Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbekistan: Russian Cemetery Destroyed

The nationalist government is determined to wipe out all traces of the Soviet past - even to the extent of bulldozing graveyards.
By Nigora Sadykova

Olga Valentinova travelled from Belarus to the Uzbek city of Fergana, her childhood home, to place flowers on her father's grave. When she reached the graveyard she was horrified to find that the city's only Christian cemetery had been demolished and a Square of Remembrance and Mourning built in its place.

In the centre of the new square, a monument to a mourning mother had been erected to honour the dead of the Second World War. However, gravestones and slabs lay scattered all around, their inscriptions such as "Apologia Konstantinovna Rybinskaya (1890-1963)" and "Vladimir Vasilievich Ilyin (1941-1971)" still visible.

The desecration of the Christian cemetery in Fergana and the construction of the square of remembrance, which started early this year, was initiated by the local authorities. The biggest enterprises in the province were enlisted for the project, including a local bank Promstroibank and construction company Vodstroi, along with private firms.

The authorities have not disclosed the sum that went into constructing the square, though it is thought to have been very substantial. There are unconfirmed reports that many firms and enterprises received orders "from the top" to channel funds into the project.

At the opening of the square, the khokim (administrational head) of the province, Alisher Atabaev, said proudly, "This square was built in memory of our ancestors and will serve as a memorial of the glorious deeds of our fathers and grandfathers."

Excusing the demolition of the old cemetery, the deputy head architect of the city, Ravshan Akhunov, said the five-hectare Christian cemetery had "spoiled the beauty of Fergana".

Ethnic Russians in Fergana do not agree. Pyotr Vasilev, whose parents were buried at the cemetery, told IWPR that the destruction of the graves insulted both the living and the dead.

"If the walls of the square built in place of the cemetery also carried the names of the people who were buried here, it would not be so insulting," he said. "This is disrespect for the dead, for their living friends and relatives; in fact it would be more correct to call it blasphemy".

A local teacher said that while the square might well become popular among young Uzbeks "who do not know the history of the place, it will not be dear to Russians". The teacher added, "We cannot walk on the graves of our relatives."

However, bulldozers and tractors continue to demolish the last resting places of countless Russians. Human remains are dragged out of the ground and thrown on heaps, while bones and skulls are scattered about under the boots of builders.

Russians first appeared in Fergana - originally called Novy Margilan, and then Skobelev - in the second half of the 19th century, after the Tsarist Russia conquered the Kokand khanate, where the city was located.

Initially, only Russian soldiers settled in Fergana, to be followed later by peasants, industrial workers and others. The stream of migrants from Russia to Fergana increased in the Soviet era, when the leadership of the USSR designated it an industrial city of national significance.

Over the course of more than a century Russians became the largest single ethnic group in the city. Throughout this time, however, they lived in friendship and mutual understanding with ethnic Uzbeks, the native population of the province and the city.

The number of ethnic Russians began to drop after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Uzbekistan gained its independence. Economic difficulties, the threat of growing nationalism and their isolation from relatives living outside Uzbekistan prompted many Russians to leave for their ancestral homeland or other former Soviet republics.

Those who stayed in Fergana experienced a distinct change in the atmosphere after Uzbekistan declared its independence. The republic's leadership began to denounce its past, so that the years spent inside the Soviet Union were mentioned only in a negative tone. The Uzbek authorities began to change Soviet street names and destroyed textbooks and other materials from the period.

The events in Fergana are unprecedented. In other Uzbek cities new squares have not been built on the site of graveyards because the law designates cemeteries as national conservation territories.

In spite of this, Fergana residents say the local authorities have continued to demolish the remaining fragment of the Christian graveyard in order to widen the new square. The deputy khokim of Fergana, Rano Baikuzieva, said the remaining part of the cemetery was needed to make way for a flower garden. "In this spot beautiful flowers will grow in memory of our late ancestors," she said.

Almost all Fergana residents, Russians and Uzbeks alike, appear to condemn the destruction of the graves. One 65-year-old, named Akhmad, said the action mocked the dead.

"All people, regardless of their nationality or religion, are equal before Allah, and no one has the right to destroy people's graves and insult the dead," he told IWPR.

"For the people of Fergana it is all the more blasphemous - under the asphalt of the new square lie the remains of Russians who made a large contribution to the development of the region and of all Uzbekistan."

Nigora Sadykova is the pseudonym of a journalist in Fergana.