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National memory in Kyrgyzstan: attitudes to the Soviet past

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New nation states frequently need to create a ‘national myth’ to justify their new status, and Kyrgyzstan is no exception. Since its emergence as an independent republic in 1991, historians have been drawing on Chinese and Russian historical sources in an attempt to trace Kyrgyz history back to ancient times. But, inevitably, the most controversial — and contradictory — part of their stories relate to the recent Soviet past, says Damira Umetbaeva.

Damira Umetbaeva
26 April 2012

However you look at it, there is in fact little evidence of a historical Kyrgyz state.  Until the 1917 October Revolution regional political structures were tribal and clan-based and bloody inter-tribal conflict was rife. It was only with the establishment of Soviet rule that tribes and clans united under the ethnic name of ‘Kyrgyz’, though the Kara-Kyrgyz Autonomous Oblast — which became part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in 1924 — did not initially include most of what is now Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic was established as one of the constituent republics of the USSR in 1936.

One of Kyrgyzstan’s main authorities on recent history is Professor Oskon Osmonov, a member of the republic’s Academy of Sciences, now in his fifties. His school textbooks have been translated from Kyrgyz into Russian, Uzbek and Tajik, so his views presumably play a large part in forming schoolchildren’s understanding of their country’s Soviet experience. His main criterion for evaluating the successes and failures of Soviet rule in Kyrgyzstan is the extent to which it contributed to state- and nation-building there and to the progress from a feudal, predominantly nomadic, traditional and uneducated society towards civilisation. 

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For Kyrgyz students Oskon Osmonov’s history textbooks are the main source of information about their country’s Soviet past.

In his textbook for final year (16-18 year-old) schoolchildren, for example, he states that Kyrgyz statehood ‘destroyed by the Mongols in 1207’ was re-established after seven centuries, i.e. in Soviet times, ‘uniting the territory, economics and culture of the Kyrgyz and providing the conditions for further national development.’ This became ‘the most important event in the contemporary history of the Kyrgyz people.’ 

Osmonov does not skate over negative aspects of this development. He points out that industry in Kyrgyzstan was made dependent on highly-qualified labour imported from the European parts of the USSR. The guests were provided with excellent working and living conditions and would return home at the end of their posting. Local young people, however, could only aspire to heavy manual labour in the cities, soon returning in many cases exhausted to their homes in completely unmodernised rural areas.

‘In 1938, in the so-called Chong-Tash tragedy, 140 politicians, party officials, writers, poets and scientists were arrested and executed.’

Osmonov also describes how many gifted intellectuals who took an active role in the development of Kyrgyz statehood, culture, language and science fell victim to Stalin’s terror. From 1924-1936 members of the Kyrgyz intelligentsia had advocated the creation of a Kyrgyz Socialist Republic, but faced countless obstacles both at local and Soviet governmental level. And in 1938, in the so-called Chong-Tash tragedy, 140 politicians, party officials, writers, poets and scientists were arrested and executed. Some of the officials had been involved in lobbying Moscow for the establishment of Kyrgyz statehood. They included the father of writer Chingiz Aitmatov and the academic Kasym Tynystanov, who composed the Kyrgyz alphabet and wrote the first school textbook in the Kyrgyz language.

Historical double-think

Maintaining a ‘national myth’ frequently requires the concept of an ‘external enemy.’ In Kyrgyzstan, the obvious choice has to be the Russians. 19th century Tsarist Russian colonisers oppressed the local people and after the Basmachi Revolt in 1916 thousands of Kyrgyz had their property seized, were tortured and killed by the Russian government as punishment for their rebellion against the drafting of Kyrgyz males to fight in World War I. During the early years of Soviet rule Russian attitudes to the local population were colonial and chauvinist: ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitudes were reinforced by Soviet measures aimed at suppressing the Kyrgyz traditional way of life, values, culture and language.

‘A history teacher in a school in Bishkek [ ] had in the centre of her classroom a small bust of Lenin. [ ] ‘I love him. But for him, the Kyrgyz would have disappeared altogether.’

