[Editor’s note: IMG MGMT is an annual image-based artist essay series. Slavs and Tatars is a faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia. The collective’s work spans several media, disciplines, and a broad spectrum of cultural registers (high and low) focusing on an oft-forgotten sphere of influence between Slavs, Caucasians and Central Asians. They have had a number of international exhibitions in Moscow, Warsaw, Brussels, Berlin, New York, and Tbilisi. Currently they are preparing work for the Frieze Sculpture Park and Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi’ite Showbiz for the Sharjah Biennale, a look at the unlikely heritage between Poland and Iran. Their work is included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Slavs and Tatars present Molla Nasreddin will be published by JRP/Christoph Keller in early 2011.]
We first came across the Azeri periodical Molla Nasreddin on a winter day in a second-hand bookstore near Maiden Tower in Baku, Azerbaijan. It was bibliophilia at first sight. Its size and weight, not to mention the print quality and bright colors, stood out suspiciously amongst the meeker and dusty variations of Soviet-style works in old man Elman’s place. We stared at Molla Nasreddin and it, like an improbable beauty, winked back.
Recently reissued in its entirety, each volume of Molla Nasreddin runs 500+ pages, with a total of 8 imposing tomes in all. Since that blistering day several years ago, carrying and caring for these volumes between Brussels, Moscow, Paris, New York, Berlin, and Warsaw has toned our muscles if not our thoughts. Molla Nasreddin has become nothing less than a retroactive mascot of our artistic practice. The magazine’s pan-Caucasian identity (itinerant offices between Tbilisi, Baku and Tabriz), linguistic complexity (across three alphabets) and the use of humor as a disarming critique are also found across our work: as general inspiration for Kidnapping Mountains, our book with Book Works; in the strategic use of humor for our performance piece Hymns of No Resistance; or more literally in print editions such as Ahhhzeri.
A bit about Azerbaijan
During the two and a half decades of Molla Nasreddin’s run, the country at the heart of the magazine’s polemics and caricatures—Azerbaijan—changed hands and names three or four times, depending on one’s reading of history. Situated in the southern Caucasus mountains and bordering the Caspian sea, Azerbaijan sits squarely on the fault-line of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, with a population of some 9,000,000. Before 1991, Azerbaijan existed as an independent nation for a mere 23 months, sandwiched by a troika of Turks to its west, Persians to its south, and Russians to its north. Under Russian rule since the 19th century, Azerbaijan suffered much of the instability of its northern neighbor—the 1905 Revolution, World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917—as well as the short lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918-1920 and the Bolshevik invasion of Baku in 1921. This period of furious upheaval in the Caucasus resulted in an equally frenzied creative intensity, especially with regards to the printed word.
Not only do the issues addressed in Molla Nasreddin remain as relevant today as when first published, so do the conditions and context surrounding the publication. Molla Nasreddin was not an underground publication or samizdat (self-published dissident edition), but an official magazine. Following the Tsar’s decree of 17 October 1905, which allowed more press freedoms, publications of all political breeds and behavior thrived.  Yet none were comparable either in influence, circulation or geographic reach to Molla Nasreddin.
Paper, politics, process
Published between 1906 and 1930, Molla Nasreddin was a satirical Azeri periodical edited by satirist and writer Jalil Mammadguluzadeh and named after the legendary Sufi wise man-cum-fool of the middle ages. Using acerbic humor and realist illustrations reminiscent of a Caucasian Honoré Daumier, Molla Nasreddin attacked the hypocrisy of the Muslim clergy, the colonial policies of the US and European nations towards the rest of the world, the venal corruption of the local elite, and argued the importance of education and equal rights for women. The magazine was an instant success, selling half its initial print run of 1000 on its first day. Within months it would reach a record-breaking circulation of approximately 5000, becoming the most influential and perhaps first publication of its kind to be read across the Muslim world, from Morocco to India. 
Even though the publication acted as a rallying cry of sorts for the nascent Azeri nation, Molla Nasreddin‘s non-conformism and independence were also a result of the city where it was first published, Tbilisi, the present day capital of neighboring Georgia.
