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Karimov comes to Moscow: the late Uzbek leader, a British sculptor and the fight for public space

Karimov comes to Moscow: the late Uzbek leader, a British sculptor and the fight for public space
Statue to Islam Karimov in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. Could something similar be about to arrive in Moscow? Image:

The late Uzbek President Islam Karimov was an isolationist who suppressed protest and curbed press freedom. Two years after his death, he is being honoured with a statue in Moscow, designed by a British sculptor and pushed through in the face of local opposition. What does the scandal tell us about the changing face of the Russian capital?

7 February 2018

As any resident will tell you, Moscow’s public space is constantly under refurbishment. Construction sites abound, facades change with the seasons and new builds pop up seemingly out of nowhere. One square in the south-central Yakimanka district is also currently undergoing a transformation — but this one is proving more controversial than most. The square is to be remodeled into a monument to the late President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who died in September 2016.

Karimov was appointed first secretary of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989 and then became President of independent Uzbekistan in 1991, a position which he held until his death. This first election, where Karimov won 86 per cent of the vote, drew international criticism for voting irregularities and a falsified vote count; the next three saw him receive over 90 per cent of the vote each time. That Tashkent has only seven western embassies is an indication of how Karimov sought to isolate Uzbekistan from the international community. This isolation, combined with state ownership of most media and control of NGOs, undoubtedly facilitated the human rights abuses for which the nation is now notorious — described by the United Nations as “institutionalised, systematic, and rampant torture” — as well as the reported massacre in 2005 of over 400 anti-government protesters who were shot on the President’s direct order.

In October 2016, the Moscow government announced its decision to name a square on Bolshaya Yakimanka street after Karimov. The first that many residents knew of this change was the placement of a plaque in the square a few months later; news began to spread that Karimov would be honoured not only with a dedicated square, but also with a statue. This change of plans manifested itself in July 2017, when an information board showing the new square design was displayed and most of the square’s mature trees were cut down. On 27 October, in a belated effort to dot the Is and cross the Ts, Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, tidied up the loose bureaucratic ends by signing a decree to commemorate Islam Karimov with a statue.

The driving force behind this monument is the Karimov Foundation, a charity which was established by Karimov’s daughter, Lola Karimova, two months after the death of her father. Karimova appears to have significant influence in Moscow despite spending most of her time between Paris and LA, while her husband and daughter live in Switzerland. She has been able to secure the issue of a presidential decree to the Moscow mayor to commemorate her late father, plus the city council decree, required to overcome regulations stipulating that streets and squares cannot be named in a person’s honour until ten years after their death.

This as-yet-absent monument speaks to a growing tension between local and city government

The decision to construct this monument does not appear to be a popular one. The opacity of the government machinations kept it well hidden from the general public, and so it was only after the consequences of the decision started to physically manifest themselves that a petition against the move was circulated locally — it currently has around 7,200 signatures. This opposition appears to have had no impact to date, however. Kirill Shitov, the Moscow Duma representative for municipal governance, stated at a recent local council meeting that “neither the mayor nor the Moscow City Council can call off the monument” and that the process is now only reversible by the Karimov Foundation itself — which, if true, gives Lola Karimova a remarkable degree of power in a country known for its ability to make executive decisions without fear of the consequences. Yet despite the seemingly irrepressible force of the Karimov Foundation, the residents continue to fight on and have secured local council approval for a referendum on the monument. However, this decision is now being challenged in court on the basis that the Karimov monument is not a local matter and hence cannot be subject of a local referendum.

This referendum, and the as-yet-absent monument itself also speak to a growing tension between local and city government. Yakimanka was one of the districts that saw a swing towards opposition candidates in last September’s council elections, and the Karimov affair is one fo the first major testing grounds of the potential for new local agency. “We have been looking at the issue of the Karimov memorial from the moment when we were elected in September 2017,” says Andrey Morev, the new head of the Yakimanka municipal council. “The decision to erect this monument was made by Moscow authorities quietly, behind closed doors. Residents were not made aware. We have sent official letters to the Mayor and Moscow parliament, all in vain. Our last hope is to hold a local referendum which we have a right to organise.”

The design of the statue and the revamped square was awarded to the British sculptor Paul Day, and was announced on Lola Karimova’s Facebook page in May 2016, long before any formal decision was made by the Moscow authorities. Karimov, who sought to isolate his nation from both the West and Russia, will be honoured in Moscow by a British artist, all made possible by his daughter’s wealthy family, residents of Europe. The irony is not lost on Boris Chukhovich, an Uzbek art historian, who tells me that “the memorial demonstrates a striking contradiction in the symbolic narrative that Karimov tried so hard to enforce on the nation during his reign — and is a clear indication of the dead-end that the late president got his country into.”

“The memorial demonstrates a striking contradiction in the symbolic narrative that Karimov tried so hard to enforce on the nation during his reign”

Paul Day is known for some of London’s most high-profile kitsch, including memorials to The Battle of Britain and the Iraq and Afghanistan War, as well St Pancras station’s The Meeting Place — described by Antony Gormley as a prime example of Britain’s current predilection for “awful crap” in public art. Speaking to The Guardian recently, Day appeared untroubled about the darker elements of Karimov’s legacy, saying that he was “enthusiastically doing the best job on this memorial for both the Uzbek government, the family and the people in general”; meanwhile, Uzbek human rights compaigners warn him of blood on his hands. Day’s retrograde style and the debate around the subject matter mean the Karimov statue, if it goes ahead, may well be another entry in Moscow’s roll of controversial monuments to (at best) politically dubious figures, erected by those in power with scant regard for public opinion — alongside the statue to medieval ruler Prince Vladimir recently installed outside the Kremlin, or Zurab Tsereteli’s infamously atrocious Peter the Great on the Moskva River.

Although Day seems unconcerned with his commission, one local resident and campaigner against the memorial, Vera Fedorova, expressed her frustration about how her square is changing: “We live in one of Moscow’s old neighbourhoods, which managed to maintain its character throughout Soviet times. Now the trees have been cut down and replaced by a regular plan and dazzling lights. The new design of the square shows no respect for the history of the place and Moscow placemaking traditions, and even less for the residents.”

These residents of Yakimanka must look on with envy as community-focused public spaces appear all across Moscow, while their square will be stepping backwards towards Soviet-style anthropomorphic monumentalism — a sterile celebration of the memory and principles of a foreign president whose legacy is one of corruption, suppression, torture and massacre.

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