- Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City, 1930-1966
The Bolshevik Revolution was an urban revolution. Communists disparaged Slavic peasants as culturally backward, grasping petit-bourgeoisie. Their distaste deepened when they looked at the "feudal" backwardness of town-dwelling Central Asians, who lived in enclosed courtyard houses on narrow, winding streets, took their water from reservoirs or canals of dubious cleanliness, and traveled by donkey cart. In order for the Bolsheviks to transform Uzbeks into modern communists, they needed to create a civilized city to showcase the new Soviet culture. In 1930 they named Tashkent, a mid-sized town that had served as the Imperial Russian administrative center, as the capital of the new Uzbek republic. Tashkent was to be a "bright example" for the peoples of the USSR and later the decolonizing Third World (236). What the Uzbeks thought of the project was decidedly a secondary consideration.
Paul Stronski has written a study that combines architectural and infrastructural history with social history. He did extensive archival work in both Moscow and Tashkent and used sources in Uzbek as well as Russian. The book focuses on the middle decades of Soviet rule, a period that historians are only starting to explore. These features make it a welcome contribution to the literature, although not an unflawed one. There are no city maps in the book, which is a serious omission, and photographs are inadequately labeled or missing: Stronski spends significant time discussing the design of the Navoi Theater, but provides no images of this landmark. The writing style is repetitious, and the book would have benefitted from stronger editing.
The Communist Party's ideals for urban design changed as frequently as the general party line did. In the 1920s the stark lines of Constructivism were favored, to be replaced by Stalin's heavy monumentalism. Until the 1950s architects generally tried to impose Moscow's preferences for apartment blocks and wide, straight boulevards, except for a brief period after World War II when they recognized the appropriateness of local design for Uzbekistan's hot climate. The Khrushchev thaw restored respect to traditional housing preferences, but the impulse was immediately countered by the need to build lots of housing as cheaply as possible. The war and the earthquake of 1966 destroyed architects' plans even more effectively than political upheavals did.
Nevertheless, several patterns common across the decades did emerge. Most urban designers for Tashkent were Russian, who were often physically based in Moscow with little appreciation for local conditions. Party propaganda emphasized building to meet Tashkenters' practical needs, but in reality architects' first priority was to impress visiting party dignitaries and foreigners with Soviet spectacle. Planners were convinced that living in a modern (read: European) city would inspire Uzbeks to live like modern Russians. Urban design had an instrumental aspect—for example, instead of heeding Uzbeks' preferences for bigger houses to accommodate large extended families, planners built cramped apartments intended for small, nuclear families on the Russian model. A child of 19th-century positivism, the party loved to demonstrate its technical mastery over nature by building fountains, decorative pools, and a water park in the desert city, even as planners occasionally admitted that clean drinking water was in short supply for residents. [End Page 1155]
Another pattern common to the entire Soviet period was that planners never had enough resources to realize their visions, even during times of stability. Much of Stronski's study consists of discussions of building and street designs that were never built because of cost concerns or resources suddenly being sent elsewhere—the party continually put out contradictory directives that could not all be filled simultaneously. This was the main reason why the party failed to achieve its oft-stated goal of integrating the original Uzbek city with the newer Russian city that had been built in the late nineteenth century.
Tashkent faced two great crises, in the form of the war and the 1966 earthquake. In 1941 the city was a popular destination for people and institutions being evacuated from the front, and...