The Ilkhom Theatre was started in 1976 as one of the experimental studios under the aegis of the Komsomol Youth organization, and in my master’s thesis, I traced its transformation from Brezhnev’s “stagnation” era up through its status as the first independent theatre of the Soviet Union.
My interest in Ilkhom as a hybrid social phenomenon was equal parts personal and academic. The hybridity of Ilkhom was palpable not only in the choice of repertoire—from Russian new wave theater plays to Uzbek dramaturgy—but also in the studio’s multiethnic troupes and bilingual performances.
Ilkhom as a hybrid phenomenon
Zukhra Kasimova was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and graduated with a BA degree from the Uzbek State World Languages University (USWLU). Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), as well as a Jordan Center visiting researcher in residence at the New York University (NYU). She holds a master’s degree in Comparative History from the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary, where she wrote her thesis on Ilkhom theater’s creation. As of now, she is working on her doctoral dissertation, tentatively titled “Hybrid Modernity: Soviet Uzbekistan, 1940-1980”.
It is important to contextualize and historicize the inception of Ilkhom (and the “Palace of Youth” that housed it from the very beginning) as a multilateral project, marked by its hybridity of experiences, cultural forms, and ideological formations. There’s not much written about Ilkhom’s Soviet period academically.
Ilkhom was created in 1976 as an ESTM (Eksperimental’naia Studia Tvorcheskoi Molodezhi) under the aegis of both the Central Committee of Youth of Uzbekistan (a Republic level Komsomol organization) and the Youth Section of the Theatre Society of Uzbekistan. As ethnomusicologist Lucille Lisack correctly notes, its simultaneous submission to both the Komsomol and the Theatre Society helped the Ilkhom Theatre to slip through the net.” In her overview of the supervision of non-professional theaters from the death of Stalin to the stagnation of the Brezhnev era, Bella Ostromoukhova also points out the advantages of subordination to more than one professional and workers’ organization. For one, sharing the responsibility of overseeing the ESTM’s activities created a lot of confusion, as officials tended to get bogged down in the bureaucratic back and forth while the studio was operating on its own.
What’s an ESTM?
By the mid-1970s, the Department of Propaganda of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) came to the realization that the ideological premises under which Dvortsy Kul’tury (Palaces/Houses of Culture) had been established in the 1930s were hopelessly outdated, and Communist youth must be entertained differently. Part of this effort was the construction of reconceptualized Dvordtsy Molodezhi (Palaces for the Youth) in the large Soviet urban centers, with twelve of them finished by 1977—just in time to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the October revolution. ESTMs emerged around the same time. This dual phenomenon of palaces of youth as spaces for talented youth and ESTMs as the framework that helped said youth to come together to “experiment” must be viewed as a single whole.
“Weil’s Ilkhom was equipped with the toolset and skills necessary to use the internal contradictions of the Soviet system to the theatre’s advantage”
Firmly rooted in the Brezhnevian stagnation era—and a byproduct of the cynical idealism of the era’s late socialism—Weil’s Ilkhom was equipped with the toolset and skills necessary to use the internal contradictions of the Soviet system to the theatre’s advantage.
Ilkhom – a tangible and intangible cultural heritage
The Youth Section of the Theatre Society and the Komsomol provided the then-amateur status level Ilkhom with a basement space in Tashkent—it was, naturally, the former vegetable warehouse of the newly erected Dvorets Molodezhi (Youth Palace), where the troupe rehearsed by night. The actors were either amateurs with day jobs in hard science or theatre professionals employed by “official” professional theatres.
Art historian Boris Chukhovich correctly points out: “the Ilkhom Theater, which has not yet been included in the Ministry of Culture’s preservation sites’ list, has long been a double monument of cultural heritage–both tangible and intangible… [It’s tangible cultural heritage because] the theater’s walls were an integral part of the Youth Palace by Richard Bleze – one of the main architects of Soviet modernism… Hence, this building has all the hallmarks of an outstanding architectural monument of the 1960s… It’s an intangible cultural heritage because of Ilkhom’s work for the past 45 years.”
