Henry Rollins: How the Soviets Nearly Ruined Central Asia

Henry Rollins: How the Soviets Nearly Ruined Central Asia
Photo by Heidi May

[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.]

I am a week into my visit to Central Asia. Besides a two-day excursion into Tajikistan, I’ve been here in Uzbekistan.

The border crossing from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan was one of the coolest and strangest I have made.

I often have a déjà vu sensation when going from one country to another, especially in cold weather. It started when I would pass through East Germany to get to West Germany. The East Germans would always regard us and our van with suspicion and barely concealed hostility. They had a way of leaning into the front windows so the barrels of their rifles would point at your eyes.

It is at the crossing point where either country can decide it doesn’t want you, and you could be in for quite an ordeal. That happened to me once on tour, trying to get out of Hungary and into Austria. The Hungarians were done with us but the Austrians were not a bit pleased with the idea of us in their country. We sat in a no man’s land for a long time, our dreams of soundcheck disappearing before we were finally allowed to enter.

On the day I was to cross into Tajikistan, I was warned by my Uzbek guide that the questioning and searches could be extreme. I went in and gave the Uzbek border officer my passport. She asked me why I was in Uzbekistan and wanted to go to Tajikistan. I gave her my whole rap about the only way to know about any place is to go, so here I was.

She and all the other heavily uniformed officers simultaneously lit up. They enthusiastically thanked me for coming all the way out to visit and fairly tossed me through the back of the building.

Suddenly, I was alone on a road. It’s a fair walk to the Tajik border.

Finally I arrived at a gate. A Tajik guard looked at my passport and pointed me onward. About a city block later, I was at a window. I gave the man my passport. He looked at me, pointed and said, “Beckpeck hevee!” He gave me the stamp and I was in Tajikistan.

My guide, conveniently named Chris, walked up and introduced himself. We got in his car and off we went to Khujand city center.

For years Khujand had a statue of Lenin prominently displayed. Finally, enough people petitioned to have the image of this murderous fuck demolished. The local communists stood up in protest. A compromise was struck and it was moved.

The statue ended up only a few yards from the memorial for Tajiks who were killed by mujahedeen fighters during the Soviet-Afghan War. An unmaintained field and adjoining cement lot stand between them. It was as if these two historical reminders had been swept into one of the city’s corners as Tajikistan tries to outlive its Soviet/communist past.

When you spend even a short amount of time in this part of the world, you get a strong appreciation for how strong the grip of the Soviets was here.

In the beginning of the 8th century A.D., the Arabs came to this region and spread Islam into what had been heavily Zoroastrian. Islam became very popular and deeply rooted in Central Asia — that is, until the Russians invaded. Mosques and madrassas were closed and Islam went underground.

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The Soviets fucked up everything possible. It is unbelievable how consistently ruinous they were.

As an example, where I am writing this, in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, there is a beautiful structure called the Kalyan minaret, built in the 12th century. My guide told me Genghis Khan was so impressed by it that he left it alone when he came through.

The Russians were not nearly as pleased. They bombed the minaret in 1920 and nearly destroyed it. (It was restored and stands today.)

Uzbekistan and four other “’stans” only got their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Ever since, these countries have been trying to get back to what they once were.

It’s not my country and it’s not for me to say, but I have a hard time holding my peace walking around with the guide and looking at block after block of Soviet-style apartment buildings. The worst part is, the new construction resembles the old. Maybe they like it?

For years, the Cyrillic alphabet of Russian has been giving way to Latin lettering on signs, but it’s slow going. It could be decades before Central Asia washes away the Soviet influence.

It sounds like I am beating up on Russia very hard here. But it is, hopefully, a different Russia than the one that exists today.

On a side note, I was able to visit Afghan­istan twice several years ago and truly enjoyed seeing all the scrapped Russian MIG fighters the Soviets left behind as they hauled ass out of Bagram Air Base — and, at another base I went to, the Russian warplanes blown to pieces by mujahedeen-launched Stinger missiles.

Today I had lunch at the house of the couple whose daughter set up my travel here. Several family members were in front of the house when I arrived, as if I was a returning son. The father and mother both hugged me, the mother kissing my cheeks.

The table was set with apricot seeds, pistachios, fruit, soup, dumplings, bread, tea, cheese and assorted meats. I had to eat carefully because, whenever I finished anything, another plateful would be put in front of me.

Upon leaving, the mother hugged me again and demanded that when I came back, the first stop I made would be to visit with her! I would like to make good on that.


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