Defenders of their poverty

A big investigation from Sergei Chutkov, journalist based in Dusahnbe, about a phenomenon of singer Tolibjon Kurbanhanov singer and self-identification of people of Tajikistan

Tajik journalist Sergei Chutkov presents a story “Shamed by being workers?” from the series of “Defenders of their poverty” special for

Recently I have started writing a small post about Tolibjon Kurbanhanov – a musician that recently made a celebrity on the internet with his unconventional material. Having finished the article I realized that I have produced not a “small post” and moreover, that does not really focus on the above mentioned performer.  The story around this musician for me turned into an “entry point” to another topic that explores how we, citizens of Tajikistan perceive ourselves in Russia and in other countries. The point of some thoughts bellow is to state that all our claims and complaints bad treatment and attitudes of the Tajiks in Russia are directed in most of the cases the wrong way and in a wrong form.

Also with this article a would like to open a series of further articles under the general title “Defenders of their poverty”. In this series I will try to talk how people in different social spheres of Tajikistan searching for ways to improve their lives, working and living conditions by limited or no means. All articles will be based on examples from Tajikistan – personal experiences and situations of other people I know.

Recently, Internet saw the emergence of a new, very particular personage. His name is Tolibjon and he is a musicians – singer and also is or at least was a citizen of Republic of Tajikistan (which I think is important to note).

 Tolibjon Kurbanhanov. Photo from his official page in Vkontakte social network

There are three of his music videos that can be found on the Internet that glorify the figure of the President of Russian Federation, expressing deep sympathy and almost (I assume) platonic love to Vladimir Putin. Here is one of the lines of his song VVP[1]: “The country was in crises and people were suffering and that was the time, when God sent him to us”. Initially, it was very interesting for me to inquire, why he was glorifying the President of Russia, not of Tajikistan as something that would be expected and tendentious in our context. Many artists and cultural leaders do that with rare diligence. But Tolibjon worships Vladimir Putin, who, in his opinion saved the Russian People.

Here are the links on Tolibjon Kurbanhanov’s music videos on Youtube: “VVB”, “Happy Jubilee Mr. President!”, “Thank you God for Vladimir!”.

I recommend watching these videos or at least one of them before reading the rest of the text.

I was curious to find out what the audience thought about the singer and I decided to look through the comments of Internet users on different portals. Most of the comments on Youtube were derogatory (I should rather say narrow-minded, chauvinistic and insulting) towards the singer himself, his style and the topic of his songs. Here are some of the comments:

“You are such idiots! This is how you are going to destroy yourselves soon…” 

«This freeload for illegal migrants will be over soon and even Vladimir won’t be able to help out”

 “Thanks to Putin, now all the street sweepers in Moscow are illegal migrants from Tajikistan”

“This dummy Tajik fuck is rocking )))) I cried laughing )))))”

There were also fewer positive (or sympathetic towards the musician) comments on the same portal:

“He sang what a lot of Russians feel. We should thank God for all what we have. Thank you!”

Everything is true. Not a single false word!”

There also some users on Youtube who think that Tolibjon’s songs are jokes and mockery:

 What a funny song!”

“That is a 100% mockery!

Local portals in Tajikistan show more welcoming comments. The users celebrated the singer and the topic of the songs. These are some of the opinions on


Good for him. It is what they call a friendship of Peoples! Let the Russians, if they have any conscience at all, let them not touch our guys there! It is friendship of the Peoples!  

Honestly, he sings well, and I wonder why they keep discussing his citizenship. He obviously has a passport. Good for him to do something. Let the Russians see, wonder and think.


Wonderful voice!!! And the song too!!! Let the Russian people see!!! And know that Tajiks are not only good for construction, but also for singing!!! Wonderful artist!!!!!!!

As one can see, Tolibjon’s fellow-Tajiks are concerned with nationality in relation of many Tajik citizens working in Russia.  Tajik people see Tolibjon as a sort of medium that supposedly will make “Russians” rethink their attitude towards incoming migrants – not as workers sweeping and building.

Such opinions and desires among the followers of Tolibjon, as I can see are widely spread among the population of Tajikistan. What we deal with here could be explained in Marxist terms as false consciousness and I would like to expand on that further in this text.

Comments of his fellow-Tajiks (or fellow-swearers) to Tolibjon’s video show two interesting aspects that transcend the comments themselves revealing broader issues: 1. People think of workers (even if they are workers themselves) as if they are doing something unworthy resulting in reluctance to be a worker and associate oneself with workers. 2. Desire to prove that we, people of Tajikistan are different from what many Russians think about us. This idea comes across with the recent controversy about a TV show Heads and Tails visiting Tajikistan in Winter 2013 (here is a short comment on public reaction around the program, when Tajik people were bursting with indignation (including on the Internet) about poor and inadequate depiction of Tajikistan, its capital city and its residents in this program.

As for the first aspect, this tendency (denying one’s workerness) took place as early as the emergence of new manufactories and later mass industrialization in Europe. Back then, worker’s life was hard (in Europe), people had to work for 11-14 hours a day in inhuman conditions. People in Russia during Zsarism worked for 11,5 hours a day in private plants. They had to work to feed themselves and their children so that they (who by the way also worked) didn’t have to be workers in the future. Manual and machine labor was directly associated with inhuman conditions of labor itself and living conditions in general, as well as intellectual capacity, which in my opinion is obvious in case of people working for 14 hours a day for very little money leisure and intellectual incapacity, or free time in general was an unaffordable luxury. (By the way, leisure time is not only a necessary condition of individual development but also necessitates “development of society as a whole” M.V. Popov).

