Reviews

Postulating fundamental differences of theatrical performances between rural and urban, sedentary and nomadic, and Persian and Turkic/Mongol cultural regions, the author evokes the role played by expatriate Volga Tatars in the adoption of European forms of cultural production in early-twentieth-century Central Asia (beginning to perform Russian and Caucasian dramas in Turkistan in 1905, and by 1913 they had their own theatre group in Tashkent).  Local Jadids were to appropriate the medium for their own goals and in 1911 the first Jadid play, Padarkush [“The Patricide”] by Behbudi, was performed.  (Unfortunately, as in all the existing historical studies on theatre in the early twentieth-century Central Asia, nothing is said on the sharp debates of this period of time on the licit character of theatrical performances according to Islam and to the accepted standards of behaviour.)  The Soviet period is dealt with through the rapid bureaucratisation of culture, and the introduction of radically new theatrical genres like opera and ballet, as well as of new kinds of theatrical organisations and schools.  From the mid-1930s to the early 1940s European theatrical genres began to incorporate local literary and oral traditions.  During this period of time each of the Central Asian newly created republics had its first ‘national’ operas and ballets performed.  The history of Soviet Central Asian cinema is evoked in parallel through its most significant dates, since the opening of the first film studio in Bukhara (Uzbek SSR).  The author sheds light on the decisive role played by directors and films crews from Russia in the ideologically conform feature films of the late 1920s and early 1930s.  The relative cultural liberalisation brought about by wwii (if compared with Terror) was enforced by the influx of evacuees from Russia, whose activity exerted a huge impact on local cultural institutions.  The power of the Soviet state over culture however increased again in the 1960s:  In spite of the often purely rhetorical mottoes of the Khrushchev Thaw, the policies of the Kul’tprosvet (the state’s cultural enlightenment organisation) became even more dogmatic than they had been during Stalin’s time.  As a result of the set-up of more subtle forms of cultural engineering, by the mid-1980s youth theatre in Soviet Central Asia was actually one of the most dynamic realms of culture production, “often daring to produce works that would have been considered too radical by professional theatres (813).”  As to cinema, the organisation of a workshop for young Kazakh films directors at the Moscow State Film Institute (VGIK) was a deliberate attempt by Moscow to boost the quality and quantity of production in Kazakhstan, and it showed a spectacular success.  Touring and participation in festivals became a source of pride for Central Asian theatres and films studios, and exposure to traditions of other parts of the world was an important source of inspiration for artists.  As the author deplores, much of this changed with the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.  However, if most theatres and film studios have endured considerable difficulties in the years following the dissolution of the USSR, it was not long before a revival appeared.  For years indigenous audiences have been supporting plays which explore local historical or cultural themes or experimental productions on contemporary life (see for instance the local and international echo to the Tajik playwright Barzu Abdurazzoqov’s play Ispoved’ based on individual stories of women confronted with a society deeply marked by violence).  As to the destinies of cinema production, they have been differing according to the situation in each newly independent state:  If Uzbekistan has a large consumer base for Uzbek-language films, which has allowed the state to subsidise (for some time) films with a didactical content, “sometimes reminiscent of the soviet era (816),” filmmaking in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan remains oriented to the art-house market.  In all, this subtle approach, devoid of univocal judgement, offers a captivating survey of the evolution of performing arts in twentieth-century Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet Central Asia.  Perhaps the opening of comparisons with Xinjiang, Afghanistan, or Mongolia—as in the other chapters of this UNESCO-sponsored publication—could have brought about interesting historical perspectives.  Otherwise an on a more general level it is perhaps also to be regretted that the author’s view has remained too limited to state-sponsored institutions, with few interest in the activity—artistic and financial—of sometimes powerful private film studios since Perestroika (e.g., the arch-famous Catharsis in Almaty), or in the long itinerary of now private experimental theatrical production units (like the nefarious, though internationally recognised Ilhom Theatre in Tashkent).

Stéphane A. Dudoignon, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris
CER: I-4.6-383