The University of Samarkand gets a new controversial name

Almost two years after being linked to a centenary Timurid past, the University of Samarkand has become once again the focus of historical revisionism by being named after a notorious Soviet Uzbek leader.

On January 13, Uzbekistan’s president signed a resolution “to further improve the activities of Samarkand State University.” The renaming of the institution stands out among the changes that will be introduced. Going forward, Samarkand State University (SamSU) will be named after Sharaf Rashidov.

As part of the Soviet legacy, it is common for universities in Russia and other former Soviet republics to be named after illustrious characters. For instance, from 1961 to 2016 SamSu owed its name to the Chagatayid poet Alisher Navoi (1441-1501). Other historical figures honoured in Uzbekistan with universities include Babur (founder of the Mogul empire), Behzad (distinguished miniature painter from the 15th and 16th centuries) or Abdulla Qodiry (influential 20th century writer), to mention but a few. The names are attributed to institutions located were those individuals lived or came from, as is the case of Babur and Andijan, or related to their own disciplines, like Behzad being linked to the education of arts and design. These are some of the reasons why the choice of Rashidov is striking.

Who was Sharaf Rashidov?

Rashidov was born in 1917 near the town of Jizzakh to a family of humble origins. School teacher by trade, he fought in the Second World War, rose through the ranks of the Uzbek communist party and ended up leading the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic for over twenty years (1959-1983).

Rashidov is mostly known for the corruption scheme that he presided over that siphoned billions of rubles from Moscow by falsely reporting cotton harvest figures. The politician died in 1983 just as Soviet authorities were investigating the corruption in the Uzbek SSR and his reputation was severely tarnished after the scheme was uncovered.

Despite his corruption, Rashidov was rehabilitated after Uzbekistan’s independence by president Islam Karimov as part of the country’s national-building process. Rashidov, following Karimov’s narrative, symbolised the resistance of Uzbekistan to impositions from abroad. More recently, in 2017, a monument in his honour was unveiled in his native town of Jizzakh.

Why Rashidov?

The reason behind Mirziyoyev’s decision to name Samarkand State University is still unclear. Nevertheless, it is obvious he sees Rashidov as a role model, following the trend started by Karimov in the 1990s.  

“Sharaf Rashidov throughout his life did good to people, united them in the name of great goals, mobilized them for noble deeds. This noble, wise and generous person, despite difficult trials and difficulties, was always committed to high humanistic ideas, left good things about himself name in the memory of our people,” declared the Uzbek president during Rashidov’s monument inauguration in 2017.

Mirziyoyev’s defence of the Soviet politician went as far as to deny his role in the cotton scandal: “At first, he was buried with honors in the center of the city [Tashkent], and then the grave was blasphemously moved, members of his family, relatives and relatives, friends and students were persecuted. They stigmatized his life and work with the insulting word “Rashidovshchina“, falsified the so-called “cotton” or “Uzbek case”.” No doubt that Mirziyoyev is a great fan of Rashidov.

Cynics may point at similarities between both leaders when it comes to corruption, with Mirziyoyev and his circle being reportedly benefitting from corruption. Scandals aside, the choice of Rashidov is still an unusual one despite his role in Uzbekistan’s historical narrative.

He was born in Jizzakh and spent most of his political career in Tashkent. He did graduate from SamSu’s faculty of philology in 1941, although the institution had a different name back then. That would be the only thing that would justify being chosen to name the university. From a professional perspective, he is mostly known for his role as leader of the Uzbek SSR and his role in the cotton scandal. It would have been more reasonable for his name to be given to an institution in his native Jizzakh, or to a faculty of politics or governance.

Samarkand has no short supply of illustrious sons that could be used to name its university. The one that would make more sense would be Ulugh Beg, a grandson of Timur that ruled from Samarkand. This choice is more obvious when we consider that the authorities controversially link directly his madrasah (built in the 15th century) to SamSU. There is only one issue with this, and that is that Ulugh Beg is already the patron of Tashkent’s National University of Uzbekistan. If that is an obstacle, and to follow the central role given to the Timurids in Uzbekistan, Timur (Tamerlane in the West) himself could be the one. The conqueror made Samarkand the capital of his large empire and, despite all the statues, museums and references to him, there is no university named after Amir Timur in Uzbekistan.

Sharaf Rashidov remains a controversial figure. Despite his rehabilitation after Uzbekistan’s independence and the popularity he might still have among Uzbeks, his role in the cotton scandal of the Uzbek SSR is too important to ignore. Naming Samarkand State University after him remains a contentious move in a country where corruption remains an important issue.

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