W OMEN WERE CARRYING their babies up to a barbed-wire fence, staring longingly into a place
where there was no killing.
It was the summer of 2010. Sergei and I flew from Moscow to the border between two
former Soviet republics—Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan—to report on an ethnic killing spree.
There were clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz citizens and the ethnic Uzbek minority in south-
ern Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbeks by the thousands fled to villages along the border, hoping to
cross into Uzbekistan. But the Uzbek government, seeking to avoid a refugee crisis, sealed
off the border.
The images were appalling. Mothers, children, the elderly packed into border villages.
Makeshift hospitals were set up in churches to treat those wounded in the violence—they
could not be transferred to hospitals because the hospitals were run by the Kyrgyz govern-
ment, and they feared being harmed rather than treated. In one stunning scene Sergei and
I witnessed, several residents of an Uzbek village took the corners of a blanket and carried
a badly injured man—he had multiple gunshot wounds—up to the border fence. An ambu-
lance arrived on the Uzbek side, and a medical team got out and approached a hole in the
fence. They stared down the Uzbek border guards who were supposed to keep that border
closed. Those guards stood motionless as the villagers passed the injured man through the
hole in the fence to the Uzbek medical team. They rushed him to the ambulance and sped
Hundreds of people were killed in the violence, and thousands were displaced and to
think—it may be Josef Stalin's fault.
In the 1920s Stalin drew the borders of the Soviet Central Asian republics, and the lines
made little sense. They looked haphazard and divided people. For one, a sizable population
of ethnic Uzbeks was left over the border in southern Kyrgyzstan. The most generous theory
is that Stalin was careless. But academics have often wondered if Stalin hoped to foment
chaos—to reduce the chance that a republic could ever come together as one unified people
and challenge Soviet authority. What's more, chaos meant the republics might often need
help to bring stability—they would have to turn to Moscow.
That legacy may still exist. Even though these are now independent countries, even
though they have relationships with Western countries like the United States (the United