Ravaged by poverty and the ever-encroaching Kyzylkum Desert, remote Nukus seems like just another ill-fated former Soviet town. That is until you stumble upon its museum, home to the biggest collection of gulag era art in the world.

Ravaged by desertification and poverty, the Central Asian city of Nukus is hardly on the tourist trail. Most people have never even heard of it or of Karakalpakstan, the autonomous republic of which Nukus is the capital. Reaching the city involves a knuckle-whitening, three-hour flight in a Soviet-era aircraft- or a 40-hour drive across the steppes- from the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. But when you finally arrive at Nukus, there are two surreal sights to behold. The first is the dried-up bed of the Aral Sea- once the world’s fourth-largest lake, but now a hellishly arid landscape of grounded fishing boats and sand. The second is the Savitsky Karakalpakstan State Art Museum, tel: (998-61) 222 2556. The few travelers who stumble upon it never fail to be stunned by the discovery.

The museum is named after Igor Vitalyevich Savitsky, its first curator, appointed in 1966 when it was called the Nukus State Museum. A Ukrainian archaeologist, Savitsky could have used his tenure to simply grow the museum’s collection of Karakalpak artifacts- which he did. But, far from the Soviet central government’s prying eyes, he also embarked on a risky task: rescuing art that had been proscribed by the Stalinist regime. Although Stalin died in 1953, the fear that his rule instilled in his subjects lived long after him, and there was every chance that Savitsky- with his burgeoning collection of abstract and avant-garde pieces by the likes of Popova and Redko- would be denounced as a counterrevolutionary. He had to proceed with extreme discretion, but over time Savitsky amassed more than 50,000 pieces of Gulag-era art, tracking them down in hiding places all over the Soviet Union and smuggling them to his desert sanctuary.

Today, this trove can be experienced for a $4 entrance fee- or rather a fragment can, because there is no space to display it all. (Another fraction can be viewed at the museum’s old premises nearby.) Ironically, it turned out that Savitsky had less to fear from the authorities- who came to know of his work but turned a blind eye- than he did from the art he was saving. The harsh chemicals he used to clean the paintings wore down his health, and he died of tuberculosis at the age of 69. Knowing this makes a visit to this uncelebrated museum in a lonely part of the world even more poignant.

This article appeared in the November 6 2006 issue of TIME Asia Magazine.