Ilkhom by no means was the only experimental studio theatre of this kind in the same time period. A New York Times reporter described the scene in 1984:
“Experimental theaters seem to sprout from nothing in the basements of bland apartments blocks, jazz ensembles appear unadvertised in factory auditoriums, restricted movies surface unheralded at obscure film clubs. Some of the liveliest acting in Moscow is tucked away in such little theaters, sometimes with fewer than 200 places. One, in Yugo-Zapadnyi district, is renowned for its staging of Eugene Ionesco’s plays and its version of Evgeny Shvarts’ “Dragon”, an allegory in which townsfolk seem satisfied with its enslavement by an aged and decrepit dragon and oppose the knight who comes to slay him.”
However, almost none of those studios survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ones that have survived did so by merging with or taking the status of professional state theaters (for instance, ESTM Dard, led by Nabi Abdurakhmanov, is now Molodezhnyy Teatr Uzbekistana – Youth Theater of Uzbekistan). Ilkhom, preserved in its natural shape and form, is unique. Mark Weil reflected on the fate of other ESTMs:
“Does anyone remember the young theatre directors of the Brezhnev era today? Right after the demise of USSR, many studio theaters, including the Theatre of Adolf Shapiro in Riga, the Theater of Valera Ahadov in Dushanbe, and the Theater of Slava Pazi in Bishkek ceased to exist, while Ilkhom has survived.”
Soviet Ilkhom: Multinational in form, nonconformist in content
Our first performance, Maskaraboz-76, was made in the street theatre tradition. At that time, I was strongly influenced by the ideas of the New Left and the heroes of the Western student revolutions of the late-1960s; but, as a student back in the 1970s, I could hardly find any information about their new art in Soviet publications.
-Mark Weil (source)
Naturally, going forward, Ilkhom’s repertoire has evolved and brought upon itself an ire of local Komsomol administration. Moscow art critic Yuri Galkin’s reaction in 1980 to Ilkhom’s “Petty Bourgeois Wedding” based on Bertolt Brecht was as follows:
“Actors break glasses and throw bottles of wine at each other on stage. Apart from that, they destroy the furniture, especially chairs…. Well, vulgarity must be fought. But not by sinking to vulgarity themselves!”
Galkin then proceeded by accusing Komsomol for their oversight, stating that:
“Rumors about the uniqueness and genius of Weil are being spread very skillfully. However, the most surprising is that the studio operates under the auspices of the Komsomol of Uzbekistan!”
Komsomol officials were quick to renounce themselves of any responsibility:
“We supported Mark Weil and his troupe; we provided them a wonderful venue. However, as paradoxical as it may sound, Mark Weil even told us that we know nothing about the art and our role is restricted to simply financing their productions. We are very patient with the studio members and we hope that the situation will get better over time.”
Critical appraisal of low morality at ESTM after a devastating article in Komsomolskaya Pravda required a response from the Komsomol. Therefore, the Central Committee of Youth formally responded to the statement, reporting that they had considered the matter and concluded that the overall performance of ESTM was positive, with only a few “ideological shortcomings” by negligence. The “experimental” title of the youth studios and the absence of explicitly stated dissent towards the regime may also have contributed to Ilkhom’s ability to stay afloat. However, it was the Komsomol that at some point threatened to shut down the studio – that’s when Ilkhom received the first order to “vacate the premises.”
Clomadeus (1988): Living in a vacuum
“What is there to say, when you have nothing to say, when everyone is so tired of talking?!”
These are the first (and the last) words uttered during the show. The rest of the show’s time was reserved for the pantomime. Titled Clomadeus – for the “clown” and “Amadeus” (an allusion to Mozart, whose music accompanied the show) – was quite an unusual choice for the mime show. The opening statement of the show represented an ambiguous reaction to the fact that glasnost’ “opened Pandora’s box,” allowing people to speak freely on subject matter that had been taboo for decades, with Soviet people struggling to process it all and make sense of abrupt changes.
In its laconicism, Clomadeus was full of allegorical scenes and grotesque buffoonery. One of the pantomime reprises portrayed standing in line for food rations and redeeming food coupons. Nancy Goldner described the show as follows: “…Pervading the seriocomic tenor of Clomadeus was a sense of actors living in a vacuum, under the threat of annihilation by another, larger vacuum.”
