Nukus, Uzbekistan

Nukus is the capital of the Republic of Karakalpaksten, Uzbekistan’s largest but most ecnomically depressed province. The province is named after the Karakalpak people who live here, a formerly nomadic tribe whom Stalin pushed into cities while stripping them of their cultural identity. Karakalpak means “Black Hat” but nowadays no one has any clue why they’re called this.

Karakalpakstan was never exactly the bread basket of Central Asia. But with irrigation from the Amu-Dariya river (to us, the Oxus) and from the Aral Sea, the Karakalpaks managed plentiful harvests of cotton, rice, and melons. But arguably one of the world’s worst ecological disasters, the shrinking of the Aral Sea, is slowly turning Karakalpakstan back to desert. Another major source of employment was a secret Soviet chemical weapons plant, shut down with the help of the United States in 1992. Poverty has been skyrocketing.

Broad empty boulevards chock full of potholes, monstrous but empty Soviet buildings, and hulking rusting factories lying idle, all make Nukus one of the most depressing places I’ve ever visited. Bizarrely, in the midst of this atmosphere of post-Soviet economic and cultural depression, is an art museum like no other. The museum was founded sixty years ago to exhibit paintings by local artists glorifying the lot of the Soviet workers. Its curator, Igor Savitsky, had other plans and was relentless about broadening the collection. Through a 3,000 mile network of contacts, Savitsky sought out the forgotten artists of the Stalinist years, many of whom had been sent to the gulags. Purchasing whatever paintings he could, either from the artists themselves or from their widows, Savitsky amassed one of the greatest collections of realist, surrealist, and avant-garde Soviet art. Making frequent trips back to Moscow, Savitsky brought all of the works back to the little museum in Nukus, often at great risk to himself. Savitsky reckoned that in the small forgotten backwater of Nukus, the paintings would be safe from anyone who could recognize their subversive qualities. And forgotten they were.

In 1995, one of the rare tourists saw a bit of the collection and reported back on the treasure trove of paintings documenting an era of which no traces were believed to have survived. Slowly, word has been spreading and two years ago New York’s Museum of Modern Art got 85 people together to charter a jet from JFK to the dusty old airport in Nukus. I wonder where they stayed because my hotel was tiny and filthy.

The museum itself is a strange sight indeed, with paintings stuffed into every possible spot on the wall, sometimes 4 on top of each other in simple wooden frames. Apparently only a small fraction of the collection can be displayed since there is no space. Karakalpak women followed me through the museum (of course I was the only guest), reaching behind a painting in each room to switch on the overhead fluorescent lights. I asked a taxi driver who spoke a little english what he thought of the Museum. “People here don’t care about it. They just want enough food.”