New tours and a documentary provide access to the Savitsky collection — 44,000 Russian avant-garde artworks, many of which were once banned by Joseph Stalin.

Unknown to Western civilization for nearly 30 years, the Savitsky collection — 44,000 Russian avant-garde artworks, many of which were once banned by Joseph Stalin — have been gaining attention since the early 1990s, when Uzbekistan became independent, and Nukus, a city in the west of the republic that was formerly a biological warfare test site, became more accessible by air.

A new documentary by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, The Desert of Forbidden Art, traces the life of Igor Savitsky, a painter and an archaeologist. He began his collection, now housed in the Karakalpak Museum of Art in Nukus, near the ancient Silk Road, in the late 1960s. The documentary also delves into the stories of the artists whose work Savitsky collected — members of the Russian avant-garde, some of whom settled in Uzbekistan after the Russian revolution of 1917 and fused European modernism and Islamic traditions — and the tale of the museum, which faces economic hardship and strict surveillance from Uzbek authorities, who have sharply reduced the collection’s exhibition space by closing one of two museum buildings. 

“The future of the Savitsky Collection is far from secure,” Pope warned. Georgiev added, “We hope the film will function as an advocacy tool and a catalyst to protect this unique 20th-century cultural institution.”

MIR Corp, a Seattle-based company that specializes in travel to Russia and neighbouring countries, is offering a variety of itineraries to the Karakalpak Museum of Art, developed with the help of Pope and Georgiev and ranging in price from $3,095 to $7,195, not including flights. Travellers can visit the museum while on a small group tour to central Asia; a visit can also be arranged as an extension of MIR’s various Silk Road itineraries. MIR also can customize a private trip to Uzbekistan, or an itinerary featuring all of the five, now independent “stans” of the former USSR: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. According to an MIR spokeswoman, the best months to visit Nukus are mid-August through the end of November, and from March until mid-June.