Eugene Huskey is one of America’s foremost experts on modern Kyrgyzstan. The following text recounts his first trip to Kyrgyzstan in June of 1992, just after the country became independent. It is an excerpt from a larger book, Encounters at the Edge of the Muslim World, a largely first-person account of his now quarter-century of travel in and research on Kyrgyzstan. Dr. Huskey is a professor of political science at Stetson University in Florida and the author of multiple works on Russian, Soviet, and Kyrgyz politics.
Text reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. To purchase the book, click here and use the promotional code RLFANDF30 for a 30% discount.
All pictures featured in this resource have been contributed by Dr. Huskey and are generally not featured in the book.
The Present Is History
Having studied a territory for years without ever laying eyes on it, I approached our arrival in Bishkek with more than a little anticipation, and trepidation. After flying for hours above the flat expanses of Russia and Kazakhstan, the famed mountains of northern Kyrgyzstan, the Ala-Too Range, finally came into view. They rose sharply out of the fields of the Chu Valley, where we landed in the late afternoon sunlight at Manas Airport, fifteen miles west of the capital. Surrounded by farmland, the airport was a small, sad facility that exuded Soviet-era neglect. Once out of the terminal, however, we encountered another world, with mountains dominating the skyline and the unhurried gait of a farmer driving his cattle across the main road into Bishkek. It was a far cry from Moscow, and a reminder of the diversity and grandeur that was once the Soviet Union.
Bishkek was in every respect a Soviet city. Because the traditionally nomadic Kyrgyz left few architectural traces—the only ancient monument in the northern half of the country is Burana Tower, constructed by predecessors to the Kyrgyz, the Karakhanids, in the eleventh century—the Kyrgyzstani capital was a product of Russian colonial and Soviet design. There were a few hints of Islamic architecture in the city: in the entranceway to the Osh Bazaar, Bishkek’s main market; in the buildings surrounding the main square; and on the decorative terraces of some of the newer apartment buildings. However, low, unadorned functional structures built after WWII of stone, brick, or concrete dominated the core of the Kyrgyzstani capital. Butting up against the modern, compact central city were residential neighborhoods with the feel of a Russian village. Just across Jibek Jolu (Silk Road Street), a few blocks from the main square, some Bishkek residents lived in one- and two-story wooden houses arranged haphazardly among fruit trees and small gardens.
Arriving in Bishkek in late spring, the eclectic architecture was barely visible amid the greenery that cloaked the city. At the heart of the capital was a wide, tree-lined boulevard dotted with rose gardens, park benches, and swings for children. Named in the Soviet period after the first Bolshevik secret police chief, Dzherzhinsky, the boulevard assumed the Kyrgyz name for freedom, Erkindik, shortly after Kyrgyzstan gained its independence.
Running along each side of Erkindik, and several other main north-south arteries in the capital, were narrow concrete channels that directed the mountain runoff through the city and into the Chu River beyond. Small dams above the city regulated the flow of water into town, while thin pieces of wood placed in vertical grooves in the concrete served as makeshift sluice gates along the streets for city workers who periodically flooded the boulevard to irrigate trees and gardens. For those sitting or strolling along Erkindik in the summer months, when temperatures could exceed 100 degrees, the flow of mountain water was a natural air conditioner.
Bishkek was not just a Soviet city but a Russian city, at least at our arrival in June 1992. While the ethnic Kyrgyz remained concentrated in the rural areas, Russians and Ukrainians moved in large numbers into Frunze—to use the Soviet-era name for Bishkek—to assume jobs in industry, transport, and education after WWII. Because of this influx of Russians and other European peoples, the Kyrgyz made up less than 10 percent of the capital’s 200,000 citizens at the end of the 1950s. As the city grew over the succeeding decades, to over 600,000 citizens by the end of the Soviet era, the higher birth rate of the ethnic Kyrgyz and the increased migration from villages to the cities began to reduce the Russian share of the population. Yet the last Soviet census, conducted in 1989, showed that the ethnic Kyrgyz still made up less than a quarter of their own republican capital. Among the capitals of the fourteen non-Russian republics, only Almaty, in neighboring Kazakhstan, rivaled Bishkek as a center of Russian life.
Worried about their fate—and their children’s fate—in a Kyrgyzstan unmoored from the Soviet Union, a steady stream of ethnic Russians and other European peoples, including Germans, had begun to leave Kyrgyzstan as the USSR unraveled. Yet in the early months of post-communist Kyrgyzstan there was no sign that the influence of the Russian language was waning in Bishkek. Although the republic had introduced a new language law in 1989 calling for the revival of Kyrgyz, little progress had been made in implementing its provisions by 1992. In fact, the Kyrgyz language was virtually absent from the streets of the capital during our stay. Signs were still in Russian, and ethnic Kyrgyz rarely spoke their mother tongue in Bishkek, even among themselves. One reason for that was the decades-long dominance of Russian in the schools of the capital. When we arrived, only three of the city’s sixty-nine primary schools offered Kyrgyz as the primary language of instruction. Kyrgyz parents understandably chose Russian-language education for their children as a way of improving their life chances in a Soviet Union where Russian was the language of opportunity. As a result, a generation and more of ethnic Kyrgyz raised in the capital had little facility in their native tongue. They also had little interest in elevating the role of the Kyrgyz language because it would have given an advantage to their ethnic kin in the countryside, who spoke better Kyrgyz.