Post-socialism, post-colonialism and cosmopolitanism
In the late 1980s, after glasnost’, when some of the restrictions were lifted, more theaters started staging plays that had previously been banned. This is when Ilkhom changed its focus to reflect on the societal changes “on the ground.” It did so by reinventing its repertoire with loaded and colorful concepts of clowns and ragtime (ragged time in the context of the tumultuous end of the Soviet era). It increasingly focused on pantomime during perestroika and glasnost, having demonstrated that too many words create a cacophony of sounds with little to no meaning and deflate the previously powerful ideological concepts, thus leaving nothing but an empty shell: the value vacuum.
If in the late 1980s Ilkhom employed clownery to lampoon the Party leadership in Moscow, it now alluded to Uzbekistan; it portrayed perestroika as a ‘ragged time’ with double meanings and dizzying motion, while the post-Soviet staging of Mashrab was an allusion to what Weil called “an oriental democracy.” Hence, Weil carried the notion of clowns as Holy Fools, as unsuspected seers and philosophers well into post-Soviet era, which has been if not more, then at least equally grotesque. All of these were helpful in finding historical and metaphorical grounding for a very disconcerted era.
In the immediate post-Soviet years, Weil managed to fuse elements of Uzbek street theatre (maskharabozchilik) and commedia dell’arte (for example, in the production of Carlo Gozzi’s Happy Beggars in 1995). Impromptu lampoonery in Happy Beggars touched on the aspects of everyday life in 1990s Uzbekistan, such as emigration, the currency black market, and labor migration.
In Mark Weil’s own words about the post-Soviet moment for the theater:
“In 1991, after the collapse of the USSR, we’ve been told, yet again, that our society was not ready for a full-fledged democracy just yet. Me and my theater had a complete de ja vu – hadn’t we already crossed that point in history before, with a slight variation? For one, [in the Soviet case], it was the history of a vast empire, [in post-Soviet Uzbekistan] – the history of a new country…(source) …
There are different ways to look at the ideologists of the “oriental democracy,” a concept that explains the nature of a “castrated democracy” during the transition period and that stresses the unpreparedness of society to exploit democratic institutions, and, finally, that reveals the specificity of the “oriental” understanding of democracy. However, in reality we are witnessing the development of an old concept that justifies the totalitarian motto: “all for the people.” In reality, we are witnessing the exclusion of every person’s rights to influence their own country’s political and social system.” (source)
In the 1990s, there were no concerted efforts to shut down or silence the theater, which was not openly dissident or challenging the regime. There was, perhaps, the idea that an independent theater—without the state’s financial support—will die off by itself. Left to its own devices, Ilkhom’s administration proved itself quite resourceful in finding new private sector sponsors, performing internationally with the support of foreign embassies and collaborating with other independent theaters from abroad.
In 2000s, the neo-cosmopolitanism of Ilkhom was shaped as a different, non-Soviet type of hybridization. As sociologist Laura Adams has argued, the aesthetics of Ilkhom’s cosmopolitanism represented “the local reproduction of globalized culture”… Nearly every play in the Ilkhom’s repertoire in the 1990s expressed the interest of Tashkent’s cosmopolitan elites, who are interested in exploring their identity not as ancient and given, but as hybrid and multiethnic.” My all-time favorite illustration of this post-Soviet hybridity and re-interpretaiton of the “West” through the “local,” self-orientalized point, is a play based on John Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flat. Here, Weil universalized Soviet mixed marriages and hybrid identities by representing Monterey paisanos as ethnically mixed Soviet Central Asians. By the same token, the shabby quarter of Monterey with its diverse population had been represented by Weil as analogous to mahalla.
Taking this further, Madina Tlostanova considers the post-Soviet years in Central Asia not simply as post-socialist, but rather a “post-socialist and post-colonial existence.” For that, she borrows a concept of post Occidentalism from Argentinian semiotician Walter Mignolo, stressing the post-colonial nature of the territories of the former Soviet “empire.” The rigid breakdown of the post-occidental and post-oriental existence is problematic, for none of these can be definitively applied to post-Soviet Central Asia. Thus, Tlostanova suggests moving beyond binary oppositions of Orient and Occident by using the hybridization theory of Homi Bhabha. However, the notion of cultural ambivalence suggested by Bhabha (and already picked up by some Soviet Central Asian historians) is similarly problematic as it also suggests the duality (Russian vs Uzbek, or traditional vs modern), i.e. the split in the identity of the colonized “other” that allows him to become a cultural hybrid of the colonizer’s culture, while retaining some of his indigenous culture as well. The post-Soviet Central Asian case in that regard serves as an example of the multiple layers of cultural identities (Russian, Uzbek, Tatar, Jewish, Korean, Muslim, “Western”, Soviet, etc.) that allows one to part ways with rigid binary oppositions. Ilkhom’s uniqueness, strength and ability to reinvent itself lies in this case of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The question now is: will Ilkhom be able to reinvent itself—yet again—while preserving its essence and form?
