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Once a Silk Road outpost, a new Uzbekistan takes shape

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 07/07/2019 By Matteo Fagotto

Until three years ago, Tashkent, Central Asia’s largest city, was the heart of one of the world’s most secretive states.

President Islam Karimov, a former Soviet apparatchik, was in power when Uzbekistan gained independence, in 1991, and remained so until his death, in 2016. Under his leadership, political opponents were tortured and religious figures jailed, citizens were not allowed to leave the country and hundreds of thousands, children included, were forced to work the cotton fields during harvest.

Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Karimov’s successor, has, in his first three years, scrapped some of his predecessor’s most odious policies, freeing dissidents and human-rights defenders. He has re-established cordial relations with neighbouring countries, security services are no longer omnipresent and a series of economic and legal reforms are boosting foreign investment.

An actress backstage at Tashkent’s Ilkhom Theatre. Photo: Matilde Gattoni

An actress backstage at Tashkent’s Ilkhom Theatre. Photo: Matilde Gattoni
© Matilde Gattoni
Still, it is an improvement from the days when police “were breaking into Tashkent’s music clubs”, says Ashot Danielyan, a 35-year-old rock musician who was arrested throughout the years of gigging with his band, Origami Wings, after Karimov undertook a purge of “Western influ­ence”. Christmas trees, Valentine’s Day and rock music were high on the hit list. “The police would question us until early morning,” recalls Danielyan. “They’d tell me, ‘We have a whole dossier on you […] We know the lyrics of your songs better than you do.’”

The latest flagship project in this town of 2.4 million is a Dubai-style indoor attraction, Ice City, spread over 15,000 square metres of prime real estate and featuring an ersatz Viking village, ski slopes and speed-skating tracks. It is a US$30 million investment in a country where winter sports have never been popular, but, if the Emirates can make it work, then …

“Maximum capacity is 2,500 people,” explains one of the main Ice City investors, who asks to be identified only by his first name, Ulugbek. Ostentation is no more appreciated now than in communist times, and he doesn’t want to be seen as showing off. “I am a modest person,” he says.

Ice City staff putter around the attractions and a couple of ski instructors busy themselves tending to a short prac­tice slope. Then the power goes off. For more than 30 minutes. “We are still fine tuning,” apologises Ulugbek, visibly embarrassed.

Under the Karimov regime, Akhunov was banned from travelling abroad after making satirical collages about Gulnara Karimova, the former president’s daughter and patron of Uzbekistan’s art scene at the time. (In 2017, Karimova was sentenced to 10 years in jail for fraud and money laundering, which was later commuted to house arrest. Earlier this year, she was transferred to prison for breaking the terms of her house arrest.)

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As recently as three years ago, the National Security Service ordered eight of Akhunov’s paintings burned. The huge windows of his art gallery were recently sprayed with bullets, too, but the matter hasn’t been investigated.

“The police didn’t care, so I made an exhibition out of it, scattering the broken glass all over my gallery floor,” says Akhunov, exhibiting the same spirit that earned him KGB attention when he protested the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

After Karimov’s death, the new government disposedof all the Marx and Lenin monuments brooding in the city’s out­sized public spaces and replaced them with statues and busts of the region’s 14th-century strongman, Amir Timur, or Tamerlane. The Turco-Mongol conqueror, who oversaw a pan-Asian empire to rival that of Genghis Khan a century earlier, became the new national hero overnight.

Soviet rule killed many traditions, and Karimov further repressed the following religious revival. We learned to recite prayers in our head. It is about us, Allah and nobody else.

Rustam Khusanov, Tashkent tour guide and self-taught city historian

Uzbeks are historically and predominantly Muslim, but decades of repression have turned religion inward. Few people attend Friday prayers or visit the city’s impressive Islamic relics, including the world’s oldest Koran manuscript.

“Soviet rule killed many traditions, and Karimov further repressed the following religious revival,” says Rustam Khusanov, a 41-year-old tour guide and self-taught city historian. “We learned to recite prayers in our head. It is about us, Allah and nobody else.”

Off a main Tashkent boulevard, a menacing bronze statue of the late leader dominates the entrance of his former residence, the Ok Saroy Presidential Palace. Now a museum, the site welcomes more than 1,000 people from all over Uzbekistan every day.

“Everything we have today is due to his efforts,” says a palace tour guide, in Russian-inflected English. “I loved him very much,” she adds. “He was an outstanding political leader and took care of his people.”

Hands on their hearts, schoolchildren are photographed beside paintings depicting him as a tireless worker, caring family man, visionary global leader or universal beacon of light fighting evil and terrorism – scenes reminiscent of the Kims of North Korea.

In a rundown wooden complex on the opposite side of town, 84-year-old Mafrusa Ishinbaeva holds Karimov in similar esteem. A former Soviet policewoman, Ishinbaeva doesn’t want to disclose her post-Soviet era occupation, however. Jokingly asked if she was a sniper, her daughter replies, “You’re not far from the truth.”

Ishinbaeva dreams of moving back to Bashkiria, her native Russian republic, but so far she has stayed on in Tashkent. And while the city’s lingua franca continues to be Russian, Tashkent, living up to its Silk Road roots at the intersection of the nomadic Kazakh steppes and the more sedentary inner civilisations of Central Asia, is still home to dozens of ethnicities: Tatars, Tajiks, Uygurs and even Koryo-saram, the descendants of ethnic Koreans deported to Central Asia by Joseph Stalin.

“This is what Tashkent is,” says Khusanov, “a place of many languages and cultures. All these people had different political and social views, but adopted a unique spirit of tolerance. Here they could live together in peace, no matter where they came from.”

As Uzbekistan emerges from its communist iso­lation, the free-world religion of national sport is coalescing here, too, albeit in a distinctly Uzbek way.

A few hundred metres from the new presidential palace, on the banks of the Chirchik River, sits a state-of-the-art training academy, the latest pride of the nation.

On a bright Sunday morning, a few dozen children, aged five to 12, hone their skills under the watchful eye of instructors. They spend four to seven hours a day training, and “it’s very hard, but you have to sacrifice something if you want to achieve something”, says Farkhad Sabirov, 52, the school’s director and a former player himself.

The academy opened in 2016, and currently hosts 192 students. It features spotless classrooms, a tactics room with a detailed file for every player, a health clinic where future champions get regular check ups and a small hotel where players can sleep ahead of important tour­naments. The school holds an entrance test every September, and competition is fierce.

This national sport originated a little less than 2,000 years ago, here in modern-day Uzbekistan, and authorities are sparing no expense to reclaim its history, or ensure future victory, especially against the Russians.

The sport is chess.

“Chess is a combination of art, science and sport,” says Sabirov, and these post-Karimov victories have brought a new visibility, a new pride to the country; not to mention some long-sought revenge against Uzbekistan’s previous Kremlin overlords.

“In Soviet times, nobody cared about our players,” says 64-year-old Rustam Khamraev, deputy general manager of the State Youth Chess Academy. “Moscow invested only in Russians and Ukrainians. Now, Uzbekistan has imposed itself as a chess superpower, and everyone is afraid of us.”


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