Issue 25 (2009)

Satybaldy Narymbetov: Mustafa Shokai (2008)

reviewed by Michael Rouland © 2009

shokaiSatybaldy Narymbetov’s Mustafa Shokai is the first historical blockbuster of post-Soviet Kazakhstan. The recent film, Nomad (Kochevniki, Sergei Bodrov et al, 2005) could offer a kind of rival, but history is the focus of Mustafa Shokai rather than a frame for the action genre as in Nomad. Mustafa Shokai is designed to educate viewers, particularly Kazakhs, but the reality is that it fails as an informative historical drama, conflating an already complex and contradictory biography.

Mustafa Shokai (1890-1941) was born in Perovsk (now the village Aulie-Tarangyl) in the Turkestan Krai of the Russian Empire. He was not destined to be a peripheral figure; his maternal ancestors were part of a line of Kazakh khans of the Khiva khanate. He was a Turkestani nationalist when there was no longer a Turkestan, and he emerged as a key political actor at a moment of revolutionary transformation. He served at various times as a member of the Shura-i-Islamiya (Muslim Council), as the leader of the Provisional Government of Autonomous Turkestan (or Kokand Autonomy movement), and as a delegate to the First All-Kirgiz Congress in Orenburg where they created the first Kazakh political party, Alash Orda. Yet he ultimately lost touch with the political realities of Central Asia that centered on compromises between religious elites and Bolshevik officials and he left the Soviet Union for Europe. 

Mustafa Shokai is relatively well known by western scholars of Central Asia since he was a leading critic of Soviet politics and he provided a valuable link to scholars who were increasingly restricted from the region in the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, Mustafa Shokai has always been a problematic and controversial scholar due to his political biases and his role in the drama he helped document.

His advocacy for Turkic unity was conflated with inflated Bolshevik polemical attacks against “Panturkism” and “Pan-Islamism,” which were always inadequately defined. The Soviets accordingly accused him of backwardness, elitism, and religious bias yet the debates over the political struggle for Central Asia masks the success of the Soviets project to provide an identity that replaces existing frameworks (local, tribal, religious) in Turkestan.

shokaiThe Soviet delimitation of Soviet Central Asia in 1924 established the five Soviet Central Asian republics that we know today as independent states (see Haugen and Sabol). It was a relatively successful effort to use linguistic and historical markers to undermine the Tsarist boundaries of the mid to late nineteenth century. These boundaries and identities were further entrenched with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Mustafa Shokai fought a losing battle against history and he became increasingly irrelevant over his lifetime. The three authors of the scenario, Akim Tarazi (the Kazakh dramaturge), Ermek Tursunov (a historian), and Sergei Bodrov Sr. (the renowned director) sought to correct this fate and to return Shokai to the pantheon of Kazakh historical figures.

The central actor of the film, Aziz Beishenaliev, a Moscow-based Uzbek who is now one of the stars of Kazakh cinema, maintains this message. He exhorts, “the spectator of this film is the modern Kazakhstani. No, more likely, it is the inhabitants of all Central Asia. In fact, in Kazakhstan, few know about Mustafa and the opinions are varied.  So I suspect that much in general is not known about Shokai.”[1] With such earnest hopes, it is surprising that the film turned out to be so contentious.

The film opens with familiar images of a train and running water, two of the most often repeated motifs in Central Asian cinema.  And, consciously or not, it repeats a trope of Soviet progress in the region. Following a brief cinematic interlude in Paris to set the stage for his remembrance, the film takes us to a pivotal moment in Tashkent in 1916, the beginning of the collapse of the Russian Empire (Brower).

shokaiIn the shadows of the Yenikeev Mansion, Shokai hears the operatic voice of Maria Yakovlevna. Amidst revolutionary tumult, our hero is making love with the wife of a Russian Imperial official.  And it gets even better. When Maria has a choice of suitors, she engages Mustafa Shokai over the future, albeit temporary, Prime Minister of Russia, Alexander Kerensky. In this moment she encounters two extraordinary outcasts of the Bolsheviks.

