Art Durbin
12 july 2016

The Tribunal on Basmachi

The photo at hand can be considered one of the most successful documentary photographs made in Soviet Central Asia, in times of the fight against the resistance movement. The movement which, according to the Soviet tradition, is usually referred to as „Basmachi“.

The picture named “Tribunal over Basmachi” was made in Samarkand in 1932.csm_Maillart-EM___AMS_a8c4f2364c (1)

The author of this picture is Ella Maillart (1903-1997), a Swiss traveler and one of the most famous extreme explorers of eastern countries. In 1932, the beautiful young woman, coming from the very heart of the „bourgeois world“, went through the Kyzylkum desert on her own, crossed the Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan, until reaching the border to China, and then returned.

Significantly, Ella Maillard did not carry any authorization documents from the Soviet authorities with her. She smartly bypassed checkpoints and patrols and safely returned home. After arriving back in Switzerland, she wrote the book “Turkestan Solo” about her journey through Soviet Central Asia.


“The Tribunal over Basmachi”

In the picture there are no “Basmachi” prisoners nor their opponents, the red commissioners. The drama of the ongoing process can be felt through the details. By the walls of a crumbling building, next to the remains of an ancient majolica (a type of pottery from the Renaissance period) is a table covered with scarlet red cloth. On a low wooden platform, oriental rug is unrolled. A large bust of „Ilyich“ (the Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin) looks at the audience with disapprobation. In the center of the picture is a figure, the “Inquisitor of the Revolution”, all dressed in black.

This dark look was also often used for paintings by El Greco and Goya.

The judge wearily looks towards the photographer. And despite the fact that the picture was taken in an era of prohibition and censorship, one can really feel the depressing atmosphere of fear and silence. “The Inquisitor”, whose job is to send people to their deaths, exudes an aura of cruelty and indifference to human life. In 1932, the era of Stalinism came to its climax. Central Asia, together with the rest of the Soviet Union, for a long time was about to plunge into a period of distress and suffering.


Author: Akmal Rizaev (pseudonym), from Uzbekistan

Photo: Musée de l’Elysée

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