Unity and Division: Linguistic and Cultural Borders in Bukhara 

Last June, I was fortunate enough to spend time in Bukhara, a jewel in the Silk Road and a major cultural site in Uzbekistan. Aside from myriad mosaic-laden madrassas, minarets, and the fact that the 40-degree heat there felt inexplicably cooler than the average summer day in London, I became interested by the linguistic and cultural situation in the region. Travelling from the UK, a largely monolingual country, I had blindly assumed that Uzbek would dominate. However, most locals employ the Tajik language as a lingua franca; on a tour of the city, our guide asserted that she, like most other Bukharans, speaks mostly Tajik, while remaining proficient in Uzbek and Russian. Hearing this, I was struck by the constant linguistic interaction in Bukhara, with Tajik, spoken on an every-day level by the locals, juxtaposed against the prevalence of Uzbek as the national language encouraged by the government. Bukharans appeared to prefer Tajik as their primary language yet were adept at transitioning to Uzbek. This conveyed an easy bilingualism at play in the city, rather than a clash between opposing languages. 

One can trace the current state of linguistic affairs in Bukhara back to the Soviet Union. Seeking to make sense of the labyrinthine patchwork of cultures that comprised Central Asia in the early 20th century, the Soviets undertook a project called National Territorial Delimitation (NTD) in 1924, sketching largely arbitrary borders which sorted the peoples of the region into socialist republics. These entities were predicated on highly generalised national categories. Hence, despite the creation of an autonomous Tajik Republic within the borders of the Uzbek SSR, a significant number of Tajik speakers remained within the Uzbek Republic proper, especially in Bukhara, Samarkand and Khujand. This sense of isolation led people such as Nisar Mukhamedov, a Tajik revolutionary and political leader, to make incendiary claims about the alleged oppression of Tajiks under Uzbek jurisdiction.1  

By 1929, in an effort to assuage the growing discord, the Soviet authorities concluded that the Tajik Republic warranted an elevation of status to that of a full Soviet Socialist Republic as well as an expansion of its borders. This would result in the Uzbek SSR losing territory given that the Tajik autonomous republic had been established as part of the wider Uzbek Republic in 1924. In the discussion over border configuration, party officials expediently used nationalist arguments to buttress their cases. While Tajik leaders, such as Shirinsho Shotemur, sought to portray Bukhara as a historically “Tajik city”, the Uzbeks utilised data from the Soviet census of 1926 which suggested the contested regions were majority Uzbek.2 Ultimately the Tajik Republic enjoyed a promotion in autonomy. Though the new Tajik SSR gained Khujand, it was denied Bukhara and Samarkand in spite of a Soviet admission that Tajik, not Uzbek, speakers were the dominant group in both areas. 3 When the boundaries between the Soviet Socialist Republics became international borders upon the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the present linguistic situation was cemented: a majority of people in Bukhara and its environs opting for Tajik as their preferred means of communication rather than Uzbek, the national language. 

On the one hand, it is possible to view the separation of Tajik speakers in Bukhara from their colinguals in the Tajik SSR through a wholly ‘national’ filter. That is, the boundary redrawing in 1929 isolated Tajiks under Uzbek rule, resulting in a linguistic and cultural divide which continues today. However, national identity was not such a powerful force at the time of and prior to the NTD that the Soviets operated in the 1920s. Although Tajik and Uzbek political leaders, such as Mukhamedov and Shotemur, may have stressed the importance of national identity, this emphasis was little more than an exhibition in realpolitik. In reality, most Central Asians did not consider nationality a major part of their identity, although this trend was not uniform given that Kazakhs, for instance, were more aware of a shared nationhood.4 Tajiks and Uzbeks generally lacked “national consciousness and national cohesion”, more often defining themselves along religious or tribal paradigms instead.5 As Ivan Zarubin, a Soviet linguistic expert completing ethnographic research for the Academy of Sciences from 1926-30, noted, the Tajiks “were not a complete whole”, with those in Bukhara differing from the Tajik speakers who had settled in the mountains to the East. 6 Thus, although the realignment of borders in 1929 appeared to split the Tajiks, the lesser importance of nationality compared to religion, for example, enabled co-existence between Tajiks and Uzbeks in Bukhara. Hirsch even goes as far to say that “it often was impossible to make a clear distinction between ‘Tajiks’ and ‘Uzbeks’” in the region.7  

