Kyrgyzstan: The Herzen Museum- forgotten art in a forgotten corner of Central Asia

A forgotten museum of Soviet art.

Why visit?
There are plenty of museums in the region with a decent collection of Soviet art. This place has a special atmosphere though, since almost no one ever visits to see these treasures.

It will also give an insight into the history of Kyrgyzstan, both from a cultural and migration aspect, and teach you more about the great artist that was Theodor Herzen.

Ak Dobo (it’s still Orlovka for the locals) in Talas province, Kyrgyzstan, close to the provincial capital Talas. Map.

AK DOBO DOES not immediately invite for a stop-over. Just a small village, a bit forlorn. Nothing special on first sight. That is, until you enter the village museum, and discover a treasure trove of Soviet art.

Theodor (Tjodor) Herzen was a bookkeeper of German descent who, living in the little village of Orlovka, taught himself to paint. The Talas valley had been home to many Germans at the time, who settled here in numbers in the late 19th century, and Orlovka was populated by Germans since 1882. The Herzens were late arrivals, forcibly resettled by the Kremlin in the 1920’s, together with other Germans and various people from the Caucasus.

The old man Herzen was not particularly talented, but he gave birth to a son, also called Theodor Herzen. He became one of the great artists of Kyrgyzstan, and his work can still be found all over the country, in mosaics, bas-reliefs, paintings and graphic work.
The museum consists of a large, 2-floor space. Downstairs, one room is dedicated to the work of father and son Herzen, mostly centered around Orlovka. There are a few large landscape tableaus, and portraits of village people give a sense of how life in an ethnically mixed community must have been in those days (there are no Germans left in Orlovka these days). Youthful work of the son shows he had great talent and flair from an early age.
Take the stairs up to the second floor, switch on the lights, and be amazed. A treasure trove of 50-60 paintings by renowned artists from Kyrgyzstan and the greater Soviet Union stand here, unattended. The paintings show the array of styles popular/allowed during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, when many Soviet artists came to Orlovka. There are also some sculptures, including one by Vera Mukhina.

Downstairs again, in a room which mixes pots and irrigation pipes from the ancient Silk Road settlement of Ak Dobo with ceramics from museum caretaker Almaz, hang some of Herzen's best works. As a child he would listen to Kyrgyz bards as they told the ancient tale of Manas, and during 8 years in the 1970’s he worked on a graphic version of the story. Some of the litho prints can be seen here, while many more illustrate the Manas book.

Rounding off, you get to see some Soviet keepsakes, pins of the places in the Soviet Union Herzen visited, and check out the Lenin head in the office. The unlikely location of the museum and the expert commentary from Almaz (Russian/Kyrgyz only) make for an interesting stop on your way to/from Talas.

Getting there:

A taxi there costs 50 som. Entrance to the museum is by donation. The museum is closed and only opened on request. 
Caretaker Almaz can be reached at +996 701 602 345, or ask Turdubek from CBT Talas.

Useful links:
Herzen's profile on the Russian-German Culture Foundation.

About the author: 
Steven Hermans is the editor of Caravanistan, a travel guide for the Silk Road. Like Minor Sights, he likes to marvel at the mundane and to unearth hidden treasures.