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Deplorable State of Turkmen Culture

There's never a free moment! Now President Berdymukhamedov is scolding musicians, telling them they should stop imitating world pop music, but instructing them not just to arrange folk tunes, either, the semi-official news service turkmenistan.ru reported. Whatever they manage to produce under these restrictions, musicians are mandated to use as many of Turkmenistan's 72 musical instruments as they can.

Last week, the Turkmen leader criticized Vice Premier Maysa Yazmukhammedova and the Ministry of Culture and Television and Radio Broadcasting which she oversees for "failing to realize the potentials of national culture." Who knows what the hapless official did wrong -- preparation is under way for a big song and dance festival in the Caspian resort of Avaza -- the president's pet project -- and that's why performers have fallen under his glare.

Amangul Yarova, a writer for the independent online publication ferghana.ru has taken a deeper look at Turkmenistan's culture and found it to be in a deplorable state. She mourns the flight of talented people and the heavy hand of the state on those artists who remain. Readers commenting on her piece are even more scathing; one foreigner with the first name Katerina says she spent six months in Turkmenistan and found "there is nothing but dithyrambs to the president" and the numerous new white marble buildings and lamp posts make the city feel dead; another anonymous commenter called the country "Durkmenia" using a play on the word "durak" or fool, because the citizens were kept from finding out real news.

My summary translation of Yarova's piece follows, you can find the original Russian at ferghana.ru.

Under past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, arts were censored or diminished, and the tyrant was infamous around the world for closing down ballet, opera, and the circus, claiming these were impermissible as non-indigenous. President Berdymukhamedov has energetically set about restoring a lot of the infrastructure dismantled by his predecessor and re-authorized the performing arts. He has ordered the construction of national folk museums and opened theaters in all five velayats, has increased the number of libraries from 89 to 230, and also built new children's art schools and public "houses of culture" for performances and meetings. The old Vatan movie theater was reconstructed and is now a cinema and concert hall. Yet despite the flurry of new buildings, there is a sense that substance is lacking, as the same mechanisms for state control are still in place or even increased.

Berdymukhamedov himself has constantly given upbeat speeches about the importance of the arts in his "Era of New Revival", and has even mentioned the names of some composers and traditional bards suppressed in the Niyazov period, rehabilitating them after a fashion. Even so, the dead weight of the past weighs down on any Turkmen creativity. The president hands out the highest Altyn Asyr state award to past stalwarts like USSR People's Artist Medeniyet Shakhberdieva, age 80, and Maya Kulieva, age 90, a former soloist -- and Party organizer -- of the Theater of Opera and Ballet in the Soviet era. Even at her advanced age, Kulieva still decides all issues regarding opera performances, and G. Muradov, the Ministry of Culture, does not interfere.

Various figures remain out of favor, such as Gurt Nazarov, a tenor, who was forced essentially to work in exile in Russia for 14 years after the closure of the opera in Ashgabat, and who is still not welcomed back; Shakhberdieva told him that she cannot include his performance in her anniversary concert at the orders of the Ministry of National Security. Recently Gulyaram Baltaeva, an opera singer and teacher, was dismissed from the Conservatory for taking part in a concert in Singapore where the paintings of prominent Turkmen artist Izzat Klychev were shown (his daughter lives in Singapore), an event apparently not approved by the state.

Musicians can only make careers in Turkmenistan if they have connections to the government. For example, the chamber orchestra is able to function because it is under the leadership of Rovshan Nepesov, the son of a government bureaucrat, another orchestra under the direction of prominent conductor Rasul Klychev, obtained a license thanks to Niyazov's favorite, Garold Neymark, head of the violin ensemble. The young conductor risks losing his license if his patron becomes displeased for the slightest reason.

Turkmen theater is suffering so much that the only way it can get audiences is by having soldiers and students forcibly commanded to attend performances. Third-rate comedies fill the season, but that is because nothing else can get approved. In 2008, President Berdymukhamedov established a commission for the arts under the Cabinet of Ministers which examines all art and performance projects. The commission, the membership of which is not published, is headed by Maya Mollayeva, an 80-year-old woman who served as the Communist Party's ideology czarina in Turkmenistan in the Soviet era. She rules the commission with an iron hand, deciding every performance on television or the theater, and which art exhibits and publications are allowed. She rejects Shakespeare's plays as containing too much explicit sex, and dismisses proposals for staging Russian plays, asking pointedly about the playwright's nationality, and questioning why native Turkmen artists cannot be featured. But when suggestions are made, such as to stage a puppet show based on Mollanepes, a Turkmen poet and musician of the 19th century, Mollayeva questions how his works can be played by puppets.

The Turkmen people have ancient theatrical traditions of their own. There is the art of the bakhshi, itinerant bards who sang epic works and lyrical poems, who did not just sing and play the guitar, but acted out these melodies with facial expressions and gestures that were said to affect people even more strongly than drama. Russian scholars of the bakhshi said they were able to put audiences into a trance. Today, one can still find the descendents of such performers on city squares and markets. In the Soviet era, the Turkmen theater, which staged Russian works, won praise from critics and in the 1980-1990s, there was a state-run experimental youth theater called Jan which had some successes but was ultimately discouraged. Ovlyakuli Hojakuliev, a theater director, tried to revive street theater in Turkmenistan but was ultimately forced to move to Uzbekistan to continue his performances. There are actually a number of directors, actors, playwrights and stage designers trained in Moscow who still live in Ashgabat, but they are not asked to contribute to the state theaters.

Yarova believes there is still plenty of native talent in Turkmenistan, but the most talented have moved to Russia to work. Artists fall into two categories: those willing to paint portraits of Niyazov, or “Turkmenbashi" (head of all Turkmen) as Niyazov was called, and those who were not, like Klychev. Sculptors, if they want to survive, have to take politically-sanctioned state commissions. A central park will be filled up with the busts of famous cultural figures, but the public does not know in advance which have been chosen, or by which criteria.

Not a single painting was purchased at the Union of Artists from 2001-2007, and only now are some commissions being made, but students of the art academy are set to copy the paintings of famous artists. B. Ovganov, a prominent monumental artist and graduate of the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow, was invited to participate in a project, and then replaced by a student, who could be paid less, while apparently bureaucrats pocketed the difference. "The Academy of Arts is preparing students who fulfill orders, not creators," says Yarova; exhibits are filled with patriotic works inspiring only pity, she says. As for urban architecture, the enormous numbers of street lamps have begun to irritate everyone and seem like a waste of energy.

When it comes to literature, the only person who seems to publish his books easily is President Berdymukhamedov. While there are many new library buildings, there is not a lot to fill them. The Ruhnama -- Niyazov's cult book -- has been gradually retired, but in its place are the current leader's books on medicinal plants, health and his grandfather's biography. Russian periodicals were banned in 1991, although permitted to return by President Berdymukhamedov -- but only for internal use in ministries. The general public is not allowed to read foreign publications. A journalism faculty was opened, then closed, then revived two years ago, but is strictly state controlled. There is only one state news service, the State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH), the former local division of the Soviet TASS, which is well trained in only presenting the state perspective. Increasingly, songs, books, and paintings are being made that are only about the president and his great exploits, and the legacy of Turkmen culture as well as its new innovations are in danger of extinction.

Deplorable State of Turkmen Culture

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