Arts during the War: Central Asia

Central Asian art during the Second World War (1941–1945) provides an excellent point of departure for analysis of contemporary trends in the development of literature and art.

This brief looks at the cultural development in the Soviet republics of Central Asia during the Second World War. It focuses on official art only, as the work of dissidents (ethnocratic liberals, religious non-conformists, etc.) and of ethnic diasporas was not part of the Allies’ cultural mainstream.

During the war, opinion leaders in the Central Asian republics found themselves needing to construct a negative image of the enemy (fascists, Nazis, occupiers), on the one hand, and a positive view of the Allies (the anti-Hitler coalition), on the other. In this time of hardship, hate and mercilessness toward the enemy became normalized.

At the heart of Central Asian art in this period were three prominent artists from the region, who were united by multilingualism and a focus on the cultures of Persia, India, Turkey, and Central Asia. They all lived in Tashkent, Samarkand, Dushanbe, and Bukhara and belonged to the cultural elites. Usto Shirin Muradov (1880–1957), Sadriddin Aini (1878–1954), and Mukhtar Ashrafi (1912–1975) were unique creators who produced unique works.

Usto Shirin Muradov

was a ganchkor (an engraver who worked with clay and plaster) from Bukhara.

Having worked for the emir of Bukhara during the pre-Soviet era and made a name for himself by decorating the Turkmen, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek all-Union exhibition pavilions under the USSR, he was—by the time of the war—a renowned engraver, a popular architect, and an honorary member of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences.

During the war, he taught in both Samarkand and Tashkent at schools preparing civil engineering specialists. It was at this time that Muradov completed his seminal work, The Art of Ganch Engraving, which has unfortunately since been lost.

Bukhara Hall of the Navoi State Opera and Ballet Theater decorated by Muradov (Source)
Bukhara Hall of the Navoi State Opera and Ballet Theater decorated by Muradov (Source)

Among Muradov’s best wartime works of art is the Mukimi theater in Beshagach (Tashkent). The building was an experiment with the Muslim Gothic style, while Muradov’s decoration was an absolutely astonishing combination of national traditions, European styles, and individual inspiration.

One of the buildings of the Mukimi theater in Tashkent

This building is a good example of military art. The architecture and decoration of the theater in Beshagach was in fact a major, forced turn away from dictatorial taste and imperial style—a kind of creative feat depicting the clash of Stalinism and Hitlerism. The decoration of the building originally included numerous military elements (stars, flags, helmets, images of soldiers, etc.).

Other examples of this style are the Tashkent clock (1947), decorated by Muradov, and East Prussian trophy clocks.

Lazar Rempel (1907–1992), a professor and art expert who knew Muradov very well, wrote that Muradov was for a long time unfamiliar with Western concepts and devices, such as orthogonality, axonometry, and Whatman paper. European authors, for their part, were not familiar with the artistic devices deployed by Muradov.
Tashkent clock (Source)

Sadriddin Aini

By the time the Second World War broke out, Sadriddin Aini was already considered a renowned philologist and a pioneer of modern Tajik literature. Even before the revolution, he had been a member of a secret society of writers and enlighteners and “a reader of seditious Turkish newspapers,” a transgression for which he was lashed and banished from the Bukharan emirate. Evidently, therefore, Aini was quite experienced in non-conformism. This would help him during the early Soviet period, when he and other talented authors had to obscure the European influences on their writing by adding national color.

In Central Asia during the war, archaeology and philology were the realms of liberal arts that saw the greatest development. This is credited, at least in part, to evacuations, which brought Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian scientists to Central Asia.

The war compelled poets and writers to search even harder for new forms of writing and their own place in the fight against fascism, developing positive and negative images in national history. As a result, Aini became interested in modern literature theory and acquainted himself with literary translators who had been evacuated from Tashkent and Samarkand.

Tajik wartime authors married the colloquial and literary languages in their writings. Aiming for comprehensibility and simplicity, they used historical allegories to appeal to the past. They condemned Hitler by comparing him to Genghis Khan and recollected the feat of the folk hero Al-Muqana as a positive event with resonance in the contemporary period.

In the same spirit, they deployed zoomorphism to depict the enemy: a tailless donkey is used for the Italian dictator Mussolini, while Soviet “satellite” states are compared to lackeys and jackals, and fascists to tigers.

As he had during the Civil War, Aini turned to journalism during the Second World War, creating a number of successful feuilletons and pamphlets. These included “Tailmill Ass,” “Reeker,” and “Seven-headed Daeva,” among others. By using national and even religious motifs, he was able to speak to a general audience, for instance comparing Hitler to a “dog that desecrated the mosque.” (This type of religious imagery was permitted during the war and shortly thereafter, as Stalin was compelled to allow a degree of religious expression.)

Today, Aini is a national hero in Tajikistan. The ballet theater is named after him, while banknotes bear his image.

Another area that may be interesting for historians and art experts is wartime music. The total number of Uzbek “defense choirs and solo songs,” as they were called at the time, reached 400 by 1943.

Mukhtar Ashrafi

Mukhtar Ashrafi’s “Heroic Symphony”—the first Uzbek piece of its kind—was performed for the first time on November 4, 1942 in Tashkent. Experts are familiar with the heroic symphonies of many composers—Beethoven, Huber, Petrides… Among these, Ashrafi’s Symphony No.1 stands out: it was the first Uzbek composition created for an orchestra and reflected an artful assimilation of styles and a mature conception of imagery.

The symphony received the Stalin Award in 1943 (Ashrafi donated the prize money to the construction of an airplane and a tank for the war effort). The government of Uzbekistan, for its part, presented the musician with a treasured possession: a Jakob Becker grand piano that has been preserved to this day.

Newspaper reports indicate that Ashrafi’s symphony was performed in the US in 1945, conducted by Mark Goberman. Later, an American broadcasting company released mass records of the symphony. These two facts serve as evidence that Ashrafi’s work had a significant place in the cultural space of states that belonged to the anti-Hitler coalition.

During the war, Ashrafi also wrote the “Triumphant March” and Symphony No.2 (“Glory to the Victors!”).

The story of wartime arts and cross-cultural connections in Central Asia would be incomplete without mentioning the film “Nasreddin in Bukhara,” which received a national award. Ashrafi, who co-authored the music, recalled in later years that working with Yakov Protazanov (1881–1945) and lead actor Lev Sverdlin (1901–1969) had taught him a lot. (Note that Alma-Ata was the cinematographic capital of the Soviet Union during the war).
“Nasreddin in Bukhara” poster in Italian language

Muradov, Aini, and Ashrafi no doubt developed their creations with totalitarian aesthetics. Nevertheless, their works skillfully inculcated incessant optimism, love of life, trust in victory, and hope that peace would follow the war. The arts in Central Asia developed in a melting pot of mutual influences between cultures.


A pseudonym for the Uzbek writer and researcher


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