Officials in Uzbekistan have relentlessly tried to erase vestiges of the Soviet era in the Central Asian nation, pulling down statues and renaming districts as if decades of Communist rule never happened. Yangiobod, a former uranium mining town in the Tashkent Region, appears to be an exception to the Uzbek revisionist rule, however.
Yangiobod’s small, grid-pattern of streets, lined with two- and three-storey apartment buildings, creates the impression of a place frozen in the Soviet era. Even the Russian sign – “Be Glorious, Tribe of Miners” – hanging over a derelict bridge is still there to greet cars driving into town.
Built in the 1950s as a showpiece settlement for Soviet uranium miners, Yangiobod rivaled Moscow in supplies of food, clothing and essentials, a 71-year-old retired miner told EurasiaNet.org. “People couldn’t come to our settlement because it was a closed settlement,” he said, recalling that many similar towns and cities during the Soviet era were closed to outsiders for military or economic security reasons. They were not shown on maps, either. “We needed to carry our passports to leave and enter the settlement.”
“Everything was in order and our streets were covered in flowers. Look at the state of them now,” sighed the retiree, who came to Yangiobod in the 1950s.
The town’s current population is estimated at around 500 to 600 people, a tenth of what it was in its glory days. “There were lots of people then and three families used to share a three-room flat,” the miner said.
In the late 1980s, during Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, Yangiobod started opening up. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, only a few Uzbeks, Tajiks or Kazakhs lived in the otherwise mainly Slavic settlement. Even now, unlike in small towns in other parts of Uzbekistan, Slavs – though mostly pensioners – make up a significant share of the town’s population.
“It is so unusual to see so many ethnic Russians around. Even the names of their cafes are remarkable,” a young woman from a Tashkent suburb who was vacationing in Yangiobod said. Both of the town’s functioning eateries have Russian names – Uyut and Utro, Comfort and Morning.
Despite its rundown appearance, some wealthy Tashkent residents now view the former uranium settlement, a two-hour drive from the Uzbek capital, as a weekend vacation destination. Sitting at an altitude of 1,500 meters, the town is relatively cool in summer and the surrounding mountain slopes offer excellent skiing in winter. Two-bedroom flats that hardly sold for $500 a decade ago, now fetch up to $10,000 and over, locals like to boast.
Japanese firms are rumored to be interested in reviving uranium extraction in the area. But many Uzbeks realize that the country’s investment climate is less than optimal, and understand that outside investment hopes are likely a mirage.