There is not a better place to start a journey to Tashkent than Tashkent Park in Seattle, Washington. The park is a physical declaration of a cultural and historical connection these two cities have created nearly half a century ago. In 1973 Tashkent and Seattle officially became first Soviet-American Sister-Cities connecting two so ideologically, culturally and geographically different political structures. Even the languages would not budge: in English, Seattle-Tashkent was a “sister” city, while in Russian it remained to be a “brother” city, what a wonderful linguistic conundrum!
Back in the midst of 20th century Tashkent was already a prosperous Soviet city, not just a capital of Uzbek Socialist Republic, but basically main hub of all five stans with its own one of a kind subway system, cultural scene up to part with Leningrad’s and Moscow’s, and booming production industry including aviation factory. There is this best described as cute, song that was popular before I was born and it declared Tashkent to be “The Star of The East”. Every Tashkent native would take that statement as an axiom.
If finding Soviet-American sister-city was a “match game”, enthusiasts in University of Washington and Uzbek Academics won an ultimate prize. According to some accounts and recollections, neither Seattle’s city council nor Soviet administration were entirely convinced of such arrangement. Till the ink dried on the document declaring the two cities establishing cultural exchange no one believed Soviet Kremlin will actually allow this to happen, after all this was the biggest “us versus them” conflict for decades. Mind you that this happened nearly 10 years prior to the Olympic games held in Moscow in 1980, where limited number of foreign tourist was allowed in with every move heavily supervised!
Central Asia back then was a pioneer in connecting the West and the Soviet, but not without conspiracy involved. Rumor has it, some students and faculty members at the University of Washington hoped to establish academic exchange with the Uzbek intellectuals to lay ground for Central Asian freedom of expression, and Soviets (read Kremlin) hoped to establish the exchange with some access to Boeing to gain knowledge on US plane construction, full on KGB-Mission Impossible Style. Perhaps this, one day, will become a good plot for historical action movie with capitalists, spies, Soviet intelligence, Kremlin, KGB and small but proud group of Soviet Uzbek inteligencia caught in the middle. Mr Spielberg, feel free to have your people contact my people and we can discuss premiums (insert winky-face here). May the irony not be lost, some forty years latter Uzbekistan is now on its 25th year of Independence, Seattle is ran by mostly socialist city council, and Boeing is a proud producer of planes purchased by Uzbek National Airlines.
However, all of the above speculations aside, there are actual reasons for the longevity of this sister city union – genuine respect and cultural exchange. Associations on both sides have been maintaining ties that go beyond, or rather above politics. Book exchanges, cultural exchanges, educational tours, people meeting people and getting to know each other’s cultures and traditions. There is this sense of a pristine and valuable bond that has been proven to outlast forty-something years of changes. This bond has become a robust tradition and example of independent connection between people rather than governments or institutions.
Back to the Tashkent Park! Recently it underwent minor renovations; statue of Semurg is no longer lone monument in an empty field, but rather an ornate centerpiece in cemented square with newly added tables and chairs, plus occasionally used public grill. There is even a birch tree in the park, likely an addition during the soviet era of Seattle-Tashkent relationships. Birch trees, or berezas, are what can be considered to be a national tree in Russian and Soviet Russian cultures. Perhaps my opinion is biased, but I see this park as a tiny oasis of greenery and history amidst apartment buildings. After all, it has outlived Soviet Union and rapid gentrification of Capitol Hill as new buildings grew around it. And if we decide to go even deeper into symbolism, Tashkent park in the best traditions of the region it took its name from welcomes Seattle’s paradoxically most known, yet the least noticed population – homeless people. As caravans traveling through the Great Silk Road will find shelter in Tashkent, transient and homeless community of urban nomads will find shelter in Tashkent Park on Capitol Hill. With this philosophical, mystically transcending thought I would like start my travel journal from one Tashkent to another.