The Artful Exile from Dushanbe : First Davlat Khudonazarov Lost the Presidency of His Beloved Tajikistan, Then He Lost Everything Else. Forced Into Exile, the Charismatic Filmmaker and Politician May Be His Country’s Great Hope for Unity
On a crisp winter morning last February, many of Washington’s ranking gurus in the ways and wiles of the old Soviet Union slipped out of offices at government agencies, think tanks and universities to gather at Georgetown’s arty Biograph movie theater. The occasion was a screening of “First Morning of Youth,” a 14-year-old film in Russian shot in the remote Pamir Mountains of the Himalayas about the human impact of the 1917 communist revolution--a revolution now distinctly over.
The film might have seemed passe, except that it was made by Davlat Khudonazarov, the charismatic chairman of the Filmmakers’ Union in Moscow who has emerged from the Soviet ashes as one of the region’s new political stars. Indeed, his record in mixing politics and art over the past five years would shame any of Hollywood’s activists.
“In his kind of artistic and political activism, the stakes are much higher,” said Blair Ruble, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies. “At every point of his life, he’s been pushing the envelope further and further, first in terms of artistic expression and then in politics. And he’s never wavered, despite the odds.”
Artistically, Khudonazarov’s haunting movies are best described as a cross between Steven Spielberg’s portrayal of history’s obscenities in “Schindler’s List” and Robert Altman’s portrait of human foibles in “Short Cuts.” Because of their searing morality and simple human settings, the New Republic described his films as “touchingly poetic in the manner of Satyajit Ray,” the great Indian director.
For “First Morning,” Khudonazarov won two of the 15 major film prizes he’s accumulated from both the Soviet Union and his native Tajikistan over a 28-year career. French critic Jean Radvanyi cited the film as an example of a new genre: “The poetic metaphor, particular to the Tajik national mind, gave birth to classic grand works, as poetic as they are epic.”
“First Morning” also won wide praise from Washington’s experts on the region. “In lyrical feeling and cinematographic technique, it ranks with any of the films that have received Academy Award nominations for best foreign film in recent years,” said Harley Balzer, director of Russian Area Studies at Georgetown University.
Politically, Khudonazarov has been widely compared by the Western press to Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia’s foremost playwright who became his country’s first freely elected president. Khudonazarov first emerged in the late 1980s as a reformist in the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet as both went through the pangs of change and eventual self-dissolution. After the union broke up in 1991, he was then drafted by the new Democratic Party to run for president of Tajikistan, the poorest and southernmost of the 15 former Soviet republics.
He had widespread support, ranging from the labor movement to the Islamic Renaissance Party, and it was easy to see why. A man of immense energy with an endearing smile and talkative hands, Khudonazarov looks like an artist but can talk like a learned politician. His black hair is slightly long and shaggy, his dark beard tipped with white. When he smiles, as he does often, the still strong youthfulness in his face makes him look almost impish; when he’s serious, his deep brown eyes turn soulful. Either way, he’s accessible, candid and generally simpatico.
Unlike Havel, however, he lost the 1991 presidential election. Of seven candidates, he finished second in a contest that experts both in and outside the region believe was rigged against him. The election was won by the Communist Party--the only one in any of the former Soviet republics defiantly still ruling under its original name.
Within weeks, the tensions that played out before and during the election disintegrated into what still ranks as the most violent war in any of the former Soviet republics. Up to 50,000 Tajiks have been killed and half a million--or 10% of the 5 million population--forced to flee into the countryside, to neighboring Afghanistan or to Moscow. Among the new refugees were Khudonazarov and his family.
Late last year, the war waned as the government consolidated its hold with the help of Russian troops and, according to the international human rights group Helsinki Watch, “gross violations of human rights,” including summary executions, disappearances and actions by paramilitary groups that “openly terrorize” suspected Tajik dissidents. Tajikistan now has a reputation as the most ruthless regime spawned by the union’s demise.
But Khudonazarov hasn’t given up. He is still campaigning for democratic change even though he has to do it on the run--exiled from his country and robbed of his home, belongings, resources and even his precious films. For the Biograph showing, he had to borrow a copy from a Moscow museum.
