Mark Weil: The End of an Era. Tashkent (Konets veka. Tashkent, 1996)

reviewed by Vanita Singh Mukerji © 2008

When an empire breaks up, the citizens of the crumbling imperial masonry find themselves increasingly vulnerable, often for no fault of their own. The epochal events across the Soviet Union between 1985 and 1991 sounded the death-knell of the USSR and a way of life in which millions of people of different cultures and civilizations had been made to coexist in the monolithic culture of a totalitarian state. For the colonizers and the colonized, as well as for their descendants, however, the shadows of the past often made for painful remembrance, a past in which millions were liquidated as “enemies of the people.” Admittedly, life also had its lighter rhythms, to which people yielded. The End of an Era. Tashkent , a documentary film by Mark Weil, the artistic director of the Ilkhom Theater, memorably captures this experience in Central Asia. It was here that the East and the West met, not always concurring, in time even settling for a camaraderie before parting ways.

Produced by the Dutch foundation Stichting Doen, Russia's Dago Film Studio, and the Ilkhom Studio in Uzbekistan, the film was originally shown on Dutch television in two parts, each 52 minutes long. Gripping and nuanced, Weil's film about this still relatively little known Central Asian city, the fourth largest in the former Soviet Union, was well-timed. Taking cognizance of the changed political climate in contemporary Uzbekistan, where the immediate past was increasingly becoming a subject of amnesia, reinvention, even erasure, The End of an Era is uniquely revealing of Tashkent's connection with Russia and a history that Slavs and Central Asians have shared.

Penetrating dramatic and fateful events of individual and national destiny, some of which have long been shrouded in mystery, Weil's film strikes a bold note, making for embarrassing revelation to some today. With considerable finesse it presents an entire range of archival material, including carefully restored work from virtually faded negatives dating from the 1930s, scrupulously unearthed in the Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents in Krasnogorsk, the Gosfil'mofond of Russia in Belye Stolby, the Uzbek Archive of Cinema and Photo Documents, and the Tashkent Documentary Studio. Weil was able to use this archival material—photographs, stills, newsreel footage, and feature clips—with rare eloquence in recounting Tashkent's hidden story. Meshing that history, which is about survivals of different kinds, with the reminiscences and reactions of successive generations that have grown up or even lived out their lives in Tashkent, The End of an Era elevates us to a more sophisticated and refined notion of what is behind Weil's native city, given the experience of tsarist, Soviet, and contemporary times. The mini “on-the-spot” interviews, seemingly simple, telegraphically gauge the status quo . Evocative eclectic music, selected and arranged for the documentary by composer Dmitrii Ianov-Ianovskii, serves to enhance the narratively generated images.

From its opening scene, capturing in close-up the unrolling of carpets for ritual mosque attendance on Tashkent's Khadra Square to the sound of the sonorous muezzin-recited adhan (call to prayer) echoing from the mosque minaret, The End of an Era reflects the new realities in Uzbek self-perception that have little to do with Russian culture and communism alike. Telescoping the passage of time and taking tsarist Russia's expansion into Central Asia as a fait accompli , the film homes in on facets of Tashkent's past—enduring, traditional Central Asian and 19 th -century Russian. Tashkent's transformation from a provincial oasis, an Uzbek fortress town on the Silk Road, was rapid, relatively peaceful. Wattle and daub distinguishes and demarcates the old labyrinthine, mosqued Tashkent. Beyond that is another Tashkent, ostensibly European: the military, administrative, and cultural capital of the newly-created gubernate of Turkestan. The new Tashkent housed people that included the first wave of immigrants from all over imperial Russia—military men, engineers, civil servants with their families, doctors, teachers; people simply looking for adventure. Notwithstanding the disparate lifestyles in the two Tashkents between the 1870s and the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, passenger traffic on tramcars, the mixed clientele of a photographer's studio and a tailor's shop, the excitement of the town's first Russian-language theater and cinema, record a changing colonial story.

The varied strands of an infinitely more complex history, together with the ironies and paradoxes inherent in it, emerge with the film's depiction of the hammer-and-sickle era in Tashkent. Moscow's “integrative” agenda through Sovietization infused Tashkent with parades and Young Pioneers ready to take on the world; women were emancipated; Russian was made the lingua franca of Central Asia. The dramatic disclosure of this age of the masses, and the fiction and reality of the Soviet government's cliché-ridden goal of constructing a new civilization on the ruins of the past, is complemented by Weil's probing narratorial comment: “What did people of that time think when they saw mass enthusiasm on the street, foreigners holding high the red banners, looking like characters in an operetta, the oriental beauties throwing away their paranjas [veils]? What was this? Propaganda? Hypocrisy? Or overwhelming joy at finally becoming free from an age-old bondage? Or were these the expectations of an earthly paradise?”

