A few words about Stronski’s Tashkent

Tashkent. It was the center of life in Central Asia and a place with hundreds of years of rich cultural history. And in 1930, it became the capital of Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Under Soviet rule, the entire city was to be a carefully planned urban space and a glowing example of postcolonial socialism. But official ideological imperatives and Uzbek reality didn’t always mesh. The rocky sovietization process in ethnic republics is the subject of Paul Stronski’s Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City, 1930-1966.

Drawing upon research in Russian and Uzbek archives, Stronski argues that the physical transformation of Tashkent was not an end in itself, but rather a means to change the people and their society. Active efforts to create Soviet citizens through urbanization were not successful, but the passage of time ultimately accomplished many of Moscow’s goals.

I read Tashkent with two other books in mind. The first is Francine Hirsch’s Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Both deal with the treatment of nationalities under Soviet socialism. One thing that stood out to me in Stronski’s book is the contrast in Tashkent’s relationship to the administrative center between the late imperial and Soviet periods. In the former, a Russian trade city was simply attached to the old Uzbek town, reflecting the center’s hands-off approach to the Muslim community there. The Soviets, on the other hand, undertook a “sovietization” project in Tashkent, destroying public reminders of the past including mosques and traditional narrow streets and replacing them with “modern” architecture according to Moscow models – apartments, fountains, factories, hospitals. Uzbeks responding in diverse ways, ranging from begrudging acceptance to domicide – the deliberate destruction of buildings.

Tashkent is also in conversation with Magnetic Mountain by Stephen Kotkin. Kotkin used Magnitogorsk to convincingly argue that the Soviet experiment was an excercise aimed toward general enlightenment. However, when put alongside Tashkent it’s clear we’re dealing with two somewhat different phenomena. Magnitogorsk was built from the ground up, on an patch of steppe where there was literally nothing. Because of this, it’s not representative of the vast majority of Soviet urban environments, which had spaces, institutions and populations that needed to be transformed rather than created. Sovietizing the latter came with unique challenges which Stronski explores. For example, what is to be done with local architectural preferences in the face of the push to build a physically modern city? Stronski argues that this was a secondary concern. Rather than heeding Uzbeks’ requests for bigger houses to accommodate large extended families, Moscow planners replicated the Russian model, building polished but cramped apartments intended for nuclear families.

The influence of World War II on social development of Soviet towns, absent from Magnetic Mountain, is something Stronski thoroughly addresses. World War II had a significant impact on the sovietization process in Tashkent despite the city’s geographical distance from the theater of war. Tashkent’s urban layout changed and its ethnic makeup was fundamentally altered by millions of refugees. This in turn created new obstacles for urban planners including a shortage of space – in a standout example, Stronski describes an aircraft factory housed in a building too small for it, with machine parts delivered by camel.

If I have any complaints against Tashkent, it’s that it’s deficient in the maps department. With all Stronski’s talk of city plans and repeated attempts to style the House of Government, it would’ve been helpful to have some sort of visual reference. The photos in the middle of the book give a sense of before and after, but a blueprint or aerial view would’ve been effective supplements.

This flaw is far from being a turn-off, however. Tashkent is a compelling and fascinating case study in urbanistics.

Taskent: Forging a Soviet City, 1930-1966 by Paul Stronski. Pub. 2010 by University of Pittsburgh Press. Hardcover, 368pp. ISBN13: 9780822943945.

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