Soviet Splendor in Tajik Ferghana

In which we are introduced to a very fat historical figure, admire countless gorgeous ceilings, and take in an enormous manmade lake.

Our driver for the weekend, a seasoned expert in driving around northern Tajikistan, fortunately keeps a copied set of pages on Khujand and its vicinity, and as I scanned the pages, I was immediately struck by the description of a Soviet-era structure, the Arbob Palace. Full of Soviet splendor, propaganda, and other assorted promising amusements, I knew we needed to go, and thus, at my insistence, it was added to our Sunday activities, which largely included getting out of Khujand. Arbob was our first stop, and though there was some reluctance to go from some among our group, I think we universally agree it had been well worth the stop.

The Palace in all its splendor. And in true (post-)Soviet form, wedding pictures!

The palace is located some 10 kilometers outside of the city, and you pass through village-like living areas when all of the sudden, out of the middle of nowhere, there is a long, glorious drive up to a pink palace. Kara pointed out that it felt almost a bit like approaching Stanford on Palm Drive—tree-lined, green, and with a large, imposing structure ahead. She had a fair point. Its contrast to the nothingness that stood around it was striking. We parked and made our first stop by the Lenin statue, my first in Tajikistan, since Khujand’s giant (22m) Lenin has been moved (not eliminated). I was already in Soviet-historian paradise.

With my beloved Lenin. It had been a long time since my last Lenin statue. Probably since Bishkek in January 2008.

We approached the palace on foot, walking along the fountains, not then in operation, sadly. The structure itself was modeled on the palace at Peterhof, allegedly (the guidebook pages said the Winter Palace in Petersburg, although this appears to be false). From the top of the stairs (where hung a huge portrait of Tajik President Rahmon), the palace offered a marvelous view onto Khujand below and the mountains above. Insert the requisite praise of Tajikistan’s natural beauty.

To go through the palace, we were fortunate to have a tour guide, who gave us a valuable history of the building (in Russian, which we translated for Anya), pointing out its various qualities that were all the more impressive for knowing the backstory. We were immediately taken into an impressive auditorium, where the guide explained that the work had been overseen by a team of four masters, who had a team of some 100 workers (children, grandchildren, apprentices) who worked with them. There is really no word to describe the place other than impressive. Built with “volunteer” labor and local materials, the palace is a demonstration of traditional Tajik handicraft in pretty much every way possible.

Clockwise from top left: the stage, including the amazing curtain; the curtain detail; the ceilings; view of the balcony floor.

This is the sort of high-quality side of Soviet architecture that really existed only in high Stalinism. If any parallel is to be found, it’s probably Ceausescu’s Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, but that being a structure from the 1980s and in a much more classic European style, so the parallel is weak.

The palace itself was built largely on the initiative of a single person, Urukhojaev, the very large mustachioed president of the local kolkhoz (collective farm). He was clearly a man of significant historical importance, as various pictures from the museum demonstrated:

Clockwise from top left: painting of him; with Khrushchev; with Kalinin; with a painting of Stalin; with Stalin.

He believed Tajikistan needed some sort of local splendor, and under his leadership, the building was constructed between 1951 and 1957. Our tour guide explained for Tajiks the building had become a “holy” site of sorts—it was here that a congress gathered to formally put together the constitution and establish a Tajik state in November 1992 (independence was declared in 1991, but it took a full year of confusion for things to be more properly organized), and it was at that congress that a relatively unknown Rahmon first came to power (he’s ruled the country ever since). It was also the site of the negotiations that ended the Tajik Civil War in 1997, so it’s a place of significant historical importance.

After the auditorium, our tour guide escorted us through the small museum, which was filled with treasures of Tajikistan’s history, particularly the Soviet past. Every corner, every hallway of the palace was impressive.

Very much on display, much to my delight, were all sorts of old Soviet propaganda pieces. With the exception of the final room, which details the post-independence period, the museum wing appears largely a hold-out from Soviet times (probably not actually unchanged, but it gives off that feeling).

Top: Soviet propaganda poster--those who can't read are like the blind; old painting of Tajiks learning to read; below: Cotton production.

As the tour guide took us through each room, he became almost hilarious in his standard opening. “I’d first like to call your attention to the ceilings…” “Don’t forget to look at the ceilings…” But though we laughed about it later, the ceilings were impressive:

Seriously impressive!

Hey look, there's me!

Also in the museum, to our great delight, was a reproduction of Urukhojaev’s office, including some of his very clothing. When I say this man was large, I am not exaggerating: he was allegedly some 178 kilograms, or 390 pounds. The tour guide pointed out his belt, which he only used when he rode horses (it was only after we exited the museum that we reflected on the strangeness of that idea, drawing a moment of silence in sympathy for any horse forced to carry him. Is this even possible? If only this had dawned on us earlier!).

The triangular scarf is his other belt. It is twice the size of a usual belt.

Here I am with his robes. Such a large man. I have a feeling these would not fit me…

The final room had pictures since independence, including a photograph of one of the most funny ideas of the day. Apparently after the Civil War was officially ended, people gathered in front of the palace for a “Peace Plov” to commemorate the end of hostilities. Amazing!

Pictures of the Peace Plov.

From there, our tour was at an end, so we headed back to the car for our next stops of the day. We took a long time at another bazaar, where Kevin went to town on a particular type of fabric from Central Asia (really, an Uzbek style of weaving silk), and we all came out a bit poorer in cash and richer in cloth and souvenirs. From there, we headed out to the Kairakkum reservoir, a large man-made lake for well-deserved hours of relaxation on the beach.

Baby on the beach.

Though the beach left something to be desired, in the hot Tajik summer, the water was a welcomed relief. Minus Anya, who didn’t have a swimsuit, we all enjoyed the water at least a bit. With plenty of times for shenanigans. Here, we have Kara attempting some bullfighting with a rather pale bull.

And of course, photography.

Grace, like me, has a nice camera.

The day was lovely, and even people-watching proved an excellent activity for the afternoon.

A kid plays on the beach.

All too soon, though, our day had come to an end, and we returned to Khujand for a dinner before taking off the following morning.

The girls at Kairakkum: Grace, Anya, Kara, and me.

The day’s excursions had been far more satisfying than any of us had even considered, and as we savored ice-cold Baltika 7s over dinner, we couldn’t help but feeling fully satisfied with a highly successful day.

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