Monday, February 3, 2020

A Journey through Uzbek National Identity on the Tashkent Metro - #2

1979 stamp celebrating Lenin Square metro station, Tashkent
This is the second part of Filip Noubel's interesting perspectives on Tashkent's metro system viewed through the lens of Uzbek identity. Mr Noubel subtitled his piece "A subterranean lesson in Uzbekistan's turbulent 20th-century history" [View Part #1]

Subterranean symbolism

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.

When Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, its new government followed the example of other young states and renamed streets, squares, and metro stations to distance itself from certain elements of the the Soviet past.

In doing so, they reaffirmed long obliterated and sometimes censored symbols of Uzbekistan's pre-Soviet past. Of the 23 stations constructed during the Soviet period, 11 have been given new names. For example, Lenin Square station is now typically called Mustaqillik Maydoni, or Independance Square, in Uzbek.

Of the 29 stations operating today  five metro stations are particularly revealing in what they tell us about Uzbekistan's changing narratives around national identity:

Xalqlar Do'stigli (Friendship of the Peoples): This 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.

Outside of Xalqlar Do'stigli [Friendship of Peoples] metro station

The station's overground building conveys this message of futurism. In 2008, Uzbekistan's then President Islam Karimov, who kept a rather independent line from Moscow, renamed the station Bunyodkor (“The Founder”), in honour of his own role as founding father of the new Uzbek nation.

However, in 2018, Uzbekistan's second president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is keen on closer ties with Russia, restored the station's previous name.

Paxtakor (The Cotton Grower)

This 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.

Paxtakor station ornamentation. Image: Richard Marshall
This focus on cotton monoculture has been continued by all subsequent Uzbek governments at a high price for the country's population. Irrigation for the vast cotton fields has brought ecological disaster on the country with the shrinking of the Aral Sea. Today Uzbekistan is the world's eighth largest cotton producer.


This station was named after the nearby district of Chilonzor, whose massive residential complexes were developed along the lines of Soviet urbanisation. Chilonzor is one of the most imposing in terms of art: its walls are covered in white marble, while several panels of 3D ceramics, all made by leading sculptors, illustrate the Soviet vision of Uzbek life: a mix of rural traditions and urban achievements, all enhanced by a series of massive crown-shaped chandeliers reminiscent of the Moscow metro.

Here is one "Uzbek scene," depicting men drinking tea on a tapchan, a wooden platform that helps to isolate from the scorching heat:

Chilonzor's 3D ceramic decor. Image: Richard Marshall
Chilonzor's crown-shaped chandeliers. Image: Richard Marshall

Alisher Navoi

This station was named after the 15th century poet and linguist Alisher Navoi, whom several states in Central Asia claim as their own. Navoi was born on the territory of modern Afghanistan, and wrote in Persian, Arabic, and Chagatai, the ancestor of the modern Uzbek language.

Magnificent Alisher Navoi station. Image: Richard Marshall

Kosmonavtlar (The Cosmonauts)

In the Kremlin's narrative the cosmonauts, the Soviet Union's spacemen, were the apex of Soviet science and progress. This station is decorated in cosmic blue with portraits of Uzbek medieval astrologists and Soviet cosmonauts.

Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space [1963]. Image: Richard Marshall
Yuriy Gagarin, the first person in space [1961]. Image: Richard Marshall

From Soviet to post-Soviet, from socialist to Islamic, Tashkent's metro celebrates and commemorates Uzbekistan's remarkable history. Its stations have become an integral part of any visit to the Uzbek capital, perhaps signalling that tourism will be the next chapter in Uzbekistan's long nation building narrative.

Related posts:
A Journey Through Uzbek National Identity on the Tashkent Metro - #1
Uzbekistan's Secret Underground - this article has stunning photography of the metro stations
Almaty, Kazakhstan - Riding the New Metro
Azerbaijan: Baku's Metro