I recently visited Krakow in Poland for a couple of days and had an interesting encounter with one of the Uber drivers. In Krakow, just like in other Polish cities, your driver would most probably be a Ukrainian. But in that case, the driver’s first name sounded unfamiliar, so it became a conversation starter. The man turned out to be from Uzbekistan, and since I had never been to that country with the capital city of Tashkent or met anyone from there, I allowed my curiosity to take the lead. My conversation partner seemed only happy about it. Tashkent might sound not that distant or exotic for someone from my parents’ generation since until 1990, it was part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic — which makes Uzbekistan a newly independent state. It’s been independent for 32 years, exactly like Ukraine.
First thing I asked the driver about was the attitude of his people back home towards the Russian aggression against my country. After a few attempts to describe it, he finally said: “We are against it, but we are afraid to stand up against Russia. What’s more, we must keep our tanks to ourselves, as there are regions threatened by Russia for a long time, and we have to stay mobilized and armed.” He said that only recently, the Uzbek authorities revealed the truth about 35,000 people, the nation’s intelligentsia, deported to GULAG during the Soviet occupation. Russian politicians, public figures, and celebrities responded to that immediately, criticizing the Uzbek people for disclosing that information. What is their business in that, you wonder? Well, Uzbekistan regained its independence 32 years ago, but its giant imperialistic neighbor wants it to remain in its zone of influence.
We started talking in Polish since my driver, who had been in Poland for five years, had mastered the language very well, but at some point, he could not find the right words to tell his story and switched to Russian. He slipped one Uzbek word into this speech, but I did not catch it to note it down. The word was the name of a traditional Uzbek floor cushion made of many pressed layers of pure cotton. “You know the Uzbek cotton?” he asked, and after digging through my memories for a moment, I recalled my grandma’s colorful robes made of Uzbek cotton, hugely popular in the Soviet times. “The Soviets grew cotton all over our country. To fulfill and exceed the notorious five-year plans, they not only gathered all the harvest but also came to our houses and confiscated our floor pillows (here goes the word I did not catch) to add the cotton stuffing to the harvest they seized to please their superiors.” I could sense so much bitterness in his voice, which he kept low all the time, as though he was still carrying the generational trauma of his homeland being treated as a mere resource base.
The people of Uzbekistan resisted Sovietization when it started knocking on their doors in 1920. Still, the Bolsheviks held Central Asia firmly in their hands back then, and four years later, Uzbekistan yielded to their grip, too. Around one and a half million Uzbeks were sent to fight in the Red Army during World War II. And here we go again: Russia is mobilizing only the members of the nations it had been oppressing to die in the war it’s waging now. Uzbekistan is one of the few which resisted, and, according to the only Uzbek person I’ve met, is keeping the tanks in case of need. But how much I wish they overcame their fear.