I FIRST MET KHUDONAZAROV IN DUSHANBE, THE TAJIK CAPITAL, IN 1991. I was on a tour of the five republics in Central Asia shortly after the abortive August coup against Mikhail S. Gorbachev that was the death knell for the Soviet Union. The five little “stans” with tongue-twisting names--which included Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan--had just declared independence from Moscow, ending more than 150 years of Russian imperial and then Soviet communist rule. Open to visitors for the first time, they were exotic new places waiting to be discovered by the outside world.
Tajikistan was my last stop. Despite the sterile Stalinesque architecture and the imposed Russian language and culture in each capital, Central Asia had managed to defy Russian absorption. The look and feel of the region--waist-high gladioli in city parks, vast cotton fields or rugged mountains still populated by nomadic herdsmen in the countryside, bright ethnic dress and a sunny, temperate climate--are quite distinct. So are the people. Unlike the residents of their European sister republics, the Tajiks and their ethnic brethren are truly Asian. Their features reflect the widely varying mixture of Indo-European, Turkic and Mongol tribes and traders that for centuries roamed the steppes and the ancient Silk Route from China through Central Asia and the Mideast to Europe. They are also predominantly Muslim, and many are now in the process of rediscovering their Sunni faith.
For the Soviets as well as the earlier Russian monarchy, keeping Tajikistan and its Central Asian sisters in line was always an issue. In the 1920s, after a series of uprisings, Stalin arbitrarily divided legendary Turkestan into five separate republics to prevent a lasting pan-Turkic or pan-Islamic bloc from emerging inside the southern Soviet frontier. Then he forcibly moved millions of Russians to “settle,” administer and effectively Russify Central Asia. Yet throughout its existence, the Soviet Union’s sharpest internal split remained between the European provinces and the Asian republics.
When I arrived in the Tajik capital, Khudonazarov, who was in the throes of campaigning for the presidency, most personified the excitement and expectations then in the air. On the back stairs outside an old house used by the local labor movement--where the biggest poster was of Arnold Schwarzenegger--we began a conversation that would resume again and again over the next three years. During that first meeting, Khudonazarov reflected briefly on the ironies in an erratic career that led him to become the premier democrat in Tajikistan and one of the first in all the old union.
“Until I ran for the presidency, the most dramatic moment in my life was in 1956, during the 12th Congress of the Communist Party, when Stalin was disgraced,” he recalled. “I was a teen-ager and it was a very hard moment for me. I believed in Stalin. I was brought up in the Tajik mountains, the son of peasants, living the life of a shepherd. Up in those mountains, Stalin was a god. All of a sudden, he turned out to be bad.”
We talked about his platform, of his hopes to reconcile European and Islamic cultures as the basis for coexistence both internally and regionally. He explained the need to devolve power from Dushanbe’s clannish elite to Tajikistan’s diverse and often rival provinces. And he outlined economic reforms to attract European as well as nearby Asian interest and investment.
He was realistic, however, about the depth of independent Tajikistan’s problems. “We don’t have proper sovereignty yet. We’ll need something like the Marshall Plan to revive this republic and to eventually achieve real independence. If we gain economic freedom, political freedom will follow,” he said.
The biggest obstacle to democracy was indeed Tajikistan’s pervasive poverty. An average Tajik earned less than half of a Russian’s income in 1988. By 1991, Tajikistan accounted for less than 1% of the Soviet economic output.
Tajikistan, which is 90% mountains, was always the least developed region of the Soviet Union. During my visit, Dushanbe had a worn feeling about it, from crumbling roads to low-wattage bulbs in public buildings that made rooms dim even during daylight hours. Although the other Central Asian capitals were flowing with local agricultural produce, Dushanbe’s open-air market had pitifully little. Bread lines were starting to be a problem. And if its department stores were any guide, Dushanbe, the most distant capital from Moscow, seemed to be a dumping ground. Rural areas of Tajikistan were less polluted, congested and crumbling, but visiting them was like going back in time.
Resources were so scarce that candidate Khudonazarov had little more than pocket money to pay for a presidential race in a country almost four times the size of Switzerland. He had no paid support staff. But the problem wasn’t just finances. Publicity videotapes made at state-owned television turned out--always “accidentally"--to be blank or to have other technical problems when they were supposed to be broadcast. Khudonazarov also had trouble just getting campaign posters, which local companies refused to print. “They had all worked for the Communist Party. So for me, they were otherwise engaged,” he explained, with a wry grin.
