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Uzbek Tempest in the Soc Images Teapot

January 30, 2010

Before reading this post, why don’t you look at a few images of Uzbekistan:

Do you see regular people in a beautiful but impoverished country? Or, do you see an insidious plot to defame the Uzbek homeland and insult Uzbek traditions? If the former, you are probably from the West. If the latter, then you are probably a member of the Uzbek state apparatus. Also, you probably think that the photographer deserves either six months in prison or three years of forced labor.

The Uzbek state has charged the photographer Umida Akhmedova with defamation for her photographs, which have been deemed a distortion of reality by the special commission tasked by the Uzbek prosecutor general to investigate Akhmedova’s work. When it comes to successor states, it seems that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

I sent Akhmedova’s story to Sociological Images, genuinely curious as to how they would respond. The Soc Images bloggers have keen radars for abuses of class, race, and gender in American media. Their coverage of how Americans represent other cultures can also be insightful. In particular, the authors disavow the tendency of Westerners* to “exoticize” the Other. As I mentioned in my email to Soc Images, Akhmedova’s photographs wouldn’t look out of place in National Geographic – a magazine that Soc Images has pointed out thrives on the exoticizing of distant, impoverished Others.

When Lisa blogged a piece saying as much, she was panned – sometimes vehemently – by nearly every commenter. I was surprised, inasmuch as I had never seen the Soc Images commenters respond so negatively to a post before. This mini-rebellion derived from the “on the one hand, on the other hand-ness” of Lisa’s post. This led one commenter to accuse her of suffering from “too open of a mind.”

I think the criticisms of Lisa are unfair. Read in the context of the rest of her posts, she is unambiguously not an apologist for authoritarian regimes. However, I can understand the anger directed at her post. Its mild condemnation of Uzbekistan suggests a moral equivalence between the exoticizing photographs of Akhmedova and the Uzbek state’s violation of natural rights. I think Lisa, first of all, assumed that the repugnance of the state’s actions were apparent enough as to not require elaboration. Second of all, she chose to write on the theme more familiar to her (the Othering of the Western gaze) rather than the standard operating procedure of authoritarian states. Anyway, inasmuch as my name is tied up with the offending post, I thought I’d explain why I submitted the photo series in the first place, and why I see it as sociologically telling.

Basically, I interpreted the Uzbek state’s actions in the context of everything I know about its predecessor state. The Soviet Union had a state-sanctioned art movement called socialist realism – an ironic name, given that there was nothing realistic about it. Under Stalin, artists who departed from the state line faced imprisonment and death, a fate shared by Isaac Babel and Osip Mandeslstam. Even Maxim Gorky – one of the impeccably proletarian founders of socialist realism – may have ultimately been murdered by the state.

Good literary treatments of the experience of being an artist under a regime enforcing state-sponsored culture can be found in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. If you really want to understand the absurdity of the situation, read Viktor Grossman’s Life and Fate, which explores how hard it was to be a theoretical physicist under a regime that is concerned with the social implications of quantum mechanics. (Ponder  that sentence for a second.) To summarize what I have learned from all these works, state-control of the arts is not just frustrating, in the “I want to paint like Picasso but I can’t” sense. Rather, it’s psychologically corrosive, forcing artists to adopt split personalities. This corrosion seeps into intimate relations like poison. It wasn’t fun.

Now, I know more about the Soviet Union than I do about Uzbekistan. But I know that Uzbekistan is not shy when it comes to repressive use of state power. The most grotesque example I know of is the 2005 Andijan massacre, during which the state mowed down somewhere from hundreds to thousands of its citizens. Also, Uzbekistan is objectively poor, coming in 170th in terms of GDP per capita. Uzbekistan also has a middling Gini coefficient – a lower coefficient than either the United States or Russia – suggesting that this poverty is widely distributed.

As context for the representativeness of these photos, I found the urban pictures somewhat familiar from the time I’ve spent in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s second richest city. Keep in mind that Russia is significantly wealthier than Uzbekistan, but it too is brimming with broken-down homeless men. It too has jolly-looking potbellied men going for swims around the Peter-Paul Fortress. It too has a seemingly endless supply of laborers performing menial tasks. When I went to McDonalds in Moscow (the first McDonalds to open in the former Soviet Union, I might add) I was struck by the fact that one employee had the job of wiping down the glass on the front door after every time it was used. As any economist would tell you, this is an indication of extremely cheap labor. Apparently the marginal benefit of having a continuous front-door wiper is equal to that employee’s wages. Consider how small that marginal benefit must be, and then consider how much smaller the wages must be in Taskhkent. In short, I imagine there really are a lot of street-sweepers there.

