Independent Uzbekistan turns 30 today. Along with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan was the first Central Asian republic to separate from the Soviet Union on August 31, 1991, just after a failed coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on the streets of Moscow.
The rich culture of Uzbekistan is deeply linked to the ancient Silk Road. Until its conquest, the Russian Empire, the Turkestan region, which spans current Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Xinjiang in western China, was characterized by powerful khanates and shaped by the rise and fall of the Timurids. and the Samanids.
Uzbekistan is increasingly drawing on its ancient heritage in its nation-building efforts, a movement that has sadly clouded the country’s exciting contemporary culture. Former President Islam Karimov, who died in 2016 after more than 25 years in power, deprived the Uzbek people of many freedoms in their attempt to consolidate power – by cracking down on the media, religion and human rights. In 2005, the Karimov regime gained worldwide attention when, on May 13, the Uzbek army opened fire on a protest demonstration in the city of Andijon, killing between 400 and 600 people. The massacre has plunged Uzbekistan even further into international isolation.
Artists and creatives have also suffered from this increasingly repressive regime, many of them being banned from exhibiting or publishing their work. Some of Uzbekistan’s most dynamic prospects, such as artist Vyacheslav Akhunov or photographer Umida Akhmedova, have been barred from leaving the country. Others, like the writer Hamid Ismailov, were forced into exile instead.
Since taking office in 2016, the current President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has strived to break with the past, pulling the country out of years of economic isolation. Some of these modest reforms sparked a new creative life, galvanizing artists across the country to engage in galleries and poetic duels. Others presented new challenges: Tashkent in particular is losing much of its cultural heritage, as entire mahallas are bulldozed and replaced by skyscrapers.
There is hope that this new and cautious opening period will open up new possibilities for a new generation of artists – finally adulthood in an independent state. For the moment, Calvert’s Journal traces the books, films and music that have shaped present-day Uzbekistan over the past three decades.