Borderland


When Culture Is Ubiquitous

When I walk in Poland, I peep into the windows of private houses. I do that at the crossroads, road turns, behind the long bridge. These curious glances manifest not the dreams of a burglar but the reality of a homesick Uzbekistani resident. For some reason, I feel strongly how badly I need my home when I am far away from it.

I want to plunge into an armchair and just to stay in a family home. I want my friend’s mother to hustle and bustle around her cozy kitchen, my friend’s father to repair the veranda, their aunt to come in for a chat, and I want myself just to sit and enjoy all this, — this is how I whine over the telephone to my sister a month after I move.

When I visited a Polish home for supper, this desire somewhat abated: the food was not tasty, the talk was not hearty and the family ties were not really close. Then it suddenly occurred to me: the matter is not that everything here is no good but that everything is different: both mentality and culture here are European, while my mentality and culture are Asian, although I am Russian.

Living abroad is a litmus test for revealing national self-identification. The main thing is to understand whom we are most often talking about using the pronoun ‘we’. My ‘we’ turned out to be ambiguous.

The Russian language in Uzbekistan


I am a Russian who was born and grew in Uzbekistan. My childhood was lit by the sun, filled with people’s smiles, soaked with apricot juice making my fingers sticky. All this is Tashkent, in which I lived and where I always spoke Russian, the ‘great and powerful’ language*. In my Russian family, I was taught to respect the elders, not to visit people without bringing them gifts, to have supper together and to finish a meal drinking tea out of pialas (cups without handles). Now I live in Poland. I brew tea (‘kaitar’) pouring tea from cup to teapot three times, arrange a hashar (general cleaning) in the hostel and ask my European friends about their life, studies and work when shaking hands with them. My Russian friend from the Russian city of Voronezh finds it strange and unusual, while it seems natural to me. So, unexpectedly, I became the product of interaction of two cultures.

Just like all the other people, a Russian may be a racist, but not in Uzbekistan, mentioned my ethnologist friend from Britain.

Indeed, the fate of Russians in Uzbekistan is interesting and unique. When I say ‘Russians’, I mean not only ethnic Russians. 32 million people live in Uzbekistan, including 130 ethnic groups. These are Ukrainians, Jews, Greeks, Koreans, Armenians and other ethnic groups thinking and speaking Russian. None of them shuns the local reality, and all the people are in close and vivid interaction. Our Moslem neighbors enjoy our Russian Easter cakes and boiled eggs when Easter comes, and we look forward to the 'Id al-Adha festivities to taste their delicious treats. What is ‘theirs’ is always accepted and respected, and what is ‘ours’ continues to exist and function. And this is an impressive practice.

I grew up in a Russian-speaking environment. I spoke Russian everywhere: in the backyard and on the market, at school and in the conservatoire. Yes, the Uzbek language is the state language of Uzbekistan. I heard it everywhere, too, and I studied it at school: I had two Uzbek classes per week. Yet, Russian continues to be the language of inter-ethnic communication here.

Why is that so? — this is the standard question foreigners ask me.

“The great and powerful” language began to be used in Uzbekistan in the Soviet period. The knowledge of Russian was a priority at the time, compared to the knowledge of Uzbek. After the Soviet Union collapsed, it turned out that practically all the legislative documents, all the documents in the ministries and agencies were composed in Russian. People of different ethnic groups communicated in Russian. The language of Pushkin was more suitable for use in science and in business than the language of Alisher Navoi. Besides, it proved to be more comfortable to 'ride' into the nearest economic future on the Russian horse.

Now the Russian language is in demand in Uzbekistan in the economic sector. Uzbeks send their children to Russian classes at school, even if they speak only Uzbek at home. You can see Russian letters on signs of shops, at theaters, airports, railway stations, at the websites off government authorities — Russian is ubiquitous.

At the same time, part of the population, especially young people from small towns, do not speak Russian. At schools, children learn English, German and French. In the kindergartens of Uzbekistan, 4,833 study groups of English were functioning by 2014. Yet, it is too early to say that English will soon perform the function of the international communication tool. For example, the New Year President’s address to the nation was forecast on television in Uzbek and in Russian. I think it is a good indicator of the support of Russian by the population of the country.

— You have an accent. — This is true, I reply.

The Russian speech of the Uzbekistani residents is conservative. At the same time, it includes borrowings describing the local reality which does not exist in Russia. These are: an aryk (an irrigation canal), chilla (the hottest period in Central Asia), a mahalla (a local community of a city quarter), a hakim (the head of a district) and others. The Uzbek and Russian languages are drifting towards each other. This is the way interesting and rich material is created.

This is "us"


When studying another nation’s culture, I get deeper immersed in my own culture. The deeper I investigate Poland, the more often I look at Uzbekistan from aside.

In Gdańsk, I attend an Orthodox church for Christmas and for Easter. On weekdays, I buy dry chick-peas, fruit and jeera in a “Greek” shop from an Armenian owner. At weekends, my Kyrgyz friend and I cook pilaf at the hostel. When the Uzbekistani Russians, Koreans, Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Georgians get together at a common table, I understand that these people are 'us'. For us, the Russian language is the carrier of our unified culture code, with the help of which we preserve our common space of culture and information unity.

This is how little Uzbekistan becomes regenerated in a Polish kitchen. And in Uzbekistan, warm stories about Poland emerge, the meaning of which will be understood even by those who have never been involved into the migration process.

This is transnationalism, when people live above the national boundaries. This is the world of relative and subjective cultures. And I am thankful to this world for what has been, is and will be in it.


Translated from the Russian by Tatyana Padve
© Tamara Sinelnikovav

Tamara Sinelnikova


Musician and journalist. She was born in Tashkent and graduated from the State Conservatory of Uzbekistan. She worked as an editor for the website www.review.uz. Today she lives in Poland and is part of the scholarship program for young researcher and scholars.

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