Visual Technologies and Culture in Post-Soviet Central Asia


A review of Generational Politics: Narratives of Power in Central Asia’s Visual Culture by Anaita Khudonazar.

This dissertation, which stands at the crossroads of area studies, art history, and film studies, demonstrates through an analysis of paintings, posters, press photography, films, TV shows, and even video games how Central Asian cultural producers made use of new visual technologies and opportunities provided by the Soviet state to continue developing the artistic narratives and culture of the pre-Soviet era. The work insists on intergenerational continuity across different political regimes and in systems of cultural reproduction, religious practices, and traditions. In addition to her experience of everyday life in a family of filmmakers in Tajikistan, Anaita Khudonazar bases her work on extensive interviews with artists and filmmakers; on national Russian, Kazakh and Tajik state archives; on cinematographic archives (KazakhFilm and TajikFilm), and finally on museums (Tashkent Museum of Film) and libraries (Russian, Kazakh and Tajik State libraries).

The first chapter, “Mirages of Central Asian Children in Russia’s Late Imperial and Early Soviet Visual Culture,” offers through an analysis of paintings, posters, press illustrations, schoolbooks, and films a brief overview of colonial and Soviet visual representations of Central Asian children from the 1880s to the late 1930s. The first Orientalist representations analysed are those of Vasilii Vereshchagin (Purchase of a Child Slave, Bacha and His Admirers), which focused on social vices and violence, as well as the exploitation of young boys for sexual purposes. In the early twentieth century, the representations of children shifted to a more realistic one, avoiding exoticization. Pavel Shevchenko (A Kazakh Boy Lighting the Oven) was inspired by the everyday life of the lower social classes rather than ethnic, religious or cultural features; Pavel Kuznetsov (Shearing of Lambs, 1912) dedicated his works mainly to women, and Alexandr Volkov (Mourning, 1921; Mother, 1926) used Christian imaginary, distancing himself from Soviet propaganda. It was only in the late 1920s and 1930s that representations of children began to change drastically. Artistic production was grounded in a new world of modernity, dynamism and Russification in contrast to the world of previous generations. Indeed, the Soviet state-building process and its propaganda and representations focused primarily on the youth.

In Chapter 2, “The Spell of Self-Exotification or What Happened to Natsional’naia Forma,” the author examines visual production in the 1940s and 1950s, when the first generation of artists fully educated during Soviet times entered the film industry. This chapter is based on analyses of two long-feature films: Tohir and Zuhro by Nabi Ganiev (Uzbekistan, 1945), a cinematic adaptation of a famous love legend, and The Old Khottabych by Gennadiy Kazakskiy (Lenfilm, 1956), in which the author explores Central Asia and Russia’s ambiguous relationship with the past. Khudonazar subjects Tohir and Zuhro to semiotic analysis crafted using the Sufi philosophical concepts of zaher (external, obvious) and batin (internal, hidden). The film is seen as a nostalgic, cinematographic poem of pre-Soviet Central Asia. On the other hand, The Old Khottabych captured Russia’s contradictory and Orientalist condescension towards, and nostalgia for, Central Asia and its pre-Soviet culture. This chapter shows how in the course of the 1940s and 1950s, the formula of the ideologically correct “national form” (natsional’naia forma), gradually grew into representations of an imaginary past that mirrored nostalgic longing for different spaces and times, and stood as a hidden resistance to governmental ideological constraints.

Chapter 3, “Children of Soviet Modernity in the Age of Internal Censorship (1960-1970)”, discusses the post-Stalin era of the 1960s and 1970s, when Central Asian cinematographers went in different stylistic directions and used different visual narratives, yet continued to evaluate their subjects from Central Asian inter-generational perspectives, whilst insisting however on a form of “manqurtism” (being a slave without memory). In their dialogue with the past and present, they challenged the superficiality of the Soviet “national form”, by creating cinematic worlds that did not fit into the Soviet framework. Rustam Khamdamov, with My Heart in the Mountains (VGIK, 1967) created a semi-foreign, pre-Soviet world of idleness and poetic irony idealizing pre-Soviet Russia in a stylised version of the black-and-white silent movies of the early 20th century. Elyor Ishmukhamedov’s Tenderness (Uzbekfilm, 1966) depicted a modern and multi-ethnic Uzbekistani youth that distanced itself not only from rural Central Asia, but from Soviet ideology as well. The most prominent and influential representative of the new Soviet visual culture of the 1960s, Tolomush Okeev with The Sky of our Childhood (Kirgizfilm, 1967), revealed the ambiguous role of urbanization and modern technologies (i.e. Soviet modernity) in the decline of Kyrgyz family structure and culture.

In Chapter 4, “Rewriting History: The Transformation of batin into zaher in the 1979’s Television Feature The First Morning of Youth,” the author focusses his analysis on Davlat Khudonazarov’s 1979 television adaptation of Pavel Luknitskiy’s novel Nisso (1941), in which a Pamirian girl struggles for her freedom after running away from her old Tajik husband to find love with a Soviet commissar. Khudonazarov’s answer to Soviet modernity was similar to Okeev’s assessment of history: there is no future in the absence of intergenerational continuity and the negation of the culture and tradition of the past. During the 1980s, the space for free discourse and ideas was widening.

Chapter 5, “In Search of Post-Soviet Identity: The Transsovieticus Perspective on the Sacrificial Hero in Russian Cinematography”, discusses post-Soviet visual culture in the context of economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union, in which the majority of the film industries in Central Asian republics collapsed. Fedor Bondarchuk’s film The 9th Company (2005) was an attempt to recreate the events of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1988); War by Aleksey Balabanov (2002) focussed on the war in Chechnya, and Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch and Day Watch offered a Central Asian/Jewish outlook on the state of the post-Russian hero. These films offered new perspectives on post-Soviet society and the death of Soviet internationalism and the loss of Russia’s socio-political leadership.

The last chapter, “Timur Bekmambetov’s Six Degrees of Celebration: From Ethno to Civil Brotherhood”, presents the 2010 – and currently the latest – film by Bekmambetov, and produced by Elki, which depicts a Central Asian labor migrant in the context of contemporary Russian society. This chapter argues that despite the overall lack of political correctness in contemporary visual culture towards non-Slavs, the idea of civil nationalism has a strong foundation in Russia’s history of national self-presentation. The success of Bekmambetov’s film demonstrates that despite Russia’s attempts to create a historical discontinuity with the Soviet past, the notion of civil brotherhood is returning in visual discourse on nationalism.

To conclude, the dissertation insists on the autonomous agency and accommodation of the Central Asian artistic elites toward an authoritarian regime through intergenerational lenses. Khudonazar’s work provides illuminating insights on a body of cultural production that, despite its importance, is still almost unknown.

Cloé Drieu
Centre d’étude Turques, Ottomanes, Balkaniques et Centrasiatiques (CETOBaC)

Primary Sources

Periodicals in Russian and Tajik
Visual material
Interviews and oral history
National Russian, Kazakh and Tajik state archives
Cinematographic archives (KazakhFilm and TajikFilm)

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley. 2011. 197pp. Primary Advisor: Margaret Larkin.

Image: Iskra Cinema in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Wikimedia Commons.

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