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In the center of bustling Tashkent, in what was once the colonizers’ half, a typically Russian provincial city which lacks the distinctive character of the ancient Central Asian cities like Samarkand and Bukhara, stands a monument to Amir Timur, and just to the north of it is Amir Timur Museum, with an enormous turquoise dome. In the rapid process of national myth-making that followed the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, every state had to scramble to invent its past and to identify its historical father-figures. For Uzbekistan, that meant Amir Timur. It didn’t matter that he was a Mongol, nor did it matter that he made a name for himself by slaughtering the Kipchak forefathers of the modern Uzbeks by the tens of thousands, he fit the bill—a proud autocrat with a streak of authoritarian ruthlessness and a determination to spill blood whenever the shock value of the act would enhance his power. Amir Timur could, of course, be rendered into English as Tamerlane.
Inside of the Amir Timur Museum, scrawled around the dome, are great sayings of the great man. Among them I saw this: “Strength is injustice.” No doubt there should have been some space between “in” and “justice,” but I fancy this was done by a sign painter with a dissident streak—or a sense of humor. And indeed, it seems much more appropriate as written.
I recalled my last visit to the museum this morning when I read the account of the prosecution of human rights defender Umida Niyazova. She had been supporting the work of the Tashkent office of Human Rights Watch, an important beacon of light in a pitch-black space. Human Rights Watch documented the massacre of Uzbeks in the Ferghona Valley city of Andijon under the direction of that Amir Timur wannabe, Islam Karimov. The evidence and the story are compelling, but Karimov quickly set about constructing an alternative history and persecuting anyone who dared to challenge it with the truth. There is no mystery as to why Niyazova was prosecuted. It was an act of intimidation against human rights defenders. After trying and convicting her—she was sentenced to six years in prison for disseminating the truth about the massacre in Andijon—she was permitted to go free. First, however, she had to make a confession in open court and denounce her employer.
On these points, we see not the influence of Tamerlane, but of Uzbekistan’s more recent past—to be precise, the legacy of Josef Stalin and his chief prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky. As Arkady Vaksberg teaches us in his masterful book, Stalin’s Prosecutor: The Life of Andrei Vyshinsky, Comrade Stalin was convinced that the essence of any prosecution must be the accused’s confession. Indeed, care must be paid to the exact working and dramatic delivery of the confession. So at times, Comrade Stalin would pick up a pencil and work through the proposed confession texts himself, carefully editing for dramatic effect. And reading this account, I wondered: so how much of this was actually scripted by Karimov?
This is centuries ahead of anything that Amir Timur ever did, he would prefer the terror that emerges from random acts of violence. But no doubt that Amir Timur he would approve of all of this. And after all, there’s a little bit of him in every wannabe dictator—as Kurt Tucholsky’s old Weimar-era cabaret song goes:
Mir ist heut so nach Tamerlan zu Mut—
ein kleines bißchen Tamerlan wär gut
(I have such a longing for Tamerlane today—
A tiny little bit of Tamerlane would be good)
More from Scott Horton:
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Is it possible to simply disband the partisan FISA court?
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Notes on South Africa’s failed revolution
“I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us.”