Russian Transcript Title

Angren was once the pride of Soviet Uzbekistan, but residents now scrape a miserable existence.

Russian Transcript Title

Angren was once the pride of Soviet Uzbekistan, but residents now scrape a miserable existence.

In a scene straight out of a 19th-century painting, a caravan of sack-laden donkeys driven by young teenage lads slowly wends its way across a broad road against a mountainous backdrop.

Recently widened and asphalted, the main road from Tashkent to the Fergana valley is the pride and joy of the Uzbek government, as it leads to a new tunnel right through the mountains which makes the trip a lot less arduous. But here in the Ahangeran valley, before you start the climb to the crossing point, life seems to be going back rather than forwards.

In Chinar, like a good number of the villages scattered along the highway, many people earn a living by laboriously digging out coal by hand and selling it in bagfuls by the roadside.

It wasn’t always like this. The city of Angren and the surrounding region used to be the powerhouse of Soviet Uzbekistan, with a rich coal seam providing enough fuel for a string of big industrial plants.

Even in antiquity people were aware of the mineral riches hidden in these Central Asian mountains. The name Ahangeran itself refers to the deposits of iron ore.

But it wasn’t until the Forties that Soviet geologists observed the local custom of gathering coal by hand and guessed that there might be substantial reserves.

By the late Eighties, the mine was producing 98 per cent of Uzbekistan’s coal – albeit of the coarse, polluting brown variety. Even today, two coal-fired power stations here generate 27 per cent of Uzbekistan’s electricity. In the Soviet period, they powered other plants in the area producing a range of items ranging from rubber to gold and the rare metal Germanium.

Angren itself grew from a small town to a city of 135,000, drawing a workforce from all across the USSR so that it came to embody the socialist ideal of all different ethnic groups living and working together.

The dream fell apart after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, links between the different republics were disrupted and industrial production went into decline. Angren’s factories and mines were plundered of their machinery which was sold off for a pittance.

As the jobs disappeared, life began to get more difficult every day.

Today, the brightly-painted, multi-storey apartment blocks by the highway are largely empty and derelict, their windows smashed.

“In the past, you’d have to wait in line for years to get an apartment in Angren,” said the head of one “mahalla” or local community committee responsible for one of these blocks. “Nowadays people are sometimes unable to sell their apartments for several years, and the prices keep on falling. A two-room apartment in the city centre will cost 1,000 [US] dollars at most, and on average a two-room apartment costs 300 or 400 dollars.

“People are trying to get out, just as they once tried to move here… In a city where most of the population was employed at industrial enterprises, not a single plant works at full capacity today. As a result unemployment is high and a the standard of living low.”

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