Search results: Nukus

The Savitsky Collection in Uzbekistan: See it for Yourself

6 Jun

The Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, home of The Savitsky Collection, is located in Nukus, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan in northwest Uzbekistan. It contains the world’s second largest collection of Russian avant garde art and is home to one of the largest collections of archeological objects and folk, applied and contemporary art originating from Central Asia. The Nukus Museum is the fourth splendor of Uzbekistan and the Savitsky Collection has been called “one of the most outstanding museums of the world” by the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

To raise awareness of its work, the mesuem has started to send out a newsletter which outlines some of the  highlights of the Savitsky Collection, as well as some of the improvements in transport infrastructure, guest accommodations, flight schedules from Tashkent. Read it here,

Over the last several years, visitors to the museum has steadily increased, and its name as a house of acclaimed art has spread. To find out more for yourself and discover the vast array of art collected, visit the website here.


New biography on Igor Savitsky, a man who fell in love with a distant world

26 Sep


I have talked in previous blog posts about the unique story of the adopted Karakalpak Ivor Savitsky and his museum.   His biography is now available.  “Igor Savitsky-Artist, Collector, Museum Founder” is written by Marinika Babanazarova, Igor Savitsky’s successor as Director of the Museum since his death in 1984 and published by Silk Road Media (UK, Hertfordshire).


Since the early 2000s, Igor Savitsky’s life and accomplishments have earned increasing international recognition. He and the museum he founded in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan in the far northwest of Uzbekistan, have also been the subject of numerous articles in the world’s most important newspapers and magazines, such as El Païs, Le Figaro, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The Guardian, and the New York Times, of television programs in Australia, Germany, and Japan, and, most recently, of two full length documentary films. Marinika Babanazarova’s memoir is based on her 1990 graduate dissertation at theashkent Theatre and Art Institute (Department of Theory and History of Art). It draws upon correspondence, official records, and other documents about the Savitsky family that have become available during the last few years, as well as the recollections of a wide range of people who knew Igor Savitsky personally. As she states in the foreword to this deeply moving and personal narrative. “I hope this memoir will serve not only as a multifaceted, broad-based portrait of a great man who was my mentor, but also as a tribute to his legacy.”


The book’s publication—in separate Russian and English editions—was made possible with the support of several members of the Friends of Nukus Museum, a nongovernmental, voluntary organization registered in The Netherlands.


A book launch and signing by the author is planned for November 9, 2011 at the Pushkin House, 5A Blooksbury Square, London, WC1A 2TA. Further details will be announced nearer that date.


Meanwhile, the book is on sale at £10, €11, or US$15 at the Nukus Museum and at selected locations in Tashkent, London*, Moscow, and Washington, D.C. All sales proceeds go directly to the Museum to support the maintenance and preservation of the Savitsky Collection.


Further information about the Nukus Museum and the Friends of Nukus Museum may be obtained from its website:


International orders can be made at or via email

The Savitsky Museum – under attack

6 Apr

The Savitsky museum was one of the most enjoyable features of my month’s stay in Nukus, Uzbekistan.  The story of how a collection of some 90 000 pieces of avant-guard Russian 20th century art ended up in some dusty dead end of central Asia  is one of the most romantic, heart-warming, and – I now fear – tragic stories from my travels.  This tale of isolation, protection from Bolshevik threat and belonging now has another enemy – the current Uzbek regime under Karimov.

Savitsky was an educated Ukrainian artist and aesthete, brought up by well-off parents who lost everything under the Bolshevik revolution.  Though educated in the Moscow Conservatory, he was appalled by the Bolshevik’s destruction of all art that was not social realism.  His sense of alienation from the time,society and place he had been born into meant that he fell in love with Karakalpakstan while on a five year journey as artist of an ethnographic tour of Central Asia, and stayed in this severed enclave of the USSR.   Throughout the following forty years, Savitsky’s bond with his adopted country became only tighter as he explored the history, culture, art and traditions of the area.   He established a museum for the region – and it was to this museum that he brought the many works of art that he smuggled from the rest of the USSR.  At his death in the eighties, Savitsky handed over the control of the Museum to Marinika Babanazarova, a remarkable woman who has acted as custodian for the museum, her culture, and Savitsky’s vision ever since.