One way or another, European workers began to fight for reduction of working hours and improvement of working conditions. They achieved their goals to a certain degree. However, in many cased what they achieved was outsourcing production in the Third World countries as the factory owners alsway seek cheaper working hands). Of course, among all those workers were people who used any opportunity to show their detachment from workers by way of consuming symbolic attributes of bourgeoisie (clothes, music, food and other cultural aspects of bourgeoisie life) that people tried to simulate (metaphysic simulation according to Roland Barthes). It was some sort of auto-therapy and self-deceiving, an many instances unconscious. I suppose that such trends were followed by people who enjoyed better working and living conditions (white collars) because they could financially afford it. They tried to dissociate themselves from working class hope on success in their endeavors to get rich (flowing such calls as – Think and Act as a Rich Man and Make One). Such trends were broadly supported by such popular and widely spread theories of positive thinking and acting, information matrixes that send prosperity and Manna from Heaven to those who believe, concepts of “social elevators”. All this moves away from solidarity with people of their kind (working class) to individualism and struggle for survival as a result. Here where I see the inception of the society of mass consumption of cheap and visually (not-for-workers” kind of goods. Mass consumption culture became a space for class compromise between rich (or owners of the means of production) and poor (who do not own the means of production) or to be precisely correct, not only a space for compromise but for smoothing class distinctions.

Here we need to understand that being a worker in one’s homeland and somewhere in Russia is not a bad think per se, the bad thing is compromising with the terrible working conditions that are offered by the employers and prolonged working hours one has to work in order to feed his or her family. It is all linked to with education that one has to get in his or her homeland, that has to be good, accessible and free. These things should be fought for, preferably jointly instead of take for enemies (or friends for that matter) people of the country he or she works in.

As for the second aspect – desire to prove that we are different and to hide away tour essence of the oppressed, uneducated, in many cases poor, by appealing to ambiguous (in our case) in both quality and content music culture (songs and videos by Tolibjon) it makes quite a characteristic case. It is a very particular attitude in Tajikistan. Here is one of many examples. Once, I was a part of the film crew in Dushanbe and we videotaped a very interesting street musician in a sub walk who lived on donations. I was approached by a stranger who asked what we were doing with a reproaching tone. He wanted to know if we intended to ironize on that poor man and portray the whole nation as poor. I was taken aback by the question. I answered that there was nothing funny or ironic about poverty and that it would very stupid to carry loads of equipment around the city just to make fun of someone.

This situation and comments made by Tajik people on Tolibjon’s video shows a clear gap between objectivity (street performer in need) and cultural and moral framing of the man who approached us  (frames, systems, stereotypes). Many people in Tajikistan show a lot of sensitivity about how they are pictured leaving behind the reality of their actual existence, and perhaps, the need to expose (explicate, demonstrate, express) their subjectivity (that includes poverty, oppression, hopelessness). In other words… such cultural modes of existence are often met of traditional societies and need, either at least deconstruction (rejection, avoiding, aversion) or definitely in reconstruction (rethinking, making anew).

This situation of anticipation of self-affirmation through the prism of others (in our case other nationalities – Russians and other foreigners) should be viewed in the light of Lacan’s psychoanalysis in its easiest formula – Other as a reflection, mirror for understanding the Self. The point here is that our Narcissism in societal scale when we can evaluate ourselves, talk about ourselves, or think about ourselves (for instance like or dislike ourselves) only with the eyes of the Other (any kind of foreigners, visitors). If they say something nice about us that means we are nice, and we like those who say that. But if someone says something bad about us he or she should get the worse response and we have to prove the opposite. This game is very hard to win as it is made up, unreal, farfetched and as they say: “the king is naked” and the Other’s opinion becomes some sort of a capital but ungrounded and detached from reality.

What conclusions can we arrive at based on what we have discussed above? It is obvious that making the main stake of social life these or that individual personalities and achievements of the nation is not just counter-productive but is also a continuation of some sort of existential anabiosis that comforts us by offering us someone else to blame (usually the wrong guy). No matter how many incredible buildings we erect, no matter how good our artists are, no matter how great our past is, and no matter how many feature films we produce every year it will always be just an exception (that has nothing to do with the reality and proving nothing). The point of this exception is that most of us are workers and labor migrants and need to compensate our permanent humiliation, oppression and exaction and we need to find rehabilitation either in the past (national history) or in the simulation (reproduction or copying) of the shiny present. We will still be humiliated, ripped off and treated like animals until we start defending our dignity ourselves using force and not by the false pathos of the great culture that we use as a shield against humiliation. It is crucial that we realize that we are workers (no matter how many cell-phones and suits we have), it is important to get organized with other workers in order to defend our rights for education (at least) and further for worthy conditions of work and life.

As for the musician Tolibjon Kerbanhanov we can say that this kind of creativity is quite new for Tajik musicians. We should not doubt that the lyrics and performance in general are of his. Asking ourselves how far he is honest in what he is doing and what are the reasons behind his material (and the commenters online are already doing that) could take us forever. I think it is more interesting to critique this musicians as an international phenomenon. I have not seen Russian musicians who would express their admiration to Vladimir Putin. Tolibjon Kurbanov is a sort of export option and is the first one of the kind. His whole artistry, at least for now, is based on one individual. His is listened and watched by his compatriots and I believe that such artists (and other kinds of people of culture) can be actively used as instruments of opinion making (for people from other CIS countries for instance). Tolibjon’s songs says: “Russia has become a stable country. Unworthy people, started moving for power. It is the time for us to make the right choice again.” (suggesting the right choice of V. Putin).  Such suggestions refers to the last Presidential elections in Russia in 2012 before which this music video came out.

[1] VVP in Russian refers to both Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and ВВП as Gross Domestic Product

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