Weeping Willows and Dancing Dictators: Talgat Batalov on Being Uzbek

By Natalia Antonova
  • Natalia Antonova
    Natalia Antonova was born in Ukraine and grew up in North Carolina. She works as a pundit and playwright. She has written for The Guardian, Newsweek, openDemocracy, Mashable, Foreign Policy, et al. She was the last editor of The Moscow News, Russia's oldest English-language publication, before it was shut down by the government in 2014.

“In Uzbekistan, everybody has relatives everywhere. We have lots of them. We just call up some uncle, and the uncle calls up somebody’s aunt, who calls her nephew, and the vicious circle comes to an end, so you go down to whatever office you need, and you receive your necessary document.”

Now that its authoritarian president Islam Karimov passed away after over two and a half decades at the helm, Uzbekistan, the most populous country in Central Asia, may be in for some changes, useful aunties and uncles notwithstanding.

Of course, the country is likely just in for more authoritarianism in the short term. Former prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev has taken over the country for now—and he is seen as possibly even tougher than Karimov. But most analysts and observers agree that repressions in Central Asia in general, and Uzbekistan in particular, are creating a political pressure cooker that could result in uprisings and even war. Now is the time for outsiders to begin trying to understand this country, and this region.

Believe it or not, it is a stand-up routine, as in a series of dark and otherwise comedic monologues, taken verbatim from conversations with various people and performed by a single artist, based in Moscow, that will make for a fine introduction.

Talgat Batalov is a Tashkent native who came to Russia to work as an actor and director. One of his most famous achievements so far is a performance called The Uzbek, which draws on conversations recorded with everyone from Batalov’s own parents to a human rights activist to a guy who sells shawarma in a kiosk.

When Westerners hear “human rights” and “Central Asia,” they tend to expect dramatic reportage. A sea of horrors. After all, Karimov’s regime has been accused of such gruesome actions as boiling people alive, freezing them, and shooting them en masse should they dare show a hint of displeasure with the glorious leader and the system he built.

There is plenty of sadness and horror in The Uzbek, but both the text and the performance do not accentuate it, instead, they have a kind of hilarious, deadpan flatness. Everything from the grim reality of sorting out paperwork as an Uzbek immigrant in Russia to the charmingly retro way Batalov’s dad sends him handwritten letters via random travelers flying from Tashkent, is told casually, rapidly, as if Batalov is some guy who just sidled up to you in a bar and started telling you the story of his family and his two homelands over a craft beer—without sounding like someone who takes craft beer too seriously.

Prejudice against immigrants from Central Asia is a big theme of The Uzbek, on both official and informal levels. “What you served in was not an army. You think Uzbekistan has an army? What was it, you did two loops on a donkey and they gave you a military ID?” A woman at the Russian army draft office tells Batalov after he has received Russian citizenship and—completely mistakenly—assumes he will not have to serve in the Russian army.

Batalov does not despair, though. He is told he needs to give a bribe in order to make the Russian army draft go away. “How do you pick out women in charge if you’ve never given bribes before? By weight,” he says of his experience as a first-time bribe giver.

But the themes of both prejudice and corruption are not merely used for laughs. Batalov does a great job of contextualizing the broader political and economic issues surrounding both themes, by, for example, quoting Uzbek human rights advocate Bakhrom (his last name was omitted; being identified as a human rights advocate, even one that works from abroad, can have dire consequences for an Uzbek’s family back home): “Russia has plenty of organs of power that are interested in making sure that [the area of migration] is kept murky constantly and that’s always to the advantage of rings of corruption… Guest workers [who] have no rights and make no claims to normal working conditions are advantageous for Russia. You can use them in the hardest jobs and not have to pay them. That satisfies everybody, the Russian business community included.”

“Uzbeks today are not prepared for a civil society because everything around them is in ruins,” Bakhrom says later—a great, one-sentence explainer for all those people who think that the death of a dictator like Karimov means that freedom and democracy are about to triumph.

