There’s a region of the world you won’t find on any maps but that is firmly situated in the minds of many people, even if they can’t tell you exactly where it is. It’s called “Stan-land”.
The imprecise reference is to a vast swathe of Asia, stretching from Turkey to the western border of China, populated by a bewildering assortment of ethnic groups that give their names to an equally bewildering collection of provinces, autonomous republics and countries. Remembering them all - not to mention finding them on a map - is a challenge, even for people who are supposed to know this stuff, such as diplomats and international relations experts.
I’m certainly no expert but, after travelling to Central Asia many times since the mid-1990s, at least I have a sense of place. I pity those world leaders doing the airport tarmac press conferences on the 10-Asian-countries-in-10-days tours. It’s Tuesday, so this must be Tajikistan.
It’s similar to the geographical confusion brought on by the end of European colonialism in Africa a half century ago. It wasn’t enough for the imperial powers to surrender their political and economic dominance. They also had to learn postcolonial geographical vocabulary. It’s not Upper Volta any more, it’s Burkina Faso, and its capital is - get ready to roll those vowels - Ouagadougou.
As long as Afghanistan and Pakistan were the only “stans” we had to remember, the map of Asia was reasonably manageable. Then Mikhail Gorbachev came along. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave us 14 new countries (plus Russia) including the five stans of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
We can be grateful that the Soviet Union did not break up any further, or we would have to deal with Bashkortostan, Dagestan and Tatarstan (now Russian republics). Or that Armenia did not adopt its native name, Hayastan. Or that the Central Asian republics themselves did not splinter, with Karakalpakstan breaking away from Uzbekistan.
For the past 17 years, I’ve been on a personal mission to add the stans of Central Asia to the mental maps of friends, family and colleagues (and now readers of this article). It has been a spiritual mission. I saw the light in late 1995 on the Silk Road in the medieval city of Osh.
With an estimated population of 350,000, Osh is the main city in ethnically mixed southern Kyrgyzstan, a couple of miles from the Uzbekistan border. My assignment from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was to set up a centre to train journalists and media managers, most of them from the new private newspapers, radio and television stations that had been launched following independence.
In the mid-1990s, Kyrgyzstan was in deep economic and social trouble. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, factories and collective farms closed, leaving many people without jobs. As poverty increased, government funding for education, health and social programmes declined. With the end of state subsidies and price controls and the devaluation of the currency, inflation spiralled out of control (one year, amazingly, it was close to 1,000 per cent), devastating people on pensions and fixed incomes. Corruption was rampant, particularly in relation to the privatisation of state property. In the south, ethnic tensions between Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Russians were never far from the surface.
Conditions in Osh were better than in rural areas but in December 1995 most of the shops were closed, the city heating system was shut down and power cuts were common. Dining out was a solitary experience. The cavernous restaurants, with marble floors, heavy red velvet curtains and pictures of Lenin in fake gold frames, where visiting Moscow bureaucrats had indulged in vodka-sodden banquets, had fallen on hard times. A sad-faced waiter would hand me a five-page menu but inform me that the kitchen could serve only the kotelet (minced beef) with noodles and green tea.
In these tough times, the positive spirit and generosity of the people overwhelmed me. They were understandably nostalgic for the Soviet social safety net yet optimistic that their new nation could make its own future. After many years of relative isolation, they wanted to know what they could learn from the West.
After almost a month in Osh, I looked forward to returning to the US for the holidays. But when I got home, I experienced reverse culture shock. As my wife and I drove past crowded suburban shopping malls, I reflected on the shuttered shops of Osh. In the US, people were looking forward to the new year with hope; in Kyrgyzstan, they were simply hoping 1996 would not be as bad as 1995.
I found it almost impossible to explain why I felt depressed. “It’s the holidays,” friends said. “You’re supposed to be happy.” I tried talking about what I had seen in Osh but they soon changed the topic.
After years of media coverage of famine and conflict, the problems of the developing world can seem relentlessly wearying. Poverty, suffering and conflict are comfortably mediated in five-paragraph or 90-second narrative chunks, with the requisite quotes or soundbites. It is like the “Wish you were here” postcard of the family holiday - nice to receive but not the real experience. You could not understand southern Kyrgyzstan in 1995 from the occasional media coverage or my photos and stories. You just had to be there.
I returned to Kyrgyzstan in 1996 for a Fulbright Fellowship and since then have travelled and worked in every Central Asian republic except Turkmenistan. I work hard to explain the stans but it’s a challenge. After another trip to Kyrgyzstan, academic colleagues insisted I had been in Kurdistan (which does not yet exist, except in Northern Iraq and in the maps of Kurdish separatist movements).
“No, K-oe-rg-oe-zstan,” I replied, trying to wrap my tongue around the challenging Russian vowel in the first and second syllables. I gave the 10-second profile: “Poor country, used to be part of the Soviet Union, borders China, beautiful mountains and lakes, nomadic herders with sheep and horses, lots of meat in the diet, bad hotels, slow internet, very hospitable people.”
