We lived in Tashkent in the late 1990’s when the city was still shifting from its status as the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union…to its new role as the modern capital of proudly independent Uzbekistan.
While we were there, 70 years of Communism was being erased from the history books, and the glorious past of the great world conqueror Tamerlane was being resurrected. The huge monuments to Communism’s leaders such as vast plazas and monumental sculptures were already giving way to the new, equally huge monuments to the new government when we lived there.
We watched this transition progress over previous trips every few years since then. Oddly, tennis has become the national sport–as much as soccer–with huge tennis venues appearing around town.
A huge monument to “the Martyrs of Oppression” was built to memoralize all those who suffered at the hands of both Russian conquerors–the Czar and the Communists. New glitzy shopping malls and restaurants appeared overnight all over town, and the formerly bumpy main city streets and boulevards have been paved to an American smoothness. Inconvenient flea markets and street vendors have been banished to the far edges of the city.
There are plenty of wonderful examples of innovative and ingenious new efforts to improve the life of the people, especially children. Besides free tennis clinics for all, children are now taught English from first grade. Can you imagine starting a foreign language in America in first grade? There is now a whole Uzbek generation, raised since 1992, who speak English rather than Russian as their second language.
Still, the megalomania of ancient leaders, which gave way to the same in Soviet leaders, is giving way to more of the same in the new leadership. The President’s daughter has, famously, become the final arbiter of taste in the new Uzbekistan.
This was most apparent in what has happened to Tashkent’s main square, once a tree-filled shady refuge for families in the hot Uzbek summer. I was shocked to find that all, repeat all, of the huge trees in the square had been cut down. The official explanation was that the leaves dropping from the trees were a mess to clean up. The obvious real reason was to provide a clear and unrestricted view of the glorious, humongous new conference halls, banks and museum buildings that have been built around the park’s periphery.
The “First Daughter’s” new grandiose dress boutique building sits on the square next to a huge conference hall complete with copies on its vast white marble facade of the huge mosaic tigers installed by Tamerlane’s son on his finest religious school in his father’s almost-as-grand-as-Tashkent ancient city of Samarkand.
Tashkent has been through a lot in 2500 years…from Genghis Khan to the Bolsheviks to a horrible earthquake in 1966 that killed thousands. It will survive after these new emperors too. And trees can always be replanted.