Sharaf Rashidov’s 100th birth anniversary: remembering the Uzbek statesman and a writer

This year marks the 100th anniversary since birth of Sharaf R. Rashidov, the first secretary of the Uzbek communist party (in office from 1959 until 1983). Rashidov was born on November the 6th 1917, the day before the Bolsheviks under Lenin seized power in Russia. His birthday seems symbolical as he would become the highest ranking official in Soviet Uzbekistan. In addition, this Uzbek man was one of two Central Asians (the other one being Dinmukhamed Kunayev, a Kazakh) to play a special role in the Soviet hierarchy and history. 

According to eyewitnesses, Rashidov had an oustanding intellect and charisma. A native of Jizzakh in Uzbekistan, he was not just a politician, but also an excellent communicator, diplomat and a writer. With a degree in philology from the Uzbekistan’s University of Samarkand, he started working as an editor of a Samarkand newspaper Lenin Yo’li (Lenin’s Path). The Second World War forced Rashidov to take a break and go to fight in the Northwestern front of the Soviet army. He fought bravely but was sent home after being wounded in 1942. Upon his return to Jizzakh, he resumed writing and became an editor of Qizil O’zbekiston (Red Uzbekistan) in 1947. Rashidov quickly rose as a prominent writer and got appointed as the head of the Uzbekistan Writers Union in 1949. 

Simultaneously, he pursued his career as a politician. His interest in public life leads him to become secretary of Samarkand province’s party organization in 1944. Six years later (1950), ambitious Rashidov was in Tashkent, as a member of Uzbekistan’s Politbiuro – the highest governing body of the republic’s party. In 1959, Sharaf Rashidov became the chief of the Uzbek communist party. During his long-term service up until his death in 1983, Uzbekistan got many benefits including investments in agriculture, the establishment of factories and plants. The capital, Tashkent, got an underground network, the first in the region, and was widely recognised as a cultural and literature center of the USSR. 

Rashidov’s knowledge enabled him to act as a diplomat too. Although he never held an ambassadorial post, Rashidov helped to negotiate a number of important international agreements on behalf of the Soviets during the Cold War.  He co-led numerous Soviet delegations to Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Birma, Vietnam, China and Mongolia; participated in Bangdung conference, the first ever large-scale Asian–African Conference (1955) and organised Asia and Africa Writers’ Conference with a participation of over 50 countries in Tashkent (1958).

Cooperation with India was particularly dear for Rashidov not least due to cultural similarities and strong historical ties between the two countries. Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, often mentioned Babur, the Timurid born in Andijan and the founder of the Moghul Empire in India, as a remarkable example of a unique link between the two nations.  Rashidov used this historical tie to build an effective relationship between the Uzbek SSR and India at a modern time. In 1955, Rashidov was on a diplomatic goodwill mission for USSR to Kashmir. A year later, he wrote a novella titled “Kashmirskaya Pesnya” (Kashmir Song) acknowledging Dina Nath Nadim’s opera “Bombur ta Yambarzal”.  It is no coincidence that the Kashmir theme will be significant for Rashidov in the years to come. Following the ceasefire in Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir, he got into talks between the two adversaries and organised a meeting between India’s Lal Bahadur Shastri and Pakistan’s Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Although the 1966 meeting was officially led by Alexei Kosygin, Rashidov made sure to have it in no other place but Tashkent. As per the Tashkent declaration (1966), India and Pakistan agreed to pull back to their pre-conflict borders and decided to restore economic and diplomatic relations. The declaration expressed the India and Pakistan leaders’ gratitude to “the Government and friendly people of Uzbekistan for their overwhelming reception and generous hospitality”. 

Rashidov was also involved in an important Cold War episode, perhaps the most challenging one. Desperate for a counter balance after the US deployed missiles in Turkey, Nikita Khruschev, the Soviet boss, wanted to “reciprocate” via Cuba, torn between the revolutionaries and Batista forces. Nobody knew what Fidel Castro would say to an offer to place Soviet missiles on Cuba’s soil, which in theory contradicted his goals. Despite the Soviet Ambassador to Cuba, Alexander Alekseev’s open disagreement, Khruschev decided to risk it. He needed a skillful communicator for the mission. According to some observers, he had been long watching Rashidov’s efforts in developing the USSR’s ties with Asia and Africa, so he cherry-picked Rashidov for the job. In 1962, Sharaf Rashidov set off to Cuba together with Marshal Sergei Briyusov, commander of the Strategic Rocket Froces, disguised as a simple engineer “Pavlov”. The USSR media described Rashidov’s visit as a “visit of irrigators and meliorators led by the head of an agricultural, cotton-producing republic”. This was a bogus claim concealing the Soviet offer to deploy missiles on Cuba. The nukes and the personnel were supposed to be shipped on vessels pretending to transport machines for irrigation. Given that such vehicles were made in Uzbekistan, his trip to Cuba was not expected to raise suspicions. At first, the Soviet delegation bewildered Castro. Yet, after listening and consulting with Che Guevara, Castro agreed to the proposal saying “If that is necessary to strengthen the socialist camp…”. Reportedly, Castro was encouraged by Che Guevara’s approval who said “Anything that can stop the Americans is worthwhile”. 

When the Soviet missiles on Cuba were discovered, a major international outcry occurred. The US navy attempted to quarantine the island and the situation escalated.  It was then time for John Kennedy’s intellect and diplomacy to resolve the Cuban missile crisis peacefully. For some, the situation was a dangerous game that put the world at the risk of a nuclear annihilation. From a rational point of view, the Soviets pursued the matter knowing that Kennedy was an intellectual and a pragmatic who would avoid a nuclear strike at all costs. The risk did in fact play off. In a secret agreement, the US agreed to Khruschev’s demand of shutting down its bases in Turkey and Italy (the main reason launching the Cuban adventure of Rashidov), and guaranteeing the non-invasion of Cuba. In return, the Soviets fully dismantled their missiles in Cuba.

Despite Sharaf Rashidov’s success and contribution to the USSR in general and to Soviet Uzbekistan in particular, later in life he had to go through difficulties. With Leonid Brezhnev’s passing and a new leadership of Yuri Andropov, Rashidov came under the scrutiny of the new Moscow top official. For years, the whole Soviet system had been operating based on falsifications of production in return for allocation of resources from the center. Uzbekistan was no exception, yet the the so-called “Uzbek affair” became a true scandal due to an internal USSR power struggle. Following the allegations and criminal investigations against Uzbek officials in the early 1980s, Sharaf Rashidov found himself under constant and not entirely fair pressure. It seems that he suffered a heart attack after a call from Andropov, who deliberately demanded more cotton from Uzbekistan knowing that there was none. 

When Rashidov passed away on the 31st of October 1983, a purge in the establishment followed. Many Uzbeks felt that Uzbekistan was unfairly singled out as the investigations were not handled objectively but “ordered from the top”. Yet, a year later, some of Rashidov’s supporters were denouncing him publicly blaming him for every economic crime in the country. The absurdity reached its peak when the grave of Rashidov was transferred from central Tashkent to a remote cemetery. For years to come, none of Rashidov’s merits was mentioned in any official press. It was not until the independence of Uzbekistan, when the statesman’s reputation was rehabilitated by the resolution of Uzbekistan’s first president Islam Karimov (1938-2016).  

Sharaf Rashidov is probably one of the most interesting historical figures in modern Uzbekistan history. His diplomatic and organizational skills brought many benefits to Moscow. Despite the controversies of his “reign”, he also played a crucial role in raising Uzbekistan’s economic and cultural profile. During his service, Tashkent started playing a special role in maintaining and building the USSR’s ties with Asia and Africa. He personally engaged in projects aimed at the development of Uzbekistan’s rural areas. Until now many people in Uzbekistan remember him as a leader and compliment his good manners, knowledge, modesty and exceptional organizational talent. In 2017, for the first time Uzbekistan is likely to celebrate his birthday on an official level. As the years went by, Uzbekistan opted to look at this individual’s legacy objectively. Like any prominent politician’s life, Sharaf Rashidov’s path was neither black nor white but had multiple shades of grey. 

WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM #26 SUMMER 2017  text by Zaynab M. Dost