When Soviet planners were considering a location to process the output of the rich gold and uranium deposits of Uzbekistan, rather than build new infrastructure in an existing city, the USSR Ministry of Atomic Energy instead chose to lay out a brand new city from scratch in the valley of the Zeravshan River about 100km north and east of Bukhara. The closest existing settlement was Karman, but this ancient silk-road stopover was simply a launching point for the shiny new Soviet utopia, and was quickly eclipsed by Navoi’s importance as the new regional capital.
In 1958 the Ministry of Medium Machine Building appointed Armenian born Zarap Petrosovich Zarapetyan director of the newly launched Navoi Mining and Metallurgical Combine. The name “Navoi” was chosen by Soviet planners in honor of the famous 15th century Uzbek poet and philosopher Alisher Navoi. Post-Stalinist USSR highly valued and promoted the diverse cultural heritage of the various Soviet Socialist Republics in order to further a modernist image of communism throughout the world. Lenin had considered the organization of culture and cultural promotion as a vital function of the Soviet State. So not only was Alisher Navoi’s name further immortalized by naming a socialist industrial worker’s paradise after the philosopher, the city also became a center of Education within Soviet Uzbekistan.
Within six years the Navoi Metallurgical Combine was already processing gold and uranium ore into high grade industrial products, including the first gold sample with a millesimal fineness of 999.9 (99.99%) ever produced in the Soviet Union. In recognition of his success in developing industry, and turning Navoi into a thriving Soviet city, Zarap Petrosovich Zarapetyan earned the title Hero of Socialist Labor and was also awarded the Order of Lenin.
Throughout the 1960s the master plan for Navoi came together under the watchful eye of Zarap, with oversight by the Ministry of Atomic Energy. The city expanded as planned as it grew to serve the industrial facilities operating on the edge of the new city. Laid out along an 8km long north to south grid of microdistricts, each with distinct zones for low-rise housing blocks, and abundant parks and fountains, Navoi was carefully planed as a utopian city purpose built for the imported industrial workforce. Architects were awarded the State Prize of the USSR for their outstanding achievements in architecture, and the city was also internationally recognized for excellence in urban planning. The resemblance to the planned city of Prypiat, which was built in 1970 to serve the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine, is unmistakable.
In the town center, surrounded by government and administrative buildings, the expansive 80 hectare (200 acre) Alisher Navoi Central Park contains an amusement park, artificial lake, zoo, monuments, cafes and an amphitheater for outdoor concerts. The park was built as the center for recreation in the Soviet city, and remains an oasis for residents to this day. For newly married couples, it is obligatory to have a photograph taken in front of the Alisher Navoi monument. As a traveler, it’s also pretty much the only landmark in Navoi that deserves a special visit in a city that serves as a monument in and of itself to Soviet concrete architecture.
Today the State owned Navoi Mining and Metallurgical Complex is the most profitable company in Uzbekistan, and one of the world’s largest producers of gold and uranium. The vision of Soviet planners to create a thriving industrial city has continued to pay off following Uzbek independence, with the industrial zone now home to a wide range of industrial enterprises. The population of the city continues to increase rapidly thanks to continued industrial expansion from just under 160,000 in 2009, to 215,000 in 2017.
The Uzbek government has also encouraged foreign investment by creating the largest Free Industrial Economic Zone within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and invested considerably in creating the largest air cargo hub in Central Asia at the nearby Navoi International Airport. Located at the halfway point between Central Europe and China, Navoi is marketing itself as an ideal transshipment hub for air cargo between European, Asian, and Middle Eastern markets, and already serves as a cargo hub for Korean Air and Uzbekistan Airways. The zone is also well positioned on the main Railway line of Uzbekistan, perfectly aligned with the new silk road corridor of the Chinese backed One Belt One Road Initiative.
Thanks to the foresight of Soviet Planners, Navoi is still a thriving modern city where nothing existed just 60 years ago except for a sleepy silk road stopover in decline following the Bolshevik Revolution. Still very much a workers paradise, Navoi offers little except Soviet era curiosity to travelers, and as such remains absent from tourist company itineraries and guidebooks, except as the gateway city to Nurata.