The film then cuts to the conflict that quickly enclosed around them. The Bolsheviks offered Shokai the position of Commissar of Turkestan Krai as a compromise. “To save one’s life,” he replies, “is not everything.” The events direct us to Kokand in 1918 and we witness a Soviet military assault, horses race across the screen, and an energetic battle scene reminiscent of the best Soviet Easterns.

When Mustafa Shokai goes on the lam, he arrives at the house of an old school friend:

Sergei: The Bolsheviks said that you were the ‘Traitor of Turkestan.’
Mustafa: We stood for sixty two days, sixty two days of freedom and independence.  I was for Turkestan’s autonomy, but we could not build a full-fledged state during this short time.  For this we had no cadres, no experience, no army.  And, most importantly, we had no unity.

It is not clear exactly how the filmmakers arrived at this number since the short-lived Kokand Autonomous government lasted from 27 November 1917 to 18 February 1918. This history lesson, however, reveals a revisionist attitude towards the failure of Central Asian autonomy movements.

To underscore its didactic intentions, the film immediately shifts to a monochrome flashback of an imagined Alash Orda debate before a supposed Bolshevik attack. In the historical record, almost a year as passed and we have traveled across Central Asia (in the unsuccessful attempt of Maria and Mustafa to find work in Moscow).

Alikhan Bokeikhanov: We shouldn’t think too much about Bolshevism.  I propose that we should defend the idea of Kazakhstan’s autonomy within Russia.  Our party is ready to negotiate this with Bolshevik leaders.  This is the only way to preserve our national integrity.
Mustafa Shokai: Yes, we have much in common with Russia.  But our statehood is at stake, which we lost in the 1860s.  I stand for another Turkic unity.  And only on these grounds should we develop relations with our neighbors, especially Russia.
Alikhan Bokeikhanov: It’s impossible; it is a utopia, Mustafa.  You should be more realistic, more wise and reserved.  We shouldn’t give away to emotions.  As yet we cannot solve independently the most acute political questions; the world has changed.
Mustafa Shokai: Yes, the world has changed.  But we haven’t changed, it seems.  How can we accept their conditions?  It is a bluff that will lead to our destruction.  We cannot believe these people.
Alikhan Bokeikhanov: We know it very well.  Very well.  You better go.  Go, Mustafa.  You do not need to be at one with us.  Different roads lead to the same goal, right?

shokaiThe conflation of two events, the fall of the Kokand Autonomy movement to a Bolshevik military assault on Kokand and a Kazakh political movement that divided over the question of alliance with the Bolsheviks, is never explained in the film. Yet we perceive Mustafa Shokai’s unyielding view of the Bolsheviks. Many of his contemporaries were political realists, Mustafa never was.

Music of the kobïz punctuates ethereal destruction: the scramble for food and the shooting of innocents. A bleak trek to the Caspian Sea ensues while Maria and Mustafa take separate paths. The film quickly moves over their two years in Tiflis and their travel to Istanbul. Then, in the summer of 1921, we arrive in Montmartre, Shokai is proofreading for the Russian daily, Dni. This is short-lived when Alexander Kerensky is shown as rabid “nationalist” and he condemns Shokai as “the last Huron” and as “a powerless loner.”

Mustafa Shokai did not live well in Paris and we feel that in the film.  But there is an unmistakable anti-Russian bias in the film that is misplaced. Mustafa Shokai had deep and meaningful ties with Russians: he studied with Alexander Kerensky at the Gymnasium in Tashkent; he graduated in law from St. Petersburg University; and he worked for the Muslim Faction of the Fourth Russian State Duma. Perhaps it would have been useful to offer a greater distinction between Russians and Bolsheviks.

