Demolitions Threaten Uzbekistan’s Historical Heritage

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Demolitions Threaten Uzbekistan’s Historical Heritage

With development mushrooming across Uzbekistan, the country’s historic quarters are at risk.

Demolitions Threaten Uzbekistan’s Historical Heritage

Elena Divyeyeva in her home.

Credit: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

TASHKENT — Elena Divyeyeva’s dreams fell into ruin along with her home, slowly, piece by piece. The first bulldozers appeared in her yard more than two years ago. It was a cold winter day in December 2017, and there was nothing she could do to stop the demolition of her living room. The administration of her district in central Tashkent decided that the outbuilding of her house was illegal. She watched parts of her home fall into rubble and cried. Little did she know that two years later, the whole Parkent-2 quarter would be in shatters, destined to be razed to the ground. Those residents who stayed until the end would bitterly dub it “Syria.”

Elena bought her apartment five years earlier, after a long search for a place where she and her family could build their dream home. The Parkent-2 district in central Tashkent seemed like a perfect choice. It was a historical military quarter dating back to the late 19th century and a former home to Imperial Russian officers. Later, in Soviet times, the quarter housed the staff of a nearby military school. It was quiet and green. The houses bore traces of old imperial Tashkent and friendly residents grew plants in their backyards. Discussions of land privatization in the area were already underway when she moved in. Elena believed that one day she would be able to buy the small piece of land in her front yard. 

That day came in March 2018. But, several months earlier, the first bulldozers had already destroyed parts of her property. “They did it illegally, without a court order. We would have proven that we had the right to use this land. I felt humiliated. I was deprived of my property,” Elena says. “They knew that once the decision about privatization was made, we would get too much. And they already had plans for the land. If we became landowners, it would make it too costly for them to reach an agreement with us.” 

At the time, Uzbekistan began to undergo one of the greatest makeovers in history. Since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in December 2016, following the death of long-time ruler Islam Karimov, an urge for change has overtaken the country. Liberalization of economic, political, and social life after years of isolation was soon followed by energetic efforts to rebuild the country in the literal sense. Large swathes of land became construction sites. The new Uzbekistan, the authorities dreamed, would be filled with modern high-rise buildings and business parks; Tashkent would become the Dubai-like capital of the fastest developing state in Central Asia. 

New development companies mushroomed all across the country to build everything anew. Many of the new companies, however, had no previous experience in the construction business. Following negotiations behind closed doors, these new enterprises received permission to build high-rise residential complexes throughout Uzbekistan. The land in central Tashkent became especially precious. With all amenities in place and good transport links, quarters like Parkent-2 have been the ultimate cash cows for investors. 

When Elena’s request to privatize her piece of land failed, it became clear that the authorities had marked the Parkent-2 quarter for investment. They allocated it to Aliakbar Stroy Servis – a company with no investment record, one of the curious enterprises created overnight since the onset of the construction boom. Initially, no one informed the 50 families living in the area of the redevelopment project, although by law, the residents should receive a six month demolition notice. They should also receive proper compensation for their lost property or an equivalent apartment in a nearby area. 

But only some of the residents wanted to move out. Others, with spacious apartments, who spent years renovating them and looking after their gardens had no intention to leave. In the end, it was one of the few quarters left which dated back to the Tsarist period. The flats were not falling apart, but the sole purpose of the demolitions was to improve the quality of housing, as judged by modern “developed” ideals. By law no one can be forced to abandon their property in favor of private investment. When the residents started protesting, the local administration changed their strategy. 

Aliakbar Stroy Servis was then given the task of evicting the residents and demolishing the quarter to make space for a military garage, currently based only a few hundred meters away from the quarter. In a curious trade off, the company received the land belonging to the military in exchange for Parkent-2. Since challenging a government investment would be much harder than a private one, the residents were left with no choice but to accept resettlement. 

“We cannot fight against the decision, although by law, military needs have priority during wartime. Since the garage is there, there is no reason to demolish the whole area. It is not a military need,” Elena says. “Coming up with an idea to move a garage which has been there for the past 50 or 60 years makes no sense.” 

Soon after, Aliakbar Stroy Servis filed a court case against the residents to speed up the evictions. 

“City hall made a decision. We were supposed to build a living complex here. But then the decision changed and it will be a military park. They gave us a different area,” Gulom Maxkamov, the company representative, told The Diplomat in September 2019. “This land used to belong to the military academy, then they sold it to the people, but now they need the space back.”

The recent history of Uzbekistan can be summed up as the history of demolitions in the service of development. Parkent-2 was not the only historical area which has fallen victim to this process. Over the past couple of years, many such places have ceased to exist, replaced by what the government views as modern architecture. But as Jens Jordan, academic at the Bauhaus-University Weimar, specializing in heritage conservation in Uzbekistan, argues, the process of gradual destruction of Uzbekistan’s architectural heritage is nothing new. 

“Uzbekistan has faced a great loss since 2014, when the city center of Shakhrisabz – a World Heritage Site – was bulldozed. Soon after that, a road construction project destroyed the historic town of Tashkent. Over the last three years, the demolition of large parts of the remaining historic town of Tashkent has continued. The ‘Dom Kino’ was destroyed, although it contained outstanding works of art such as the wall paintings by B. Jalalov, which were a unique window into the 1980s in Tashkent,” Jordan told The Diplomat. “The same goes for the historic part of Samarkand: nearly all examples of public buildings from the 20th century have been demolished. In Andijan at the moment we are losing various monuments of the 19th century housing for the ‘Andijan City’ project.”

According to Jordan, decisions regarding demolitions and what is worthy of protection in Uzbekistan are often political. While a legal framework to protect historical monuments exists, it is rarely applied partly because of the lack of knowledge and partly because of power dynamics. “Since Uzbekistan closed down the Institute for Conservation and Restoration in the second half of the 1990s, decisions are no longer based on scientific considerations, but are political, not infrequently reflecting the personal taste of a politician,” he says. “In the recent years, the question of what constitutes a monument has depended on its potential monetary profitability. The social and scientific value is hardly considered or only attributed to medieval buildings.”

Elena’s family is one of eight left in Parkent-2. The replacement properties Aliakbar Stroy Servis have offered her are of much lower value and quality than the one she currently lives in. Although most of the quarter has already turned into rubble, she is determined to stay as long as she can to receive proper compensation. She exploited all avenues to save the area, too, all of which failed. The Ministry of Culture, tasked with protecting places of historical importance like Parkent-2, has so far ignored her calls to inspect the quarter. 

According to Jordan, who has supported Elena and other residents in their fight to save their homes, Parkent-2 is an example of a district which the government should protect. In a letter to the authorities, he emphasized the historical value of the area which is one of the last remnants of the old garrison town. Studying it would help to trace the history of urban development in Tashkent. The quarter also presents artistic and scientific value. It was built according to the European model and has been preserved in good condition. Some parts of the construction, such as  tile stoves, can no longer be reproduced. 

When asked for a comment on the situation of the Parkent-2 area in September 2019, Sobirjon Hakimov, vice director in the municipal assets management center in Tashkent, said he was not familiar with the case. 

“We feel as if someone was taking our homeland away from us. Many of us grew up here. There are people who worked in the local school, then they got their apartments, they raised their children here, and they wanted to end their lives here too,” Elena says. “We loved our area. If you look around, there used to be trees, flowers, green spaces, people were arranging their terraces, little spaces for themselves. Then someone decided for us and everything turned into ruin.”

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a journalist focusing on the post-Soviet space.