In recent times, reconstructions of daily life in the late Soviet period have featured in numerous exhibitions, research projects and published works. The focus has tended to be on objects produced in the Soviet Union, emphasising either their avant-garde design or their absurdity and gaucheness. Debate has ebbed and flowed, with critical analyses of the ‘bourgeois tastes’ of the Soviet people in the Brezhnev era, the ‘struggle against materialism’ and the so-called ‘servants of stagnation’ (servantiki zastoia). The critiques reflect the wide range of emotions provoked by this tangible legacy of late-Soviet socialism – from fascination and nostalgia to distaste and hostility.
These exhibitions and studies have highlighted a wide panoply of objects associated in the Soviet Union with luxury: Romanian furniture, Czech crystal, Bohemian glassware, German dinner services and Syrian rugs as wall hangings which people went on waiting lists to purchase, as well as cut-glass chandeliers supposedly ‘in the style of Louis XIV’, Soviet porcelain figurines and domestically produced ‘almost Christofle’ silver cutlery sets.
In most cases, understandably and of necessity, this cultural scrutiny contains an omission – the one-off, individual artefacts which were also associated in the Soviet Union with wealth. Similarly overlooked is the local, in this case Central Asian, context in which the luxury items were acquired.
I would like to focus my account here on the life of a Soviet family on the Soviet Central Asian periphery, where colonialism, the ‘civilising mission’ and the national question never lost their relevance. In Uzbekistan the homes of those who belonged to what was known as the ‘indigenous population’ differed quite distinctly from the interiors of those from ‘non-indigenous’ ethnic groups. The latter, either second generation Soviet Russians settled and well-established in Tashkent or people who had been deported, evacuated, expelled or displaced or had fled to Central Asia, tended to do their utmost to emphasise their ‘Europeanness’.
In the apartments of the Russian and Russian-speaking middle-class residents of Tashkent who identified themselves as part of the intelligentsia (engineers, doctors, school teachers and university professors), you would have been hard pressed to find Uzbek suzani (embroidered textile ) or kurpacha mattresses. In these homes the presence of the ‘exotic East’ was generally limited to Uzbek piala tea bowls, only found in the kitchen, Indian engraved metal vases and the inevitable rugs adorning both floors and walls. The space was chiefly occupied by glass-fronted Romanian cabinets and bookcases full of books. Apart from the luxury items listed above, whether the full array or just a selection, the principal decoration was in the form of small ornaments of Western origin, from German porcelain figurines to French bronzes.
There were not many routes for these works of art to find their way to Soviet Uzbekistan. Some pieces were inherited from the first generation of Russians who settled permanently in Central Asia and called themselves ‘Turkestantsy’ (Turkestanis), and their owners were generally reluctant to part with them. Others were brought back from work trips abroad by Soviet military personnel and civilian experts. For people in Tashkent who were not entitled to travel, the main means of acquiring such items was through ‘commission shops’. These were a low-key Soviet version of the second-hand shop and always smelt strongly of mothballs. They were the forerunners of Tashkent’s Tezykovka Bazaar and Yangiabad Market, which became famous in the latter years of the Soviet regime and during the post-Soviet period.
My father taught art, craft and design and regularly dropped into the commission shops in Tashkent. With impressive perseverance he accumulated his own museum of Western European decorative art and small-scale statuary and displayed it in our tiny two-roomed apartment. That’s how we came to have these copies of two bronze sculptures which were once displayed and admired in Parisian salons. One of the pieces, ‘My First Hare’ (‘Mon premier lièvre’), was the work of Maurice Constant Favre (1872?-1919?) and the other one, ‘Lizard Charmer’ (‘Charmeur de Lézards’), dated 1872, was made by Adolphe-Jean Lavergne (1852–1901).
Both sculptures were displayed on a huge desk of inlaid wood, where they stood on either side of a bronze lion, surrounded by letter-writing paraphernalia, including inkwells and a paperweight. They created a still-life reminiscent of photographs of the salons of 19th-century French writers. And works by these writers were to be found in the immediate vicinity, behind the glass of the enormous Romanian bookcase. The figurines were just two of many similar objects in our improvised home museum. My father had ended up in Tashkent when he was wounded during the Second World War and these works of art, by their very existence, were an expression of the European and Eurocentric world my father created for himself throughout his life in Soviet Uzbekistan.
Svetlana Gorshenina, CNRS/Sorbonne Université