I am much shaken by the assassination of yet another of my Uzbek friends, the brave, talented and internationally renowned theatre director, Mark Weil.
Mark created and led an independent theatre company, the Ilkhom Theatre of Tashkent. They were the very first independent theatre company in the whole Soviet Union. Their artistic freedom, performance of previously banned works and tackling of social issues made them one of the sensations of the late Soviet Union, enabled by Glasnost. They became the toast of Moscow intellectual circles in the late 1980’s.
As Mark described it to me, they then had the irony of being part of the destruction of the Soviet Union, only to be plunged into the even greater gloom and tyranny of Uzbekistan. But by then Mark, a native Uzbek of German stock, had built up the formidable international reputation that enabled Ilkhom to continue to flourish as a tiny, bright and incredibly unlikely beacon of light in Tashkent. They played to great acclaim on every continent, their last appearance in the UK being a sell out run at the Barbican last year. I had a long talk with Mark and his family afterwards and found him less optimistic, his cares heavier, than ever before. He was, however, determined to stay in Tashkent and battle it out.
Mark’s style was always in public to deny breezily that he faced any particular problems, and to try to shelter everyone else – his company, his family, his loyal audiences – from them. He would avoid direct criticism of the regime, but allow his art to talk for him, still using his theatre to tackle challenging questions of Uzbek society – unemployment, drug addiction, freedom, homosexuality, religion – which are absolutely forbidden from discussion, both in Uzbekistan’s 100% state controlled media, and in public. Typical of his style was his TV documentary on Tashkent’s monumental architecture. Showing the change of monster iconography in bronze from Tsarist generals, through Lenin, Stalin and Marx to Karimov’s use of the Tamerlaine cult, on the surface it was a paean to state progress, but the message that “Karimov too will pass” could not have been more clear. Mark was a great subverter.
He was currently engaged in one of those collaborations with Western theatre companies which so worried the authorities, in this case a British company. He was also preparing for the opening tonight of Ilkhom’s new season. Arriving back at his apartment block after final rehearsal last night, he was murdered by a group of men in T-shirts. Reports are confused as to stabbed or shot.
The method of killing is precisely that used in every one of the murderous assaults on Russian journalists I investigated earlier this year. In each case, they were ambushed on return home from work – the standard method of the security services. Mark had told his British collaborators he was under great pressure.
What happens now is very predictable. Karimov will blame “Islamic militants” and there will be further arrests, and probably convictions, of dissidents in Tashkent as usual. With Mark a great talent dies, and one of the last flickering embers of freedom in Uzbekistan.