The End of an Era leaves us with little doubt about the ruthless nature of Stalinism. The period of the most intense terror in Central Asia coincided with that in Russia. The notorious NKVD's—predecessor of the KGB—knock on the door preceded ubiquitous disappearances in the night. The tragic fate of several members of the prominent Central Asian family of the Burkhanovs still bewilders a survivor, mirroring in miniature the systematic liquidation of the flower of the Uzbek and Tajik intelligentsia, especially the pre-Marxist Jadid modernists, who had looked outward to a world beyond the confines of the Soviet empire.

That the “cult of personality” reached absurd heights under Stalin is well-known, but it is a revelation to see the extent to which this was visibly encouraged in the traditional heartland of Central Asia by Soviet Uzbek apparatchiks, who had gained substantial experience as sycophants of Stalin. Every bit the cold-blooded, calculating tyrant, Stalin is shown as having been loved and revered all the same in Uzbekistan for the simple reason that he was successful in demonizing the “enemies of the people.” All the resources of state propaganda were used to present and propagate the myth of him as a benevolent ruler, protecting with infinite wisdom his “happy and prosperous” people. Following Hitler's declaration of war on the Soviet Union, Stalin even had the atavistic 20 th -century descendants of Tamerlane volunteering their lives in a Great Patriotic War “for motherland, for honor, for freedom, and for Stalin,” on a front thousands of miles from Uzbekistan. Weil uses footage to maximum synoptic dramatic effect from two Tashkent Film Studio productions—Zagid Sabitov's At the Call of the Leader ( Na zov vozhdia , 1941) and Kamil Iarmatov's film-concert To Friends on the Frontline ( Druz'iam na fronte , 1942). The Soviet expedient of temporarily endorsing commemoration of legendary national heroes worked to Stalin's advantage: the fervor with which the Uzbeks hailed glorious moments of their past was matched by their ardent admiration for Stalin, and was given eulogistic expression by numerous Central Asian writers and artists.

Has the enduring myth of Stalin, however, been completely debunked in independent Uzbekistan? Or has the sustaining power of illusion proved to be a competing reality? The long cherished highpoint of a one-time proximity to Stalin at a Kremlin reception fires the reminiscences of an Honored People's Artist of Uzbekistan, her awe of Stalin still pristine and reverential. Actress Sara Ishanturaeva had no doubt whatsoever that she was amid august company: “…then there was Ezhov, and Budennyi was there, but when we found ourselves in the midst of such people… well, this does not happen often, and nor does such honor come to everyone!” The dramatic irony at play in the film is masterly. Tried behind closed doors and sentenced to death, Stalin's loyal executioner, NKVD Chief Nikolai Ezhov was shot on 3 February 1940.

The End of an Era opens an intriguing window on Tashkent as the unofficial capital of the Soviet rear lines during the Second World War. The city housed German and Japanese POWs, displaced children, the war-wounded, fleeing refugees, including entire Jewish families, strategically relocated factories and industries, and the Academy of Sciences. Yet, paradoxically, “the terrible war years [in Europe] became a period of renaissance” for Tashkent. Writers, musicians, stage and screen artistes, directors and filmmakers from Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad, and Odessa congregated here. Tashkent was vibrant with new theaters, cinema shows, and nocturnal concerts, all of which drew enthusiastic audiences. Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, inspired by the Central Asian ambience, its color and motifs, penned the cycle of poems “The Moon at Zenith.” Klavdiia Shulzhenko, the Soviet Edith Piaf, performed with the frontline jazz ensemble in Tashkent—one of the many destinations in her triumphal 1943 concert tour of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The expanding repertoire of Tashkent's theaters was influenced by some of the “legends” of the Soviet stage and screen, such as Sofiia Giatsintova, and those of Jewish ancestry, like Nataliia Uzhvii, Faina Ranevskaia, Mark Bernes, Amvrosii Buchma, Solomon Mikhoels, and Veniamin Zuskin (the latter three were later killed by Stalin). There was unprecedented cinematic activity at the Tashkent Film Studio with the evacuated film studios operating under its banner and geared to the war effort. Newsreel production dominated, but Tashkent was “a Soviet Hollywood of its day,” “producing the national myths, a source of hope and consolation for the whole country,” reaching out to young and old alike, many of whom first learned the news about the war from films such as Leonid Lukov's Two Soldiers ( Dva boitsa , 1943) with Mark Bernes and Boris Andreev, and those starring Petr Aleinikov.

Four years after Stalin's death, with ideological policing becoming less stringent, The End of an Era points to a Tashkent that briefly savored the allure of the world outside the “Iron Curtain.” Tashkenters experienced the exciting Khrushchev “Thaw” through cinema and song: Raj Kapoor's The Vagabond ( Awaara , 1951), a classic of Indian cinema, and the sensuous salsa of “Besame Mucho,” Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velazquez's earlier hit, seemed harbingers of a new era. The proposal from Moscow to host an International Youth Festival in Tashkent even raised hopes about a new way of life and universal harmony. All these hopes, however, were swiftly stamped out by the return of the tough regime of thought-control following the fall of Khrushchev.

