A Hobbit Hobby Hobbled

By Craig Nelson, Moscow
Monday 27 August 2001

Devotees in the central Asian state of Kazakhstan of J.R.R.Tolkien and his hairy-footed hobbits face a real-life threat to match the evil Dark Lord Sauron: a police crackdown on “counter-cultural groups”.

The peaks of the Tian Shen Mountains that tower over Almaty, the main city in the former Soviet republic, offer an impressive representation of Middle Earth, the world created by Tolkien.

About 1000 local fans of the British author, who call themselves Tolkienisti, trek regularly to forts they have built in the foothills, dress up as their favorite characters and re-enact adventures from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

“I find city life so crude and gloomy. I want to get away from it and create a different world,” one 17-year-old fan said. “When I look at other kids who hang out with nothing to do and no interests in life, I feel sad. Their lives seem so empty.”

But the pastime is viewed as subversive by Almaty police, whose ranks include veterans of the old communist security forces and rural Kazakhs who have never heard of Tolkien nor his creations. They have launched a campaign against the Tolkienisti, and any group they believe exhibits undesirably “bohemian” traits, including street musicians, “alternative” artists and homosexuals.

Victims of the crackdown have been beaten and detained for up to three days without charge, according to a report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. One victim, the leader of a well-known punk rock band, was forced to squat in a tiny jail cell that was half-filled with water.

The most frequent form of harassment is less severe, said a Tolkienist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. She said Tolkien enthusiasts were stopped in the street and ordered to remove their costumes and surrender their rubber axes and home-made wooden swords. The threat of a three-day detention on charges of carrying a concealed weapon is used to extract a bribe of up to $A8, a large sum by the standards of Kazakhstan.

The young woman, an art student, denied that the Tolkienisti posed any criminal or political threat. “The police and soldiers stop us because we are different. They believe if you are different from everyone else you are against everyone else,” she said.