Amid ruins of Soviet dystopia, an avant-garde gem shines

There’s not a whole lot going for Karakalpakstan, the sparsely populated autonomous republic that occupies the whole northwestern end of Uzbekistan.

Once home to the Soviet Red Army’s research labs and testing sites for chemical and biological warfare, it’s a Grade A ecological disaster area.

In addition, the region suffers from extensive drought, largely due to exploitation of the Amu and Syr Darya rivers in the eastern part of Uzbekistan. As a result, the Aral Sea has all but dried up and crop failures in Karakalpakstan have deprived tens of thousands of their livelihood. If that weren’t enough, shortages of potable water have created a surge of infectious diseases

While the name Karakalpakstan may not ring a bell, you likely have seen the desolate pictures of the dry Aral Sea, which features grounded rusty Soviet-era ships, desert-like conditions and overall desolation.

To get an idea of how much damage the Soviets wreaked on the region, consider this description from the blog The Travel Lust:

The Aral Sea, situated in the Karakalpakstan State of Uzbekistan, was once the world’s fourth-largest in-land sea, it has since shrunk by 90 percent, the rivers that feed it were largely diverted in a failed Soviet cotton production project. The disaster had ruined the once-robust fishing economy around Moynaq town and left fishing trawlers stranded, … impoverishing the whole area. The whole area lost so much water that the whole area has turned into a salty sandy wasteland.

Added the website Strange Maps, “The former lakebed is the birth chamber of countless toxic sandstorms plaguing the region, keeping local life expectancy in check.”

Strange Maps adds, perhaps unnecessarily, that the capital of Nukus doesn’t exactly rank high on the list of the discerning tourist – or any tourist, for that matter:

Calum Macleod and Bradley Mayhew, authors of The Golden Road to Samarkand, one of the best introductions to Uzbekistan, describe Nukus as ‘a grim, spiritless city of bitter pleasures whose gridded avenues of socialism support a centerless town, only to peter out around fading fringes into an endless wasteland of cotton fields punctuated by the random, surreal exotica of wild camels loitering in neglected apartment blocks.’ Even those trying to talk up the tourist potential of Karakalpakstan ruefully admit that the Tashkent Hotel in Nukus is ‘abysmal … certainly a prime candidate for the worst hotel in the world.’

Apparently, the area does have one thing going for it: It’s home to the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, the world’s second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art, after the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

As artists fell out of favor with Soviet leadership, a Russian painter, archeologist and collector named Igor V. Savitsky took note of their work.

From 1957-66, Savitsky assembled an extensive collection of Karakalpak jewelry, carpets, coins, clothing and other artifacts.

He also convinced authorities of the need for a museum, and, following its establishment, was appointed curator.

Thereafter, he began collecting the works of Central Asian artists, including Alexander Volkov, Ural Tansykbayev and Victor Ufimtsev of the Uzbek school, and later those of the Russian avant-garde — including Kliment Redko, Lyubov Popova, Sergey Luppov and Robert Falk — whose paintings had been banned in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule through the 1960s, according to Wikipedia.

It was not until 1991 – when Uzbekistan became independent – that Nukus and the museum became accessible to the outside world.

Camels wander near rusting ships in dry bed of Aral Sea in Karakalpakstan.

(Top: Autumn Crimson, Ural Tansykbayev, 1931, Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art.)



4 thoughts on “Amid ruins of Soviet dystopia, an avant-garde gem shines

  1. Worst hotel in the world AND a world class art collection? In these days where people are looking for extreme travel experiences I’m surprised it hasn’t become something of a fashionable destination for the hardcore traveller! 😉

    • I don’t know – that’s a long, difficult trip, apparently fraught with considerable health dangers. I can see why it hasn’t caught on. Of course, with hipsters, you can throw common sense out the door.

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