Art On Desolation Row

A great art museum endures, amidst social and environmental disaster by the Aral Sea

by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Photos by Brannavan Gnanalingam

When the Soviet Union broke up, by and large, newly independent countries formed along the boundaries of the old Soviet satellite states. The newly independent countries became incredibly messy places in the 1990s, despite the supposed end of the Cold War. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bloody war, a conflict still unresolved and already forgotten in most Western media accounts of the Caucasus. Georgia’s separatist states currently remain in limbo. Tajikistan also had a terrible civil war – destroying the economy of what was already the poorest Soviet state. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belarus, and Kazakhstan had vicious dictators installed who kept the peace but kept the freedoms at bay. Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine were to have messy futures since. All of this was done by making boundaries that ignored pre-Soviet divisions and ethnic and historical populations – purposefully set up by Stalin as a divide-and-conquer tactic. One small republic that got lost in this melée was the Republic of Karakalpakstan. It occupies nearly one third of current Uzbekistan, in a vast, dry corner in Uzbekistan’s north-west. For those who venture out there, the vastness is almost claustrophobic.

Karakalpakstan is predominantly occupied by Karakalpaks, an ethnically distinct group to the bulk of Uzbeks and the neighbouring Kazakhs. Historically, ties had been close with Kazakhstan (Karakalpakstan was originally part of the Kazakh Socialist Republic and there are pre-Soviet links in the population). That said, in 1936, Stalin re-drew the map to include Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan. The area became a key part of the booming regional economy of the 1960s – driven by the heavy use of Amu Darya River, which was irrigated so that the Soviets could continue with their plan to turn the region into a major cotton-growing area. The Amu Darya also flowed into the Aral Sea, which was an important fishing area, and the fourth largest lake in the world.

Once Uzbekistan became independent, Karakalpakstan retained the right to secede from Uzbekistan, provided it was voted so by a majority in a plebiscite vote. Technically speaking, this can still occur. Uzbekistan’s dictator-in-charge, Islam Karimov however has not been known for his tolerance of any political opposition, and many ethnic Uzbeks and Kazakhs have moved into the area, perhaps swinging a vote away. Further complicating factors is the reported mineral wealth buried beneath the Aral Sea and in other regions of Karakalpakstan. Unlike its neighbour Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan hasn’t recently struck considerable mineral wealth, something that the kleptocratic Karimov no doubt covets.

Karakalpakstan is currently a mess. Unemployment and social inequality is rampant. Its capital Nukus is almost like a death town (admittedly, I arrived there in the height of summer, when the temperatures were close to unbearable and the desolation even more pronounced). Its infant mortality rate is 75 deaths per 1000 births, compared to the nationwide average of 23 deaths per 1000 births. Worse, the region is also host to arguably one of the world’s worst environmental catastrophes. The Aral Sea, depleted of its water by the use of the Amu Darya, started to dry up in the 1960s. What was left behind was a wild change in temperature (summer temperatures are now on average ten degrees warmer, and there are far fewer days of rain), a huge spike in respiratory illnesses and cancers (not helped by the Soviet biological testing centre in a former island in the lake), and a depressed economy that had relied heavily on the Aral Sea.

Moynaq, a once bustling fishing village, has seen its population drop from 30,000 inhabitants to 5,000. All native fish in the lake became extinct, and what water is left is too salty for use. The lake, which used to be next to the town, is now 110km away. All that is left of the lake are a few rusting ships left in symbolic monument to the lake’s disappearance. And, a vast amount of dust and salt. The illnesses there are potent too: our taxi driver wouldn’t let us eat in the town. A Moynaq local wouldn’t let us use the public toilet as it would be “catastrophic” for us.

