On the 26th of April 1966, Tashkent, 4th largest city of the USSR, and capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, was hit by a major earthquake, reducing large portions of the city to rubble. Hardest hit were traditional mud-brick style single story dwellings which at the time made up the majority of the city’s neighbourhoods. Varying estimates of the temblor’s intensity have been reported, but regardless of its magnitude, this seismic event changed the face of Tashkent forever.
The biggest initial impact was the loss of housing. Some 300,000 people were left homeless by the earthquake which destroyed an estimated 2 million square meters of residential living space. The immediate response of the Central Committee was to dispatch a legion of workers from all corners of the Soviet Union to rebuild the city. General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev himself flew to Tashkent to personally oversee the recovery effort.
The massive rebuilding project changed the character of Tashkent forever. Planners used the earthquake as an opportunity to remake the city in the ideal Soviet image of others in the USSR, with wide boulevards suitable for automobile traffic, and large apartment block complexes. Brutalist concrete architecture replaced traditional mahallahs as the prominent style. The city was rebuilt in this way in less than four years.
In addition to the city’s new appearance, the ethnic makeup of Tashkent was also considerably altered. Workers brought in from other Soviet republics to assist in the rebuilding process ended up settling in the city instead of returning to their home regions. This caused considerable tension in the years following the disaster as newly built homes in some cases ended up being occupied by the imported workforce instead of displaced earthquake victims.
In 1976, a memorial to the victims of the earthquake was unveiled in central Tashkent. A massive stone cube featuring a clock face indicating the exact moment the disaster struck is symbolically cracked across the date, 26 April 1966. The centerpiece of the monument is a bronze statue of a family, the mother holding her child, hand extended in defiance, and the father stepping forward, standing in front assuming a protective stance. The symbolism is clear, that these brave citizens stood with courage in the face of a major disaster.
Today Tashkent remains vulnerable to seismic activity, but has not experienced a major earthquake since 1966. Periodically, tremors can be felt from powerful but distant earthquakes deep within Hindu Kush of eastern Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and closer but much weaker tremors locally. Such reminders keep the citizens of Tashkent vigilant to the possibility that disaster may one day strike the city again.