On the one hand, as an ongoing effort to be more independent and have an identity, the Ukrainian government has renamed thousands of towns, streets, villages, and even sport clubs. This effort is to scrap the terms that were used when occupied by the Soviet Union and instead introduce non-Soviet names. This law comes with controversy, as the Ukrainian war with Russian separatists certainly sped up this process.
Some of these changes are drastic; others, not so much. For example, the eastern Ukrainian town of Artemivsk, renamed in 1924 in honor of Soviet politician Fyodor “Artyom” Sergeyev (d. 1921), will now be known as Bakhmut, due to its location on the Bakhmutka River. The former Illichivsk, a coastal town near Odessa named Vladimir Ilyvich Lenin, is now known as Chornomorsk. However, other name changes are minor: the small eastern-town of Krasny Liman has simply dropped the “krasny,” which translates “red” in Russian, symbolizing Communism.
This desovietization in Ukraine can be directly contrasted to Uzbekistan’s school reintroducing Soviet style names, ironically after doing exactly what Ukraine did. The motive? Possibly, and most scandalously, it is to avoid Arabic (and implicitly Islamic) influence in the region. From Radio Free Europe:
An Uzbek university is said to have forbidden students from using a widespread term to address teachers and professors in favor of Russian-style patronymics reminiscent of Soviet days.
It’s still unclear whether this week’s purported order to avoid “Ustoz” (Teacher) came from Uzbekistan’s Education Ministry or otherwise “on high.”
A reversion to teachers’ first names followed by patronymics (ending in “-ich” for men and “-ovna” for women) would be especially puzzling in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov’s administration has spent the two decades since the breakup of the U.S.S.R. trying to scrub society of its most Russified elements.
So why would those same officials reverse course, even on such a minor point?
Some of the most popular forms of addressing teachers across Central Asia’s most populous country, however, have been Arabic words or other terms with their roots in religion, specifically Islam. The words “Mualim” for males and “Mualima” for females are such examples, meaning “teacher” — traditionally in religious schools but used more generically in Soviet times. The same applies to “Domla” for male teachers, a term for a person who reads prayers during marriages or other important ceremonies.
So are Uzbek authorities trying to rid their schools of terminology directly or indirectly linked to Islam?
The official Soviet doctrine of atheism and secularism was rigorously preached across the former U.S.S.R., so the current Uzbek regime might see a return to Soviet protocol as a path to secularize Uzbek youth.
But beyond Uzbekistan’s own highly publicized campaign against Islamist extremists like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Central Asia is rife with efforts to counter the influence of Islamic ideologues: shaving beards and closing down Islam-inspired political parties in Tajikistan,suspending students in hijabs in Kyrgyzstan, and confiscating talisman sand harassing Muslim students’ families in Turkmenistan.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Central Asians are believed to be fighting alongside Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq, and a significant number of them are thought to hail from Uzbekistan.
But eliminating the Arabic language’s presence in Central Asia would be a virtually impossible task, given its prevalence.
These two examples from different cultures and different parts of the world certainly paint a bigger picture, even with so-called “cosmetic” changes in some places. The recent past, depending on where you are, is something to revere or to rebuke, something to look back to or to rewrite for the future.