An iconic independent theater in the capital of Uzbekistan is under threat of eviction, revealing tensions between political and economic elites while the most populous country in Central Asia undertakes rugged reforms. Tashkent changes rapidly, and a public campaign is underway to save one of the most beloved independent cultural spaces in the country.
From its beginnings, the Ilkhom Theater in Tashkent distinguished itself as an unusual place. The name of the theater means “inspiration” in Uzbek, and was founded in 1976 by Mark Weil, an artistic director who achieved something amazing: to some extent, he was able to avoid the omnipresent censorship of the time. Under Soviet rule, culture was considered as another domain of communist ideology, and its purpose was to support the line of the ruling party. In a system without a market economy, running without state subsidies was almost impossible, but Weil found a way – while maintaining a remarkable degree of independence as a leading art director.
The situation changed significantly when Uzbekistan declared its independence in 1991: unrestricted capitalism, along with unprecedented freedom of expression, toured the country. Many cultural institutions with state support went bankrupt. Once again, Weil did his magic and was able to raise the profile of the Ilkhom Theater as a renowned space for experimental drama. The theater was awarded international awards and managed to survive economically thanks to various grants, dedicated theater goers, their own coffee and drama school, and support from abroad.
When Uzbekistan changed its language policy and promoted the use of Uzbek against the formerly privileged Russian, the Ilkhom Theater also became a meeting point for Russian intellectual speakers, regardless of ethnicity.
The relative freedom of expression in most post-Soviet states in the 1990s came to an end in Uzbekistan after a series of bombings in 1999, and was cut after Andiján's turmoil in 2005. Although the While Theater managed to preserve a certain freedom, he had a great blow on September 7, 2007, when Weil was murdered. The circumstances of his murder remain unclear to date. While murderers were arrested, but some observers place their motives in the context of a conservative, predominantly Muslim society. For example, Weil's work “Imitation of the Koran”, based on a poem by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, sparked controversy in Uzbek society — just like Weil's homosexuality.
It should be noted that the actors of the Ilkhom Theater decided to act the day after the murder of Weil. They argued that the “show should go on,” which contributed to another legend around the name Ilkhom.
Enter the bulldozers
A new chapter began in the history of Uzbekistan in September 2016, when President Islam Karimov died, after three decades of government without opposition. He was succeeded by former Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The country quickly undertook a program of political and economic reforms with combined results. Although there has been some liberalization in some areas, the lack of access to justice, and censorship still profoundly affect Uzbek society.
The Ilkhom Theater has survived decades of censorship and economic turbulence, but now faces another adversary: massive urban rearrangement in the Uzbek capital. The unbridled urban development of recent years has destroyed many emblematic buildings of the Uzbek capital of the Soviet period. An example was the demolition of the House of Cinema (Дом Кино) in January 2018, construction of the Soviet era that hosted international film festivals. The Government justifies these measures as progress, as part of an action to transform the capital under the flag of the city of Tashkent, a $ 3 billion project that has turned large parts of the city into construction lots.
The Ilkhom Theater occupies part of the ground floor and basement of a larger building that also houses the Shodlik Palace hotel. On February 7, the new owners of the building, Olefos Plaza, sent a letter to the Ilkhom Theater informing them to evict the site for reconstruction work. The letter says:
Здание внешнее в неприглядном состоянии находится в центре города и своим видом портит общий облиц облица
The building has an unsightly exterior and is located in the center of the city; its current state spoils the general appearance of the capital.
The theater had a special agreement with the previous owner that guaranteed an unpaid rent until 2023, with an automatic extension of the contract for another ten years. However, the contract was replaced in 2017 when the Government took the building and sold it to the Ofelos Plaza company. Following the announcement, theater workers and supporters launched several online campaigns, such as etiquette #SaveIlkhom Y # спасемильхом in Russian on Facebook and Twitter.
In this photo published by an inhabitant of Tashkent, a girl holds a sign that says “Tashkent needs the Ilkhom Theater”:
Our young hero Trust me, we work to save this place for you! pic.twitter.com/8KF0wrQlzd
– Nikita Makarenko (@nikmccaren) February 12, 2020
Our heroine Believe me, we work to save this place for you!
A bilingual website was also launched to gain local and international support, and publish requests. But it seems that it is not just an opposition movement. Unusually, a voice calling for the preservation of the theater is that of Saida Mirziyoyeva, daughter of the current president. Mirziyoyeva, who serves as deputy director of the state foundation for mass media development, wrote on February 11:
I'd like to comment on the situation around the Ilkhom Theater. I myself am a fan of the theater and want to assure everyone that we won't forsake it! Ilkhom is the pride of our cultural life!
– Saida Mirziyoyeva (@SMirziyoyeva) February 11, 2020
I would like to comment on the situation around the Ilkhom Theater. I love theater, and I want to assure everyone that we will not leave it! Ilkhom is the pride of our cultural life!
With hope of survival
Although it seems that Mirziyoyeva's statement may have given the theater a chance to stay there since 1976, the staff is cautious. According to Deputy Director Irina Bharat, the new plan of the owners of the building is to rebuild all facilities within two years and add new floors, which means:
Это, как мы понимаем, будет означать, что понадобится рыть котлован, и наш подвал будет разрушен
As we understand it, they will have to do an excavation, which means they will destroy our basement.
Timur Karpov photographer and producer of Uzbek documentaries, told Global Voices that the story was not over:
Она, как и ее отец, имиджмейкеры, им необходимо иметь позитивный образ в глазах общественности. Сейчас все зависит от того, насколько далеко могут обе стороны зайти. Шансы отстоять есть, но если власти начнут давить на руководство театра, то они сто процентов прогнуться и скорее всего пойдут на компромисс, будут искать новое здание и возможно это затянется на годы.
(Mirziyoyeva) and his father are image creators, they need a positive image before the public. Now it all depends on how far the parts can go. There is a real chance that Ilkhom can survive, but if the authorities begin to pressure theater management, they must give up. They must reach a compromise and find a new building. The whole process will take years.
Ashot Danielyan, poet and rocker who organizes activities in the theater, believes that the theater requires formal protection from the State, and does not depend on the whims of the owners of the building:
Спасти театр можно лишь одним способом- дать ему статус неприкосновенности, как месту историчерогонорогонорогоногоногоногорогонорогон Ильхом- в переводе означает вдохновение, для меня это одно из главных вдохновляющих мест города, с 2007 года мы проводим в театре единственный постоянный рок-фестиваль в Узбекистане, без театра- может исчезнуть и целый пласт альтернативной музыки, ведь для многих молодых групп это единственная доступная площадка для выступлений.
The only way to save the theater is to make it untouchable, as a place of historical and cultural significance. “Ilkhom” means inspiration. For me, it is one of the most inspiring places in Tashkent. Since 2007, it is where we have been organizing the only rock festival in the country. Without this theater, the entire alternative music scene would disappear; For many new bands, it is the only venue available for performances.