Another potential source of hostility is connected to divergent national historiographies. Efforts by both countries to forge distinct identities in the post-Soviet era are a source of considerable friction between peoples who have co-existed relatively peacefully in the same region for centuries.
Prior to the 19th-century Russian invasion of Central Asia, notions of ethnicity and nationality were largely alien to the peoples of the region. It was only after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution that large-scale social engineering, popularly known under the label of “national delimitation” (natsional’noe razmezhevaniye) occurred in 1924-1925.
Large chunks of Central Asian territory were turned into “sovereign republics” and given the names of “titular nationalities”. This is how contemporary Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan came into being. However, during the Soviet era, distinct national identities could not develop properly due to the specific policies pursued by Moscow, featuring stringent centralized control.
In the wake of the Soviet collapse, the elites of the newly independent Central Asian states utilized historical scholarship to help forge distinct national identities. The creation (or re-creation) of useable past became a preoccupation for local intellectuals, striving to service the political needs of the new nations’ leaders. This effort, however, contributed to the aggravation of the already uneasy relationship between some peoples in the region, in particular between Tajiks and Uzbeks.
- Uzbek singer singing a Persian song.
Uzbeks and Tajiks have much more in common in terms of shared history and culture than Kyrgyz and Turkmen do with them, or with each other. The first cities in Central Asia were undoubtedly Persian. Yet by the 14th century, Turkic culture, too, had firmly established itself in the region. The result of the interplay of cross-cultural currents was a unique Turkic-Persian sedentary civilization where peoples, languages, traditions, and symbols were to the great extent intermixed. The populations of the oasis towns in the Bukhara emirate and the khanates of Khiva and Kokand were mixed and almost totally bilingual. This sedentary Tajik-Uzbek population would invariably identify themselves first through religion, and then through region and social position. «The settled peoples of Central Asia regard themselves first as Muslims and then as inhabitants of any given town or region; ethnic concepts having virtually no significance in their eyes», noted Vasiliy Barthold, Russia’s leading specialist in Oriental studies in as late as 1927.
The Soviet experiment in the “socialist nation-building” launched the process of destruction of pre-modern Tajik-Uzbek cultural coexistence. Today, the emergence of the independent states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan has inexorably turned the two historically intertwined peoples into regional rivals. The raison d’etat and the political desires of local elites keen to legitimize their power have unequivocally dictated the construction of two separate political identities. To facilitate this process the writing of two distinct national histories has become a must.
For a variety of reasons the designers of the Soviet “national delimitation” in Central Asia discriminated against the Tajiks, having deprived the newly formed republic of Tajikistan of the two most important centres of Tajik urban culture — Bukhara and Samarkand — which were awarded to Uzbekistan. In the words of William Beeman, professor of anthropology at Brown University: «The Tajik situation in some ways resembles that of post-colonial Africa. Tajiks have been given an impossible piece of territory with disparate population and have been forced to make a nation out of it.»
In contrast, Uzbekistan, due to Bolshevik planners’ generosity, has emerged as the most powerful state in Central Asia, with the richest cultural-historical background. Given the uneven starting conditions, it is not surprising that Uzbek and Tajik intellectuals resort to the different historiographic strategies. It is also noteworthy that the historians of both nations draw heavily on the scholarly traditions of the previous, Soviet, generation of local scholars.
In constructing their own ethnic historical narrative, the present-day Uzbek intellectuals make use of the history of the territory paradigm, which was elaborated by the historians of Soviet Uzbekistan. This approach implies that the cultural heritage of a certain ethnos comprises all historical names, persons and artefacts pertaining to the territory that the given ethnos currently inhabits. This strategy makes it possible to depict an uninterrupted continuum of “Uzbek” history from the ancient times to the present. Thus, the written texts and the monuments of material culture of the ancient Khorezm  and those located in the lands between Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers are said to be produced by the Uzbek genius, despite the fact that the Uzbeks started conquering these territories only in the end of the fifteenth century. No wonder that the ruthless Turkic (although not Uzbek) ruler of the fourteenth century, Amir Timur (Tamerlane ), has become the principal historical hero of the Uzbek master narrative. Every Uzbek city has now a street named after him, there is a huge Timur museum in the centre of Uzbek capital, and his formidable statues adorn the public parks in Samarkand (Timur’s capital) and Tashkent.
In the same vein, contemporary Uzbekistan — an artificial creature created by the Bolsheviks — is being portrayed as nothing other than essentially a Greater Bukhara. Again, the history of the territory approach comes in quite handy. A Samarkand part of Russian/Soviet Turkestan, together with the Tashkent region and the larger chunk of the Ferghana Valley plus most of the historical Bukhara emirate and the pieces of Khiva did indeed make up a new state formation.
Tajik scholars, having to deal with the rump of their historical territory, cannot rely on a similar approach. «Their strategy — says Rustam Shukurov, a specialist in Tajik historiography at the Moscow University — was to write the history of Tajiks viewed as the history of living ethnos with fluctuating, historically conditioned borders.» The foundation of this analytical paradigm was laid down by Bobojon Ghafurov, the first secretary of Tajik communist party in the 1940s-1950s and, later, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies.
According to Ghafurov, the geography of Tajik history by no means corresponds with the geographical borders of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. To be sure, this was an open challenge, which caused a veritable barrage of criticism from the champions of history of the territory approach. Ghafurov’s intellectual influence can be traced, too, in the decision of the Tajik government to celebrate in 1999 the 1,100th anniversary of the Samanid dynasty. The Samanid empire (whose principal city was, by the way, Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan) existed for about 200 years in the 9th and 10th centuries, and, arguably, played a crucial role in the development of the Persian culture. Being aware of the dearth of statist elements in Tajik past, the authorities in Dushanbe have willingly embraced the Samanids as a cultural symbol of Tajik civilization.
At the same time, Tajik academician M. Shakuri has recently attempted to combine influential self-identification concepts to reconceptualize the idea of “Great Khorasan” as a cultural-geographical region. Great Khorasan is a territory that comprises present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In the Persian-speaking world Khorasan was traditionally regarded as the cradle of Iranian culture. In the opinion of Moscow historian Shukurov, the significance of the “Khorasan concept” is twofold. Firstly, the Tajik historical narrative again spreads far beyond Tajikistan’s current borders, «thus confirming its opposition to the history of the territory strategies». Secondly, argues Shukurov, the Soviet term “Tajik” is, in fact, being replaced by its “Khorasan” equivalent — a term sanctified by tradition and, for any representative of the neo-Persian civilization, rich in cultural and historic symbolism.
Current Uzbek and Tajik historiographies are on a collision course. The Uzbek application of the history of the territory approach has, as its indirect political implication, placed pressure on the Tajik minority in Samarkand and Bukhara to give up its ethnic identity, and register as Uzbek. Meanwhile, the Tajik vision of the national past as the history of living ethnos, no matter what its current state borders are, appears to imply that Tajiks are, so far, unprepared to reconcile themselves with the loss of the major centres of the ancient Tajik-Persian civilization.