The cultural heritage of Central Asia is in serious danger due to the relative poverty of the population, the high levels of corruption, and the radical rewriting of history that is currently underway.
Additionally, there are several different types of tangible cultural heritage that are particularly vulnerable to these factors, such as works of art in national museums, architectural monuments spanning multiple eras, as well as libraries and other archives. Realizing that this process may become irreversible, some four years ago, experts from different countries decided to unite their efforts toward the joint protection of the cultural heritage of Central Asia. This is how the international observatory Alerte Héritage—currently functioning at the expense of grants and the personal funds of its creators—was established.
“Cultural heritage is in a highly vulnerable position throughout the Central Asian region.”
Svetlana Gorshenina is a historian and art historian of Central Asia, mainly involved in the history of Turkestan of the nineteenth to the early twentieth century and the early years of Soviet rule in the region. A graduate of the Tashkent State University, she defended her first PhD thesis in 1996 at the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan, then a second doctorate in 2007 at the Universities of Lausanne and Paris I-Sorbonne, and finally, in 2016, a habilitation on the cultural heritage of Turkestan at the Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO, Paris).
She has curated several exhibitions of nineteenth and early twentieth century photographs and the history of Central Asian archeology, and co-founded the international Alert Heritage Observatory (which aims to save Central Asian Heritage).
The international observatory Alerte Héritage appeared almost four years ago. It was created between Paris, Montreal, and Lausanne thanks to the efforts of three researchers: Boris Chukhovich, an art critic and architectural historian of Central Asia, Valérie Pozner, a historian of Soviet cinema, and myself, a historian and art historian of Central Asia. Partially, the observatory was created in response to the August 2015 dismissal of Marinika M. Babanazarova—who had been the director of the famous Nukus Museum for 30 years—when everyone realised that the Igor V. Savitsky collections of paintings from the 1920s-1930s were under threat. Several other factors created additional concerns: there was not an open digital catalogue of the museum’s collections; the peculiarities of the collections themselves had likely not been described in detail; official accusations had surfaced regarding the loss of five paintings; and finally, the audit commission and its members displayed both a nontransparent and inefficient work style.
The “Nukus precedent” strengthened the legitimate fear that the cultural heritage was in a state of emergency throughout the Central Asian region. Its causes were connected to the key economic and social problems of the region: the relative poverty of the population, the corruption of the system (according to the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index which covers 180 countries of the world, Kazakhstan ranks 124th, Kyrgyzstan – 132nd, Tajikistan – 152nd, Uzbekistan – 158th, and Turkmenistan – 161st), the neoliberal transformation of Central Asian society, and the radical rewriting of history within the framework of creating new national identities. All of this has allowed the looting of pieces of art stored in state museums (even local media networks have covered specific cases of theft several times), the squandering of archives, selling-off of old photographs, “cleaning” of libraries of “outdated literature”, the destruction of architectural and archaeological monuments as part of urban improvement programs, economic development, unreasoned restoration, or adjustment to new historical concepts.
Being aware of the limitations to our influence on the situation—and acting as external experts with a “consultative vote”—we identified only one possible way to protect the cultural heritage of Central Asia: a critical analysis of the current situation, with consideration of international practices and our own experience, while raising awareness of the existing problems and the opportunities to overcome them. To make our voices heard, we try to use all available platforms: university, exhibition halls, academic demonstrations (conferences, seminars, round tables, etc.), “classical” media, and “new” media. In particular, we created our own website and a Facebook page, which are constantly updated to reflect our work in detail. In our original “Manifesto,” we tried to outline the main goals of our observatory, which include representing cultural heritage—in both its social and transnational character—and advocating for its decolonization based on principles of transparency.
In accordance with these goals, we developed three programs that bear the names of the largest representatives of Central Asian culture in the field of museum studies, architecture, and library and archival affairs: Igor V. Savitsky, Abdulla R. Akhmedov, and Yevgeny K. Betger. The names of the programs were chosen in alignment with the activities that we developed.
