On Saturday, appealing to the audience after a showing of “Peri’s Love,” members of the Mayakovsky Theater company announced that its actors had signed letters of resignation as a protest against the historic theater’s demolition and the transfer of the company to a cinema in the city’s southern outskirts.
“We’re doing everything we can from our side, but we’re not being heard,” one actor said. “We’d like to ask you, dear audience, for your support on social media networks…if there are any journalists present here, please write about it.” On their way out, audience members, seeing that I was carrying a camera, approached me and begged me to publicize the theater’s plight.
Later, it became clear that although the actors had contemplated resigning en masse as a form of protest, they ultimately decided they to join the company at Tajikistan Cinema after they are expelled from their current premises on May 1. Other parts of the actors’ plea, however, are worth examining.
The faith of the theater company and their audience in the power of the media, and the power of popular dissent expressed on social media networks, is astounding in a country where citizens have been fined for their Facebook posts. Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) has charted Tajikistan’s rapidly declining press freedom: In the agency’s annual press freedom scorecard, Tajikistan fell 34 places in 2016, to 150th out of 180 countries ranked, compared to the country’s 2015 score. That puts Tajikistan just one step above Turkey, a country notorious for targeting journalists. “Interrogation by intelligence officers, intimidation and blackmail have become part of the daily fare of independent journalists” in Tajikistan, RSF writes.
The audience members’ insistence that the Russian Embassy might be able to play some role in preserving the theater is also surprising, given that fact that Russia has been waging a steadily more intense anti-Tajik campaign in the past year. Yesterday, Russia suspended Tajik participation in a program that made it easier for citizens of post-USSR states to obtain Russian citizenship. In 2015, Russia instituted a language policy that has made it increasingly difficult for Tajik migrant laborers to enter the country legally. As many as 400,000 Tajiks are banned from re-entering Russia for up to ten years, as a result of visa infractions or overstays.
Yet despite the growing tension between Tajikistan and the Russian Federation, the Mayakovsky Theater is still elevated by its supporters as “the last island of Russian culture remaining here,” according to an audience member. “People [at the Mayakovsky Theater] speak Russian! A lot of people go to Russia to work, and this theater is where they learn the Russian language from!”
In the past seven years, since authorities nixed Russian as one of the country’s official languages, the Tajik language has been on the rise. By official measures, fewer and fewer Tajiks have been learning Russian, and fewer of those learn Russian well — a trend that impinges upon labor migrants’ abilities to get a job outside of Tajikistan.
Yet Russian has not been replaced by Tajik as the primary language of the social and political elite. Many upwardly-mobile Tajiks speak very little Tajik at all, and are instead fluent in Russian, and often English. Many patrons of the Mayakovsky Theater are drawn from this social tier, lending claims that the theater’s utility lies in its services to would-be migrant laborers a slightly facetious tint.
But the theater also serves as a safe haven for the aging man in a joma and shrunken Kyrgyz hat who rode in on a bus to catch a show from his village, for the two female residents of a retirement home who pleaded with me to publish this story on a local media outlet, and for the primary-school children in rural Tursunzoda district who could recognize Mayakovsky actors on sight when they found photos from the theater on my camera.
All told, the destruction of the Mayakovsky Theater lies at a crux of several strands of current events in Tajikistan: An increasingly autocratic government, neo-Tajik nationalism, urban development, labor migration and the rising power of an outward-looking generation well-versed in social media. I have wondered over and over, recently, why I am following this story, an exceptionally normal story — buildings are destroyed every day — carried out largely in a language I cannot speak. But this is why. Gathered up in this story like the folds in a sheet are the keynotes of what it means to live in Tajikistan today.