In a visit to the outskirts of the capital, I encountered some of these country Kyrgyz, recent arrivals from rural communities who were squatting on land because there was no housing to be had in the city. Known as “the builders” (zastroishchiki), these squatters provided willing recruits to one of the first grassroots political movements in independent Kyrgyzstan, called Ashar, whose demands for inclusion in the political and economic life of the city raised concerns in the government and the local Russian community. With Russians possessing some of the best jobs and housing, one Kyrgyz complained to a local paper that he felt like “a guest in his own home.” The resentment of the newly arrived Kyrgyz extended not just to the members of other ethnic groups but to the Russified Kyrgyz raised in the capital. The new arrivals referred disparagingly to these denizens of Bishkek as “Kirgiz” rather than “Kyrgyz”—evoking the Russian spelling and pronunciation (Keer-geez) of the name.
Because scholars visiting Kyrgyzstan needed an institutional placement in order to receive a visa, Chingiz Aitmatov had arranged for us to be attached to the Academy of Sciences of Kyrgyzstan during our stay. Housed in a sprawling mid-twentieth-century building on the western edge of central Bishkek, the academy was composed of numerous institutes aligned with traditional academic disciplines. Our placement was in the Institute of Linguistics and Literature, which had an informal section devoted to Aitmatov Studies (Aitmatovedenie). Our contact there was Melis Akmataliev, a young Kyrgyz specialist on Aitmatov whose work tended to blur the distinction between scholarship and hagiography. His first name, Melis, suggested that he was born to parents who were devoted Communists—Melis is the acronym in Russian for Marx-Engels-Lenin-and-Stalin. The name, common in the Soviet era, was far from the most revolutionary-sounding appellation in the USSR. Parents wishing to express their devotion to the communist order had numerous naming options to choose from, including Elina, a diminutive form of Electrification and Industrialization, and Vilorik, composed of the first letters in Russian of Vladimir Il’ich Lenin Freed the Workers and Peasants.
Arriving as guests of Chingiz Aitmatov, we found ourselves in the awkward position of enjoying the hospitality he arranged for us while recoiling from some of the hero-worship of the writer that we found on display. Early in our stay, Melis inducted us into the Aitmatov Club, an organization he headed that was devoted to advancing the reputation of Chingiz Torekulovich. To formalize our induction into the club, Melis signed and presented us with red folding membership cards, which resembled in shape, color, and size the membership cards carried by Communist Party members in the Soviet era. In discussing the mission of the Aitmatov Club, Melis and other devotees of the distinguished Kyrgyz writer spoke of him with a respectfulness that often edged into adoration.
The pride that Melis and other Kyrgyz felt in their successful kinsman was certainly understandable and heartfelt. How many authors from any country, never mind a small, fledgling state, had sold over 80 million copies of their books and had their works translated into 176 different languages? Chingiz Aitmatov was also more than a prolific author: his literary and political activity had helped to transform his society. Yet the extraordinary deference accorded to Aitmatov by Melis and many other Kyrgyz reminded me that societies celebrating Great Men, especially those among the living, were always in danger of succumbing to the authoritarian temptation. As Bertolt Brecht put it, unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.
Shortly after arriving in Bishkek, we received an invitation to have an early afternoon dinner at the home of Aitmatov’s sister, Roza, a physicist who lived on the outskirts of Bishkek. It was our first chance to get out of the city, and as we drove south toward the mountains, through alleys of birch trees, we passed well-kept houses typical of the small Russian or German settlements ringing Bishkek. The houses were one-story structures with high roofs, each occupying what was called a private plot of land in the Soviet era. Although modest in scale and design—the post-communist McMansions favored by a growing nouveau riche class had yet to appear—these houses were highly sought after by the country’s elite because of their distance from the noise and pollution of the city. In this village-like setting, Roza lived in a tasteful brick house with intricate wooden designs beneath the roof line and large rose bushes in full bloom along the drive. One outside wall resembled a work of abstract art, with alternate bricks painted white and an earthy red.