Karakalpakstan is a place of great beauty and interest: the semi-nomadic people have oral legends stretching back centuries, of their warrior queens (upon whom the Amazons are based and who sent Darius’ head back to Syria in an amphora of his own blood) and describing their role as custodians of the fertile lands of the Aral seas and 3000 year old ruins of Khworezm.  However, 60 years of soviet misrule followed by 20 years of Karimov’s similar exploitation has devastated the land and its people.  Nukus, main city, is a dusty soviet backwater of concrete and unemployment.   The new Savitsky museum built in the early 2000s is the place to have your wedding photos taken in Nukus, and looked remarkably out of place in the surrounding flat streets with tumbleweed blowing down them.  Tourists would arrive by taxi from Khiva, visit the museum for two hours and then leave.   It’s a sign – in the midst of the cultural, ecological and economic ghettoisation – that Karakalpaks have the potential to shape their life for the better.

This is not a positive prospect for some.  Already when I was there in September, there were rumours of troubles – Uzbek officials trying to move the collection to Tashkent, jealousy about the international attraction of the museum and its Director, concerns that the popularity and presence of a Karakalpak museum threatened Uzbek cultural unity and identity.  I didn’t expect trouble to hit so quickly: whether because a new film (the Desert of Forbidden Art) was being released, or because they want the collection to be sold for government coffers, or because the officials had finally had enough – for whatever reason, one of the museum’s buildings has been closed, the museum is being subjected to multiple inspections, and the museum’s future doesn’t look great.  For more news on what it happening, see here and here.

Monty Python does Kafka – Part one: from minor infraction to major disaster

29 Sep

I entered Uzbekistan from Kazakhstan on the 9th August, traveling by train from Turkistan to Tashkent. At no point at the border crossing (or during my earlier online research, travelling websites or in my guidebook) was there any information about any medication being illegal in Uzbekistan.

10 days later at the Uzbek/Turkmenistan border, in response to a request I showed my medicine kit, which included some tablets of Diazepam. The officers stated that this medicine was a class B psychotropic drug in Uzbekistan and they could not let me through until they had informed their superiors. At this point I was told that I would need to sign a form to permit the medicines to be destroyed, before being able to leave in a couple of hours. I was shown the hand-written letters of other people who had been in the same situation. I started reading the only English book that I had managed to swap in the previous hostel – Conan Doyle’s the White Company, which I had the opportunity to know by heart by the time I passed it on. And waited.

At 6pm the border closed, and I was told I had to fill in some forms declaring the incident in the regional town, Nukus. I was there from 6.30 to 10.30pm filling out forms surrounded by eight uniformed men and with a drunk translator provided by customs. He couldn’t get over the fact that I wasn’t married, thought a big smile would make up for the fumes and missing out every other word, and kept humming ‘don’t worry, be happy’. First test of fortitude. I was told that I would be able to leave the next day, but that by law the tablets needed to be tested by an official laboratory.

That was Thursday.  After a few pleasant days spent in seclusion at the President’s palace (where the occasional Uzbek government official looked quizzically in my direction wondering what I was doing there), I was informed that a case had been submitted from customs to the police. In the meantime, I had had to stay in the very nice residence (my only experience with air conditioning the whole trip) and was fed and watered by the two nice customs officers who were in charge of my case – Mahmoud and Sergei – who were genuinely super nice.

We hung around a couple of times at the police and the prosecutor’s office and then the Chief says to me that things are more complicated than they though – I was two tablets over a limit that means they couldn’t waive it. I was told I would have to see a judge on Monday to decide whether I should pay a fine, before I could cross the border on the Tuesday.

