OKHUNBABAYEVA COLLECTIVE FARM, UZBEKISTAN, U.S.S.R. -- Rustam Sadkhamedev has spent most of his 26 years farming cotton in the vast fields outside Tashkent, and he cannot believe all the tales of Uzbek corruption and savagery he has read in the press.
How could Sharaf Rashidov, who won 10 Orders of Lenin in his long reign as the chief of the Uzbek Communist Party, lie about the size of the yearly cotton crops to win favor in the Kremlin and bilk the state of millions of rubles for himself and his cronies? How could the legendary Akhmadzan Adylov, a "hero of socialist labor" and the prototype for several adoring novels, run the Fergana Valley region like a feudal lord, living on an estate filled with peacocks, lions and concubines and locking away his personal enemies in a secret underground prison?
"All these things happened without us knowing the truth. They seem so unbelievable to me, but now every day it seems like we learn a little more about our rotten history," Sadakhmedev said with disgust as he took an afternoon break in the shade of his combine.
"In school we learned about the Middle Ages in Central Asia, and these men, like Adylov, are just the descendants of the old evil lords. They wanted to live like Tamerlane the Great."
In the central Soviet press and in the West, most of the attention surrounding the so-called Uzbek mafia scandal has centered on a Russian, Yuri Churbanov.
A mediocrity whose singular achievement in life, it is said, was to marry Leonid Brezhnev's daughter Galina, Churbanov is now on trial in Moscow for accepting more than $1 million in bribes while working in the Interior Ministry.
He has become the living antihero of Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign to discredit the Brezhnev era as stagnant and corrupt.
But Churbanov is only a small, if renowned, part of the scandal. Hundreds of Uzbek party leaders, farm chairmen, bureaucrats, police officers and prosecutors have been implicated, fired or jailed for complicity in the rampant corruption of the 1960s and '70s. The republic, it turns out, was a swamp of corruption, with Rashidov filling every post of consequence with his cronies and handing out state awards, such as the Order of Lenin, not for merit but for bribes of hundreds of thousands of rubles.
At a time when the Soviet leadership is pushing all 15 Soviet republics to take on more responsibility for their own economies and governments, Uzbekistan still appears shocked by the revelations and mired in its own past. People spoken to here recently said they were only now coming to grips with the legacy of corruption. And there are many corrupt figures, sources here said, still in positions of power and influence, making reform, as Gorbachev defines it, nearly impossible.
"This has been a trauma to the 20 million people of Uzbekistan," said poet Erkin Vakhidov, one of the best-known writers in the Uzbek language. "For years, we were known for great strides in wiping out illiteracy, for producing cotton to clothe the country. Now we're known for the 'Uzbek mafia.' We feel the way people in Sicily or Palermo must feel sometimes -- ashamed, but angry that we're all painted over with the same brush."
Vakhidov's feelings, at once despondent and defensive, reflect those of many officials, intellectuals, religious leaders and workers interviewed in the Tashkent and Samarkand regions. It is clear to them, however, that in order for Uzbekistan to raise its living standards, to join the rest of the country's reform campaign, the republic must learn from its past and transcend it.
But it is a slow, painful process. In the Samarkand bazaar, a young butcher, Mamashariv Ergashev, described how depressed he felt recently when watching the television program "View." They showed pictures of a glittering cache of jewelry and money kept by various party bosses and played interviews with people who had lived in fear of Adylov and his henchmen.
"And all I could think," Ergashev said, "was that I wished it would all go away."
Cotton is at the center of modern Uzbek life. Ever since the American Civil War put an end to cotton imports, Russian czars, and later Soviet general secretaries, forced the Uzbeks to turn over nearly their entire economy to the raising of cotton, making Uzbekistan what people here call a "monoculture."
During the Brezhnev years, Rashidov dominated that monoculture absolutely, putting his friends and family in high offices and making them all rich in a republic where living conditions are far poorer than, say, in the Baltics or the Caucasian republics.
Curiously, people here do not remember Rashidov as a tyrant. "Rashidov was an ordinary man, a quiet man, a writer, a soldier in World War II," said Moutal Khalmuhamedov, the Uzbek party Central Committee's new chief ideologist. "Just by looking at him, it was difficult to imagine that he was at the center of all these dark doings. At the time, it was just impossible to know."