So to repeat: I was not struck by the contents of the photos. They were well-framed, colorful shots that I imagine are fairly representative of the material conditions of Uzbekistan’s non-ruling class. What I saw as sociologically significant was the pairing of the special commission’s report with these photographs. I was struck by the disconnect between what the commission saw and what I (and most Westerners) would see. The commission’s response was almost Freudian. Clearly, this is not a confident regime, but one that projects its insecurities onto innocuous artwork and then lashes out at its populace to compensate. Consider the special commission’s insight, “Interesting to note that the author likes taking images of women sweeping streets. It suggests that there are no other jobs than cleaning in our city.” A confident state would have spun these photographs as evidence of the abundance of cheap labor in Taskhkent. (“Come on in, multinationals!) But Uzbekistan is not a confident state. Furthermore, can you imagine a state that thinks it resources are better spent performing this close-reading of Akhmedova’s photographs, rather than just commissioning propaganda of its own?

But perhaps the most revealing word in the special commission’s report is “backwardness.” “Backwardness” has an important place in the Russian psychology, especially in the long-running internal debate between “Slavophiles” and “Westernizers,” and in the related debate: is Russia a European or an “Asiatic” nation? I took the prominence of “backwardness” in the charges against Akhmedova as evidence that insecurities can spread from the colonizer to the colonized, from the metropole to the periphery. In fact, I imagine that the Uzbek sense of backwardness is compounded, inasmuch as Uzbekistan feels itself backwards compared to Russia which feels itself backwards compared to the West.

This is how the photo series takes on a Rorschach quality: if you see backwardness, you were raised in a society that taught you to be acutely aware of your supposed backwardness. If you see a beautiful, foreign land, you were raised in a society that taught you to romanticize tradition, the rural, material deprivation, and the Other. And if you see an actionable crime, you were raised in a society that doesn’t shy from using domestic violence to achieve the ends of those in control of the state apparatus.

On this last point, I was struck by the Uzbek regime’s idea that clamping down on artists would somehow improve their image. Again, I interpreted this as a vestige of Uzbek’s Soviet heritage – this repressive behavior was somewhat “successful” under Stalin. However, whereas Russia has adapted to the modern world -Russia’s savvy government uses its state-run media so that uncomplimentary images are buried under mounds of this – Uzbekistan is still using pages from Stalin’s image management playbook. Thus in this unfortunate affair, Uzbek has proven its backwardness thricely: 1) It is the kind of state that violates civil rights, 2) It is a state that uses state commissions to call attention to its violation of civil rights, rather than doing so discreetly and 3) It lacks the savvy to understand the power of the Internet and free media in other countries, not realizing that Akhmedova’s photos could not be suppressed once they made it online, and that her arrest would only draw attention to the photographs they deemed so insulting.

This episode is sociologically significant because of what it teaches us about seeing like an (insecure) state, and what it tells us about the status of post-Soviet Uzbekistan. As for Umida Akhmedova, I see her as the latest victim of authoritarianism. As such, she is in sometimes prestigious, though always unfortunate, company. I sincerely hope the Uzbek government acquits her, though I have no sense how likely that might be. The United States is unlikely to put pressure on Taskhent, because it is still tip-toeing around human rights abuses in hopes of obtaining the rights to stage troops along the Afghanistan border. The country with the most leverage over Uzbekistan remains Russia – and I can’t imagine government officials there advocating passionately for freedom of speech. Her best hope, it seems to me, is that IGOs and the media keep her profile high enough that Tashkent realizes that her arrest has been a bigger embarrassment to Uzbekistan than her photography.

So there you have it: in these innocuous photos I saw object lessons in the Freudian neuroses of insecure authoritarian regimes, as well as the realpolitik that governs international relations. Not bad.

*While I sense that the Soc Images team would eschew a social construct like “Westerners,” I can’t help using it. It’s good shorthand, especially in the context of Soviet/West relations.


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