The Uzbek people stem from an amalgam of Central Asian Turkic tribes. Their language is Turkic. Central Asia was ruled for centuries by a succession of emirs, khans, and potentates. The most notable was Tamerlane, who conquered a vast empire in the fourteenth century and established his capital as Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan. Russian penetration and annexation came in the second half of the 19th century. The Russians brought railroads, cities and cotton growing to what had been a largely nomadic society. In 1917 and 1918, following the collapse of the czarist regime and the Russian Revolution, pro-Bolshevik Russian workers in Tashkent and a rival Muslim Congress established competing governments. The intervention of the Red Army proved decisive, despite prolonged anti-Soviet resistance known as the Basmachi revolt. By 1924, a Soviet regime was established. To facilitate control, Central Asia was divided along ethnic and linguistic lines, leading to the creation of, among others, the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.
Joseph Stalin, in power from 1924–53, transformed the Soviet Union into a highly centralized totalitarian dictatorship with all control emanating from Moscow. Rigid centralization was relaxed somewhat under Khrushchev's administration, 1954–64, and markedly under Brezhnev and his immediate successors. In the Brezhnev era (1960s and 1970s) Communist Party bosses came to exercise almost unlimited power locally, provided they remained loyal to Moscow on national issues. Sharaf Rashidov, head of the Uzbek Communist Party from 1959–84 ruled Uzbekistan virtually as a personal fiefdom in his later years. In Tashkent as in Moscow, the government was subordinate to the Party leader and the legislature was a rubber-stamp nonentity.
Gorbachev's leadership in Moscow from 1985 until 1991 accelerated the decentralization of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev also launched an anti-corruption campaign that hit hardest in Uzbekistan, where falsification of cotton production figures and massive skimming of state funds pervaded Uzbek politics. Many important Uzbek officials were accused of crimes and some were imprisoned. Rashidov's immediate successor, Usmankhodzhayev, was forced out by Moscow in 1988. His successor, Nishanov, left Tashkent a year later for a leadership role in the USSR Supreme Soviet. Nishanov was succeeded as Uzbek Communist Party first secretary in March 1989 by Islam Karimov.
On 25 August 1991, days after the failed Soviet coup, Uzbekistan declared its independence and changed its name from the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic to the Republic of Uzbekistan. On 21 December 1991, it joined 10 other former Soviet republics in a loose association called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).