The environmental disaster is only going to get worse. With no motivation by Karimov or neighbouring countries such as Turkmenistan to ration its upstream usage of the Amu Darya, the river flow will not increase. Even if there was the political will, scientists have argued that the Uzbekistan part of the Aral Sea is now irrecoverable. Discontent has surfaced over the central government’s lack of will to ameliorate the situation in Karakalpakstan. Karimov however has continued with the vain hope of keeping the desert a cotton growing region – in a brutal and foolish cycle, which means the region relies even more heavily on the non-desert crops like cotton but is draining the river of even more water. But is there a movement for independence? It’s hard to gather any sort of information in Uzbekistan. With an incredibly corrupt but ubiquitous police force (taxi drivers carry a lot of cash to pay off the policemen who wait in line), state media control, draconian repression of dissent, and a population lacking any sort of independent central authority it’s almost impossible to notice any overt signs of discontent. Private frustrations are obvious, but many are hoping for a Kazakhstan-style resource boom or are simply joining the exodus to Russia.

Karakalpakstan doesn’t also see much of the slowly increasing tourist money to Uzbekistan either. Most tourists bypass the far north (in part, not helped by the shocking road to go north) and opt instead for the picturesque ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Further, aside from a few disaster tourists (such as myself and two friends) heading up to gawp at the former Aral Sea, most see the area as too remote and too monotonous to bother. Almost symbolic of the cruelties all too evident was an incident we had trying to organise a taxi to Karakalpakstan’s capital, Nukus.

We hitched a ride with a guy (“Brother 1”) who offered to take us to Nukus, provided we pay him. He then realised that his car didn’t have petrol. There was no petrol in the town, as all of the petrol had been bought by a second-hand petrol dealer, who had then decided not to work that day (it was a Sunday). Brother 1 instead got his brother (“Brother 2”) to take us – presumably on the basis that Brother 1 and Brother 2 would split the fare. Brother 1 also offered to drive us to Moynaq the next day, 200km north from Nukus – either he or a third brother (“Brother 3”) would pick us up in the morning. We agreed a price and shook hands, and we left with Brother 2 to Nukus. Five minutes into the car ride, Brother 2 offered us a lower price and called Brother 1 to say that we had decided not to go to Moynaq anymore. Without us saying anything. We eventually managed to convince him that we had already agreed to go with Brother 1 and that we weren’t too keen on helping Brother 2 shaft Brother 1. We were dropped off without any further word.

That said, there were some remarkable sights in Karakalpakstan. One of the world’s most poignant and moving art museums is found in Nukus. The Igor Savitsky Museum is an absolute treasure, and a sense of the remarkable contents of the collection can be gained from this link.

Savitsky was a painter in Soviet Russia, who found himself in occasional trouble with Stalinist authorities. During his career he also assembled a remarkable collection of Soviet avant-garde art – the type that often led artists to run afoul of Stalin’s purges as these directly contravened the ‘30s edicts for socialist realist art. Savitsky in secret assembled over 90,000 pieces of art, aided by the sheer remoteness of Nukus, and by the slightly more liberal atmosphere post-Stalin. Savitsky’s desire was to get tourists who would also go visit the Louvre, visit his museum.

Works exhibited included wonderful paintings by Ural Tansykbaev, Vladimir Lysenko, Alexander Volkov, Lyubov Popova, and Robert Falk, along with folk art and socialist realist art. However, the museum’s international reputation doesn’t mean it’s safe. The museum remains at risk from Karimov’s arbitrary “urban renewal” projects, and from the paranoid xenophobia that results in anything remotely popular with foreigners being deemed a threat to national security. The museum has faced considerable scrutiny from the national government, and the museum’s curator since the death of Savitsky, Marinika Babanazarova, has faced increasing pressure to justify the museum’s survival. Unfortunately, the art that managed successfully to last Stalin, may not last another dictator and his cronies. The museum aside, Nukus also features a very bustling and thriving community market – one that is remarkably resilient and popular despite the city’s struggles.

These little undercurrents and hidden gems suggest that no matter how Karakalpakstan has been subsumed within larger empires, and suffered (and suffers) as a result, there is a strong sense of pride in the region. Despite this, it continues to suffer from the ills of the Karimov dictatorship: suggesting that in spite of the beating heart of political and artistic independence, there is a lingering sadness that matches the desolation of the landscape.


Images from the Savistsky Collection. More at the Karakalpak Museum website.