Monday, January 20, 2020

A Journey through Uzbek National Identity on the Tashkent Metro - #1

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Ceiling chandeliers Buyuk Ipak Yoli (formerly Maxim Gorky) station.
Image: Richard Marshall
Tourism is booming in Uzbekistan. One of the big draw cards of Tashkent is the metro and its magnificent, subterranean art gallery.

Filip Noubel, managing editor of Global Voices, wrote this fascinating piece exploring the history of Tashkent's metro and its place in Uzbekistan's changing social history. Originally published 31 December 2019.  Reprinted here with permission.

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. In short, a ride on the Tashkent metro tells the story of a country where nation building is still very much in process.

Palaces of the People

That story begins in the early days of Soviet socialism.

Vladimir Lenin once famously said that "communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country" (Коммунизм — это есть советская власть плюс электрификация всей страны). 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".

In other words, no efforts would be spared to demonstrate the success and superiority of Soviet technology. The first metro pit was excavated in Moscow in the 1930s, and the first line officially opened in May 1935. Those events can be revisited in the 1935 documentary film "There's a Subway" (Есть Метро) which covers the entire construction process between 1931 and 1935. (Warning - this is an hour-long piece of fascinating Soviet propaganda).

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!

— Song about the Metro (Песня о метро), 1936.

However, in later decades the metro also made its way into marginal or dissident culture, e,g, in  Bulat Okudzhav's song "Песенка о московском метро".

Inspired by the success of the Moscow metro, in later years the Soviet government then announced it would build a metro in every Soviet city with over one million inhabitants. That ambitious plan eventually slowed down, but by the time of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, it had constructed metro systems in 13 cities, including Leningrad (1955), Kyiv (1960), Tbilisi (1966), and, of course, Tashkent (1977).

Tashkent Gets Its 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. (The video clip below is one minute).

In subsequent years, new stations were added to the system. By 1984, a second line had been opened and in 2001 a third line opened.

Part #2 of this article will focus on the subterranean symbolism of the decorations of the Tashkent metro.

Related posts:
Uzbekistan's Secret Underground - this article has stunning photography of the metro stations
Almaty, Kazakhstan - Riding the New Metro
Azerbaijan: Baku's Metro

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Tashkent and Tbilisi Exhibitions - Dilyara Kaipova Ends the Year with a Flourish

Central Asia's most innovative textile artist, Dilyara Kaipova, has ended 2019 with two sensational solo exhibitions.

Red deer and Gorbachev. Worked folk art suzani by Dilyara Kaipova

The Tashkent exhibition "North Lights of the South" was held at Zero Line Gallery, Tashkent's premier exhibition space.

Kaipova explored the colonization of Uzbekistan - often referred to as "the south" during the Russian and Soviet periods - and the specific character of these periods.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, traditional naive embroidery forms were embellished with heroes of films, illustrations from Soviet magazines or postcards, quotes or verses of their own essays.

In reference to the Gorbachev piece above, Kaipova stitched Gorbachev into the embroidery as a marker of the time and place of the famous "jump into the void." What are the shifts that have occurred in traditional cultures since then?

As well as embroideries, Kaipova created chapans (Uzbek traditional coat) reflecting this theme.

Chapan "Pushkin" of cotton quilted fabric

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Embroidery on fabric "Gorky" - Maxim Gorky was the most published author of the USSR

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Chapan "Sputnik" - When the Soviets began using Sputnik in their propaganda, they emphasized pride in the achievement of Soviet technology, arguing that it demonstrated the Soviets' superiority over the West. People were encouraged to listen to Sputnik's signals on the radio and to look out for Sputnik in the night sky.

Kaipova's sensibility meshes well with the street art and fashion scene of Tbilisi, current European capital of cool. It is at the glorious Georgian State Silk Museum until 16 December. If you are in Georgia now this is a must-see exhibition. It is made possible through a travel grant of the Goethe Institute's program Kultur in Bewegung (Culture in motion).

All textiles that are produced as exhibition objects are ikats, handwoven according to Kaipova’s sketches by the masters from Margilan in the Fergana Valley.

The exhibition builds on her earlier work about national self-identification, the intervention of "alien bodies" into national culture and the urgent globalization processes of the modern world. The exhibition also includes Kaipova’s photos and a slide show of art objects in the interiors or exteriors of traditional Uzbek houses.

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Chapan with Pushkin, Soviet star and almond. Kaipova's Tbilisi exhibition
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Chapan - Homage to Gagarin. Kaipova's Tbilisi exhibition

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Wall hanging Alien. Kaipova's Tbilisi exhibition
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Dilyara Kaipova, 3rd from left, with museum staff at the exhibition opening, Tbilisi.

