On a crisp winter morning last February, many of Washington's ranking gurus in the ways and wiles of the old Soviet Union slipped out of offices at government agencies, think tanks and universities to gather at Georgetown's arty Biograph movie theater. The occasion was a screening of "First Morning of Youth," a 14-year-old film in Russian shot in the remote Pamir Mountains of the Himalayas about the human impact of the 1917 communist revolution--a revolution now distinctly over.
The film might have seemed passe, except that it was made by Davlat Khudonazarov, the charismatic chairman of the Filmmakers' Union in Moscow who has emerged from the Soviet ashes as one of the region's new political stars. Indeed, his record in mixing politics and art over the past five years would shame any of Hollywood's activists.
"In his kind of artistic and political activism, the stakes are much higher," said Blair Ruble, director of the Smithsonian Institution's Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies. "At every point of his life, he's been pushing the envelope further and further, first in terms of artistic expression and then in politics. And he's never wavered, despite the odds."
Artistically, Khudonazarov's haunting movies are best described as a cross between Steven Spielberg's portrayal of history's obscenities in "Schindler's List" and Robert Altman's portrait of human foibles in "Short Cuts." Because of their searing morality and simple human settings, the New Republic described his films as "touchingly poetic in the manner of Satyajit Ray," the great Indian director.
For "First Morning," Khudonazarov won two of the 15 major film prizes he's accumulated from both the Soviet Union and his native Tajikistan over a 28-year career. French critic Jean Radvanyi cited the film as an example of a new genre: "The poetic metaphor, particular to the Tajik national mind, gave birth to classic grand works, as poetic as they are epic."
"First Morning" also won wide praise from Washington's experts on the region. "In lyrical feeling and cinematographic technique, it ranks with any of the films that have received Academy Award nominations for best foreign film in recent years," said Harley Balzer, director of Russian Area Studies at Georgetown University.
Politically, Khudonazarov has been widely compared by the Western press to Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia's foremost playwright who became his country's first freely elected president. Khudonazarov first emerged in the late 1980s as a reformist in the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet as both went through the pangs of change and eventual self-dissolution. After the union broke up in 1991, he was then drafted by the new Democratic Party to run for president of Tajikistan, the poorest and southernmost of the 15 former Soviet republics.
He had widespread support, ranging from the labor movement to the Islamic Renaissance Party, and it was easy to see why. A man of immense energy with an endearing smile and talkative hands, Khudonazarov looks like an artist but can talk like a learned politician. His black hair is slightly long and shaggy, his dark beard tipped with white. When he smiles, as he does often, the still strong youthfulness in his face makes him look almost impish; when he's serious, his deep brown eyes turn soulful. Either way, he's accessible, candid and generally simpatico.
Unlike Havel, however, he lost the 1991 presidential election. Of seven candidates, he finished second in a contest that experts both in and outside the region believe was rigged against him. The election was won by the Communist Party--the only one in any of the former Soviet republics defiantly still ruling under its original name.
Within weeks, the tensions that played out before and during the election disintegrated into what still ranks as the most violent war in any of the former Soviet republics. Up to 50,000 Tajiks have been killed and half a million--or 10% of the 5 million population--forced to flee into the countryside, to neighboring Afghanistan or to Moscow. Among the new refugees were Khudonazarov and his family.
Late last year, the war waned as the government consolidated its hold with the help of Russian troops and, according to the international human rights group Helsinki Watch, "gross violations of human rights," including summary executions, disappearances and actions by paramilitary groups that "openly terrorize" suspected Tajik dissidents. Tajikistan now has a reputation as the most ruthless regime spawned by the union's demise.
But Khudonazarov hasn't given up. He is still campaigning for democratic change even though he has to do it on the run--exiled from his country and robbed of his home, belongings, resources and even his precious films. For the Biograph showing, he had to borrow a copy from a Moscow museum.