Chaikhana with the Portrait of Lenin by Alexander Volkov, one of the banned pieces of Soviet art now housed in the State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan
Making our way out of Uzbekistan’s Xorazm Province, we began our three-hour drive to the city of Nukus, capital of the country’s autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan. Up until the late 1990s, the land we were driving through was still cotton fields; today, it’s just an expanse of salty gray emptiness.
Once a thriving agricultural center, Karakalpakstan is now one of the unhealthiest places on Earth. Respiratory illness, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and esophageal cancer are rife, and the region has the highest infant-mortality rate in the former USSR.
These problems started with the destruction of the Aral Sea, which dates back to the US Civil War. After finding his supply of American cotton under threat, the Russian tsar decided to use the sea’s tributaries to irrigate Central Asia and create his very own reserve of cotton plantations. With a staggering 1.8 million liters of water needed for every cotton bale, the liquid began to run out, and by 2007 the Aral had shrunk to one-tenth its original size.
An abandoned construction site and derelict Soviet block in Nukus
The dehydration of the landscape has led to vast toxic dust-storms that ravage around 1.5 million square miles of land. Spreading nitrates and carcinogens, these storms used to hit once every five years, but now they come ten times a year.
North of Nukus, beyond rusted ships stranded in the manmade desert, Vozrozhdeniya, or “Rebirth Island,” contains the ruins of a Soviet bio-weapons facility that you might recognize from a mission in Call of Duty: Black Ops, in which you have to kill a bunch of Russian doctors in hazmat suits. Sensors on the island's testing range measured the effects of smallpox, brucellosis, and the bubonic plague on monkeys, sheep, and donkeys (all tied a mile apart), until it was quickly vacated following the collapse of the USSR. Now joined to the mainland thanks to the Aral Sea’s falling water levels, the island is an eerie wasteland of smashed test tubes and petri dishes, its radioactive scraps fought over by smugglers.
Getting out of our car in Nukus, we were greeted by a smack of hot, dry air, machine gun-wielding guards sweating outside the Council of Ministers building and a child with a goiter the size of a pomegranate circling us on his bicycle.
A man passed out at the Markaziy bazaar, Nukus
Sprinkled around the thinly spread city center, nondescript Soviet-era blocks were smattered with broken windows and attempts at Timurid motifs. Groups of unemployed men hunkered together, loitering on street corners, and there was a wedding taking place near the distinctly un-amusing amusement park.
In the bustling Markaziy bazaar, babushkas in socks and sandals peddled the cheapest brands of loose cigarettes from buckled wooden trays; men wearing skull caps lay passed out in the shade of tin shacks, drained bottles of vodka at their sides; and the young women flashed glimpses of gold teeth—normally a sign of wealth, but here a by-product of endemic malnutrition; in Karakalpakstan it's either gold teeth or bare gums.
Savitsky's art museum in Nukus. Photo via WikiMedia Commons
Yet it’s in this environment that a remarkable collection of art has survived, precisely because of its inhospitable location. Ukrainian-born art collector Igor Savitsky collected thousands of avant-garde artworks banned in the Soviet Union under Stalin and founded the State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan in the mid 1960s. The museum houses works from a forgotten generation of artists—their styles far removed from the “Socialist realism” permitted by the Communist regime of the time—who mostly met an unsavory end.
In the Cart by Alexander Volkov
Featuring geometric scenes of everyday Central Asian life, Alexander Volkov’s colorful oil paintings saw him labeled a bourgeois reactionary after Stalin issued a campaign against free-thinking artists. Fired from his posts, he lost everything, and over the course of the next three years all his works were removed from the leading Russian museums. Moscow ordered that Volkov be isolated from anyone who had anything to do with the art world, and if anyone requested to meet the artist the authorities would tell them that he was far too ill to receive visitors. In many ways, however, Volkov was one of the lucky ones—at least he avoided the gulags.
On His Knees by Lev Galperin
A fusion of dadaism and cubism, a piece called On His Knees is one of the only surviving works by Lev Galperin, a painter and sculptor from Odessa. His paintings were regarded as counterrevolutionary, and he was arrested on Christmas Day of 1934 and sentenced to five years of hard labor. During his trial, Galperin dared to voice his feelings about the Soviet regime and the state of art in the union. His death certificate reads, “Cause of death: execution by shooting.”
A series of sketches by Nadezhda Borovaya show what conditions were like in the gulags. When her husband was executed by the authorities in 1938, Borovaya was sent to the Temnikov Camp, where she spent the next seven years secretly recording and smuggling out scenes of daily life. Savitsky managed to procure funding to purchase these drawings for his museum by persuading party officials that they were depictions of Nazi concentration camps, not the Soviet forced-labor facilities.
Islam Karimov on a billboard in Nukus
On the upper floor, an entire section of the museum is dedicated to a visit from Uzbek despot Islam Karimov. Even in the desert of forbidden art, the authorities were watching—Karimov scowling down from billboards in the abandoned construction sites outside the museum. In fact, his influence was everywhere; as we walked around this remotest of backwaters, it took us three hours to find the city’s sole internet hub, but we passed plenty of elegant clay tennis courts along the way. The president’s daughters clearly liked tennis.
That evening, the only thing open along the main drag—besides the shashlik grill being manned by two slurring middle-aged men—was a bar. Settling on a rickety bench, we sat in front of a fridge containing one lonely bottle of UzCarlsberg.
Making their way along the uneven pavement outside, a pair of khaki-clad police paused by the crumbling lattice fence. The atmosphere in the bar immediately changed—the conversation became stilted and the barmaid’s smile turned into a wary grimace as she clicked the radio off. Having stumbled upon the only two tourists in town, the soldiers blocked the pitch-dark track to the back-alley toilet, indicating that we should pay them to use this hole in the ground.
Making their excuses, all of the bar’s other patrons soon vanished, clearly experienced when it came to escaping this kind of fleecing. “Go! Close!” the flustered barmaid pleaded with us, wringing her hands. It wasn’t even 10:00 PM.
Briefly mulling over the disappearing act we’d just seen, we figured that it was probably a good idea to take the barmaid’s advice, so we backed away and left Nukus and its avant-garde art museum behind.
This story is excerpted from Stephen Bland's forthcoming book Does It Yurt?
Follow Stephen Bland on Twitter.@StephenMBland