You would have thought the long-running conflict in Afghanistan would have focused the attention of Westerners on the countries next door but unfortunately it hasn’t. Just as medieval European maps tagged vast regions of Africa, Asia and the Americas as terra incognita, the five Central Asian republics are a geographical blank between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the west and China to the east. My travels in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan might as well have been on another planet. I had simply been in Stan-land.
It’s difficult to know why we have so much trouble with the stans. The suffix, derived from a Persian word meaning “place of”, is similar in meaning to “land” in English, German or Dutch. We have no problem distinguishing England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Finland, Poland and Switzerland, and maybe even Greenland, Friesland, Rhineland and Lapland. So why can’t we find Turkmenistan, let alone Balochistan, the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces?
Maybe it’s because we’re not as globally minded as we suppose. American ignorance - or perhaps ignore-ance better describes it - of the geography of Central Asia was famously lampooned on the cover of the 10 December 2001 edition of The New Yorker magazine. Ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union and three months after the 11 September attacks, with US troops already in Afghanistan, many Americans still had a distinctly muddled view of the region.
The “New Yorkistan” cover satirically depicted the five boroughs of New York City and individual neighbourhoods, mixing local and Yiddish names with suffixes common in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Starting from their original idea, Bronxistan, creators Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz took readers on a stroll in Manhattan’s Central Parkistan, hailed a cab at Taxistan (LaGuardia Airport), speculated in real estate at (Donald) Trumpistan, celebrated cultural diversity in Lubavistan (named for a movement of Hasidic Jews) and Gaymenistan, and then ventured to the outer suburbs of Coldturkeystan and Extra Stan (travelling through Hiphopabad, passing by the Flatbushtuns and the district of Khandibar).
However, cross-cultural misunderstanding goes both ways. In 2011, when I travelled around Kazakhstan on another Fulbright Fellowship lecturing at universities, the most common question from students was: “What do Americans think of Kazakhstan?”
To which I typically replied, “Not much”. I didn’t mean to suggest that Americans or Westerners had a low opinion of Kazakhstan but simply that they had no opinion at all because they didn’t have a clue about the country.
Obviously, no one paid attention to my answer because the next question was, “So what do Americans think about our upcoming presidential election?”
I ducked and weaved, assuring the audience that foreign ministries and thinktanks in Western capitals were closely following events. After all, Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world in land area, with vast mineral resources, a growing gross domestic product and a crucial strategic situation between Russia, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan, was very important.
Maybe I should have asked the students what they thought of Kazakhstan. It’s a question worth asking. If Westerners are lost in Stan-land, so are some of the citizens of these republics which, 21 years after independence, are still struggling to establish a national identity.
The problem is that, despite recent nationalist revisionist historiography, all five stans are new countries, the political creations of Soviet cartographers. In the 19th century, when the Tsar’s armies advanced into Central Asia, challenging the British in India in the so-called Great Game, they did not conquer Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan but a collection of feuding khanates, similar to the city states of medieval Europe.
The boundaries of present-day Central Asia, with its five republics named for ethnic groups, were drawn in the mid-1920s, after short-lived revolts against Bolshevik rule. Stalin’s policy of divide and rule, intended to suppress ethnic unrest and militant Islam, created a crazy-quilt pattern of borders between ethnically mixed Soviet Socialist Republics. These became de facto political borders in 1991.
The fabled medieval cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, historically major centres of Tajik culture and with large ethnic Tajik populations, are in Uzbekistan. At the same time, almost one quarter of Tajikistan’s population is ethnically Uzbek. When Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, less than half the population was ethnic Kazakh. Former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski famously referred to Central Asia as “the Eurasian Balkans”.
Although many Russians and ethnic Germans have left the region, the stans remain ethnically diverse. The lack of national identity has led governments to revive (and often re-imagine) a glorious national history, full of scholars, philosophers and noble warlords.
Each stan lays historical claim to all events that occurred within its present (and artificial) borders. Uzbekistan’s national hero is the ruthless 14th-century Turkic (not Uzbek) ruler Amir Timur (Tamerlane) whose statues have replaced Lenin’s in public squares all over the country. In Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, many streets with Russian names have been renamed for medieval warriors and 19th-century writers and intellectuals.
Some names, such as that of the 19th-century Kazakh poet and philosopher Abai Qunanbaiuli, are well enough known to be easily adopted. Others are more obscure. I would never ask a taxi driver to take me to Bogenbay Batyr or Tole Bi streets. To most people, they’re still Kirov and Komsomolskaya.
Those who still yearn for the social and ideological certainties of the Soviet Union may never accept their stan. But for those born after independence, the Soviet era is now just a (heavily edited) chapter in the school history textbook. The new generation that will dominate politics, business and intellectual life has a sense of national identity and history.
That means that the West needs to better understand the stans.
Obviously, I still have work to do. If many people feel comfortable living in geographical apathy - that would be the New Yorkistan district of Fuhgeddaboutitstan - then I’m setting up my campaign HQ in Youdontunderstandistan.