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Soviet ambitions echo in the Uzbekistan capital's Metro system

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine is reviving memories in other former Soviet republics of their tangled history with Russia. Central Asian nations have not forgotten the multitude of people executed, tortured or sent to labor camps during Joseph Stalin's rule. Yet, the Soviets also left a different kind of legacy, as NPR's Philip Reeves found out while exploring Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: There's a game that the drivers of Tashkent seem to enjoy. You could call it a game of chicken. The city center boulevards are wide and spacious. Yet jump into a taxi, and you soon see cars hurtling past, cutting across your boughs with only inches to spare. No one seems worried by this except me, the visiting foreigner. Luckily, there's a less stressful way of getting around town.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

REEVES: Step down these stairs into the surreal underground world of the Tashkent metro. The ticket hall is orderly and clean.

(SOUNDBITE OF TURNSTILE TURNING)

REEVES: My fare cost less than 20 cents. This is our train.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN BRAKES SQUEALING)

REEVES: It's also immaculate. Most of the passengers sit in glum silence. No one's snacking.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN MOVING)

REEVES: Then as the train sets off, I start to realize something. I realize that I'm on a journey back in time to the days when the Soviet Union used art and architecture on an Olympian scale as propaganda to consolidate power, including in the more remote corners of its empire. Some of the stations we are passing through have marble floors and fluted columns. Some have murals and fabulous, multicolored ceramic tiles and vaulted ceilings and even chandeliers. They could be ballrooms.

UNIDENTIFIED CONDUCTOR: (Speaking Uzbek).

REEVES: When it opened in 1977, this was Central Asia's first metro system. Back then, it had 12 stations. Many more have since been added. The design of each was based on a theme. One called Pakhtakor celebrates Uzbekistan's cotton industry. There's no reference to the near destruction of the Aral Sea caused by the Soviets' relentless pursuit of ever-larger cotton harvests or to the industry's use of mass forced labor, phased out only recently. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Uzbekistan became independent. Eager to promote Uzbek culture, its new government changed the names of some of these stations. There's no longer a Lenin Square.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN DOORS OPENING)

REEVES: You won't see many stations like this around the world. I mean, this architecture is stunning.

This is Kosmonavtlar. It's an architectural eulogy to what some see as Moscow's greatest triumphs during the Cold War.

There are these amazing columns that run the length of the platform made from green, decorated glass, and the walls are a very deep blue. And all along the walls here you've got big murals - big, round murals celebrating the Soviet space program.

The murals are shaped like medallions. One shows the first human in outer space, the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. Another shows the Russian, Valentina Tereshkova, who two years later became the first woman in space.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN MOVING)

REEVES: Until a few years ago, it was illegal to take photographs here. These ornate stations were supposed to double as bomb shelters. Now they're something of an international tourist attraction, a gilded reminder of the scale of the Kremlin's imperial ambitions in the past - ambitions that many Central Asians fear are being revived in the present.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.