Astudy of social scientists in Uzbekistan is likely to be atypical in several ways. Both its setting—the Academy of Science in Tashkent—and the population under investigation: formerly tenured Soviet-era researchers, retained as contractual employees under the post-Communist regime, virtually impose methodological adjustments on the visiting ethnologist; not least because the scholars’ own occupations—philosophers, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists—put them on a professional peer footing with her. Moreover, Uzbekistan stands out for its degree of exclusion from contemporary processes of capitalist globalization. A decade and a half after independence, the economy is in a disastrous state. Enterprises have stopped production, disappearing one after the other. Workers who formerly drew salaries have been left to fend for themselves in the cities, and in rural areas to adapt to subsistence economies; a skilled state employee earns an average of $10–20 a month. Conventional terms such as ‘unemployment’ or ‘jobs’ correspond neither to the situations in which these agents now find themselves, nor to the new ways in which they have to deal with day-to-day living.

Politically, too, Uzbekistan represents an extreme case. Islam Karimov’s regime has been characterized by a dramatic personalization of power and the monopolization of resources by a small circle, gravitating around the head of state; by the expropriation of national assets—the state gold reserves are stored in a Swiss bank, under Karimov’s name—the expansion of the political police and the impoverishment of the population. This set-up is camouflaged as a multiparty system, simply by cloning the party in power. A staunch supporter of the war on terror, Karimov had long cultivated close relations with Washington, including a us military basing agreement. This was revoked following the massacre of opposition demonstrators in Andijan in May 2005; Karimov suspected the us embassy of aiding and abetting the protesters. In the ensuing clampdown, my two-year investigation was also brought to a halt. In what follows, I will briefly describe this more-or-less ‘improbable’ ethnological terrain, before going on to discuss my findings for the Uzbek social-science community in the areas of intellectual work, marriage, ideology and knowledge formation.

Modern state-building did not commence in these territories until after the Bolshevik Revolution; the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was only established in 1924, and it was almost against the popular will that Uzbekistan became independent with the fall of the Soviet Union. The brief effervescence—political, social and cultural—that had accompanied perestroika was rapidly brought to a halt after the 1990 elections that installed the former First Secretary of the Communist Party, Islam Karimov, as President; a post he still holds today. Born in 1938 to a lower-middle-class Samarkand family, Karimov was a product of the Soviet state orphanage system. He trained as an engineer, before joining the Gosplan bureaucracy and then working his way up through the ranks to become a provincial party leader in Kashkadaria, in the south of the country. In 1989 he was plucked from obscurity by Gorbachev and appointed Party Secretary of Uzbekistan, as a ‘technocrat’ who would not be beholden to clan or factional ties; indeed, one of Karimov’s principal characteristics is that he has been beholden to no one except himself.

After independence his regime moved swiftly to crush all organized opposition, while undertaking a series of ideological operations to legitimize the new state. Alongside Karimov’s own gigantic œuvre—prescribed reading at all levels, from primary school to postgraduate—the authorities tasked all those scholars that had not fled the country with constructing a ‘national ideology’, to be based on the ‘national idea’. When the Academy of Science failed to produce this, the authorities removed all its researchers from the payroll and invited them to apply instead in response to government calls for tenders. These were organized on a thematic basis, covering all disciplines, with a view to establishing an ‘Uzbek science’. This would involve an overall revision, if not inversion, of the prior consensus: thus the former ‘cruel tyrant’ Timur would become the founding hero of the nation, while the bosmachi—formerly reactionaries waging an armed struggle against the Bolshevik Revolution—are now seen as a vanguard of freedom fighters. In all fields, the prior existence of the Uzbek nation, state and civilization was to be methodically promoted. Ethnonymic and toponymic research acquired a new pre-eminence; history, archaeology and ethnology were recombined into a super-discipline that was given pride of place in the legitimization process.

At the same time, the regime was officially committed to promoting a doctrine of ethnic pluralism, sponsoring numerous dissertations on the subject. The main issue at stake was to find a way of reconciling the glorification of the Uzbek essence with the existence of non-Uzbek components of the population. There has been considerable out-migration since independence, with exogenous population groups (Russians, Volga Germans, Armenians, Koreans) among the first to leave. Today, use of the Uzbek language is being promoted by state injunction, while Russian-medium education is increasingly rare—leading to the emergence of a conceptual dichotomy between speakers of Russian, whether ethnically Uzbek or not, and speakers of Uzbek. Aimed at the promotion of Uzbeks who do not speak Russian, the old distinction between Europeans and Orientals has thus taken on a new meaning, setting up a different hierarchy of groupings. Local scholars first began to scale the ranks of the Tashkent Academy of Science in the mid-20th century; under Communist rule, the degree of official emphasis on ‘Uzbekization’ varied from one moment to another, but preference was generally given to those of Uzbek origin. In the social sciences, Party membership was also more or less obligatory for the generation, now in its eighties, that came of age after the Second World War. This did not necessarily apply in the ‘hard’ sciences, where promotion was based solely on criteria of scientific worth. At present, despite official attachment to pluralism, no position of any import is ever awarded to a non-Uzbek; national minorities are becoming increasingly rare in the tiny universe of research—the labour force in the field of ideology displaying a clear tendency towards increasing ethnic and cultural homogeneity.

Since 1990 scholars’ living standards have declined precipitately—like those of everybody else in Uzbekistan, with the exception of the political class.footnote1 The switch to the academic tender system has accelerated this. Competition is very intense, and those who succeed cannot hope to earn more than $20 per month, on a short-term contract; the inadequacy of remuneration is aggravated by periodic non-payment. The bulk of most scholars’ earnings comes from other sources: a given individual could be a taxi-driver at 6 am, a stall-holder at the market a few hours later, and an electrician in the evening. This has naturally served to weaken institutional links—in the process, making it difficult to identify such academic communities as authentic social groups, possessing the clear-cut characteristics with which ethnology can deal.

Nevertheless, scholars remain deeply attached to the institutes. Birthday parties and anniversary lunches are frequently improvised, bringing back those whose links with their departments have momentarily weakened or who now work elsewhere. Encouraged by the early Soviet state as a substitute for religious celebrations, these meals, which sometimes last well into the afternoon, have become a sort of tradition. Food is abundant and varied, washed down with vodka, wine and home-made spirits. When heads of institutes are invited, the atmosphere is more subdued. But in all cases a symbolic social group puts itself on stage, symptomatically turning towards a past that is enhanced by nostalgia: a time when everyone went to work every day and stayed there for eight full hours, proud of his scientific status and economic ease. Today, social-science scholars go to the academy perhaps once a week.