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opinion | Stephen Kinzer

Uzbekistan could be the next ground zero for cultural vandalism

Shock waves reverberated around the world last week after fanatics in Syria destroyed ancient ruins at Palmyra and murdered the city’s longtime director of antiquities. Just a few days later, 2,000 miles away in Uzbekistan, world culture came under a different kind of attack. The Uzbek government is taking aim at one of the country’s greatest national treasures, a spectacular art museum with a billion-dollar collection. A devil’s brew of greed and corruption threatens to turn Uzbekistan into the next ground zero of cultural vandalism.

Set deep in the Central Asian steppe, near the dried-up Aral Sea in the town of Nukus, sits the world’s unlikeliest art museum. Built over decades in semi-secrecy during the Stalin dictatorship, it is now a gem of world culture, with a 90,000-piece collection. Its survival in Uzbekistan has been a reassuring symbol of restraint and tolerance in an increasingly turbulent region.

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That tolerance may suddenly have collapsed. Last Friday, local authorities abruptly dismissed the museum’s director, who for 31 years has guarded its collection against extortionists, religious zealots, and foreign art dealers. They gave no explanation. Later an anonymous letter surfaced charging that she “may have” stolen from the collection.

Staff members at the museum protested the firing — a bold step in Uzbekistan, which is ruled by an authoritarian regime that does not welcome criticism. They said they were outraged that the authorities had “shamelessly defiled the good name of our leader, Marinika Babanazarova,” and declared they could “assert with full confidence that the entire collection is intact.” Two dozen American and European museum curators, art historians, and other specialists called the charges “utter nonsense.” They said they fear the collection will be moved to Tashkent, the capital, ostensibly for its own safety, and that masterpieces would then quietly “disappear.”

This seems terrifyingly possible in Uzbekistan, which according to Transparency International is considered the ninth most corrupt country of the 175 it surveys. If its leaders succumb to temptation, and plunder their country’s richest art collection, their crime will not be as heinous as the destruction of Palmyra, but of the same sort.

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I was amazed when I stumbled into the Karakalpak State Art Museum in 1997. Its dazzling collection of Russian avant-garde art is the world’s second largest, after one in St. Petersburg. The museum also holds a unique collection of fabrics and exquisite examples of Central Asian crafts.

The origin of this museum is a riveting tale of heroism under Soviet rule. Its founder, Igor Savitsky, was an obsessive collector. He traveled relentlessly, begging works from artists who were persecuted after Soviet leaders turned against modern art and other kinds of nonconformity. On his deathbed in 1985, he handed the museum to Babanazarova. She has guarded it with obsessive ferocity. This story is told in a remarkable 2010 documentary called “The Desert of Forbidden Art,” with Ben Kingsley voicing Savitsky’s letters and diaries.

As that documentary shows, the museum’s “discovery” in the post-Soviet era set off a frenzy. European art dealers and other well-dressed profiteers descended on remote, dusty Nukus. They dangled eye-popping sums of money and other emoluments. Babanazarova refused to part with a single one of the treasures in her care.

Now she faces a new threat. Corrupt Uzbeks see the museum as a pot of gold ripe for looting. For support, they count on fundamentalists who, like Stalin, disapprove of modern art — and of women running museums. It is a scary combination.

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Contempt for history binds the wreckers of Palmyra to the cultural predators now threatening the Karakalpak State Art Museum. Uzbek leaders will be robbing their people and future generations if they allow dismantling of this museum’s magnificent collection, or continue persecuting its director. Uzbekistan is a fascinating country with a rich history and much potential in Central Asia. Its reputation will be deeply stained if this cultural crime is consummated.

Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

Watch: A clip from ‘The Desert of Forbidden Art’

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