Thursday, March 6, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Kazakhs Film Life of Mustafa Chokai, Turkestan’s First Defender

Paul Goble

Baku, March 6 – Mustafa Chokai, Turkestani politician, émigré author and savior of 180,000 Central Asian POWs in Germany during World War II, is the subject of a soon-to-be-released Kazakh film that will bring him to a far broader audience and spark a larger public discussion about relations between Russia and Central Asia.
Because Chokai actively resisted Soviet power and cooperated with the Nazis to help his fellow Central Asians, the Soviets did everything they could to cast him into the dustbin of history. Since 1991, scholars in the region have restored the historical record, but only a film like this can bring him to the attention of a new generation.
And this week, the portal provides an introduction to this effort, first talking about Chokai’s remarkable life, then about the government of Kazakhstan’s decision to call for such a film, and finally about what the making of the film itself
Mustafa Chokai – or Shokai, as his name is transliterated in Kazakh – was one of the most remarkable figures in the history of Central Asia during the first half of the 20th century. Born into a Kazakh family in 1890, Chokai won top honors at the Tashkent gymnasium but was denied the gold medal on graduation because he was not a Russian.
(Among his fellow students there were Aleksandr Kerensky, the future leader of the Provisional Government, and Ivan Solonevich, the émigré writer who recalled that the mistreatment of Chokai in this case led the staff and intelligentsia to consider declaring a strike against the Russian general who decided against Chokai.)
He then enrolled in the law faculty of St. Petersburg University and, while still a student, served as a lawyer to defend Central Asians against the arbitrary actions of the tsarist authorities. He was elected to the Duma and in 1916 became head of the Muslim fraction there.
After the February revolution, Kerensky asked him to become a minister in the Provisional Government, but Mustafa refused, saying that he did not trust that regime any more than he had the tsarist one and returning to Turkestan in the hopes of gaining freedom and independence for his people.
He succeeded in organizing an independent state, the Turkestan Republic with a capital in Kokand. By that time, the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia. They offered to recognize his leadership if he agreed to support Soviet power. But Chokai refused, prompting the Soviets to send troops to crush the Kokand regime.
Chokai then fled his native region, first to the Caucasus and then to Turkey and finally Western Europe where he settled in Paris as an émigré. Upon his arrival, emissaries from Stalin attempted to recruit him as a supporter of the communist regime, but again Chokai refused.
And for almost 20 years, he eked out an existence by writing for émigré publications, including his own “Yash Turkestan” [“Young Turkestan”] as well as for British newspapers. And he compiled the still enormously valuable study, “Turkestan under Soviet Power.”
After the fall of France, the German occupation forces initially suspected that Chokai was a British spy because he had written for the London “Times.” But they soon concluded that he was not and left him alone until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Then, the Germans arrested him in order to force him to recruit Central Asian POWs for the German army. Mustafa did not want to have anything to do with the Nazis but realized that only by appearing to cooperate could he hope to better the life of his compatriots.
Consequently, he agreed to help if the Nazis would promise to better the lives of their Central Asian captives. Hitler and Ribbentrop made such promises, and Chokai secured the release from prison camp of some 180,000 men from what he still viewed as his homeland.
But Hitler and Ribbentrop did not keep their promises, and sometime at the end of 1941, Chokai disappeared and died in circumstances that have still not been clarified. Although the Germans formed the Turkestani Legion only three months after his death, Chokai was always blamed for it in Soviet publications.
Such an eventful life is obviously a strong candidate for a film, but it is also one the discussion of which is inevitably politically explosive. Consequently, it is interesting that in 2005, the government of Kazakhstan called for the making of this movie and provided some of the funding for it.
The film itself, which is cast in the form of flashbacks from the memoirs of Chokai’s widow -- who is buried in a village outside of Paris under a cross that Kazakh activists hope to replace with a crescent -- covers all the key events of his life. Over the last three years, it was filmed in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Western Europe.
To be released in May in Kazakhstan as well as in Moscow, Berlin and Paris, the film is certain to attract attention and controversy. Indeed, its director, S. Narymbetov, says that he is “ready for anything,” from condemnation by “old communists” to expressions of wonder by others who know little of this remarkable man.
Young people in Central Asia today, the director said, “unfortunately do not know anything not only about Chokai but even about more well-known persons such as Marx, Engels, Lenin … The current generation is growing up under the strong influence of American thrillers.”
“In making our film,” the Kazakh director stressed in conclusion, “we are reestablishing native history for the future generation as well as for those compatriots who still grieve for Chokai.” And thus, this film gives the long dead leader of Turkestan yet another chance to serve his people.

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