Monday, January 20, 2020

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

tashkent metro uzbekistan, uzbekistan small group tours, uzbekistan art craft textile tours
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 
A Journey through Uzbek National Identity on the Tashkent Metro - #2