When Mammadguluzadeh received an official permit to publish the weekly, Tbilisi was the capital of Transcaucasia. Comprising present day Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, Transcaucasia was a hotbed of liberalism. All types of socialists lived there, from young aristocrats Ã la Decembrists sympathetic to the tide of social revolution sweeping Europe, to narodniks, late 19th century Russian middle-class populists, and followers of different sects. Tbilisi was a polyglot city with a significant Muslim population looking culturally to Iran, linguistically to Turkey, and politically to Moscow.
An unlikely platform for Women’s Rights
Of the recurring themes in Molla Nasreddin, two in particular set the weekly apart from the number of satirical publications of the early 20th century: the advocation of women’s rights and the Azeri elite’s snobbery towards its own culture. In one illustration (above), the very advocates of the constitution balk when they learn that the document also empowers women, who have begun to gather around a speaker.
Women’s rights often act as a prism through which most other issues are addressed. Several illustrations stress the need for women’s education and point to Armenian literacy and modern educational system as the example to follow, a particularly potent counterpoint given the historic enmity between the Azeris and Armenians, who represented the most visible Christian population. Much like the advocation of women’s rights, the use of Armenian examples allows the weekly to further criticize the hypocrisy and fanaticism of the Muslim clerics and establishment.
In its fight for equal rights for women, Molla Nasreddin rails against the oppressive effects of polygamy, pokes fun at parents’ preference for a son over a daughter and exposes the double standard of Azeri men towards Azeri women. Azeri Muslims who insist on piety for their female counterparts have no issue frolicking with European women when traveling. One cover illustration even depicts men drafting a letter to the local governor asking for a public brothel.
Molla Nasreddin‘s proto-feminism takes place against a rather unexpected backdrop of similar initiatives in Azerbaijan and the greater region. Along with Crimean Tatar Ismail Gasprinsky (1851 — 1914) and his journal Tercüman, Mammadguluzadeh and Molla Nasreddin were key figures in the Jadid (meaning “new” in Arabic) movement. During the Jadid movement, Muslim reformers in late 19th century Russia enacted progressive educational reforms, ranging from the tactical introduction of benches, desks and maps into classrooms to more substantial initiatives such as opening girls’ schools and drafting new textbooks. These reforms culminated in Azerbaijan’s short stint of independence as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic from 1918-1920, during which suffrage was extended to women for the first time in a Muslim nation. To this day, Azeris take pride in granting all women the right to vote well before such countries as the US (1920) or UK (1928).
The Wise Fool and the Alphabet that Fools Around
Molla Nasreddin saw the latinization of Azeri as a key point in its progressive agenda. With three changes to the Azeri alphabet in less than 70 years—from Arabic to Latin in 1929, Latin to Cyrillic in 1939 and Cyrillic back to Latin in 1991—its history has polyglots around the world stumped as to whether to blush, laugh or cry. Calling it “the revolution of the East,” Lenin required all the Turkic speaking peoples of the Soviet Union to Latinize their alphabets. 10 years later, though, Stalin thought otherwise and changed their alphabets to Cyrillic in 1939 for fear that the Turkic peoples of the USSR might get too close to the West. On the pages of Molla Nasreddin, one comes across all three scripts, adding extra work to the already daunting task of translation. It is one thing to find a translator for a language spoken by four million people, but another thing entirely for that translator to also know the two previous iterations of his/her own language.
The covers of the magazine (such as the one above) are a perfect demonstration of this linguistic schizophrenia. On a single page there are three scripts: the original title is in Arabic, underneath is in Cyrillic, and on the very bottom the caption is in Latin.
These problems pale in comparison to the tragic loss such ruptures in linguistic continuity cause for generations of Azeris, past, present and future. The changes in the alphabet essentially made Azeris immigrants in their own country, separating them from their own cultural legacy and past generations. Grandparents, parents, and children could speak the same language but could not read the same books. After the 1929 diktat where Moscow decided to Latinize the Azeri alphabet, books in Arabic were immediately destroyed, resulting in the disappearance of many texts, including an important body of work on Islamic natural medicine. The linguistic disruptions of the 20th century are still wreaking their havoc. Though Azerbaijan has far more economic strength than its neighbors (Armenia and Georgia) due to oil, the country suffers from a less coherent national identity. The inclusion of all three alphabets throughout Molla Nasreddin demonstrates the defeatism of the current publishers: unable to choose between authenticity and reform, they opt for a muddled, middle way.