This happened over the weekend, so on Monday I found a great female lawyer, Raushan Isembayova, with the help of Askar, a fabulous gentleman who was my saviour and fix-it man here in Nukus. A Tashkent-based lawyer on the FCO list put me in touch with him.

Raushan explained that in fact, a criminal investigation had been opened under article 264 part (1) of the Uzbek criminal code, the accusation being trafficking of drugs purchased in Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan and with a penalty of 5-20 years.  Oh dear…

Nukus President’s residence, my home for three days

Seduction through the ages of man, Central Asian Style

29 Sep

Teens: In a shared taxi to Chimbulak, Kazakhstan  Having just waited for two hours without success at the number 6 bus-stop, I shared a taxi up the mountain with a couple of 19-year-old Kazakh boys.  We had tried chatting when waiting at the bus stop, but found that I was probably better at Russian than they were in English, which is saying something.  So the drive up the mountain was pleasantly quiet, with only the pattering of rain on the windscreen and the calls of some nocturnal alpine bird to break the silence.

Our total inability to communicate, the lack of vocabulary and language, and a 15 year age difference were but minor obstacles to two hormonal boys in their teens.  Once we got out of the taxi at Chimbulak, with remarkable dramatic – and explicit – flair, the two boys managed to communicate ‘how about a three-some then?’ and ‘oh, go on’.  Their various attempts at miming this (amplified by my studied look of total incomprehension) took on farcical qualities as they enacted everything from a wedding (husband and wife) to jumping on a bed, to snogging their own arms.  They took the ‘niet’ in good nature and rolled on down the road, showing that boys are boys everywhere, huh?

Twenties: In a shared train compartment, from Tashkent to Bukhara, Uzbekistan   A somewhat more sophisticated offer was made – though only marginally so, given it involved the offer of a massage and vodka in the train cabin. I politely decline and we spend the rest of the journey talking about religion. Great, the complexities of youth.

Thirties: In a pharmacy in Samarkand, Uzbekistan  Reflecting a more prosaic and cool-blooded approach to romance that comes with age, a pharmacist asks me in front of his wife to marry me so he can go to the UK to earn lots of money. This is someone who I have just consulted – requiring a lot of hand gestures, scene re-enactment, and crowd participation – on a personal intestinal issue. No matter – economic concerns preside over his dignity and the state of my guts. Wife number 1 and prospective wife number 2 exchange glances – sometimes no words are needed between women, regardless of culture. I get the feeling I’m welcome to him, but escape clutching my pills.

Forties: In a restaurant, eating with a female friend, Nukus, Uzbekistan  The combination of honesty-inducing vodka with attitudes to women that consider you on the shelf past the age of 22, can provide for entertaining if what potentially ego-bruising experiences. Mirgut and I are having a business chat over dinner. A pissed biznessman sways up to us, estimates my age at a decade older than I really am, sits himself down, letches over the table at me while groping my friend, and tells me he will come and visit me in London in 2012 to save me from spinsterhood. With one meaningful last watery look he leaves, knowing he has made two old maids very happy.

Fifties: In a taxi on the dusty road between Turkistan and the ruined city of Sauran, Kazakhstan  Perhaps older men regain the romance factor – I was certainly the recipient of a rather fabulous Julio Iglesias-style seduction on the way to Sauran. The Uzbek taxi driver, not speaking a word of English, puts on the most wonderfully overblown romantic music on the radio of his fifty-year-old-strong-as-an-ox-Lada. As we’re driving down the road, he looks deeply into my eyes, singing along to the music, placing his hand on his heart as he shakes his head with emotion – stretching out his hand to me at the more heart-felt bits of the lyrics. But don’t knock the power of Karaoke romance – it got me through 30 kms of appalling road in a car the size of a phone directory, where any sane man would have refused to take anything other than a 4×4.