Related posts:
The Fantasy World of Uzbek Textile Artist Dilyara Kaipova
Dilyara Kaipova Strikes Again at the International Applied Arts Festival, Tashkent 
Dilyara Kaipova Conquers Bishkek at the Asanbay Center
Buy Original Ikat Items by Dilyara Kaipova - Uzbekistan's Foremost, Modern Textile Designer 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Citizenship Tastes Sweet to Kyrgyzstan Beekeeper

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Abdusamat Saparovat at his bee farm
In July this year, Kyrgyzstan became the first country in the world to end statelessness. The lawyer who spearheaded the work, Azizbek Ashurov, was named the winner of the $150,000 UN Nansen Refugee Award prize.

Ashurov was motivated by his own family's struggle to achieve Kyrgyz citizenship after arriving from Uzbekistan. Working closely with the Kyrgyz government, his organization, Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders (FVLWB) has been offering free legal assistance to displaced, stateless, and undocumented people.

This inspiring story, written by Kate Bond, was published on the UNHCR website on 30 September 2019 and is posted here with permission.

A breeze brushes through the grass. Donkeys meander along a dirt track. Amid a puff of grey smoke, Abdusamat Saparov opens the first of his 38 beehives.

He smiles, pleased with their progress. Three months ago, when he first bought these colonies, there were 4,000 bees in every box. Now, just like his own dreams, they are thriving, with each holding a whopping 10,000. Their neatly painted, wooden hives dot a patch of land surrounded by yurts and cattle, in the foothills of southern Kyrgyzstan’s mountains.

"It was my dream to be a beekeeper," says Abdusamat. "It’s the process, I like the process of taking care of bees. Of course," he adds, chuckling, "I also love the result, which is honey."

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Abdusamat Saparov beautiful hives

While his life now has a serene charm, it has been a monumental struggle for 54-year-old Abdusamat to achieve it. Born in Uzbekistan when it was still part of the Soviet Union, he fell in love and married a Kyrgyz woman in 1987, and the pair moved across the border to Kyrgyzstan. The country is "special," he says. "It has an ideal environment – ideal conditions and ideal flowers for the bees."

However, in 1995, his beekeeping hopes were shattered when a new law following the dissolution of the Soviet Union four years earlier left hundreds of thousands of people with invalid passports across Central Asia. Like many, the Saparov family became stateless overnight.

Statelessness blights the lives of millions of people worldwide. Those living without a legal identity document are often denied access to basic rights such as free movement, health care, education and employment.

Without citizenship, Abdusamat was unable to obtain the necessary license for beekeeping and forced to take odd jobs in construction, as he attempted to navigate a bureaucratic nightmare. "It was so difficult," he says, shaking his head. "I didn’t understand the paperwork and my applications for citizenship were refused."

Finally, in 2014, government officials put him in touch with Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders. The organization has spent the last 16 years helping to end statelessness in Kyrgyzstan, in what is being deemed a historic first.

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Azizbek Ashurov, the lawyer who assisted the Saparov family, takes a honey taste test.

Azizbek Ashurov, 38, was one of the lawyers who helped resolve the family’s case. It took five years.
"I knew it was his life’s dream to open a bee farm," he says. "But it was a very difficult case, because Abdusamat no longer had his old Soviet passport. So, we took it step by step. We started with his wife, because she was from Kyrgyzstan and that was simple. Then we applied for citizenship for the children."

Finally, in April this year, Abdusamat became a citizen. "The first thing he did was register for his beekeeping licence," recalls Ashurov.

After years of working in construction, it took Abdusamat just 20 days to build the hives. Each was lovingly painted white, yellow and blue. Distant relatives, who take their cattle into the mountains each summer, were quick to offer this new beekeeper a plot to place them.

"Our family has a lot of land here, " says 21-year-old Gulzada Ahmedova, the eldest daughter of the family. "We have lived on this land for centuries. We understand how important this is for him. It’s humanity."

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Abdusamat Saparov's dream fulfilled

Twice a week, Abdusamat takes the bus from Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, to spend the day with his hives. Once, he was stung 53 times. Now, he says it is painless. Recently, his daughter started advertising his honey online and the orders have come in thick and fast.

"They’re very smart," he says of the bees, with a happy chuckle. "When it’s too hot, they collect water and sprinkle it over the hives. They can fly up to 10,000 kilometres to find flowers. They can even find their home by smell."

Citizenship was the key that opened up his world. Although, ironically, the bees themselves already had their documents in order. "Bees need papers," says Abdusamat. "You need permission from the national beekeeping association. All of my bees have their documents. If even bees have documents, then people should too. Everybody needs to belong."

Related posts:
Kyrgyzstan Ends Statelessness in Historic First
Kyrgyzstan: Social Entrepreneur Finds Foothold in Tien Shan Foothills
Kyrgyz Woman Singer Remakes Poem Traditionally Sung By Men
Tea with Bread and Jam – a Traveller’s Appreciation of the Finer Things in Kyrgyz Life