Nascent nationalism and innocent independence
Although today the term nationalism has a reactionary ring to it, a century ago it allowed countries with uncertain pasts and even less certain futures to carve out a national identity thus far ignored, suppressed or simply forgotten. Straddling the frontier between Europe and Asia, West and East, Azerbaijan’s precarious geopolitical stature was not for wont of such nationalists, the most prominent being Mammad Emin Resulzade (1884-1955), the scholar and political leader of the short-lived Azerbaijan Republic. Their ultimate objective was Azeri independence, but these goals are achieved one step at a time. Molla Nasreddin focused on the assessment and appreciation of Azeri culture in its own right to put it on equal footing with the cultures of the larger surrounding nation states (Russia, Persia, Turkey.)
Illustrations, announcements, and mock telegrams in MN parody the European clothes that the Azeri elite wear, often taking aim at the self-styled intellectuals who go to great lengths to differentiate themselves from their more common compatriots. Whether they lived in Moscow, Tbilisi or Baku, the Azeri elite read, wrote, and spoke amongst themselves in Russian. After all, Russian was considered literary, elegant, and edifying, whereas Azeri (called Turk) was seen as vulgar and uneducated. This concept is demonstrated in the illustration below that contrasts the hustle and bustle of the beginning of the school year at a Russian school with the sleepy calm at an Azeri (i.e. Muslim) school.
Molla Nasreddin’s relevance today
By 1920, the Soviets had invaded Baku and Azerbaijan’s independence came to an end. The quality of Molla Nasreddin‘s editorial and art-direction suffered considerably as the periodical was forced to tow the Bolshevik party line. Moscow shoved editorial directives down Mammaguluzadeh’s throat, destroying its independent streak, even going so far as to ask to change the magazine’s name to Allahsiz (The Atheist). Only three issues of Molla Nasreddin came out in 1931 and shortly afterward shut its doors for good. Its impact, however, is difficult to over-estimate. Just across the border in Iran, the magazine was lionized and copied by the very people who led the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1910, the first parliament established in Asia.
Through a mix of buying the people’s sympathy and strict autocracy, Baku has successfully handled the major geopolitical issues of the 20th and early 21st century—Bolshevist Communism from Russia or fundamentalist Islam from Iran. While the region might first appear remote to Western eyes, the Caucasus remains relevant today for several reasons such as the residual proxy wars between the US and Russia in neighboring Georgia, or the line of suitors (US, Russia, Turkey, Iran or China) vying for access to the oil-rich Caspian. If we are to believe the faulty theory that the West and Islam are on a collision course, we would do well to look at the only precedent in history where the ideas of both co-existed, in the Caucasus and across Eurasia. Azerbaijan’s progressive history and geographic position between Europe and Asia offer the potential for a revolutionary moderate Islam where pluralism and politics are not mutually exclusive. The debates at the heart of Molla Nasreddin—Islam’s confrontation with modernity, Imperial over-reach, corruption—have only become more pressing and immediate over the last half century, whether you are in Alaska, Angola or Afghanistan.
The complexity of the Caucasus and the sharp, aphoristic humor of Molla Nasreddin continue to inspire our practice, from polemics to poetics to print. On many occasions, we have been asked why we do not intervene within the pages of the periodical, like the Chapman Brothers did with Goya. If Slavs and Tatars are artists, why only translate and re-print? The answer points to the very inception of our collective: part of our work has always been and remains preservation and distribution of relevant ephemera that is inaccessible or overlooked. In this sense, the success of Molla Nasreddin brings us back to the common American Conservative aphorism: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
 Bennigsen, Alexander. “Mollah Nasreddin et la presse satirique musulmane de Russie avant 1917,” Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique, Vol 3, Nº3, 1962.
 To put these figures in perspective, the top papers in circulation today in Azerbaijan have an approximate print run of 25,000 for a population of 9 million. During the time of its publication, Azerbaijan had a population of roughly 2.5 million of which it is safe to say that a far smaller percentage was literate.