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The history of the Uzbeks and their homeland is closely tied to that of Turkestan, an ancient territory stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west and extending into China and Afghanistan in the east, encompassing most of the areas of the present-day Turkmen, Uzbek, Tadzhik, and Kirgiz republics and the southern portion of the Kazakh Republic. In the centuries before the birth of Christ, Turkestan was populated by people of Persian stock, and they endured successive waves of invaders. In the sixth century B.C., Turkestan for the most part belonged to the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Alexander the Great invaded Turkestan in the fourth century B.C., and the Huns overran the area in the fifth century A.D. Arabs conquered Turkestan in the seventh century A.D. and introduced the Islamic religion and culture. Another series of invasions by predominantly Turkic peoples began at the end of the tenth century and continued into the thirteenth century when the great Mongol invasion swept the area. The Mongol invaders were soon assimilated by the Turkic population and adopted their language, culture, and religion.
In the beginning of the sixteenth century, Turkestan was conquered by yet another wave of Turkic nomads, the Uzbeks. The Uzbeks, whose name derives from Uzbek Khan the ruler of the Golden Horde (see Glossary) at the beginning of the fourteenth century, were a mixture of Turkic tribes within the Mongol Empire. The center of the Uzbek state became the city of Bukhara. Subsequently, the independent Uzbek khanates of Khiva and Kokand evolved. The khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and Kokand inherited aspects of the Iranian, Turkic, and Arabic civilizations. Their populations were mostly Uzbek, but within their borders also lived considerable numbers of Tadzhiks, Turkmens, and Kirgiz. By the eighteenth century, the khans of Khiva, Bukhara, and Kokand had extended their control over the innumerable independent tribal kingdoms and ruled central Turkestan. But the process of consolidation was not complete, and many peripheral areas in Turkestan remained almost totally independent of or in rebellion against one or another of the three khanates. In the vast steppes and deserts in the north, the Kazakhs grazed their herds as they always had; the nomadic Turkmens roamed the wide stretches of pastureland to the west; the rebellious Kirgiz made their home in the mountainous valleys in the east; the Iranian-speaking Tadzhiks maintained their traditional life-style in the southeast, in the highlands north of the Hindu Kush.
Although Peter the Great attempted the first Russian invasion of Turkestan in the beginning of the eighteenth century, systematic Russian penetration of Turkestan was undertaken only in the midnineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva, greatly reduced in size, had become vassal states of the Russian Empire. The rest of the territory and the entire territory of Kokand was incorporated into Russian Turkestan, created in 1867, which was divided into five provinces and presided over by a Russian governor general. Turkestan, together with the four provinces of Kazakhstan (see Glossary), constituted what came to be known as Russian Central Asia (subsequently Soviet Central Asia). In spite of tsarist toleration of the Muslim religion and customs, Russian conquest of Turkestan had an immediate impact on some of the indigenous culture and society. Early in the twentieth century, economic development came to Turkestan, new towns sprang up, cotton grew where once nomads grazed their herds, and railroads linked Turkestan with markets in Russia. The nomadic Kirgiz, Kazakhs, and Turkmens were especially resentful of the evolving changes. In 1916, when the Russian government ended its exemption of Muslims from military service, much of Russian Central Asia rose in a general revolt against Russian rule.
In November 1917, the Bolsheviks established Soviet power in the city of Tashkent. In April 1918, they proclaimed the Turkestan Autonomous Republic. The great mass of the Muslim population, however, took no part in these events. Only after the Bolsheviks attacked the Muslim religion, intervened directly in native society and culture, and engaged in armed seizure of food did the indigenous population offer fierce resistance in a national and holy war against the Soviet regime, known as the Basmachi Rebellion (see Glossary).
The autonomous soviet republics of Khorzem (formerly Khiva) and Bukhara were established in 1920 and incorporated into the Soviet Union. In 1924 and 1925, the entire Soviet Central Asian territory was reorganized by an act known as the national delimitation process in Central Asia. The Turkestan Autonomous Republic was abolished and divided along ethnic and linguistic lines into the Uzbek and Turkmen union republics, the Tadzhik Autonomous Republic within the Uzbek Republic, and the Kirgiz Autonomous Republic and the Karakalpak Autonomous Oblast within the Russian Republic. At the same time, the Kazakh Autonomous Republic within the Russian Republic was also established. The Tadzhik Autonomous Republic became a union republic in 1929, and the Kirgiz Autonomous Republic became a union republic in 1936. The Karakalpak Autonomous Oblast became an autonomous republic in 1932 and was transferred to the Uzbek Republic in 1936. The same year, the Kazakh Autonomous Republic was transformed into a union republic.
In the 1980s, the Uzbeks were the most populous nationality in Soviet Central Asia. Of the nearly 16.7 million Uzbeks in the Soviet Union in 1989, most of them lived in the Uzbek Republic, which lies in the middle of Soviet Central Asia. Most of the remaining Uzbeks lived in the other four Central Asian republics. In the 1989 census, the population of the Uzbek Republic was slightly over 19.9 million, with Uzbeks making up almost 71 percent. The largest minority in the Uzbek Republic in 1989 was the Russians with over 1.6 million, or 8.3 percent of the total population, followed by the Tadzhiks (932,000), Kazakhs (808,000), and Tatars (468,000). In addition, there were 411,000 Karakalpaks, most of whom lived in the Karakalpak Autonomous Republic in the Uzbek Republic. The Karakalpaks constituted only 31 percent of their autonomous republic's total population and were the second largest nationality, after the Uzbeks.
Uzbek, the language of the Uzbeks, belongs to the Turkic family of languages and has both a variety of dialects and a mixed vocabulary of Arabic, Persian, and Russian loanwords. The original Arabic alphabet was replaced in the 1920s by the Soviet government with an alphabet based on Latin script and subsequently with an alphabet based on Cyrillic script. In 19879 about 98.3 percent of the Uzbeks regarded Uzbek as their first language.
Uzbeks were among the least urbanized people in the Soviet Union. In 1979 only about 25 percent of all Uzbeks lived in cities. Nevertheless, Tashkent, the capital of the Uzbek Republic, had a population of nearly 2.1 million people in 1989, and five other cities had populations over 200,000. The populations of these cities had a disproportionately high number of Russians and other non-Uzbeks, however.
Uzbeks were the third largest nationality in the Soviet Union but in 1971 ranked tenth in the number of students in institutions of higher education and fifteenth in the number of scientific workers per thousand. Uzbeks were also very underrepresented in the CPSU. In the early 1980s, Uzbeks ranked twelfth among Soviet nationalities in party membership. Although they made up about 4.8 percent of the total population of the Soviet Union in 1979, they held only 1.5 percent of the seats on the CPSU Central Committee. Uzbek membership in the Uzbek Republic's party organization was also below their share of the republic's population. Russians, in contrast, made up only about 8.3 percent of the population of the republic but held 21 percent of party membership. Russians also had a majority in the Central Committee of the CPSU in the Uzbek Republic and tended to occupy top party positions.
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents