Cultural Overview

The ethnonym "Uzbek" refers mainly to Central Asians who were traditionally sedentary, Muslim, and speakers of a Turkic language. After the 15th century, nomadic Uzbeks became the dominant political force in the Silk Road oasis cities of Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Kokand, Hojand, Termez, and Mazar-i-Sharif. In the mid-19th century, emirates and khanates led by Uzbeks had their centers of power and government in Bukhara, Kokand, and Khiva. As Russian, British, and Chinese conquest divided Central Asia, new political entities were created. So-called Afghan Turkistan came more fully under the control of Kabul, while Russia conquered the Central Asian khanates. Kokand became part of a Russian imperial territory named Turkistan, while Bukhara and Khiva became Russian protectorates with sovereignty only in internal affairs.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution raised the possibility of independence for Central Asia, but instead the Bolshevik government reframed the Russian Empire as a union of socialist republics. In 1924 the Soviet government drew borders that were ostensibly related to ethnic group boundaries, thus defining Uzbekistan, as well as the other Central Asian republics. Until 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved and the Central Asian republics became independent, their social, political, and economic forms were shaped by the USSR's modernizing socialist plans. During the 1920s and 1930s, many Uzbeks emigrated from Soviet Central Asia to Afghanistan in order to escape the Soviet government's repression of religion and enterprise. Uzbeks in Afghanistan generally maintained a distinction between these emigrants and "tribal," primarily rural, Uzbeks who were already a significant population in northern Afghanistan.

Before the socialist period, Uzbeks were urban traders, rural agriculturalists, and herders. During the Soviet period, the state reorganized agriculture, forcing Uzbeks to turn over land and animals to collective farms. The state transformed urban economies, introducing large-scale manufacturing of farm machinery and textiles, suppressing private enterprise, and controlling wholesale trade. Petty trade continued and the bazaar thrived, providing an alternative to the inadequate state supply of food and personal goods. In the post-independence state of Uzbekistan, socialist forms are still dominant in the agricultural sector. The majority of Uzbekistan's population lives in villages and earns a living through agriculture-related activities, especially cotton production. Governmental changes and civil war, beginning in 1978, have disrupted the economy of Uzbeks in Afghanistan. Prior to that period, Afghan Uzbeks followed traditional occupations in the commercial sector, agriculture, and herding.

In rural areas and mahallas, traditional urban neighborhoods, the ideal Uzbek home consists of several buildings built of wood, brick, and adobe by local labor, opening toward a courtyard surrounded by high walls. The courtyard is a garden with fruit trees, flowers, and a platform for outdoor eating. Living in the courtyard house are several generations, including grandparents, one or more of their married children, and grandchildren. Urban residential areas built in the Soviet period were dominated by apartment buildings, usually accommodating nuclear families.

Uzbeks are Sunni Muslims. Islamic education and institutions were strong among Uzbeks until the Soviet regime repressed public religious activity, and remain significant among Uzbeks of Afghanistan. The degree of gender segregation varies by family and region, and may or may not be discursively associated with Islam.

In all the Central Asian states, populations are multiethnic. Rural villages may have only one ethnic group, but larger towns and cities are mixed. Uzbeks educated during the Soviet period, especially those with higher education or army service, speak Russian, and some are more comfortable with that language and Soviet cultural forms than they are with Uzbek language and culture. Post-1991 policies have promoted Uzbek as the primary language of education and communication, although Russian remains significant for international, intercultural, and academic communication.

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