Khudonazarov was also realistic about the enduring hold of the old communists. “Decolonialization will take 10 or 15 years. We know for sure that the way will be difficult,” he predicted. “On the one hand, we have the forces of renewal, and on the other the hanging on of a feudal regime and the nomenklatura. The battle won’t end with the election.”
His local fame and his winsome character probably made Khudonazarov the only person who had any hope of succeeding. “Davlat played a heroic role in standing up and running as an opposition candidate,” remarked the Smithsonian Institution’s Blair Ruble.
“The government had never faced opposition. And had he not run, there probably wouldn’t have been a serious candidate. But in so doing, he put his life on the line.”
KHUDONAZAROV’S FORAY INTO POLITICS PARALLELS HIS FILM CAREER. Indeed, the two often intersect. The obstructions in both would have exhausted lesser men, although getting him to talk about the ordeals isn’t easy.
“My first film in 1966 was a 10-minute short called ‘Lullaby’ about life in the Pamir Mountains. I thought it was lyrical and warm. The critics said it marked the beginning of poetry in film in Tajikistan. It showed village life--people dressed as they really were, dirty and working in the fields,” he told the audience at the Biograph theater. “I didn’t think it was negative. But it was banned as anti-Soviet.
“At the time, all documentaries showed the sunny side of life. There were parades, people were well-dressed and well-shaven. And every film that had been done before on the Pamirs was about people in colorful clothing happily collecting the harvest--like it was a festival. That was the kind of image that the government wanted to present.”
Khudonazarov’s “Lullaby,” with its subliminal focus on Tajikistan’s ancient Pamiri mountain culture, was also exactly what Moscow and its surrogates in Dushanbe most feared. The government burned all copies.
Only 22 at the time, Khudonazarov had already proven to be an exception. He was admitted to the All Union Institute of Film in Moscow at age 16. But because of “Lullaby,” the government didn’t even let his next film get off the ground. It was to be a documentary about the millions who perished in Stalin’s massive purges in the 1930s. Khudonazarov had spent a year buried in state archives personally researching several cases, including one about Tajikistan’s first leader, who was also the first Tajik to be purged.
The idea behind the unmade movie clearly preoccupied him. But it wasn’t until one of our final talks that he mentioned another morsel from his research. In the archives, he also uncovered information about his own family--grandparents who had been shot and parents who, as children, had been separated and dispatched to camps for “children of the enemies of the people.”
“I’ve always been intrigued with history and its lessons,” he said, in explaining why he’d chosen this subject for his first full-length film. “I wanted people to know the truth and to tell them about the people who had been forgotten. The lack of knowledge separates generations from each other. Knowledge connects people.”
With his first film destroyed and his second banned, Khudonazarov spent the next 13 years restricted to lower-level jobs as director of photography on nine films and 15 documentary shorts. He finally got a break in 1978, when Moscow television gave permission to shoot “First Morning.” It won rave reviews.
Not surprisingly, Khudonazarov had resisted the Communist Party throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. “They asked me to join many times, but each time I said no. I thought I was so rebellious that I’d be fired,” he said, chuckling. But in 1982, after a friend advised him that prospects of making his own films would probably end if he turned down another “invitation,” he finally signed up. “I also thought I could make a difference inside the party. I decided I was ready to fight the conservatives in the party. So I became the opposition inside it.”
This didn’t end his professional problems. In 1984, he directed a documentary on the history of Tajikistan. It, too, was promptly banned. Tajik Communist Party boss Rakhman Nabiyev said the film, which ran 90 minutes, was too long.
But as reform swept the Kremlin in the late ‘80s, Khudonazarov’s star rose. For a change, he had the right credentials. In 1989, he was elected to the Soviet Parliament. In 1990, he was named to the Supreme Soviet’s Committee on Science, Public Education and Culture. Forced to put his films on hold, he told a Western journalist at the time that he felt “as if I’m neglecting one of my children.”
But he lasted less than two years. After the August, 1991, putsch against Gorbachev, he quit the party in frustration and anger. “Democratizing the party turned out to be too hard a task. The party’s reactionary essence led to its inevitable demise,” he told me two months later.