A quiet, deliberate woman a few years younger than her famous brother, Roza greeted us respectfully and invited us inside. Spread across the living room floor was a thick white cloth dotted with small plates that held fresh fruits and vegetables and an array of Kyrgyz appetizers. We took our seats on the floor with legs folded in traditional Kyrgyz fashion and marveled at the feast in front of us. Some of the offerings were familiar—sliced tomatoes and Russian vodka—but others were culinary novelties for us, from the traditional Kyrgyz flatbread, naan, which is a heavier, thicker version of its well-known Indian cousin, to manty, large steamed dumplings filled with ground lamb and onions. Even as a southerner used to eating with his hands, I was not quite prepared for the challenges of maintaining a semblance of propriety while biting into manty, out of which oozed a greasy liquid. Following the appetizer course, Roza’s husband, Esenbek, brought out the main dish, a large plate of meat cut into unfamiliar slices. Biting into a piece with a large bone attached, I recognized the taste of garlic, but the flavor of the meat itself, though pleasant enough, was unfamiliar. Inquiring about the dish, we learned that it was horsemeat, once a Kyrgyz staple that is now reserved for special occasions because of its expense.
After dinner, Roza and Esenbek drove us toward the nearby settlement of Chon-Tash, stopping in a barren field whose only distinguishing marker was a small, low metal fence on a rise in the earth that covered a building in ruins. Surveying the scene, Roza explained solemnly that this was the site of a mass grave that held the remains of 137 members of the Kyrgyz political and cultural elite who had been killed in early November 1938 by Stalin’s secret police. Among those executed was her father, Torekul. In 1937, he had been a high-ranking Communist Party official in the republic who was recalled from his studies at the Institute of Red Professors in Moscow and arrested. Branded a “bourgeois nationalist,” an accusation leveled at an entire generation of indigenous leaders in non-Russian republics, his repression ushered in a period of intense russification of Kirgizia.
For the next twelve years, ethnic Russians with no previous experience in Kirgizia led the republic as Communist Party first secretaries. The ethnic Kyrgyz who took the place of Torekul Aitmatov and other party and government officials working under the first secretaries generally lacked the education and sophistication of their predecessors. The result was a crude sycophantism toward the Russians, evident in the comments about them made by a Kyrgyz leader in the Brezhnev period. First Secretary Turdukan Usubaliev expressed his “gratitude to the Great Russian people… whose ardent love and devotion to the socialist motherland and to Lenin’s glorious party have always been and will always be a source of inspiration and a splendid example and model for the Kirgiz people.”
Our trip to Chon-Tash came just a year after the discovery of the mass grave. The mystery surrounding their father’s fate had weighed on Chingiz and Roza their whole lives, and the emotions unleashed by the unexpected revelation were still apparent in Roza’s face as she approached the site. Chingiz and Roza had grown up as “enemies of the people,” the label given to the relatives of those repressed in the Stalin era; the correspondence their mother received from the authorities after Torekul’s disappearance stated that their father had been sent to a distant labor colony, without the right to send or receive letters. A few years later, while Roza was still a teenager, the policies of Nikita Khrushchev brought the rehabilitation of her father, and millions of other repressed citizens, but no word on his fate.
The grave might never have been unearthed had a woman not come forward with a secret entrusted to her by her father on his deathbed, a secret that she kept for almost thirty years, until she felt the political moment was right. Her father had worked in the 1930s as a cook for the NKVD, the secret police, which maintained a retreat for its personnel on the site of an old brick factory in Chon-Tash. After executing the 137 persons in a basement of the NKVD headquarters in central Bishkek, the authorities concluded that the brick factory was the only place that the bodies could be buried without arousing suspicion. In a disused brick firing kiln measuring ten by ten by ten feet, the NKVD stacked all of those killed, shoveling in dirt between the layers of corpses. For years after the mass burial, local residents claimed to see on clear nights a luminescent glow rising from the site, later attributed to the decaying of the remains.
After unearthing the bodies, only five persons among the 137 could be definitively identified. One of them was Torekul Aitmatov. Handed a typed indictment issued by the visiting military tribunal from Moscow that condemned them to death, Aitmatov and three other individuals had placed the document in their pockets, where they remained. The other identified victim went to his death wearing clothing with his name sewn inside. To honor the memory of all who died in the massacre, Chingiz Aitmatov, his sister Roza, and other relatives of the dead, as well as thousands of ordinary citizens of Bishkek, attended a solemn reinterment of the bodies in August 1991. They were laid to rest in 137 individual plots near the mass grave in Chon-Tash. In 2000, the Kyrgyzstani government created a moving memorial on the site, anchored by a large tunduk, the wooden crossties at the top of a yurt that serve as a symbol of the country. Perhaps the most poignant memorial to Torekul Aitmatov, though, was the book published by Roza Aitmatova in 2013, The Blank Pages of History, which recounts not just the death and strange afterlife of Torekul, but the role of an absent father in the life of a girl growing up in Soviet Kirgizia.