Great ceremony surrounded the Uzbek mafia chiefs. They built fantastic summer homes for themselves, dressed in furs and jewels, ate the finest meats and drank French brandies. And, when they died, they went to their final rest at funerals suited to monarchs. They were a self-protective lot, given to hiring professional killers when angered, say, by a farm director who would not inflate his cotton quota.
The cotton scandal was rooted in Brezhnev's own vanity and indifference. Officials interviewed here said Rashidov, in an effort to ingratiate himself with the corrupt leadership in Moscow, would inflate the republic's cotton production by thousands of tons each year. Rashidov's mafia kept the extra money paid for the nonexistent cotton and Rashidov won a position on the Politburo and favor with Brezhnev, who apparently was content with the glowing annual reports.
The prosecutors who investigated the case have estimated that over the years, cotton magnates and politicians in Uzbekistan stole a total of 4 billion rubles -- nearly $6.5 billion -- through their pricing scams. In addition, elaborate "protection" rackets and outright thievery were rampant throughout the republic. Positions in universities, institutes and government all had their price.
Officials here are willing to admit to a hazy sense of something being amiss, but profess to have no grasp of any, possibly self-incriminating, details. "Of course, we didn't know how bad the situation was, but we felt that something wrong was going on. Social justice had broken down," said Lazis Kayumov, a member of the republic's legislature and editor in chief of Soviet Uzbekistan.
There were a few academics and politicians in the area, such as Mirzavali Mukhamadjanov and Rasul Galumov, who dared to confront Rashidov and the party with the inflated figures and the signs of corruption, but they were quickly, and efficiently, silenced -- sent to distant posts.
"This was in 1979 and the newspapers couldn't print such things," Kayumov said. "Their only 'hope' was to address the party bodies." And while Brezhnev and Rashidov lived, that got them nowhere.
But after Brezhnev and Rashidov died, the Uzbek party's leadership recognized the republic for the wreck it was and began discussions, tentative at first, about the corruption. With Konstantin Chernenko in power, the republic's Central Committee denounced the pilfering of state funds and "hoodwinking." But their language was pallid and their measures ineffectual.
Mikhail Gorbachev's Kremlin has been far tougher, sending teams of prosecutors from Moscow. In Tashkent and other Central Asian cities, they set up huge offices that resembled small military operations.
The senior investigator, Telman Glydan, and others have been threatened with assassination many times while working in Uzbekistan, and they soon took to wearing bulletproof vests. They kept their families in Moscow, out of harm's way.
Recently, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that after a local party leader had been arrested for bribery, some of his thugs tried to cause the police plane that was leaving the area to crash. Just before takeoff, police discovered a steel cable had been stretched across the runway.
The mafia men thought they were untouchables. Prosecutor Sultan Salautdinov told the press that during interrogations Adylov was defiant and expected the mafia to rescue him. "You'll put us behind bars now. So what?" Adylov told Salautdinov. "Fifteen years from now we'll put you all away and destroy your children. I'll find millions of rubles to do it."
Adylov is now in jail in Moscow, as are hundreds of others. Many others in the party apparatus committed suicide before the prosecutors closed in on them.
Utkir Nurulyayev, who is on the Samarkand regional party committee, said, "We were all under the spell of Rashidov."
Rashidov was buried in the center of Tashkent, near the Lenin Museum. For years, people brought mounds of roses and carnations to the tomb. Finally, the state moved the grave to a remote village that no one seems to know -- the town where Rashidov was born.
But it seems his legacy continues. Recently 675 people sentenced to long prison terms in the cotton scandals were pardoned by regional officials. And some of those who fought against the mafia did not survive to see themselves proved right.
Poet Vakhidov recalled a close friend, Kayum Mortazaev: "He was the first secretary of Bukhara. During his tenure, they forced him, pushed him, to make some false cotton plan. But he couldn't do it, and they got rid of him, replacing him with Abdu Karimov.
"Karimov made the plan, even though Mortazaev knew it was a lie and impossible. Karimov became so popular and everyone bowed down to him, while my friend was shamed. Well, as it turns out, Karimov was jailed for his crimes. But my friend Kayum never saw justice done. Four years ago, he died, and I still believe he died of a broken heart."