One only has to look back to the period of Russian Imperial colonialism in Central Asia for the first evidence of the Russian Orthodox Church in Uzbekistan. As early as the 1840s, Siberian Cossacks began to settle what would eventually become Russian Turkistan bringing their faith along with them. Russian settlers poured into Uzbekistan in the 1860s establishing Orthodox parishes in Tashkent, Jizzakh, and Samarkand. The Tsar’s imperial expansionist ambitions resulted in the formal annexation of Kokand and Bukhara between 1865 and 1868, and the stage was set for a permanent Russian Orthodox presence in Muslim Central Asia. Imperial decree formally opened the Tashkent & Turkestan diocese on the 4th of May, 1871.
Centered on the new main square of Tashkent on the Russian planned side of the city, the Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration was built between 1871 and 1888. As the centerpiece religious monument for the new town, and situated adjacent to the governor’s mansion and military fortress, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration would also serve as the burial site for the esteemed first Governor-General of Russian Turkistan, Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman. This cathedral did not survive the early days of the Soviet Union and was demolished in the early 1930s. Cathedral Square then became Red Square.
At the Uspensky Military Hospital cemetery on the other side of the new Russian city center there was already a small chapel dedicated to St. Panteleimon the healer, built in 1871, but it soon proved insufficient for the spiritual needs of a growing city. Kaufman and other prominent city residents donated considerable funds for the expansion of the chapel, which was completed in 1879, and re-consecrated.
The Church of St. Panteleimon in Tashkent fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1917, and then came under the control of the Renovationists, or the “Living Church” – a movement which called for the democratization of governance and modernization of worship in the Orthodox Church of that time. The movement actually predated the revolution, but was seized upon and supported by the Soviet secret services who hoped to weaken the church from within. By the spring of 1923, the Turkestan diocese formally recognized the authority of the Renovationists.
For the Church of St. Panteleimon in Tashkent, the goals of the state were soon realized, and around about the same time as the deliberate destruction of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration, in 1933 St. Panteleimon was closed for worship and became the sanitary warehouse of the Central Asian Military District. By 1934 the Renovationists were facing a membership crisis as churches continued to dwindle in numbers, and prominent clergy publicly denounced the faith.
The Great Patriotic War led to a religious revival of sorts in the Soviet Union, but by this time the Renovationist Schism had largely died out when Stalin made a deal with the Russian Orthodox Church in exchange for allegiance and support. The move left the few remaining Renovationist clergy scrambling for reconciliation with the Patriarch, and properties which had not been already been destroyed, like St. Panteleimon, were turned back over to control of the Russian Orthodox Church. By 1945, St. Panteleimon was reopened and elevated to Cathedral Status of the Tashkent Diocese as the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.
In 1958 the Assumption Cathedral was rebuilt in its current form. The Tashkent Earthquake of 1966 caused a fire and significantly damaged the building, but it was soon restored. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Uzbek Independence in 1991, extensive renovations were carried out, including restoration of the characteristic gold onion domes. His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II visited the Cathedral in 1996 and broke ground on the construction of the Tashkent Russian Orthodox Center which was completed in 2010, along with a new bell-tower.
Today the Assumption Cathedral is the spiritual heart of Tashkent for Russian Orthodox Uzbeks, and the headquarters of the Central Asian Metropolitan District since unification of the Tashkent, Bishkek, and Dushanbe eparchies in 2011. The Russian Orthodox Center is a community gathering place for the faithful, and also used as a cultural venue for events and concerts. On our last visit to the complex, we went to a recital of aria and oratorio on a Sunday afternoon, also attended by church leaders, including His Eminence Metropolitan Vikentii. The religious complex also hosts an annual Easter craft fair and stands out as one of the most beautiful landmarks in the Uzbek Capital.