Tashkent is a city of contrasts. In many ways it has all of the trappings of a stereotypical medium to large sized post-Soviet city. It has wide avenues that terminate in a central district, an extensive and seemingly immaculate metro system, various monuments to events of local historical importance, a tomb of the unknown soldier, an opera house, marginally well stocked shopping centers, and the ever common endless labyrinth of retro-futuristic apartment complexes that one immediately identifies as a marker of a Soviet past.
On the other hand, the city has retained many elements of its pre-Soviet past as well, being vestiges of the city’s Turco-Persian or Imperial Russian heritage. These include a number of street bazaars, centuries old mosques, madrassas (which since have been converted into artisan’s shops), people wearing traditional Uzbek clothing, Russian Orthodox churches, and Imperial Russian palaces.
Then in some instances there seems to be a collision of the city’s Soviet and pre-Soviet pasts. When looking upon the city’s monument to Tamerlane, the Turco-Mongol conqueror of old, who Uzbekistan has claimed as a fundamental axiom of its national identity since the collapse of the Soviet Union, one cannot help but see the shocking aesthetic similarity it has to the Socialist Realist style used in monuments to figures like Lenin or Stalin.
Or perhaps when one enters Tashkent’s main “bazaar”, and notices it holds little resemblance to the other more traditional ones in the country’s smaller cities, exchanging the tent covered lanes filled with merchants sitting on the ground, for a sterile indoor marketplace more resembling an American supermarket than its namesake.
In his book Tashkent: Forging of a Soviet City, in the chapter “A City to be Transformed”, Paul Stronskii takes the reader into what can be described as the “primordial ooze” out of which the city of Tashkent as we know it was built. A central theme that he comes back to throughout the chapter is the notion that Tashkent had been treated as something of a project by both Imperial Russian and Soviet rule as a city. They thought that through the effort and grace of their superior cultures, they would be able to transform the city from being backward and Asiatic, to modern and European or Soviet in aesthetic and structure.
Considering this perspective against my own experience in Tashkent and Central Asia as a whole, a question I have long had has finally been answered: why is Tashkent so much more “Soviet” and “Russian” looking than Uzbekistan’s other cities, such as Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva? The aforementioned three have a uniquely well preserved pre-Russian and pre-Soviet downtown area, which by the layman would more likely be assumed to be in Iran, Afghanistan, or perhaps Pakistan. This is not to say that there are no vestiges of the recent Soviet past in these cities, rather, there is a clearly defined boundary between the “old city”, characterized by mosques and madrassas, and the “new city” in each.
It is interesting that Stronskii describes Tashkent during its Imperial Russian experience as something of a city that grew in two halves, with there being a clear line between the European and Asiatic halves of the city, with the former existing to inspire the latter with its innovation and technology to, as he describes it, “follow them into modernity”. From his description of what Tashkent was, I could better conceptualize that line between the Asiatic and the European elements of the city, as I had witnessed something quite similar in viewing the dichotomy between the “old towns” and “new towns” of Bukhara and Samarkand.
However, the modern day contrast and collision that characterizes the urban landscape of Tashkent, that is so absent in the other major Uzbek cities, certainly stems more so from its recent Soviet past. From how Stronskii describes it, the Russian Imperial forces aimed to build up modern Tashkent parallel to old Tashkent, while the Soviets sought to integrate their own designs into the already existing framework of the city, essentially seeking to augment and renovate it, rather than building a whole new city entirely. This involved integrating the Uzbek and Russian populations that lived there, destroying or replacing many symbols from the Imperial Russian past, creating a standardized street system, bringing in industry, electricity, and sanitation, and converting traditional spaces of learning, such as mosques and madrassas into more modern establishments. The Soviet Union considered Tashkent with the same status that the Imperial Russian forces did as a center piece of Central Asia and the main canvas upon which it would paint its designs, and because of that, the city bore the brunt of its machinations. Indeed, when one looks at the urban landscape of modern Tashkent, one doesn’t see a city that is explicitly Central Asian in the way one does with Bukhara. Similarly, one doesn’t see a completely Soviet manufactured city as well. One sees a collision of all aspects of Tashkent’s history. Through the narrative that Stronskii provided, I was better able to understand the journey that the city took, and how it resulted in such a startlingly unique urban landscape when considered against other cities in the region.