Behind the idyll of team-spirit and “orderly” Soviet life, Weil's film uncovers other nuances. Moscow was gripped by “Space-fever" at the start of the 1960s, and the mass enthusiasm for Space was right on cue in Tashkent. It was carefully orchestrated; reactionary Central Asian conviction took a different view of scientific-technical progress. The earthquake of 26 April 1966 devastated areas of the old Tashkent. But by sheer coincidence there was a blueprint for a Soviet-style reconstruction of the old city. Notwithstanding the sundry, rescuer-builder volunteers in Tashkent, local anger was fuelled by the bulldozing of mahalla [ward] districts. The first manifestations of awakening nationalism were unambiguous at the Pakhtakor football stadium—“Russians to Riazan'! Tatars to Kazan'!”—but played down by the local authorities as “hooliganism.” The tragic news about the death of the entire Soviet Uzbek top league Pakhtakor football team in the TU-134 plane-crash near Donetsk on 11 August 1979 was initially withheld by officialdom. Rather ironically for the authorities, the funeral procession for the Pakhtakor team turned out to be “one of the biggest human manifestations of the 20 th century [in Uzbekistan],” the censored footage of which had “been saved by some miracle in the archives of the Uzbek Film Studio” and salvaged by Weil. And while it was opportune for Moscow to showcase Tashkent as the “Star of the East” in 1984 for celebrations marking the 2000-year jubilee of the city, archaeological experts were skeptical about specious scholarship. There is an inadvertent comic irony in the refrain of the occasional pop song: “Nobody would ever believe!” and “Nobody would ever trust that Tashkent is 2000 (years old)!”

The temporal-spatial sweep of The End of an Era sustains an interactive depth. There were people who had learned from the purges of the 1930s to follow their own cultural inclinations quietly, in spite of legal decrees. The survival of a religious identity through the Soviet decades, therefore, was not necessarily “nationalistic.” By contrast, the compulsions of prehensile power-wielding ex-Communists were more transparent. Donning the mantle of nationalism, they spoke stridently of the need to revive the lost heritage of Tamerlane and the martial glories of the Uzbeks. There was also the sobering reality of a rival nationalism, following close on the end of an era, resorting to “ethnic cleansing” in the volatile Ferghana border region.

Much of the impact of the film derives from the fact that Weil is neither an apologist nor a nostalgist for a past in which both Central Asians and Slavs were equally victims of chance and circumstance, as there were those on either side who shared the moral responsibility for propping up an inhuman system. As the film shows clearly, the psychological reflexes that were nurtured by the Soviet decades have remained unaffected by the collapse of the USSR. Self-appointed custodians of the future are zealously bringing down monuments and buildings of a bygone era and, feigning democratic change, stipulating the rewriting of their local and regional history, the centerpiece of which is a new “cult” hero—the controversial Tamerlane, expediently conferred with prototypical statesman-like qualities and even supernatural powers.

The end of an era, as Weil perceives it, poses grave human problems. While the old Soviet Union will not revive, what of Tashkent's cosmopolitan culture in which ethnic identities were unimportant? The very sentiments of Slavs long-resident in Tashkent, found perfect expression in the words of Anna Akhmatova: “Who would ever say that this land is a foreign one for me?” Since 1989, however, the mostly involuntary yet sizeable migration of peoples from a city they loved and considered home has been continuing, a great many of them spurred into pulling up their roots as hostages of the imperial idea.

The End of an Era concludes with the ostentatious transition from Marx to Tamerlane in contemporary Tashkent, leaving us to ponder what will take precedence here. The persistence of strong sub-national loyalties? Pluralism? Or the shadow of a militant Islam? The untimely violent death of Mark Weil in September 2007 in the Uzbek capital defines the film's prescient quality.

All stills courtesy of The Ilkhom Theater, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Vanita Singh Mukerji

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The End of an Era. Tashkent. Uzbekistan, Holland, and Russia, 1996
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Mark Weil
Narration: Mark Weil, Andrei Zorin, Leonid Gurevich
Narrator: Carl Watts
Director of Photography: Rifkat Ibragimov
Composer: Dmitrii Ianov-Ianovskii
English translation: Florida Perevertaylo
Producer: Dmitrii Iurkov, Igor' Ratanov
Production: Stichting Doen (Holland), Dago Film Studio (Russia), Ilkhom Studio (Uzbekistan)

Mark Weil: The End of an Era. Tashkent (Konets veka. Tashkent, 1996)

reviewed by Vanita Singh Mukerji © 2008