The Train Car on the Siding: Central Asia and the 1991 Coup
by Daniel C. Waugh
Approaching mid-day twenty years ago today I was walking, probably in something of an alcoholic haze, down the main street of Osh in Kyrgyzstan at the head of the Ferghana Valley. My Russian mountaineering friends and I had just returned to town after climbing in the Pamirs. I had gone to Central Asia with a group of the Seattle Mountaineers as part of a climbing exchange. On our arrival in Osh a month earlier, we had become aware that things were changing in the region. At the Osh airport in the very early morning we were ushered into a little dining room, with flower-bedecked tables and a full meal, a surprise welcome prepared at the behest of the local ex-Communist Party boss (a Kyrgyz) who seemed to think visiting Americans might want to invest in his burgeoning private economic empire. On our way out of the city, we were escorted by a police car with flashing lights, the ostensible reason being the authorities were nervous about our safety a year after the Osh riots which had resulted in a lot of bloodshed and property damage. Our antiquated bus survived the arduous climb over the passes to the Kizilsu Valley, and after a stop to cool the overheated engine, bounced its way up to Achikh-Tash, the climbing base-camp situtated at an altitude not much lower than 4400 m Mt. Rainier in the lush meadows below 7100 m Peak Lenin. There we heard bitter complaints from the Russian climbers that the same ex-Party boss had taken over the management of the camp, pushing aside the Russian Climbing Federation, the fact of his being a Central Asian adding insult to injury. It came as no surprise to learn that the yurt which housed the liquor store at the camp was part of his commercial empire, run by his wife. For the record, I did not make it to the top of Peak Lenin, my first big mountain, though some members of our team did.
As climbers will do, once down off the mountain and back in Osh we indulged in a certain amount of light-headed frolic, such as co-ed skinny dipping in irrigation canals at midnight. On August 19, we had a late morning breakfast downtown — very good lagman (Central Asian noodle soup) washed down by quantities of straight vodka. As we were making our way down the street afterwards, we heard the official radio broadcast coming from a shop — the leaders of the coup against Gorbachev announcing to everyone in what was still the Soviet Union that there was an “extreme situation,” details of which were not revealed. The pithy communiqué kept being repeated. No other news was available, no one quite knew what the outcome might be.
There was no dramatic public evidence that anything important was happening. We did what Russians are very good at — sat around, grim-faced, talking earnestly (and, probably, having a little more vodka). That night I was scheduled to fly off to Dushanbe (Tajikistan) for another adventure in the mountains with two members of the official Russian women’s climbing team who were training for a possible attempt on Mt. Everest. The Russian mountaineers had traditionally negotiated with the Soviet military for transport; indeed our little contingent headed off to the airport in the back of a military truck, the corporal riding with us plying us with the army’s special rations of good quality chocolate. We passed one police checkpoint — a routine traffic stop. At the airport I was waved through the boarding check by a uniformed policeman even though I did not have (as was required in those days) an internal travel visa to go to Tajikistan. The plane, an overworked small jet, did not inspire confidence. My seat was broken, there was no room for luggage, and our big duffels of climbing gear were plunked down in the aisle. The flight crew had to climb up over them to get to the cockpit.
In Dushanbe, there was still little real news out of Moscow, but also no evidence on the streets that anything was amiss. I recall — no particular credit for prescience here — having said to my climbing friends that I thought Yeltsin would emerge as the hero of the moment. (As an aside, I would note that UW students in my Russian history survey the summer before heard my concluding prediction that the Soviet Union would not last another five years.) We finally learned of the counter-coup and the return of Gorbachev from the Crimea while straining to hear a cranky radio news broadcast in a mountain resort complex, where we stayed before moving on to the remote Iagnob area in the upper Zeravshan Valley.
End of story? Not quite. My trip to Central Asia had another goal as well — to represent the UW History Department in an exchange with Tashkent University. On August 31 I arrived in Tashkent, where bold red newspaper headlines were already proclaiming Uzbekistan’s independence. Over the next few weeks, I was able to follow, at least in the Russian newspapers (I do not read Uzbek), the official shaping of Uzbekistan’s new political status. In the local press, there were heated rebuttals of news analysis published in Moscow, notably in an article in Izvestiia on September 14 entitled “The Train Car on the Siding,” which blasted Uzbek President Islam Karimov for his opportunism in fence-sitting until he saw the way the cards were falling after the coup and then choosing independence as the way to keep what in effect was the old Communist regime in power. Foreign reporters from some of the major media finally began showing up in Tashkent in a belated attempt to learn what was happening in Central Asia, but none of them knew either Uzbek or Russian. I would summarize for them over breakfast what was being printed in the Russian-language press; at one point I joined them in an interview at the home of a prominent leader of the miniscule opposition movement Birlik. Not to be outdone, it seems, by Russian mountain climbers, a well-known reporter for the New York Times got himself bounced at the door of a posh local restaurant when, after too many beers, he tried to barge in without a reservation....
For more on the view from Central Asia as I actually recorded it in September 1991, see these essays based on unpublished articles I wrote there at the time for possible publication here in Seattle.
— August 19, 2011
At his retirement in 2006, Daniel Waugh was a member of three UW departments: History, The Jackson School of International Studies, and Slavic Languages and Literatures. From 1991 to 1996 he chaired the Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies Program in JSIS. He edits The Silk Road, the journal of the Silkroad Foundation on whose board he serves, and has the primary responsibility for "Silk Road Seattle," a major resource for learning about the early history and culture of Eurasia. Waugh's personal website can be found here.