Kim Kardashistan: A Violent Dictator's Daughter on a Quest for Pop Stardom

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Gulnara "Googoosha" Karimova, whose father rules Uzbekistan with an iron fist, wants to be a Western-style celebrity, but a despot's daughter still can't have it all.

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Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, in Cannes, France. (AP)

It's July in Uzbekistan, and Gulnara Karimova's camera crew is trampling the city of Bukhara. There's a man in black running on the roof of the Poi Kaylan mosque, there's a camera crane staring down a minaret, and in the center of it all is Gulnara, the dictator's daughter, in a black and white dress, blowing kisses, sashaying like a star.

I'm watching this on YouTube in Saint Louis, cut off from the action, as are the people in town. Like so much about the family of President Islam Karimov, Gulnara's video is a selective spectacle, open only to the camera crew that has barricaded the streets. They are creating an Uzbekistan that they can market to the world: an Uzbekistan without Uzbeks, a holy Bukhara with only one site worth seeing. "Googoosha", the video proclaims, "coming soon".

Everyone in Uzbekistan hates Gulnara Karimova. That's what the State Department wrote in 2005, citing her greed and corruption, her theft from nearly every lucrative business, her connections to organized crime. Like so much unearthed by Wikileaks, this emerged as a quasi-revelation. Who wouldn't hate Gulnara Karimova, a number of media asked, the mafiosa princess with the cruel heart and delusions of grandeur (and scholarship, and fashion design, and enterprise)?

Uzbek opinion of Gulnara may have been less uniform than that. But that was irrelevant then -- since when have the Karimovs relied on Uzbek opinion? -- and it's over now: the age of Googoosha has begun. Googoosha is Gulnara's pop star alter ego, a breathy, bleached blond ingenue who sings in English about lost love. (Gulnara Karimova is a 40-year-old mother of two.) According to her website, Googoosha is also a "poet, mezzo soprano, designer and exotic Uzbekistan beauty." Mocking Googoosha is almost too easy: @realgoogoosha, her Twitter account, is a comedy-gold spambot, vainly seeking celebrity solidarity. ("Love Katy Perry? Follow dance pop sensation Googoosha!" it bleats.)

When YouTube gives you Kim Kardashistan, it is hard to turn away. But the emergence of Googoosha raises a number of strange questions. Why is a middle-aged, Harvard-educated woman, one of the richest women in the world, courting the approval of Americans -- not only Americans, but Snooki-esque Americans like the ones dancing to "Round Run (DUB Mix)" in Tampa? Why is Billboard magazine, that pre-iTunes icon of relevance, so meaningful to Gulnora that she risked humiliating herself by first claiming to be on the cover (actually an advertisement) and then proclaiming to have earned a place on the charts (a lie)? When you rule the court of political propaganda, why crash and burn on the real-world stage?

It's July in America and I'm watching "Round Run," watching Gulnara twist herself to my expectations. I'm thinking I like this video. I like it when Gulnora shoots in Uzbekistan a lot better than when her father does.

•       •       •       •       •

In May 2005, Gulnara's father, President Islam Karimov, ordered troops to fire on a crowd of thousands of protesters in the city of Andijon, killing at least 700 people. In the aftermath of the massacre, which Karimov blamed on Islamic terrorists, Uzbek poems offering an alternative version of events began to circulate online. One of the most popular was "Qon Andijonda (Blood in Andijon)," written by Yusuf Jumaev, a snarky poet activist from Bukhara. The refrain went like this:

The people -- Islom, Tatanya, Gulnora,
The Faith of Islam -- his children and grandchildren
The padshah's family are the people, sir
The rest are the terrorists of Hizb-ut Tahrir.

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Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the internet in Central Asia.

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