History of Tashkent

Nukus Street in the center of Tashkent (August, 2019)

This brief, historical overview of Tashkent and Uzbekistan is a work in progress. I will be updating the page from time-to-time.

Tashkent is surprisingly a beautiful city with wide boulevards, many green public parks and a tree-lined canal flowing through it. Thanks to the USSR, who thought of Tashkent at the “Star of the East”, the city was a model of socialist power and technology to Central Asia. The city was modeled after Moscow, and after St. Petersburg and Kiev, was the fourth most developed city in the Soviet Union. Communist party leaders viewed Tashkent as an important international center and a “model” Asian city. It was an example of how socialism could bring the “primitive” Uzbeks into the modern, industrial age.

Soviet architects put in Uzbek design touches in their Khrushchyovka apartment blocks. 

The Silk Road: Tashkent was never a major Silk Road entrepôt like the Uzbek oasis city-states of Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva. It was a minor settlement until the Russians made it into a garrison in their conquest of the region in the 1700s. The Silk Road was not actually a single road, but a network of trading routes on the huge Eurasian landmass. It is mainly known for trade between the Roman Empire and China. However, trade took place all along the route, with Persia, India, Russia, Turkey, Arabia and others exchanging goods and ideas. The Central Asian nomads and settlements were “proto-globalizers” (quote needed). It began more than 3000 years ago with the Iranians/Persian language groups facilitating trade. Persian was the lingua franca of the silk road for centuries with the Soghdians, originally from Samarkand, serving as a merchant guild from the Black Sea to Korea. In fact, the first time the Romans encountered silk was seeing the Parthian (Persian) flags of the army when they were defeated in Turkey in 53BC at the Battle of Carrhae.

Through the centuries different tribes/groups controlled the Silk Road trade routes. During times of large-scale central state rule, trade flourished with secure roads, water depots, reliable coinage, inns and standard weights and measures. When there was no large empire, bandits and poor infrastructure limited trade in the network.

The Uzbeks today are a genetic mix of these different controlling groups. First, the Mongols under Ghengis Khan reigned (1162-1227) and his descendants took over from the Persians for centuries. Later Turkic tribes rose to dominance. You can see the influences of the Persians, Mongols and Turks in Central Asia and Uzbekistan today.

The free trade of the Silk Road came to an end in the 1500s, although the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) can be considered a late successor to the Mongolian Empire. Tsarist Russia and later the Soviet Union ruled much of western Eurasia and the Chiang Dynasty in China eastern Eurasia. These two empires enclosed the vast steppes.

Why did the Russians come to Tashkent in the first place? Partly, the American Civil War stopped cotton imports to Russia and merchants were looking to Bukhara for raw material in 1860 – 1862. The Tsar also lost the Crimean War (1853-1856) in the Balkans and Turkey and was looking to solidify the Russian Empire control of Central Asia. In the summer of 1864, the Russians first defeated the Khanate of Kokand in southern Kazakhstan. One of the top generals of Tsar Alexander II, Mikhail Chernyayev led military strategy in Central Asia and thought it important to take over Tashkent because the Emir of Bukhara may want to control the city and cause problems for Russian administration of the region. Chernyayev dispatched general Alexander Abramov to Tashkent. The Russian army surrounded Tashkent late at night on June 14 and three days later, on June 17, 1865, the city surrendered. Abramov made it easier for the Russian government by promising to respect the Islamic faith and local customs and that no Uzbeks would be drafted into the army. He also gave the populace a 1-year exemption in taxes. Chernyayev eventually was recalled back to Russia after a failed attack on Jizzakh in January of 1866.

In order to control the city and the area which was then known as Turkestan, the Russians pumped a lot of money and business into Tashkent. They felt that strong trade and business ties between Russia and Tashkent would undermine the power of the Emir of Bukhara, which was the leading city of of the time. In order to fortify its control of Tashkent, in August 1866 Alexander II officially annexed Tashkent to the Russian Empire.

At the fortress wall. “Let them enter!” (1871) by Vasili Vereshchagin. Painting commemorating the capture of Samarkand by Russian Imperial troops

The Russians eventually would take over all of Uzbekistan. The first Governor General was K.P. von Kaufman. He swept through Uzbekistan, conquering Jizzakh and Samarkand and taking control with the peace treaty of June 30, 1868. By 1873, General Abramov’s troops controlled all of Bukhara. In the final battle to take Khiva, General von Kaufman led 13,000 troops and marched into the city on May 29, 1873. There was little resistance because of a coup d’etat a few days before and on August 12, 1873, the khan signed a peace treaty. It took several more years to fully wipe out the Khokand Khanate and rebels continued a guerrilla war under the leadership of Polat Khan.

