Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Jacobi’s Stay in Tashkent: December 21-28, 1932

In December 1932, Lotte Jacobi arrived in Tashkent, which her friend Egon Erwin Kisch, the Czech communist journalist, referred to as “a city proud and handsome” (Kisch 16). Located in an oasis on the Chirchik river (Chirchiq in Uzbek) at the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains, the ancient city was a welcome stop for caravans of traders traveling the ancient Silk Road from Osh (today, in Kyrgyzstan) to Samarkand and Bukhara to the southwest. Tashkent continues to be at the center of an important crossroads in Central Asia to this day. When Jacobi visited, Tashkent was the capital of the Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic, having replaced Samarkand as the capital in 1930.

Due to its advantageous location, Chach (as it was formerly known) came under the rule of numerous peoples and empires. In the late 6th century, the Turkic Khaganate ruled where the Sogdian and Turkic nomadic traders roamed; then, the Muslim conquests in the seventh century brought Arabs and Islam to the area. Chach expanded under the Samanids, who built fortification walls and mosques in the 9th century. Under the Turkic-speaking Karakhanids in the late 10th century, the name was changed to Tashkent, the “city of stone” (from the Turkic words “tash”/stone and “kent”/city). After the Mongol invasion led by Genghis Kahn in 1219 left the city in ruins, Tashkent was rebuilt and flourished under Timur and the Timurids until 1507, and then the Shaybanids until the early seventeenth century. The Tashkent State (1784-1807) and the Kokand Khanate (1809-1865) followed. This dizzying succession of rulers demonstrates Tashkent's economic importance up until it became part of the Russian Empire.

As the Russians expanded their empire into Central Asia in the mid-nineteenth century, they had their sights on Tashkent, then a fortified city with 100,000 inhabitants (MacLeod and Mahew 94). In 1865, reportedly against Tsar Alexander’s orders and with only 1900 men, the Russian Major General Mikhail Chernyaev (1828-1898) captured Tashkent, which then became the capital of Russian Turkestan in 1867. Tashkent grew into a divided city: the old city, which Kisch described as a “pitifully neglected” “ghetto of the Uzbeks” (Kisch 17), with its mosques and mudbrick homes, versus the new Russian city, which was modeled after the radial plan of St. Petersburg (MacLeod and Mayhew 96). In 1898, the Trans-Caspian Railway, following the ancient Silk Road, came through Tashkent, reducing the 3-week trip by caravan from Tashkent to Samarkand to 12 hours by train (Mallart 201). Between 1900 and 1906, the Trans-Aral Railway, also known as the Tashkent Railway, was built across the steppe and connected Russia (from Kinel and Orenburg) to Tashkent and on to other parts of Central Asia. These railways strengthened the city’s importance as a modern center of trade. However, the bloody Bolshevik revolution damaged Tashkent’s prosperity, as well as its historic center: thousands were killed and most of the Islamic fortifications, mosques, and madrassas were destroyed.

As with most places Jacobi visited in Central Asia, cotton production was the overwhelming economic focus of the region. On a trip to Tashkent in 1932, the same year Jacobi was there, the Swiss travel writer and photographer Ella Mallart described evidence of the Soviet pressure on local farmers to cultivate cotton that she saw in the offices of the communist party newspaper Pravda Vostoka (Truth of the Orient): “Graphs all over the walls depict the percentages delivered by each region every six days…. The figures laid down by Stalin's First Five-Year Plan must be fulfilled before the end of December, cost what it may. The fate of Turkestan depends upon it, for the peasants will be supplied with grain only in proportion to the cotton output” (Mallart 179-180). Jacobi, too, witnessed this firsthand, while she also explored the silkworm nurseries in Tashkent.

As the capital of the Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic and the largest city in Central Asia, Tashkent was an ideal place for Jacobi to photograph what she referred to as “Tashkent contrasts and types [of people]” (“Taschkent Kontraste und Typen”; Daybook, December 22, 1932). She photographed both local and Russian leaders, a high school, a “communist university,” and people in the Chorushu; meaning “four ways,” this was the huge marketplace at the center of the city. Jacobi’s historic photographs of Tashkent are especially important, for much has changed since Jacobi left Tashkent on December 28, 1932. Little of the city Jacobi visited remains: a massive earthquake in 1966 flattened the city once again. Rebuilt by the Soviets, Tashkent thrives today as the fourth largest city in the former USSR (after Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiiv) with a population of 2.5 million.

Contributor: Eleanor Hight

Works Cited:

Jacobi, Lotte. Daybook. Lotte Jacobi Archive, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, Box 33, Folder 1. 

Kisch, Egon Erwin. Changing Asia. New York: Knopf, 1935.

MacLeod, Calum, and Bradley Mahew. Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand. Odyssey, 2017.

Mallart, Ella. Turkestan Solo: A Journey through Central Asia. The Long Riders’ Guild Press, 2001.