Friday, December 3, 2010
Tashkent (from Belgium)
Yes, it has been a while. I spent two weeks in Tashkent, trying to improve the framing of the Khorezm research by means of extra interviews. Time well spent, I believe. Rarely access to internet there, so few blogging opportunities. Monday night, I arrived in Belgium, tomorrow to Bonn, to ZEF, for two more months Uzbek research. More stories later.
But now, something about Tashkent. A different world it is, a slight shock after some months in Khorezm. No trace of doubt that this is where it happens; this is the center of power. A sustained building boom, continuous improvements in infrastructure, attention to urban design, mushrooming businesses, a cosmopolitan population, an influx of migrants from the provinces. And prices more common in European capitals.
Tashkent is a Russian creation, much more than other sizeable cities in Uzbekistan. A few buildings predate the Russian arrival -a 16th century medrese, religious school, being the most notable example- but most "old" buildings are pre- communist, in neoclassical or eclectic styles, sometimes close to Art Nouveau. The 1865 map above gives an indication of the starting point. Communist development, boosted by (forced) immgration of Russian, Greek, Armenian, Italian architects, produced a neatly ordered city of over three million. Post- independence planning usually follows the communist pattern, with a gradual enclosure and replacement however of the remaining traditional neighborhoods, the mahalla´s. Some of them will probably remain, since some major players prefer to live in the best of those neighborhoods, still marked by low single family homes, with green courtyards.
Despite the severing of connections with the dissolution of the USSR, Tashkent is still recognizable as the intended capital of Soviet Central Asia. That is, as the capital of something larger than the present country. (Just as Vienna still betrays its past as the center of something bigger) Also in research facilities, this is visible: the major institutes responsible for the Soviet development of Central Asia, for irrigation design, rural development, city planning, agricultural engineering are still there, be it in a considerably shrunken state. The institutional apparatus that guided Soviet development in its heydays, can not reasonably be sustained. Even in the later years of the USSR, after most reclaimable land was reclaimed and most usable water used, it was clear that not every institute was still necessary.
Nor was it affordable. The Soviets could not afford Central Asia anymore. One reason was the oversized research and development apparatus, a second one the inefficient agricultural economy that apparatus groomed. Both Soviets and the post- Soviet government tried to get rid of the system, with its overuse of water, land, its oversized workforce and its problematic adapation. Once more, experts in Tashkent, sometimes the same experts, in the shrunken institutions, have to rethink the use of land and water. The Uzbek government does realize the urgency, and foreign donors got the message as well.