As Bakhrom correctly notes, Karimov justified his repressions to the West by claiming that all of the people who have risen against him were Islamic militants, the sort of threat that Western governments (not to mention Western voters) tend to take very seriously. Trouble is, extreme repressions can lead to more extremism—if the faltering of the Arab Spring is any indication. And by fighting more ‘terrorists’ than terrorists, Karimov may have ultimately empowered the underground jihadist movement, if ISIS recruitment efforts in the country are any indication.

In many ways, The Uzbek functions as a mirror to the frequent unintentional absurdity of authoritarianism.

*Visual ReferenceTalgat Batalov holds up his green Uzbek passport on stage during the performance, The Uzbeck (2016). When Uzbeks get Russian passports, they say they traded green for red. Image courtesy of Talgat Batalov.Talgat Batalov holds up his green Uzbek passport on stage during the performance, The Uzbeck (2016). When Uzbeks get Russian passports, they say they traded green for red. Image courtesy of Talgat Batalov.

“Uzbek TV consists of three channels,” Batalov says. “On one channel some honorable old elders in traditional skullcaps sing songs to the accompaniment of traditional instruments. They usually sit beneath a weeping willow and sing melancholy melodies, ‘ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum.’ The songs are very long, each track lasting, like, 18 minutes. How do you think you know when a different group takes over? If the weeping willow is on the right, then it’s another group.”

Things are more uncertain now for one of the other two channels, which mostly focused on the deceased Karimov, showing him dancing and giving out gifts. A third channel glorifies Uzbek athletes.

Authoritarianism is more than frequently absurd; it is consistently didactic, which is, perhaps, why The Uzbek is performed in such a relaxed, meandering manner. Nobody is hitting the audience over the head with the truth hammer. Nobody is doing the painful thing of trying to elicit laughs as if they are pulling teeth (though at the show I attended, laughs were frequent and generous). The stand-up routine has a relaxed structure, there are no well-defined punch lines, the stories and monologues run into each other, and, in fact, there is little that defines it as classic stand-up except for the fact that it is a person standing up (both physically, and, one could argue, ideologically), talking, and being genuinely funny.

When you have no means of engaging your officials and your government operates like a combination of a medieval aristocracy and an occupying force, comedy does not just provide relief from all the tension this arrangement results in, it becomes sociopolitical commentary, a medium if not for change, then at least for serious reflection.

In the West, we tend to think of comedy as a kind of ‘lower’ art form, if we consider it an art form at all. There is a reason why contemplative dramas with lots of swelling music in the background win Oscars more regularly than the very good films that eschew a dramatic soundtrack in favor of regularly making the audience laugh.

Perhaps this happens because we think of the need to laugh as something a little bit base, maybe even vulgar. We are free to poke fun at most things and people, after all. Even when we cross a line, we are just chastised, not taken to a jail cell and raped (yes, this kind of thing has also happened to people in Uzbekistan). If you have not lived under a dictator, you probably will not view laughter as a luxury, not to mention as a kind of weapon.

Batalov’s performance, however, is not meant to hit out at Uzbekistan as a nation. The most powerful part of The Uzbek has to do with the history of Batalov’s Tatar family, which was deported to Soviet Uzbekistan during World War II and wound up being taken in by ordinary Uzbeks after a horrifying journey full of danger, abuse, and deprivation.

Batalov is a performer committed to not trying too hard, which allows him room for an emotional ending. He thanks the people of Uzbekistan for saving his relatives, for allowing him to be born. The generosity of long-dead Uzbeks echoes through Batalov, transcending all political regimes, suggesting that simple generosity to the hungry and lost can outlast any dictator.

Now that Karimov is dead, Batalov has told me that he is committed to updating The Uzbek with new monologues. Of particular interest to him are Uzbeks’ emotional reactions to Karimov’s death, which Batalov believes to be genuine. “They are victims weeping for their abuser—because they can’t imagine a world without him,” he told me.

The trouble with abusers is that the pain and damage they perpetuate usually outlasts them, sometimes taking on grotesque forms in the process. A good barometer for Uzbekistan would be whether or not it eventually allows performers like Batalov to bring their acts to their native soil without fearing arrest or worse. Until then, we can confidently say that Karimov’s death changed nothing.