The film also overlooks his work with Zhana Turkestan (Istanbul, 1927-1931) and Yash Turkestan (Paris, 1929-1939). These journals are arguably his greatest scholarly contribution. Moreover, they extend an important Jadid journalistic tradition from the nineteenth century and provide a link to scholars of the late-twentieth century as an alternative voice to the Soviets (see Khalid).

shokaiInstead, we witness a bizarre interlude. We observe Stalin, played by Igor Guzun, in a meeting with the butcher of the purges, Nikolai Ezhov. In the film, Stalin clearly fears Shokai’s power and authority. And he holds in his hands a copy of Chez les soviets en Asie centrale; réponse aux communistes français (1928) to emphasize this fear and his struggle for authority over the printed word.  It would have been unlikely that Stalin would have used a French-language text in this context, rather Turkestan pod vlastiiu Sovetov; k kharakteristike diktatury proletariata (1935) would have been a more plausible example.

When the history gets too depressing, we turn again to the love story. Or is this failed romance?  Maria relates her sacrifice, “We live a vagabond life; we have no children.” And, just before war sweeps Europe again, she shares the telegrams and letters describing the purges of friends that she has been hiding from him over the years.  Mustafa does not come off as a good husband in this film.

Again, time passes in an uneven manner. We abruptly transition to the brutal torture and subsequent recruitment of Baidrakhman Sydykov in 1940 at Lubianka. We first met him in the film, when Mustafa Shokai began his escape from Turkestan. His mother gave him prayer beads to protect him, and Shokai in turn passed them to his nephew, Sydykov, remained. There is an ethereal quality in this frame as smoke fills the screen. Sydykov emerges as an anti-hero who tries to navigate between familial loyalty and loyalty to the Soviet state. In the end, he survives the purges, a German prison camp, escape back across the Eastern Front, as well as his subsequent denunciation. The inclusion of his biography in the credits raises the question of whether Sydykov is a more apt hero of the film.

shokaiThe Germans arrive in Paris in September 1940. The unusual insertion of documentary footage of the French capitulation to the Germans highlights this. From the beginning, the Germans are interested in Shokai. They set up a “live wire” to Turkestan so that he could communicate with “his people” over the radio. “Freedom will come,” he tells them. The German interlude is one of the longest segments and one of the least poorly conceived.  The intersections of Shokai, Veli Kayum Khan, Ribbentrop, and Hitler, played by Vatslav Legner, reveal the impossibility of their military adventure. Shokai sets out to recruit at the concentration camps and few want to join him. At this point, Mustafa begins to look old and he meets his untimely and undignified end.

Mustafa Shokai aims to bring its eponymous hero back from the margins of history but this effort seems misplaced. Certainly, he was a respected leader and scholar who fought for a fading dream, but there are much more instructive historical figures among his contemporaries. This is a big budget, professional film, supported by the Kazakh government. But the message is decidedly problematic. Mustafa Shokai is a mix of historical confusion and deliberate revisionism. Is he really a convincing Kazakh hero?  One wonders how well thought out this project was; nevertheless the Romanticism of Kazakhstan prevails.  We are left with the fading voice of Maria: “… if love is the steppe.  I am your steppe.”

Michael Rouland
Miami University

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1]See online interview by Feruza Dzhani, "Kazakhstan: Fil'm o Mustafe Shokae neobkhodim ne tol'ko sovremennomu Kazakhstanu, no i vsemu tsentral'noaziatskomu regionu", 3 March 2008

Works Cited

Brower, Daniel, Turkestan and the Fate of the Russian Empire (New York, 2003).

Haugen, Arne, The Establishment of National Republics in Soviet Central Asia (New York, 2003)

Khalid, Adeeb The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (Berkeley, 1998).

Sabol, Steve “The Creation of Soviet Central Asia: 1924 National Delimitation,” Central Asian Survey 2 (1995): 225-242.

Mustafa Shokai, Kazakhstan, 2008
Color, 144 min.
Production: Kazakhfilm
Director: Satybaldy Narymbetov
Screenplay: Akim Tarazi, Ermek Tursunov, and Sergei Bodrov Sr.
Director of Photography: Hasan Kydyraliev and Murat Aliev
Production Design: Julia Levitskaia and Rustem Odinaev
Music: Kuat Shil’debaev
Producer: Kanat Torebai
Cast: Aziz Beishenaliev, Karina Abdulina

Satybaldy Narymbetov: Mustafa Shokai (2008)

reviewed by Michael Rouland © 2009

Updated: 12 Jul 09