This ambiguity over national identity persists in present day Bukhara, creating the circumstances under which a seamless bilingualism between Tajik and Uzbek now operates. What’s clear is that, despite a shared language, Tajik speakers in the city cannot be put in the same national category as those in Tajikistan. Finke and Sancak sum up this sentiment nicely: “speaking Tajik in Bukhara has nothing to do with Tajikistan”.8 Rather, most Bukharans switch unconsciously between Tajik and Uzbek depending on their social circumstances. Due to its position as the national language, people opt for Uzbek in the political arena in order to climb the greasy pole, and public addresses tend to be articulated in Uzbek rather than Tajik, which is normally spoken in more intimate settings among friends and relatives.9 The interplay between the languages is unrelated to national distinctions, with the bilingualism instead suggesting an “inclusive social entity” as a way to characterise the Bukharan population.10 The locals are joined by a shared transition between languages, leading to common daily experiences irrespective of whether they depend more on Uzbek or Tajik as a medium of communication. That most Tajik speakers in Bukhara do not view themselves as belonging to the wider ‘Tajik’ national group is a crucial component of this amenable bilingualism; the Tajik-Uzbek dynamic is not viewed along nationalist lines, rather it is seen as a stable fact of life to which most Bukharans are now accustomed. 

However, the future of linguistic co-existence in Bukhara appears uncertain. Adhering to an ethnocentric form of nationalism,11 the Uzbek government views language as a key facet of its nation-building project. It endeavours to calcify and spread the national language, promoting the use of Uzbek in the political and educational spheres. This process has its roots in the proclamation ‘On Official Language’ of 1989 which established the primacy of Uzbek in administrative and bureaucratic settings while later introducing language classes for government workers less proficient in the state’s preferred language.12 Uzbek similarly dominates in education; Hasanova has pointed out that there now no Tajik-medium schools in Bukhara.13 The growing prevalence of Uzbek in schools has sometimes manifested itself in a more disturbing form, with reports in 2000 detailing a mass-purging of Tajik books.14 

Attempts to encourage the use of Uzbek more widely seem unlikely to cease. In April 2023, President Mirziyoyev signed a new decree that would strengthen the presence of the national language in the “life of state and society”, cementing the government’s distinctly pro-Uzbek stance.15 Nonetheless, the fact that the state is so keen to push Uzbek as the primary medium of communication does not guarantee the demise of Tajik-Uzbek bilingualism in Bukhara. Although Tajik may become increasingly restricted to private settings and despite the likelihood that the youth may opt for Uzbek given its prominence in education, the state is not pursuing outwardly ‘anti-Tajik’ policies. Bilingualism will not benefit from pro-Uzbek policies, but it is not being directly repressed by them. The transitions between language that the locals undertake on a daily basis are likely to continue, yet the linguistic order will become more noticeably entrenched. Uzbek will further solidify itself as the prevailing medium of communication at a public, political and educational level, while Tajik will find itself even more confined to personal environments. 


Finke, Peter and Sancak, Meltem, ‘To be an Uzbek or not to be a Tajik? Ethnicity and Locality in the Bukhara Oasis’, Zeitschrift Für Ethnologie 137 (1) (2012), 47-70. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23333538.  

Glenn, John, The Soviet Legacy in Central Asia (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999). https://link.springer.com/book/10.1057/9780230376434.  

Hasanova, Dilia, ‘Linguistic Landscape of Bukhara: The Ambiguous Future of Tajik’, in Tajik Linguistics, eds. Ido, Shinji and Mahmoodi-Bakhtiari, Behrooz (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 2023), pp. 371-388. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110622799

Hirsch, Francine, ‘Toward an Empire of Nations: Border-Making and the Formation of Soviet National Identities’, The Russian Review 59 (2) (2000), 201-26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2679753

Hirsch, Francine, ‘Towards a Soviet Order of Things: The 1926 Census and the Making of the Soviet Union’, in Categories and Contexts: Anthropological and Historical Studies in Critical Demography, eds. Szreter, Simon et al. (Oxford: Oxford Academic, 2004), pp. 126-147. https://doi.org/10.1093/0199270570.003.0007

Ilkhamov, Alisher, ‘Mustaqillik Ideology Tested: Nation-State Building in Uzbekistan and Related Security Challenges’, OSCE Yearbook (2012), 109-121. https://ifsh.de/file-CORE/documents/yearbook/english/12/Ilkhamov-en.pdf

Rahimov, Mirzohid and Urazaeva, Galina, ‘Central Asian Nations & Border Issues’, Conflict Studies Research Centre (2005). https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/92527/05_Apr.pdf.  

‘State Language Development Department being established in Uzbekistan’, Kun.uz, 25 April 2023 [https://kun.uz/en/48847051, accessed 8 December 2023]. 

‘World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples: Uzbekistan – Tajiks’, Minority Rights Group International, June 2018 [https://www.refworld.org/docid/49749c8335.html, accessed 27 December 2023].