Sixties: In Mubinjon’s Hostel, Bukhara, Uzbekistan  This was my favourite place in Uzbekistan – run by Mr Mubinjon, a total charmer, former famous USSR champion runner in the 60s-70s, only son of a famous Bukharan mother and who preserved the house in her honour. His 17th century house had space for about 10 backpackers, no shower, a crazy white cat that ate bread, and a peach tree in the courtyard. It was $7/night, and Mr Mubinjon was the most lovely guy you could hope for – with his courteous kisses on the back of hands, calling all women ‘magnificent’, and just generally managing to communicate despite not having any language in common, he was the most gentlemanly and fun host you could hope for.


Ashgabat: in the City of Love


9 Jul


…I spend a pedestrian life trying to find excuses to return back to the region.  I have set up FromOverHere, a consultancy providing international affairs and strategy advice.  Its mission is to support organisations navigate a complex world.  I’m especially interested in how governments might address 21C challenges.  Given my motivating principles are a focus on social justice and the need to bring different sectors together to jointly address the challenges of the 21st century world, it seems like the right place to be at the moment.


It’s increasingly hard – which is a nice thing – to separate work and fun time.  I’m reading, writing, rediscovering cooking, travelling, and catching up with people (whether my Portuguese family, friends from UK or studying abroad, living in Brick Lane, my adopted Senegalese family, or the many fascinating people whose ideas I get to listen to).  What has been most precious about life since my silk route journey is the freedom to follow my somewhat wibbly, often sartoriously challenging, always entertaining star.

Origins of the blog

This blog was started for my trip through Central Asia in 2010. Eight years previously, Christian Aid had sent me to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Before my visit, Central Asia was a place I hadn’t really thought about, that had no defining features in my consciousness. Yet once there, I was captivated by the two countries and wanted to learn more about them. My experience was shaped by the tension between the sense of an ancient heritage and modern soviet anonymity. Complex fluid identities were feeling their way through evolving nation-statehood – while remaining proud of their importance to the world’s history over the past 4000 years. I saw great beauty in the places and people I visited, facing hospitality and suspicion, and contrasts of arid and fertile landscapes. The fascination of my brief stay there meant I developed an addiction for reading about this region, from Alexander the Great to the Silk route travelers, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Tamerlaine, Genghis Khan, the Great Game, Andrew of Lonjumeau and Tavernier. On leaving my job in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, I decided to match words to places and seek out the 21st century reality of the silk route region. Russia | Kazakhstan | Uzbekistan | Kyrgyzstan | Turkmenistan

My Route

The original route

The original route

The best-laid plans…in fact, what happened was that I got detained for a month in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan on the border with the closed-off section of Turkmenistan. As I was under lax oversight by very nice people and got to know this fascinating part of the world – where one ‘walks on the bones of history’ as Savitsky puts it – this was a great adventure. But it did mean that my time soon disappeared and I had to fly from Turkmenistan to Turkey, missing the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Syria. Given developments over the past year in that part of the world, I am somewhat sad I missed these countries. However given the people I met and the experiences I had in Karakalpakstan, I would not change my itinerary as it occurred.

Flatmates prepare for intervention

Flatmates prepare for intervention

Oh for the best-laid plans… In fact, what happened was that I got detained for a month in Karakalpakstan in North Uzbekistan on the border with the ‘closed-border’ zone of Konye-Urgench in Turkmenistan. I was held captive as many before me in the palm of Old Urgench, Khwarezm, Khiva and Parthia. As I was under lax oversight by very nice people and got to know this fascinating part of the world – where one ‘walks on the bones of history’ as Savitsky puts it – this was a great adventure. But it did mean that my time soon disappeared and I had to fly from Turkmenistan to Turkey, missing the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Syria. Given developments over the past year in that part of the world, I am sad I missed these countries. Given the people I met and the experiences I had in Karakalpakstan, however, I would not change not one day of my expedition.


Savitsky | Nukus | Aral Sea | Karakalpakstan