Khudonazarov was ready to go back to making movies full time, and he had plenty to do with the Soviet Filmmakers’ Union, which had elected him chairman in 1990. Then the Soviet Union fell into 15 independent pieces, and he instead found himself running for the presidency against Communist Party candidate Nabiyev--the old party boss who’d banned his films.
In the end, he lost and, for the time being, so did democracy in Tajikistan. By official count, Khudonazarov won 30.5% of the vote, Nabiyev 57%.
Afterward, he urged reconciliation. “I gave speeches and said, whether we like the new president or not, he is elected. And while he is the first, he will not be the last. We have to find legal paths to build a civil society and a legitimate government,” he explained. Khudonazarov returned to Moscow, where he was asked to stay on as chairman of the new Confederation of Filmmakers’ Unions.
But as trouble, including secessionist demands, spiraled in the first half of 1992, Tajik politicians and friends appealed to him to return and help mediate. “He had been in the hospital with a heart problem, but they said they needed his help, so he went anyway,” said his wife, Gavhar Djuraeva, who has collaborated on some of her husband’s films.
“For almost a month, he went to the places where there was trouble or fighting to speak to both sides. It was terribly dangerous because not everyone wanted peace. Four times they tried to kill him. I remember how he’d call me at 3 a.m. or 6 a.m. and say, ‘See, I’m still alive.’ But eventually he got them around a peace table. After that, many prisoners were freed.”
According to Nancy Lubin, a Central Asian specialist at the Center for Post-Soviet Studies, “Davlat has that rare combination of impressive, creative intellect and enormous political skill. As confrontation among the former communists and opposition democratic and Islamic factions intensified, he became the only mediator with whom all of the warring parties were willing to talk.”
But the ceasefire lasted only a month, as the Tajik president undermined his efforts. Tensions there disintegrated into full-scale war. Then, shortly after his last trip in December, 1992, Khudonazarov was indicted in absentia for inciting rebellion--despite an earlier parliamentary commendation for his peace efforts. The charges carry a death sentence.
“He became a symbol of the opposition against the government,” Lubin said. “The debate centered around him. So he became a target.”
In subsequent government raids on his home, his films were seized and destroyed--and much of his life’s work disappeared.
WHEN THE RUSSIAN PRESS REPORTED LAST YEAR THAT HIT MEN WERE pursuing Khudonazarov as far as Moscow, the director-politician was at the San Francisco Film Festival.
He later reflected that attending the festival probably saved him and his family, including his son and daughter. “There are many members of the Tajik parliament, including the former speaker, the one who ordered Lenin’s statue taken down after independence, who have since disappeared,” he said. “Nobody knows what happened to them. The speaker is believed to be dead, although no one has found his body.”
With the help of friends, Khudonazarov stayed in the United States. He’s now a guest scholar at the Kennan Institute, and will be a Peace Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace this fall. Some experts believe he may not be safe even in the United States. But he refuses to seek asylum, so he can maintain Tajik citizenship and return home.
He misses the sources of inspiration the most.
“Especially for an artist, living in the spirituality of one’s homeland is everything,” he said one afternoon in Washington. “It’s my father, my mother, the air, the trees. It’s the songs and dances. And the fact that I’ve been torn away from them is the most difficult thing.” Yet he spoke more with frustration than anger.
“There’s a special quality about Davlat that combines sophistication and simplicity in a way you can’t forget,” Ruble said. “He is clearly someone who has strong principles and beliefs by which he lives. There are a few remarkable human beings like that, and you feel it when you’re in his presence.”
In Washington, he’s still working on Tajikistan’s political crisis. He’s met with leading U.S. policy-makers. He speaks to foreign affairs groups or anyone else who’ll listen. And he’s studying.
“I often think about my presidential campaign platform. We knew what we wanted to do, but we didn’t know how to do it. I want to understand how the democratic system works--the mechanisms from the ground level to the top,” he explained. But Khudonazarov claims he has no further personal political ambitions and that he’s quit running for office, adding: “Once I have this knowledge, of how practically to produce change, I’d like to work with whoever is interested. Then I’d be happy to make my movies again.”
I once asked Khudonazarov about his favorite film.
“ ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ” he said.
“Because of the absurdities and injustice?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “Because of the freedom.”