Nukus Art Museum and the Aral Sea

Nukus is an interesting place to visit because among other things, it has a very cool art museum (of which a New York Times article said - Few Westerners have seen the Savitsky collection, but when they do, a chapter of art history may need to be rewritten) and it is the point where one begins the journey to see what is left of the Aral Sea.

Because the art museum is not mentioned in great detail in the guide books, I thought I’d include information from the museum I picked up.

I bought this painting of a Karakalpak Women, at the museum in Nukus for 4800 Som (which was about 8 dollars at black market rates).

Karakalpakstan Art Museum

Karakalpakstan: the name evokes poignant images. We are reminded not only of the crisis of the Aral Sea, but of the long and rich history of the civilizations flourishing and passing on this land. We find a varied and rich landscape as well as treasured historical monuments and archeological sites. But amongst the gems of the region, in Nukus, the modern day capital of the area, is the Karakalpakstan Art Museum, home of the remarkable collection assembled by Igor Savitsky during the early part of this century.

Igor Savitsky (1915-1984), an artist from Moscow, came to Karakalpakstan as a member of the Khoresm Archaeological Ethnographic Expedition of the USSR Academy of Sciences. As a result of this introduction he spent years studying and collecting ethnographic art of the region, from antiquity through to his own time. He found forgotten treasures from as early as ancient Bactria and Sogdiana, left by the passing legions of Alexander the Great in the 3rd century B.C. He carefully collected and recorded the hand work of the nomadic peoples who crisscrossed this territory during the last centuries. In the 1950’s, he established a home for his collection in the Karakalpakstan Art Museum. But his achievement did not stop here.

Savitsky was a great admirer of the Uzbek and Russian artists who worked between 1900 and the 1930’s. These artists, part of the great European revolution in modern art history, were virtually silenced by political pressures of the day. Savitsky realized the works of these artists represented the emergence of an unique Uzbek and Russian Avantgarde style, cut short in its inception. The works of these artists had fallen into disrepute and were being systematically destroyed by the creators of the new political-social ideology.

Igor Savitsky collected over 81,500 items during the first half of the century. He housed these pieces in the archives and stores of the Nukus museum. Since the opening of this museum in 1966, limited numbers of these works have been placed on view for the public. The remoteness of the area and the limited interest in this artistic genre in the face of severe social antagonism virtually left this collection frozen in time. Visited only by the curious and the more hardy artists and art lovers, the paintings were protected and stored by a small number of dedicated art historians in the remote corner of the republic.

The museum is a must for any visitor to the city of Nukus. The premises for the collections were begun in 1991 but are not yet completed...

For more information you may contact:

Marinika Bobonazarova
Karakalpakstan Art Museum
Prospect Doslyk, 127
Nukus, Karakalpakstan

Muynoq - Nice place to visit,
but I would not want to live here

In Nukus you can bargain (a fair price is 15,000 Uzbek Som, round trip) with taxi drivers to take you to Muynoq. It takes two and a half hours one way, provided you are not detained at any of the countless check points (where Uzbek officials check papers and look for any Taleban from Afghanistan who might be smuggling heroin).

It was cold, overcast and raining which seemed appropriate weather for visiting the “Hellhole” otherwise known as Muynoq. Essentially the city was a thriving port before the Soviets started diverting water from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya (the flow from both these rivers has been reduced by three-quarters) to grow cotton. At one time the southern shoreline of the Aral Sea, reached the town of Muynoq. But in 1999 to reach the shoreline of the Aral, one needs to take a four wheel drive, at least 35 miles through the dunes.

Between 1962 and 1994, the level of the Aral Sea fell by 16 meters. The surrounding region now has the highest infant mortality rate of the entire former Soviet Union. Twenty of the 24 fish species that used to be found in the sea have disappeared, and the World Commission on Water says there has been a 30-fold increase in chronic bronchitis, typhoid, arthritis and cancer.

