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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:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.
Chances that a Republican man believes that “poor people have hard lives”:
A school in South Korea was planning to deploy a robot to protect students from unwanted seductions.
Nuremberg’s Neues Museum filed a criminal complaint against a 91-year-old woman who completed a crossword puzzle that was in fact a $116,000 piece of avant-garde Danish art.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”