oDR: Feature

'Gagarin was here!': inside the fight for Tashkent’s heritage

In Uzbekistan’s capital, a multicultural Soviet mahalla is under threat of demolition. But residents are fighting for their space filled with history and memory

Dilmira Matyakubova
7 July 2021, 12.00am
Number 72 Sadyk Azimov Street, Tashkent
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Image: Dilmira Matyakubova

“Gagarin was here once!” declares Ira proudly, as she takes me through the apartment block where she works in central Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.

Ira, a lady in her 50s, is the concierge at 72 Sadyk Azimov Street. Ensconced at the front entrance, she greets residents and guests with a smile. Ira knows everyone in the building, directs delivery couriers to the right apartments and chats with people passing by.

Number 72 is known to its dwellers as Voenniy dom, or ‘Officers’ house’ – it has a unique history, and was once inhabited by highly ranked military officers, generals who were heroes of the Soviet Union. And, much to the pride of Number 72’s residents, the building was also visited by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. After he made the first manned flight into space in 1961, Gagarin became a Soviet celebrity, travelling across the Soviet republics, including, in particular, Uzbekistan – where he was greeted by citizens and officials.

“I was so stunned when I stumbled into him. I completely forgot what I was going for or where,” recalls Natalya Borisovna, a resident who was 15 when she accidentally met Gagarin in the foyer of Number 72. “It was impossible not to recognise him. He was all over the media. He had this truly kind smiling face and his character was absolutely shining.”

But these memories now seem to be under threat, and Natalya Borisovna is one of many trying to protect Number 72 – and the city itself – from redevelopment.

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CC BY SA 2.0 Casey Hugelfink / Flickr. Some rights reserved

Presiding over destruction

Since the appointment of Shavkat Mirziyoyev as president of Uzbekistan five years ago, the country has undergone rapid change – and nowhere is this clearer than in the transformation of Tashkent.

Under Mirziyoyev’s watch, the mayor’s office and government have promoted an intense urban development campaign, destroying old communities in favour of high-rise elite apartments and business centres aimed at improving the investment climate. More pressingly, Uzbekistan’s urban renewal, which is backed by state and corporate interests which often have opaque roots, is resulting in colossal numbers of forced evictions, land grabbing, homelessness and destruction of cultural heritage across the country.

Now, Number 72 is slated to be another site for redevelopment. In February 2019, Tashkent’s mayor, Jahongir Artykhodjaev, signed off on an order to demolish the building, and grant the land to a commercial developer, LLC Abdurauf Stroy, for high-rise residential complexes.

Once these pieces of the mosaic are gone, there is no longer memory, no legacy. There will be just emptiness and oblivion

In response, residents of Number 72 have sought to defend their homes by forcing the mayor’s office to cancel the demolition decision. But they remain fearful that the developer may be given a green light for knocking down the building at any time. The mayor’s decision still remains in force and the developer is attempting to negotiate with business owners in the building who have restaurants and shops.

According to the domkom (the keeper) of Number 72, the developer was also given permission to demolish by the local authority, the local district head, but residents have not given their consent for its demolition. While some criticise the developer for offering unequal compensation, the majority do not want to leave, no matter what they are offered in return.

openDemocracy attempted to contact the Tashkent Mayor’s Office but received no reply.

When the developer, Abdurauf Stroy, was contacted, the company merely said that “everyone will be happy” with the development at Number 72, and did not respond to further questions.

Natalya Borisovna tells me she is not willing to move anywhere. “I would like to die here. I do not wish to move anywhere,” she tells me. “It does not matter what place they offer. This is the best courtyard in the world. I wish to die here.”

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The yard at Number 72 | Image: Dilmira Matyakubova

For her, Number 72 is home to memories of joyful community life, where there were all kinds of cultural events organised by the residents. She learned how to swim in the building’s non-functioning swimming pool. According to her, in Soviet times, there was material support from the state for these kinds of facilities, where a swimming pool, musical events, administrator’s salary and so on could be covered. Such support is non-existent today.

Instead, buildings with historical and cultural significance for people are being swiftly demolished to make way for glittery high-rises aimed at bringing in profit for the investor-developers.

It is these spaces of social, historical significance that make up Tashkent’s cultural fabric, its narrative

A vivid example is the recent elimination of Tashkent’s historical old mahallas (traditional neighbourhoods) in 2018 for a billion dollar mega development in the centre of the capital. For the same purpose, in 2017 the city’s Soviet-era Cinema House was knocked down to replace it with a Congress Centre.

For many residents of the city, this campaign of urban renewal is raising painful questions about what and who matters in the “new Uzbekistan” – and what’s being lost in the avalanche of concrete.

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Images of Number 72 residents from the 1950s | Image: Private archive

The city of oblivion

In this seemingly ordinary building not far from Tashkent central Amir Timur Square, Gagarin’s visit was a memorable occasion for residents – and is still recalled by residents today.

Indeed, these memories are part of what makes this place special: the events of the past, the lived experiences of the inhabitants, the shared green space in the closed yard and its multicultural composition.

This three-storey building, built in 1936, is home to various nationalities and ethnoreligions – Jews, Koreans, Russians, Uzbeks and Ukrainians – who share a common space – the yard, where children play, adults sit and chat, plant flowers and gather occasionally for a barbecue. There is an eclectic community spirit behind the closed yard, with its collection of tall trees, plants, an empty swimming pool and playground.

There are places and there are spaces. This Soviet-era building – a lived space that carries a legacy and life experiences cherished by its inhabitants – might not be seen as something historically valuable to the city authorities intent on selling the land for profit, but it is these spaces of social, historical significance that make up Tashkent’s cultural fabric, its narrative.

Once these pieces of the mosaic are gone, there is no longer memory, no legacy. There will be just emptiness and oblivion.

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