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Photo: Filip Noubel
Tiles representing Uzbekistan’s huge cotton industry at the Paxtakor metro station. The  ornamentation of various subway stops portrays the accepted history of the moment.

As we struggle today with our nation’s history and painful, long-suppressed facts come to the fore, let’s turn off the television and think about Uzbekistan.

Back in the day, the Uzbeks thought it would be a beautiful thing to build something Stalin really wanted. They eventually completed a mighty subway system full of the kind of history their now discredited leader would have liked.

Filip Noubel reports at Global Voices, “For many years, it was strictly prohibited to photograph the ornate stations of the Tashkent metro in the Uzbek capital. The Soviet-era system had also been constructed with nuclear attack in mind, and could serve as a fallout shelter in wartime. But ever since that ban was lifted in early 2018, visitors from abroad have started to show heightened interest in Central Asia’s oldest subway system. And with good reason.

“Tashkent’s metro system is so much more than just a means of transportation. Over the decades of its existence, the design and names of the metro’s 29 ornate stations have changed to reflect the turbulent trends of Uzbekistan’s history. …

“Back in November 1920, electricity was a taste of the bold promises of progress to come; it embodied the new innovations now made accessible to the masses. Just 12 years later, the Soviet leadership pronounced yet another strategic and futuristic priority: the construction of the metropolitan, as Europe’s subway systems had come to be known in the second half of the 19th century. On May 25, 1932, the Sovnarkom, the then executive body of the Soviet government issued a decree …

‘The construction of the metropolitan must be considered a project of the utmost importance to the state, with its provision of timber, metal, cement, transportation, etc, and as a key priority in matters of superproductivity at the national level.’ …

“The development of the metro also marked a key turning point in the development of the Soviet economy: while the first five-year plan (1928–1932) emphasised heavy industrialisation, the second five-year plan focused on urbanisation. As a result, the metro became a major cultural symbol, present in films, children’s books, poetry and songs. It was hailed as testament to the success of Stalinism in official songs, such as this one from 1936:

” ‘We believed, we knew, That by digging a pit,
” ‘We would, Comrade Stalin, Make your plan come true.

” ‘They will describe it for centuries on, And not with just one pen
” ‘And they will tell the children, How they fought for the metro!’ …

“The people of Tashkent had to wait several decades for their metro, which was the first in remote and comparatively underdeveloped Soviet Central Asia. Planners faced several challenges: the Uzbek capital had experienced a crushing earthquake in 1966, which destroyed half the city. The city lacked trained engineers and metro workers. Uzbekistan’s long and scorching summers posed problems for ventilation. Which was precisely why the Soviet authorities had to demonstrate that they were up to the task.

“Mobilising human resources and special construction material from all across the Soviet Union, the first metro pits in Tashkent were dug in 1973. Just four years later, in a Stakhanovite spirit which set a record, the metro’s first line was opened in November 1977. The date was chosen to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Russian revolution. Accordingly, as news footage from that day shows, all local politicians were present at the opening, where a message of congratulations from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was read out before the crowd. …

“As in other Soviet metro systems, each station of the Tashkent metro was assigned a particular political and cultural message to illustrate key messages of Soviet ideology.  …

“Of the 29 stations operating today (a third line was opened in 2001), five metro stations are particularly revealing in what they tell us about Uzbekistan’s changing narratives around national identity.

“[One] station is an emblematic example. Known as Friendship of the Peoples during the Soviet period, its previous name reflected Soviet ideology’s extensive attempts to emphasise its supposedly peaceful international role during the Cold War, in opposition to western imperialism. …

“[The Cotton Grower] station’s name symbolises the Uzbek economy’s everlasting dependency on cotton production. During the Soviet period, Moscow assigned each of the 15 Soviet republics a particular crop to produce en masse. This focus on cotton monoculture has been continued by all subsequent Uzbek governments at a high price for the country’s population. The cotton sector has used forced labor, including that of children.”

Forced child labor, huh? Bet they’re not proud of that now. Read more about the stations and (how the accepted history keeps changing) here.

Hat tip: Arts Journal.

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Have you read any of the articles in the NY Times about the Russian art collector who saved Uzbek folk art and modern Russian art from destruction by collecting thousands of pieces for his museum? The museum was long unknown to most of the world, located as it was in a remote desert area of Uzbekistan (near the dried up Aral Sea), a region called the Republic of Karakalpakstan.

The first Times story, published in January 1998, is posted here. It stunned the art world. Igor Savitsky, who died in 1984, had seen the beauty of the modern art that was considered “degenerate” by Stalin and the post-Stalin Soviet Union. He tracked down artists and artists’ relatives and squirreled the works away in the desert museum.

Savitsky was sly and often got government functionaries to pay for an acquisition without their realizing what it was exactly. Many thought his museum housed only the ancient artifacts uncovered in state-sponsored Central Asia archeological digs. The collector even got government money for devastating works by a woman who had been sent to the Gulag. He didn’t tell the authorities that the pictures detailed the horrors of the Gulag but said they were of Nazi concentration camps.

We watched “Desert of Forbidden Art” Saturday and highly recommend it. Read about the documentary in the NY Times.

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