Mapping of Museums
The ‘Savitsky‘: Open Museums Without Corruption project has pioneered our activity and is dedicated to mapping the museums of Central Asia. Ideally, it aims to promote greater openness of Central Asian Museum collections to the world by creating open digital catalogues, which can help prevent the looting of collections by creating barriers to the trafficking of museum works to the international art market and improving the monitoring of world auctions.
To implement this idea of mapping the museums of the entire Central Asian region, we initially focused on the Nukus Museum in Uzbekistan by creating its open public catalogue. Completed in August 2018, this catalogue currently unites more than 900 pieces of art, mainly covering the period between the 1920s and 1930s—a period which contains many pieces in serious danger of looting. In October 2019, the State Museum of Art of Uzbekistan (Tashkent) was added to our map. This museum is associated with multiple art theft cases that have been widely covered by the media. The two catalogues from this project are currently the largest of the published catalogues of these two museums.
On the one hand, by creating open catalogues of some of Uzbekistan’s flagship museums, we hope to demonstrate that the creation of such catalogues is quite real, even with limited finances, time, and technical capabilities. On the other hand, we also hope to encourage the authorities to create these types of catalogues as well. At the same time, we were and continue to be ready for cooperation with the Uzbek museums, and our offer to share our catalogues, software, and practical knowledge remains valid.
In fact, today we can consider the main task of this project to be completed: the creation of open digital catalogues has been included in the roadmap of the government of Uzbekistan. At the same time, it is not clear yet when the state catalogues—announced in the fall of 2018—will be published. The Uzbek Ministry of Culture and the Art and Culture Development Foundation under the same Ministry duplicate their work in developing these catalogues all at the same time.
While awaiting the results of this work, art lovers and professionals alike can already explore our catalogues, which for the second year include the works of Uzbek museums in the world digital culture.
Protection of Architectural Monuments
Our second project, “Akhmedov”: In Defense of Architectural Heritage, was established in response to the critical situation that emerged in the region after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when for ideological and/or commercial reasons, the Central Asian republics began the major destruction and radical reconstruction of architectural monuments built in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the total “restoration” of medieval constructions in favor of neoliberal practices of tourism development, accompanied by new-builds which actually absorbed the monuments which required conservation.
To our own surprise, today, this project has become one of our most relevant programs; in Uzbekistan, the large-scale and methodical destruction of historical sites in urban centers that has developed over the past two centuries has touched almost the entire population of the country. This phenomenon puts the problems of insufficient private property rights and insufficient protections for monuments of cultural and historical significance in the same row, and is pushing residents to create the first clusters of civil society.
Today, the modernist architectural heritage of the 1920s-1930s and 1960s-1970s is the most vulnerable. As of today, most of the monuments of constructivism have been demolished, and the constructions of the “second wave” of Soviet modernism have been subject to massive reconstruction. This particular issue is related to the fact that, with the creation of the Black and Red Book of Architecture of Uzbekistan, Boris Chukhovich, the author of this project, focused primarily on the Soviet modernism of the 1960s-1980s, which existed in the most tragic conditions. One could say that the Black and Red Book emerged as a response to the Uzbek Ministry of Culture’s continuous, albeit ineffective, promises to publish a list of state-protected monuments (the list was published only in early October 2019). The book was intended as a publicly available list of the architectural monuments of Uzbekistan that had been either been destroyed by government order, were the victims of rash actions of owners, or were threatened due to the fact that the state, owners, and sometimes society did not recognize them as monuments.
At the same time, a methodology was proposed that would arrange the value assessment of monuments in four categories: aesthetic, urban planning, historical/cultural, and institutional. Additionally, it would allow for the classification of monuments as having urban, national or international significance.
Currently, Tashkent is represented on the map, but next year we hope to include Samarkand and Bukhara in the cartography of the Black and Red Book as well. We would like to think that free access to this type of expert assessment can prevent the destruction of monuments—as was fortunately the case with Tashkent house # 45 located on Amir Timur street. The observatory prepared an expert review of the building, and thanks to the joint efforts of both residents and many experts, the building was not only defended during the trial, but was also included in the list of protected buildings.
