Police get tough with the hobbit-lovers of Kazakhstan

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The Independent Online

People who dress up as hobbits have become the latest victims of a police crackdown on unconventional lifestyles in the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan.

J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is very popular in the countries of the former Soviet Union, where thousands of fans dress up and re-enact scenes from the book. But this innocent if dotty pursuit is seen as subversive by the notoriously brutal police in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. It is part of a wider drive against those whom the police suspect of enjoying "bohemian" lifestyles.

"We are perfectly legal," said Vitaly, a so-called "Tolkienist". "In fact we spend most of our time in the mountains. We only hold conventions in the city twice a year. It's our lifestyle. The police don't like it, but we aren't going to stop. It's our entire life."

The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) says that, besides Tolkienists, people detained include buskers, "alternative artists", gays and lesbians, anarchists, hippies, punks and members of dissident religious sects, many of whom complain that they have been systematically tortured.

Alexander, the leader of a punk-rock band in Almaty, said he was held for two days in a so-called "water tank". This is a method commonly used by the police to extract confessions. "They put the person arrested in a narrow cell about 4ft 6in high, and half fill it with cold water. You cannot stand up straight because the ceiling is too low, and you are unable to sit down because you will be under water so you have to crouch all the time."

Tolkien's writings have been widely read in the former Soviet Union ever since he was first translated in about 1988 during perestroika. They reached a peak of popularity in the mid-Nineties.

Several hundred Tolkienists gather in Moscow on Thursday evenings in summer in Neskuchny Park overlooking the Moskva river. One enthusiast, Askar Tuganbaev, a computer salesman, said: "In Yekaterinburg [in the Urals] they even built a fortress and fought a battle a couple of years ago with everybody dressed up."

Mr Tuganbaev says the police in Russia are tolerant of the Tolkienists and it is only in Kazakhstan that they are accused of "being Satanists and conducting dark rituals".

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