Since the Aral Sea area was sparsely populated and was far away from Moscow, a biological weapons complex was built in the area during the cold war. At the height of the cold war, it was nearly impossible for outsiders (i.e. spies) to visit the area, so most of the intelligence gathered about the Aral Sea area, was done with spy planes (such at the U2 or SR-71) or satellites. Even now (ten year after the wall fell) officials are reluctant to let outsiders study the Aral Sea area.

After seeing rusting ships in the sand, and watching sickly people wandering around the slowly dying town of Muynoq, it amazed me that the Soviets allowed this to happen. Muynoq is just one of those places you have to see to believe.

The Shoe Factory - With a cooling tower?

Aside from being the third largest cotton producer, I discovered that Uzbekistan has the worlds largest uranium production center and it just happened to be in Nawoiy, which is between the tourist cities of Bukhoro and Samarqand.

During the cold war, the Nawoiy Mining and Metallurgy Combine, supplied the Soviet Union with gold and uranium. I was told that during the height of the cold war, the Soviets had several flights a day from Nawoiy directly to Moscow. The cargo on these flights included gold and processed uranium. The gold was used to finance the Soviet’s military industrial complex and the uranium was used for making big nasty bombs. I also found out that the extraction of gold by the Russians over the years, is another sore point with Uzbek officials.

The city of Nawoiy is interesting because, it was a city built expressly to suit the needs of the Soviet military industrial complex. To entice skilled Soviet workers and their families, a new city was built with a cultural complex, various schools and a relatively modern shopping center (very upscale compared to the “Ipodrom” which is the largest Uzbek bazaar just outside of Tashkent). Walking around Nawoiy, I was struck by how “Russian,” the city feels.

This “a Capella” group was performing various Russian folk pieces at a competition in Nawoiy.

From the road going between Bukhoro and Samarqand, it is not possible to see the city of Nawoiy, but you may catch a glimpse of a large cooling tower. If you ask about the cooling tower, one typical response is, “It is part of a shoe factory.” I’m no rocket scientist, but the cooling tower sure would not look out of place next to a building that might house a RBMK graphite moderated nuclear reactor.

Ordinary Tourist Stuff

Yeah, I know I sort of ignored discussing specifics about the tourist cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. I made it out to those places and was pretty impressed with the 2500 year old tourist traps. On the internet I’ve seen a bunch of other travel logs and articles that cover that stuff so I’m not going to bother with that ordinary tourist stuff.

I like places off the ordinary tourist routes and Uzbekistan definitely qualifies. I also had a morbid curiosity to see if what the Yugoslav philosopher Milovan Djilas wrote in his book The New Class was true.

“In the sphere of intellectual life, the [Communist] oligarchs’ planning doesn’t lead to anything but stagnation, moral degradation and decadence, .... these heralds of the rigid, eroded, outdated ideas -- it’s they who freeze and hamper the people’s creative impulses. Free thought is for them like a weed, which threatens to uproot people’s minds.”

Knowing the history of Uzbekistan and traveling in country for some time, I would have to agree with what Djilas wrote. As an ordinary tourist, it would have been difficult to see how people in Uzbekistan really live. But thanks to the Uzbek Peace Corps home stay holiday program, I had a brief glimpse of life in a former Communist country and as an added bonus I made it to Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

Is there hope for Uzbekistan? I hope so! The younger generation seems receptive to change and they are making some strides. From what I saw the problem in Uzbekistan is, a mindset that refuses recognize that there are a number of major problems and allot of resistance to making changes necessary to succeed in the modern world. If Uzbeks make the transition to a more democratic society and a more capitalistic economy, I hope they do not loose sight of their long tradition of reliance on the family and community.

Would I recommend a trip to Uzbekistan? Heck yeah! For the adventurous bum, Uzbekistan is a great place to hang out to catch a glimpse of a very different culture (just make sure you bring your own water filter, be prepared to use a pit, and do not be surprised if you loose some weight).

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