New challenges of post socialist existence: capitalism and real estate developers
In early 2020, Ilkhom is faced with a new challenge – this time from the real estate developers that look to renovate its building and purge the theater. A week or so ago, I visited Carnegie Hall (a renowned concert venue in Midtown Manhattan, New York) for a public tour of the building. I couldn’t help but think of the fate of the Ilkhom Theatre, particularly in regard to recent news about the sale of the building in which it is housed, and compare it to what had happened (or how it could’ve ended) with Carnegie Hall in 1960, prior to the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
By the mid-1950s, due to a series of unfavorable events, Carnegie Hall couldn’t afford to remain open, and the owners announced it was up for grabs. Despite the employees’ efforts in forming a Save Carnegie Hall Committee, their street demonstrations to raise awareness did not make a dent. Back then, saving buildings for their historic value was rare. “In 1957, the Hall was sold to be torn down and replaced with a skyscraper. At the 11th hour, violinist Isaak Stern took up the cause in January 1960 and formed the Citizens Committee for Carnegie Hall. In less than three months, he won the support of local and state politicians, by proposing that Carnegie Hall should be saved as a national center for music education. State senator MacNeil Mitchell introduced a bill to allow New York City to purchase a building for historic or cultural purposes. On June 30, 1960, the City bought Carnegie Hall for $5 million. The newly formed Carnegie Hall Corp. made Isaak Stern its president.”
The major takeaway for me—or question, rather—is this: Will the Uzbek administration see Ilkhom and the architectural gem that houses it for what it is? Will the state properly assess the historic, architectural, and cultural value of the theater and bail Ilkhom out of the desperate situation it’s currently entangled in? And if yes, at what cost? It is my hope that it won’t be a Faustian bargain, where the theater loses the choice of repertoire or its freedom of expression as such. As I attempted to show through this repertoire analysis, Ilkhom has always been holding up a mirror to society, serving as a reflection to all things wonderful and ugly. Depriving Ilkhom of this fundamental function will turn Tashkent into a city staring into an abyss and seeing nothing but void.
Main photo by Zukhra Kasimova; Ilkhom theater, 2007.
 Zukhra Kasimova, Ilkhom in Tashkent: From Komsomol-Inspired Studio to Post-Soviet Independent Theater, MA Thesis, Central European University, 2016
 In conventional Soviet theater categories, those were, as a rule, either/or – “Russian” Drama Theater in Tashkent named after Maxim Gorky (with Russian language performances), or “Uzbek” Drama Theater in Tashkent named after Khamza (with Uzbek language performances, respectively).
 Gleb Tsipursky, Socialist Fun: Youth, Consumption, and State-Sponsored Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1945-1970, Pittsburgh UP, 2016; Manon van de Water, Moscow theatres for young people: a cultural history of ideological coercion and artistic innovation, 1917-2000, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; Emily Reid, Khrushchev in Wonderland: The Pioneer Palace in Moscow’s Lenin Hills, 1962, University of Pittsburgh, 2002.
 Lucille Lisack, Le ThÉÂtre Ilhom À TaŠkent Retour sur les premières années d’un théâtre devenu légendaire (The Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent: A Retrospective Look at the Early Years of a Legendary Venue), Cahiers du Monde russe, 2013/3, vol. 54, pp. 643-668; Oksana Khripun, Mark Weil i Ego Teatr Ilkhom, M.A. thesis, Saint Petersburg State University, Department of Theatre Criticism, 1996; Bella Ostromoukhova, “Le Dégel et les troupes amateur: Changements politiques et activites artistiques des etudiants, 1953-1970”, Cahiers du monde russe , 47(47/1-2), June 2006; Irina Yakubovskaya, Inspiration, Countercultural Aesthetics, and Dissent: the Ilkhom theatre of Mark Weil, unpublished PhD dissertation in Theater and Performance Studies, Tafts University, 2019.
