Kazakhstan: Magic realism meets socialist realism on the Almaty stage
Shahmardan Comes Out of the Well addresses a topic still harrowing for Kazakhstan a century on: the famine unleashed when the Soviets embarked on the collectivization of agriculture.
Kazakh villagers sit in the dark chewing over some astounding news from the town.
Someone is coming to take away their only means of survival.
“It is, what do you call it, a class struggle, you see,” explains one.
“A struggle with the Kazakhs,” suggests another.
It is 1928, and the Communists are marching across the steppe to bring their brave new world to the nomads.
“Your time of roaming is finished,” yells a revolutionary, as figures clad in balaclavas march into the village, howling like wolves, and surround the yurts where the nomads dwell. “The young republic needs your meat and cattle.”
This opening scene of Shahmardan Comes Out of the Well, which premiered at the experimental Transforma theater in Almaty in early December, sets the tone: magic realism meets socialist realism.
The play addresses a topic still harrowing for Kazakhstan a century on: the famine unleashed when the Soviets embarked on the collectivization of agriculture, herding the nomads into collective farms and requisitioning their food.
“The topic concerns every Kazakh,” Nygmet Ibadildin, the playwright, told Eurasianet after a performance.
“Kazakhstan suffered from the famine. In every family, someone suffered from the famine. In our family, people definitely suffered from the famine. It seemed to me that this trauma is not articulated. It needs to be written about. If we hush it up, we are just driving all these traumas inside.”
This is not the first play about the famine staged in Kazakhstan. But this dramatic retelling — the name of which alludes to the deep pits into which the Soviets cast their murdered victims in the play — is certainly the most inventive take yet.
The four actors speak in two languages, Kazakh and Russian, rapidly interspersed to add to the sense of dislocation permeating the action. The mingling of the brutal with the fantastical — ghosts, resurrections and sorcery abound — lend the drama a dreamlike quality.
Translations appear on a screen onto which images are also projected. A painting by Kazakh artist Abilkhan Kasteyev depicts a train steaming into Kazakhstan from Russia on the Turksib railway as nomads on horseback look on. It is a powerful evocation of how the arrival of Soviet power upended an ancient way of life.
Live music performed on a two-stringed dombyra and a violin lead into a discordant techno interlude produced onstage by DJ Acell Shaldibayeva, a resident of the queer-friendly rave space bULt, which collaborated on the performance with the Egin cultural initiative.
That scene is one of several jarring anachronisms buttressing the sense that this is not purely a historical play. It is, instead, something concerning the here and now.
We are in a “time loop,” Katya Dzvonik told Eurasianet. She co-directed the play with Kesha Bashinsky, a Russian actor who moved to Kazakhstan after Russia’s embarked on its full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.
As the techno blares out, Shahmardan, the eponymous lead played by Bekarys Seri, dons a mini-skirt and high heels to perform a Vogue dance, which evolved out of New York gay clubs in the 1980s.
“The rave scene is a representation of different forms of social protest,” Dzvonik explained.
The episode suggests a spirit of resistance amid the standoff between the villagers and soldiers who have come to collectivize them, while also reminding the viewer of the modern-day fight for individual rights.
Techno features here because its culture is all about “the practice of resistance to systems of oppression,” Shaldibayeva told Eurasianet. That includes “the fight for the right to self-identification.”
Elsewhere, a Soviet commissar played by Izya Berkman breaks into a surreal song featuring a refrain hailing the revolutionaries “Lenin, Stalin and Bukharin.” Shahmardan’s wife Korlan, played by Ayganym Ramazan, sings the chorus in a high-pitched tone that evokes the mind-numbing effect of repetitive propaganda.
Duman Nursila plays Karasart, a Kazakh revolutionary zealot who is fond of making remarks such as: “Soviet power is my wife. My father is Lenin. And my mother is Karl Marx!”
“There are no more Kazakhs,” he tells Shahmardan, seemingly presaging the eradication of the nomadic way of life through collectivization and the demise of an estimated 1.5 million Kazakhs, fully one-quarter of the fledgling republic's population, who starved to death. “I am a Communist Bolshevik! And you are the dirt on my boots of world revolution!”
For all his evil actions, Karasart is a “tragic figure,” Ibaldidin suggested. He “represents all those red Kazakhs who actively supported Soviet power,” but were “horrified” when it brought death and destruction in its wake.
This play is being staged against the backdrop of a broader conversation about the impact of Russian colonialism in Kazakhstan.
Ibadildin wrote the play before the war in Ukraine began, but the production was rehearsed after the invasion began, as the cast and directors explained during an animated post-performance discussion with an engaged audience of about 60, mainly young, people.
The conflict inevitably impacted the staging, but the team did not want it to become an overarching theme. However, these “questions of colonial oppression, questions of imperialism” that the play raises are highly relevant to the present day given what Russia is doing in Ukraine, Bashinsky told Eurasianet.
Bashinsky hopes the play “will become a subject of conversation, so that people can articulate something, express something, express themselves, and hear each other in the process.”
The show concludes with a monumental piece of theatre.
Shahmardan, Karasart and the commissar rise from the ground after a final desperate battle.
Bare-chested and smothered in dirt and blood, the three morph into a socialist realist statue that resembles Almaty’s hulking Soviet-era war memorial.
“The final statue scene to me is a foreshadowing of the immense horror of the upcoming world war, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the coming of ruthless imperialism that we’re living in now,” explained Dzvonik. “So, in a way, the final scene is the horror of anticipation of the future, at the same time knowing it already happened.”
Ibadildin bats away suggestions that such overtly political theater is risky in authoritarian Kazakhstan, which remains a Russian ally, although it has refrained from explicitly condoning the invasion of Ukraine.
“Art is always political,” he shrugged.
Shahmardan Comes Out of the Well airs topics that Kazakhstan needs to debate, like the famine and the colonial past, said the playwright.
“It’s better to talk about it, work through it, understand, live through it again, empathize with everything that happened. Through suffering comes realization and understanding and liberation, and, to some degree, reconciliation with these traumas.”