for Germany, Israel, and the USA” in the years following the collapse of the USSR because they could no longer cope with the financial and psychological difficulties they faced as minorities. As Scott Radnitz discovered in his research about migrants’ motivations to leave Uzbekistan, 68% of his interviewees reported that their living standards had declined after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Almost half of the research participants named “low standard of living” as their main reason to migrate and about a quarter answered “children’s future” (670). My aunt’s words reinforce these statistics. Her most crucial reason for leaving the country was that she “saw no future either for [her] family or for [her] children there;” she agreed with her father who once told her that if she had children, she would “give birth to slaves” (Ten). Due to the unstable economy and the fact that they were restrained from job opportunities because of their ethnicities, members of ethnic minorities could not secure theirs and their families’ futures. As my aunt’s experience shows, minorities were very often mistreated and underrated in the workplace, even despite their talents and desire to work hard, because their Uzbek employers had all the power. She described her living conditions after the collapse of the Soviet Union by saying: “Low salary blended with difficulties at work and the discriminatory attitude of locals made my life much more stressful” (Ten). Indeed, the situation became so severe that she was determined to leave her home country with one suitcase and only five hundred dollars in her pocket, no matter what difficulties she would face in the US.
Ultimately, my aunt’s testimony reveals the truth behind the newly independent country, Uzbekistan, which used the policy of nationalism to strengthen the position of its dominant ethnic group. Uzbeks identified themselves as a special and separate group from others and their negative attitudes towards minorities made non-Uzbeks feel inferior to them. Uzbeks gained preference in employment that prevented others from finding a suitable and fairly paid job. Overall economic decline and the struggle of the country to implement the currency, som, only exacerbated living conditions for ethnic minorities. Just as my aunt could not fulfill her goal of getting a PhD in medicine or her brother could not develop himself as an ophthalmologist, thousands of people became unemployed without any prospects for the future. They were discriminated against and oppressed in a country with an extremely unstable economy and had no other choice but to leave their home country because the difficulties they would face in another place, they thought, would be incomparable to those they had experienced in Uzbekistan.
 By non-Uzbeks, I mean ethnic minorities such as Russians (which was the biggest minority group), Koreans, Armenians, Jews and others.
 As an example of the propaganda of Uzbekistan’s national pride, a number of slogans were written on buildings in the Uzbek language: “we are not inferior to anybody” or “Uzbekistan is a country with a great future” (Weighing the Political and Economic Motivations for Migration in Post-Soviet Space: The Case of Uzbekistan, 658)
Akbarzadeh, Shahram. “Nation-Building in Uzbekistan.” Central Asian Survey 15.1 (1996): 23-32. Print.
Bentley, Jerry H., Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets-Salter. Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. N.p.: McGraw Hill, 2014. 481-82. Print.
Nguyen, Martina T. “Nations, Nationalism, Nation-States.” Baruch College. New York City. 2 Mar. 2015. Lecture.
Radnitz, Scott. “Weighing the Political and Economic Motivations for Migration in Post-Soviet Space: The Case of Uzbekistan.” Europe-Asia Studies 58.5 (2006): 653-77. Print.
Ten, Olga. Personal interview. 11 Apr. 2015.
Published December 7, 2015