 In 1940s, the creation of “Theatre Societies” was initiated in all Soviet Union Republics (the Theatre Society of Uzbekistan dates to 1945). These were the voluntary organizations, created with the assistance of the All-Russian Theatrical Society (VTO) formed in 1933 and operating under aegis of Trade Union of Art Workers.
 Lisack, p.648.
 See Natalia Kaz’mina, “Istoria Odnoi Studii”, Teatr, 1981, pp.96-106.
 On Palaces of Culture, see Lewis H. Siegelbaum, “The Shaping of Soviet Workers’ Leisure: Workers’ Clubs and Palaces of Culture in the 1930s”, International Labor and Working-Class History, N56, Gendered Labor (Fall, 1999), pp. 78-92. See also personal recollections about Tashkent Youth Palaces: Evgeny Rakhmanov, Moi 70-e, p.161 in Weil, Neizvestnyy, Izvestnyy Ilkhom.
 Unlike Palaces of Pioneers intended for teenaged schoolchildren, Palaces of the Youth were primarily for College and University level young Soviet citizens. On Pioneer Palaces, see Susan Emily Reid, Khrushchev in Wonderland: The Pioneer Palace in Moscow’s Lenin Hills, 1962, University of Pittsburg, 2002, https://carlbeckpapers.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/cbp/article/view/121/122
 The notion of the experimental theatre (more widely known an avant-garde theatre), originated in Western theater productions with concepts put forward by the playwright Alfred Jarry, who outrightly rejected conventional rules of theatre production. The definition of “experimental theatre” had shifted overt time after the adoption by mainstream theater of many of avant-garde features during modernization drive.
 Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, Princeton, NJ, Princeton UP, 2006.
 All professional actors were officially employed either by Gorkyy Russian Academic Theater of Drama, Iosh Gvardiia (Young Guard) Theater, Russian (Theater of Youth – TyuZ), or Uzbek TYuZ named after Iuldash Akhunbabaev. Theatres in Union Republics were subdivided by the language (in Uzbek SSR, it should have been strictly either Uzbek or Russian). However, Ilkhom opted out of this division, staging multi language performances.
 Serge Schmemann, “Avant Garde Russian Arts Evolve on the Brink of Dissidence”, The New York Times, February 5, 1984.
 Mark Weil, “Igra v klassiki, v teatr, v zhizn’” (unpublished article, commissioned in 2002 by Russian-language journal Teatr).
 Yuri Galkin, “No zachem zhe stul’ia lomat’? O tom, kak molodomu kollektivu izmenilo chuvstvo mery”, Komsomol´skaia Pravda, Moscow, April 10, 1980.
 Kamariddin Artikov, in Neizvestnyy, Izvestnyy Ilkhom, p.48.
 Lidia Pugacheva, “Ilkhom – Znachit Vdohnovenie”, 1988 and Natalia Tabachnikova, “Potomki Skomorohov” Sovetskyy Teatr, N4, 1989, pp.46-47, Moscow.
 Kamariddin Artykov in Neizvestnyy, Izvestnyy Ilkhom, p.67.
 Nancy Goldner, “Balinese Clowns at MTI Festival”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 28, 1991.
 Laura Adams. “Modernity, Postcolonialism, and Theatrical Form in Uzbekistan.” Slavic Review 64, no. 2 (2005): 333-54. doi:10.2307/3649987.
 On Soviet Central Asian mixed marriages, see Adrienne Lynn Edgar, “Marriage, Modernity, and the “Friendship of Nations’: Interethnic Intimacy in Post-War Central Asia in Comparative Perspective”, Central Asian Survey, December 2007, 26(4), pp.581-599.
 Mahalla – a neighborhood in parts of the Arab world, Balkans, Western and South Asia, built around familial ties and Islamic rituals, also, an urban district division in Soviet and post-Soviet Central Asia.
 Madina Tlostanova, Poscolonialism and Postsocialism in fiction and art: Resistance and Re-existance, Palgrave, 2016, p.135.
 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, New York: Routledge, 1994.
 See Claus Bech Hansen, The Ambivalent Empire: Soviet Rule in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, 1945-1964, Ph.D. dissertation, Florence: European University Institute, 2013.
 From the exhibit at the Carnegie Hall.