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The wasteland of Nukus, Uzbekistan


I’d never recommend anyone to visit Nukus to enjoy scenery, weather or cultural ambience. Tucked up in the northwest corner of Uzbekistan, the capital of the Karakalpakstan region, it is flat, dusty and impoverished, with a desert climate which makes it unpleasantly hot most of the year and unpleasantly cold during its brief winters.

Due to its remoteness, the city was selected as the site of Red Army chemical weapons testing back in the 1950’s – including the now infamous Novochok nerve agent. When the research centre closed down, the city lost much of its life, although with a population of 312,000 it is one of the largest cities in Uzbekistan and home to several educational institutes.

But there is one reason why Nukus should be on the Uzbek travel agenda – and that is to see the marvellous Savitsky collection of mid-century Russian art at the Karakalpak State Museum of Art. An impressive complex in the centre of town, the Museum also houses an outstanding collection of antiquities and applied arts from the area – textiles, artefacts, jewellery, costumes and carpets. This has done much to preserve and invigorate the rich and historic Karakalpak culture.

Igor Savitsky was the remarkable visionary behind the museum, and began collecting Russian avant-garde art during the 1950’s when it was being banished and destroyed by the Soviet regime because it did not conform to the prescribed ‘socialist realism’ movement.

He acquired the cash to pay for the art from the same authorities who were banning it, and in doing so, amassed an eclectic mix of avant-garde art. But most notably, he supported a school of artists who settled in Uzbekistan after the Russian revolution of 1917, and encountered a unique Islamic culture, which had significant influence on their work.

Today, the Museum may be one of the few places in the world where Russian avant garde art hangs alongside that of Socialist Realism – the former banished by the Soviet State, the latter glorified by it.

And in another paradox, the design, size and spaciousness of the museum buildings belie the completely inadequate presentation of these amazing works. The poor lighting, crude framing, unprofessional labelling, partitioning and even the erratic opening hours makes it clear that the administration is struggling to cope.

Australian broadcaster SBS has made a fascinating 15-minute documentary about Nukus and the Savitsky collection. Keepers of the Lost Art, made in 2002, is highly recommended and can be viewed here:

And as an aside – if you’ve ever doubted the capability of man to destroy nature, look no further than the Aral Sea which is located around 300km from Nukus. Formerly the fourth-largest lake in the world, it has been shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted for irrigation projects throughout the country, including cotton farms. By 1997, it had shrunk to 10% of its original size and its fish population was decimated, bringing unemployment and economic hardship for many communities. Now heavily polluted, it has been described as one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters.