Day 64: Independence Square

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1910 map of Tashkent showing the fortress, governor’s palace,  gardens, and area of what would eventually become Independence Square – photo credit wikipedia commons

Like Amir Timur Square nearby, Independence Square in central Tashkent has a long and interesting history.  Known today as “Mustaqillik Maydoni”, the square, which is actually more of a large city park, used to be nothing more than a dusty frontier just outside the gates of the old city.

Following the defeat of the Khanate of Kokand in 1865, and absorption of Tashkent into the Russian Empire, imperial planners set out to build an ideal European city.  Rather than immediately bulldoze the old city, planners laid out a completely new street grid on the banks of an ancient irrigation channel.  A great fortress was built between old and new cities, as well as the residence of the Governor-General of Turkestan, which included an extensive garden.  Across the square in front of the Governor’s palace, the Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration was built between 1871 and 1888.   It is within this extensive complex, effectively buffering the old Uzbek city and the new European city, that roughly marks the footprint of the modern Independence Square of today.

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Tashkent Fortress as it appeared in 1870 with gates to the old city in the background – photo credit wikipedia commons

The fortress was instrumental in the counterrevolutionary anti-soviet rebellion in 1919, which was successfully suppressed by the Bolshevik government.  Rebels captured most of the city, but failed to secure key railroad infrastructure, or the city fortress.  Ultimately the uprising simply lacked popular support.  The Revolutionary Military Council pursued the rebels with a militia made up of the city’s poorest residents, and the railroad workers who had kept the rail depot secure during the uprising.  The last battle occurred near Chimgan, but the rebels continued to evade Soviet authorities by seeking refuge in Bukhara where they were protected by the Emir.  The rebel leader were not captured until 1920 when the Emir was forced to flee to Afghanistan and was no longer able to protect those who orchestrated the Tashkent uprising.

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The Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration before destruction – photo credit wikipedia commons

Up until the days of the revolution, the area in front of the Governor’s palace and across from the Cathedral was known as Sorbornaya Square.  By the 1930s, however, the layout of the complex began to transform, beginning with the demolition of the cathedral.  Unfortunately for Soviet planners, the cathedral didn’t go down so easily, so they brought out the heavy artillery and literally blew it to smithereens.  The Governor’s palace was demolished as well, and was replaced by the headquarters of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.  The trend toward lining the park with government and administrative buildings had begun.

As was the style at the time, the large public square was, in 1934, turned into a monumental park dedicated to Vladimir Lenin.  The square was henceforth known as “Red Square” complete with a bronze statue of Lenin which was dedicated on the 15th of November, 1936.  From 1952 to 1954 the square underwent a renovation, and a new, larger statue of Lenin was installed, replacing the previous work which was transferred to the western city of Urgench.  From 1956 the square was known as “Lenin Square.”

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Lenin Square during the 50th Anniversary Celebrations of the Uzbek SSR in 1974 – photo credit imgur.com
Further renovation in 1965 transformed Lenin Square into a modern vision of Soviet Uzbekistan.  The Council of Ministers of the Uzbek SSR was designed in the iconic social-modernist style of concrete and glass.  Construction was interrupted by the Tashkent Earthquake of 1966, but the full renovation of the square was completed by 1974, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Uzbek SSR.

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Independence Monument of Uzbekistan – photo credit Arian Zwegers

The fortress by this time had already been transformed into a housing area for military and their families.  By 1970 the land which had been occupied by the fortress was taken over by the expanding grounds of the park.  Where the south wall once stood yet another government building was constructed, this one housing the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Uzbek SSR.  Following Uzbek independence in 1991, the party headquarters became the residence of the President of Uzbekistan, and later his office.

By 1992 Lenin Square was renamed “Mustaqillik Maydoni.”  Lenin was dismantled and replaced by the Independence Monument of Uzbekistan featuring a globe with an oversized map of the new country (1991), and a bronze statue of a woman, symbolizing the motherland (2006).  The tradition of constructing government buildings continued in the era of an independent Uzbekistan, with the new offices of the Senate forming an impressive backdrop to the complex.  Since the passing of President Islam Karimov in 2017, the former Presidential Residence where the Imperial Fortress once stood is now a museum.

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Uzbek Ministry of Finance in 1998 – photo credit creative commons

The ancient irrigation canal still flows along its original course behind the park.  Its outline is all that remains of the original dividing line between old and new Tashkent.  Long gone are the city gates and the fortress which was built to keep the natives in check.  Old Tashkent was mostly destroyed in the 1966 earthquake, and Soviet planners used the opportunity to extend “new” Tashkent west across the canal.  No trace remains of the Orthodox Cathedral either, and unlike other former Soviet republics where communist monuments were relocated to less prominent locations, Lenin was not just dismantled, he was totally erased.

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“Ezgulik Arkasi” Monument on Independence Square – also featured on the new 50,000 сўм banknote

The only memories which remain in Independence Square of Soviet times are the hundreds of thousands of names etched into bronze memory books at the Crying Mother Monument on the square’s northeast corner.  The enteral flame which burns here is a lasting memory to the Uzbek sons and fathers who sacrificed their lives fighting for the USSR during the Great Patriotic War.

Like other parks in Tashkent, Mustaqillik Maydoni maintains a strict “no fun allowed” policy.  Except for official events and holiday celebrations, this park is for contemplative walking, not loitering.  An army of groundskeepers keep the landscaping spotless, and tight security makes sure no one steps on the grass.  We once got away with riding our bikes through the park, but only once… On the return trip we were told to go around.  Today security is even tighter as the Senate Offices are now also the office of the President.  Still an interesting place to visit, but be careful what direction you point your camera!

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Walking in the park looking toward the Turkiston Theater, with the Tashkent TV tower beyond.

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