But was Russia really the enemy? Osmonov’s approach to Soviet rule in Kyrgyzstan is confused and contradictory, oscillating between a new (post-Soviet) nationalist and a socialist view. Having described the tragic events of 1916, he then states that the Soviet government under Lenin atoned completely for Tsarist deeds, mounting an enormous campaign to bring back those Kyrgyz who had fled to China in 1916 and providing the returnees with better living conditions even than the Europeans in the region. (This view was echoed by a history teacher in a school in Bishkek, who had in the centre of her classroom a small bust of Lenin.  My question as to why it was there provoked a very emotional response: ‘I love him. But for him, the Kyrgyz would have disappeared altogether.’)

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The post Soviet transformation of Kyrgyz society has been very painful and many people are starting to feel more nostalgic about their Soviet past (photo: Alik Shahaf’s photostream, flickr.com)

To take another example of Osmonov’s double-think, when I interviewed him he said that ‘just as the Kazakhs cannot forgive the Soviets for the 1930s famine, so we (the Kyrgyz) cannot forgive them for the murder of some of our brightest people.’ In his textbook, however, he writes ‘all this showed up Soviet rule in a negative light…however, the essence of Soviet society was not distorted by either mass terror or the [Stalinist] personality cult, and the working masses were able to advance unhindered along the Soviet highway of progressive development.’

The return to tradition?

Osmonov’s approach to the destruction of the traditional, nomadic way of life is equally contradictory. He regards the transformation of society as positive and progressive, while at the same time enumerating its negative consequences.

‘As a rule new villages were situated far away from cattle pastures, which made it difficult to graze the animals. The traditions and skills of cattle-breeding were soon forgotten….Resettlement and forced collectivisation aroused public anger, but nomads who refused to toe the line were persecuted and murdered. In some areas Kyrgyz were resettled in high-rise apartment blocks, completely at odds with their traditional life style. These measures nevertheless created the preconditions for the growth of social consciousness, and an economy and culture based on, and compatible with, contemporary civilisation.’

‘The nouveaux riches, people who benefited from the first privatisation of 1992-5 or earn their money in the grey economy, splash out large sums of money on weddings, christenings and funerals, the Kyrgyz version of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’

Osmonov believes that the spiritual exhaustion resulting from the transition period has brought about a resurgence in Kyrgyz society of old traditions and customs dating back to the worst periods of feudalism and the bai-manaps [the ruling elite of pre-socialist Kirgizia]. Indeed, bai-manap has acquired a new, negative, meaning: someone who is uneducated, oppressive and rides roughshod over the dignity and human rights of others. The nouveaux riches, people who benefited from the first privatisation of 1992-5 or earn their money in the grey economy, splash out large sums of money on weddings, christenings and funerals, the Kyrgyz version of ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ Consumption of alcohol has considerably increased. According to Osmonov, older men (aksakals) play a central role in both these negative developments, often government officials invited as guests of honour, the implication being that they lend their not so tacit approval to flagrant over-spending on the part of the rich in a country where many live below the breadline.

‘Eh, what a great country the USSR was!’ 

If the views of the system presented in Osmonov’s textbook are contradictory, ambivalent and undecided, this is also true of the attitudes of the Kyrgyz government to its relationship with its huge neighbour, Russia. Many members of the government grew up in the Soviet Union and were educated there. They need Russia’s political and economic support to survive. The present Russian government tolerates little criticism of the Soviet Union in post-Soviet republics since this can also mean an anti-Russian discourse, which cannot but contribute to contradictory interpretations of Soviet rule in Kyrgyzstan.

This ambivalence about the Soviet past is unlikely to change with the newly-elected president A. Atambaev (2011), who has already demonstrated his loyalty to Moscow. In February 2012 he had a meeting in Moscow with the subsequently re-elected President of Russia Vladimir Putin. To demonstrate the spiritual and cultural bonds with present-day Russia, Atambaev repeated the famous post-Soviet saying about the USSR ‘Anyone who wants to return to the Soviet Union is crazy, and anyone who doesn’t has no heart’. 

A friend in his 60s, watching the President on TV with me, said ‘That’s true! Eh, what a great country the USSR was!’ This view of our Soviet past is far from unique in Kyrgyzstan and the history books and biographies of teachers using them in schools are but a small example of attitudes which can be found throughout the population. They suit Russia, so they suit the government and any proponents of alternative versions of history will have to fight hard to get them heard. 

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