Expert analysis of reconstruction projects in historical cities is an important part of this program. Similarly important is the project’s critical review of problematic methods that are used in the “total” restoration of monuments. This type of review has already provoked the appearance of a convention adopted by UNESCO which warns about the potential exclusion of “overrenovated” Uzbek cities out of the List of World Heritage Sites (see the analysis of restoration works in Karakalpakstan).
Criminal Practice of Transferring the Public Domain into Private Hands
Alerte Héritage conducts ongoing monitoring of Central Asian museums and international auctions, and has written about many cases of the potential “washout” of pieces of art from regional museums. We sometimes quelled concerns about allegedly stolen works—for instance, the case of the graphic art created by Usto Mumin, the painting Bather by Andrey F. Belloli, or the obvious fakes of Alexey Isupov. Conversely, we also brought people’s attention to an alarming situation of the substitution of authentic museum exhibitions with copies.
Unfortunately, this latest criminal practice affects many countries in the Central Asian region; the minimal estimates based on more or less trustworthy sources of published data indicate that among Uzbek museums, the Tashkent Museum of Art, the Viktor Ufimtsev Gallery in Angren, the Ferghana Regional Museum of History and Culture, and the G. Aitiev Kyrgyz National Museum of Fine Arts in Bishkek are all currently “blacklisted.” The explosion of this criminal interest in art museum pieces is based on the world art market’s recent interest in works of so-called Central Asian Orientalism and the persistent love for the Russian-Soviet avant-garde. Additionally, it is based on a lack of transparency in the management of museums in the region, the corruption of the political system, the meager funding of museums, and the relative poverty of the population.
The problem in the Ferghana Museum is related to two works of Aleksandr Volkov, The Corn is Rustling (1939) and Kurultai (1933-1936). The first painting was sold by the artist’s family to the Museum for 1,500 rubles in 1986. However, in May 2012, these two Volkov paintings appeared at the MacDougall’s Russian Fine Art Auction in London. Their authenticity was confirmed by the family of the artist and Yulia Rybakova, an art critic. Ildar Galeev, a Moscow Curator, also confirmed the authenticity of the painting The Corn is Rustling, and he believed that the provenance of the painting was the Ferghana Museum. To avoid a scandal, the paintings were removed from the auction. Any reference to them also disappeared from the web page of the famous auction. An investigation conducted by Boris Chukhovich revealed that the historical photos of the original painting, The Corn is Rustling are identical to the image of the painting exhibited at the London Auction, but differ from the image of a fake captured in 2012 in the Ferghana Museum. According to the oral testimony of a source we tend to trust, Kurultai was also sold by the Volkov family to the Ferghana Museum, but then it was removed from Museum’s use and inventory. We do not know the current location of these paintings.
The prices of Volkov’s paintings soared from a mere 1,500 rubles in 1986 to 2,057,250 euros in 2013. This affords ground for concern about the fate of these paintings. However, in Uzbekistan, there has been no reaction to the wakeup call that was expressed in the publications of Boris Chukhovich: neither official denials, nor the creation of public commissions to conduct a comprehensive examination of the painting The Corn is Rustling, which is currently on display in the Ferghana Museum—nor has there been an initiation of searches for documentation about the purchase of Kurultai.
This tendency to silence the Museum’s scandal contrasts sharply with the reaction of the official authorities in a similar incident which happened recently in Bishkek, when Ananbek Shygaev, the Museum’s Director, was immediately dismissed from his job in May 2019. Two commissions specially created by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan examined 250 paintings from more than 18,000 items and published their first conclusions in the media. Their investigation is ongoing, and we hope it will be completed.
In Uzbekistan, our request addressed to the general prosecutor’s office in February 2018 remains unanswered. In the request, we asked the prosecutor to clarify the situation in which, under Karimov, both the State Museum of Art in Tashkent and the Nukus Museum were associated with the largest number of scandals surrounding the loss of paintings. Only at the end of February 2020 did we receive a response from the Ministry of Culture to our second open letter confirming the need for investigation.
I would like to believe that the official position of Tashkent will be really changed—and that the new slogan of a “new Uzbekistan” will not remain just a beautiful propaganda formula. For our part, we are ready for cooperation, in particular, to join efforts and return Alexandre Vokov’s paintings to Uzbekistan.