Karakalpakstan and Deviant Soviet Art
21.05.2007 - 22.05.2007 34 °C
If one still subscribed to the idea that the earth was flat, Nukus would certainly be placed on its remotest edge. The capital of the little-known Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan suffers from a staggering variety of ecological, social and political disasters and limps along on subsidies from the Uzbek capital Tashkent, itself not the most prosperous place in the world...
First there is the shrinking Aral Sea, or Seas to be more precise - it is predicted to break up into some five tiny individual lakes by 2015 or so - which has resulted in huge amounts of wind-borne salts and pesticides. To illustrate the problem the once-thriving Aral fishing port of Moynaq is now 150km from water! Once fertile floodplains have been reduced to salty wasteland, and the population is severely affected by respiratory disorders, cancers, birth defects and deformities. The latter was sadly evident in many of the people we met there... Furthermore after the collapse of the USSR the local economy was annihilated and the rampant unemployment has driven many locals to numb the pain with heroin - every street was littered with used syringes. Ironically what used to support the local economy happens to have been the Red Army's Chemical and Biological Weapons Research Centre. Now disused, the toxins (including Anthrax, Smallpox etc.) are leaking into the water supplies and adding insult to injury for the already desperate local population.
The Soviet insistence on the homogeneity of its peoples has also eradicated all culture and identity of the Karakalpak people; indeed Karakalpak means 'Black Hat' but the people have been so estranged from their traditions that they have had to set up a research initiative to find out what exactly this black hat, after which they are named, looks like.
The one highlight in the town was a mildly interesting museum where a certain Igor Savitsky had hidden away a huge amount of art which had been considered "Un-Soviet" during Stalin's rule. Unfortunately, the works on display were few, misteriously organised, and more interesting for what they represented then for any intrinsic artistic appeal.
I was able to leave Nukus with two things. One was an appreciation of how badly things can go wrong economically, socially and ecologically. The other was some really bad food poisoning, complementary with dodgy Plov from a Soviet-era canteen.
After our short stay we hurried on to Khiva....