I recommend watching “Tashkent: The End of an Era” (1996). The documentary was made by Mark Weil, the founder of Tashkent’s Ilkhom Theatre. His Jewish-Ukrainian family immigrated to Tashkent during Soviet times. It first appeared on Dutch television. Weil was tragically murdered in 2007 near his apartment block in Tashkent. The assailants, who were convicted two years later, murdered the theatre director in retaliation of his portrayal of Muhammad in the play “Imitating the Koran”. The documentary is a comprehensive summary of Russia and Soviet Union’s time of controlling Tashkent starting with the Tsars and ending with independence in 1991. Some of the fascinating footage are of Tashkent becoming the “Hollywood” of WWII USSR, the death of Stalin in 1953, the destruction and re-building of the city after the earthquake in 1966, the Pakhtakor plane crash of 1979, the 2000th anniversary of the city in 1984 and finally, the erection of the statue of Amir Timur in the city center in 1993.

Koreans in Tashkent: When I was first planning to come to Uzbekistan from Osaka, Japan, I was surprised that there were direct flights from Seoul to Tashkent. I didn’t know there was such a large Korean population in the city. My next question was why were there so many Koreans living in the middle of the Central Asian desert?

The story of how so many Koreans today are in Tashkent starts in my former home of Japan. At the turn of the 20th century, many Koreans left the Korean peninsula, fleeing poverty and later, oppression from a brutal Japanese occupation. They moved north to the Soviet Far East and despite some initial local resistance, the Korean community built a life for themselves in Primorsky Krai. This region is along the far east Russian coast, just north of North Korea and includes the city of Vladivostok. However, because of the animosity between Russia and then the Soviet Union and Japan, Josef Stalin deported the Soviet Koreans to Uzbekistan. Stalin did not trust their loyalty if Japan and the Soviet Union got into a war. It is ironic that the Koreans were fleeing Japanese oppression and ended up being accused of possibly siding with them in a conflict.

Thousands of Koreans died in squalid railway boxcars along the way or upon arrival in the outskirts of the Uzbek capital. Dumped in the unfamiliar Central Asian desert without local language skills, the new Korean population of Uzbekistan was left to fend for itself.

Stronski, P. (2010). Tashkent: Forging a Soviet city, 1930-1966. Pittsburgh, PA, USA. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Victoria Kim, a granddaughter of an early Uzbek Korean, wrote an emotional and inspiring 3-part series in The Diplomat in 2016 that gives a personal narrative to this tragic episode in history.

A map showing the forced relocation of “unwanted” ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union throughout the late 1930s – early 1940s. Koreans were the first entire nationality to get deported in 1937 from the Soviet Far East to Central Asia. Courtesy of Victoria Kim.

The Great Earthquake of 1966: Coming from Japan to Tashkent, I am sensitive to earthquakes and was disappointed to learn that Tashkent is in an earthquake zone. A severe earthquake destroyed thousands of houses and buildings in Eastern Uzbekistan on November 3, 1946. The oblasts of Tashkent, Fergana, Andijan and Namangan were hard hit. There was minor damage in Tashkent City itself. The Soviet government mobilized construction companies and spent 27 million rubles to repair and build homes, schools, etc. They focused on making buildings strong enough to withstand earthquakes. A devastating earthquake struck Ashgabat, the capital of neighboring Turkmenistan on October 6, 1948. 110,000 of a population of 132,000 people died (figures were not released to the public until 1988 by the USSR). Uzbek architects visited the city to learn why so many buildings collapsed.

Soviet planners and architects set a goal of building lasting buildings to show Uzbeks the superior technology of the USSR and socialism. They were impressed with Tamerlane’s (Timur) city of Samarkand and the Registan that had lasted centuries.

At 5:23 AM on April 26, 1966 an earthquake registering 7.5 rocked Tashkent. The epicenter was a few blocks north of what is now, Amir Temur Square, in the heart of the city. 2.86 million square meters of housing space was lost within a 20 square mile radius of the epicenter and 300,000 Tashkenters were homeless. The number of injured and dead was not large, however, they suffered the psychological and physical stress from typhoid and dysentery that spread through the city that summer. Many of the large Soviet apartment projects, built with reinforced concrete and located farther from the epicenter were less damaged and officials declared them safe.

The earthquake memorial complex honors the workers who rebuilt Tashkent after the ’66 earthquake.

The earthquake gave architects an excuse to knock down the Old City, re-build Lenin Square and promote apartment construction over traditional single family housing. Many traditional Central Asian structures were razed in the name of safety. The wide avenues, huge parks with monuments and numerous apartment blocks are thanks to the earthquake and Soviet planners.

Millward, James A. The Silk Road: A very short introduction (2013) Oxford University Press, New York, NY, USA

Allworth, Edward Central Asia: 130 Years of Russian Dominance, A Historical Overview (Third Edition) (1994) Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, USA and London, UK.