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A Trip to Talas: Observations on Four Kinds of Networks in Rural Kyrgyzstan, Part II

March 10, 2012

I can be a snob at moments, but I often feel out of step culturally with my friends. Ask around Oxford or Princeton, or to a certain extent any of the major metropolitan centers in which the graduates of those institutions make their first leap into the ‘real world,’ what people are up to in the course of a week, and their description can resemble a CV, a copy of the Sunday New York Times, and Runner’s World thrown into a blender.

The primary trait of the kind of person I’m talking about is that they’re busy. They’re running charity events. There’s a great new Moroccan-Mexican restaurant in this corner of town that has awesome exposed brickwork, and whose tagine is even better than the one they’ve been whipping up themselves. They’re training for a marathon, whether in Boston or Dublin or Istanbul. Sometimes, one wonders, it seems like they’ve professionalized their free time. And in addition to all of this, there’s the normal coursework of law or business school, too. What ever happened to long, lazy Sunday brunches, watching American football, or, simply, long walks — activities, that is, that impress no one but give us the rhythm, relaxation, and pause important to a balanced week?

Between running the Boston Marathon, attending élite law schools, and visiting fusion cafés, who has time for Robocop?

I admit freely to sympathizing with the lazy Sunday approach, to indulging sometimes in lower culture or something less ambitious than running a 10K for this or that humanitarian cause. In particular, one of my great indulgences is bad movies from the 1980s. As I’ve discussed in some earlier blog posts, I am fascinated by action films in particular from the late 1980s and early 1990s – films like The Running Man, Robocop, True Lies, and so on. The video game-editing, ultraviolence, and half-celebration and half-criticism of Reagan-era American culture both feed a nostalgia for having grown up in that period and encourage one to reflect on the values missteps of that era, too. The Running Man, for example, is an unbelievably tight, well-edited film itself, but it also begins to mount a critique of a reality-TV society in which citizens become consumers, and citizen interventions into reality TV shows (whether voting off contestants or entering the show to kill other contestants) the highest form of democracy.

But there’s also space in my lame movie canon for other films. One franchise which I always enjoyed was Final Destination, a modest 2000 special effects-driven horror film that eventually spawned a cult franchise. The plot of the film (trailer below) is pretty mindless: a group of high school students studying French is supposed to go on a class trip to Paris. But upon boarding the flight from JFK to Paris, one of the students has a premonition – the plane is going to explode and kill everyone on board! He makes a scene, which causes the flight crew to throw him and several of his friends off the flight. The plane proceeds to explode directly after takeoff: the premonition was right.

The teens think they’re safe, but they soon learn that Death is after them. Several of them begin to die in elaborate accidents. It’s a pretty simple concept, but the franchise took it into creative and often bizarre directions. The deaths became more elaborate, more cartoonish, and more ridiculous: the film series itself almost became a commentary on what weird concepts script-writers and special effects teams could actually pitch to studio offices. This self-reflective action/horror movie genre (also to be found in Scream, for example) always struck as an interesting if modest accomplishment of turn-of-the-century American film, and I liked it, even if it wasn’t the pinnacle of cinematic achievement.

About a month ago, I found myself whiling away the better part of an afternoon in Talas, Kyrgyzstan, watching – once again – the Final Destination franchise over tea, lepyeshka bread, and mutton. In this post – the second of three on a weekend adventure to Talas – I want to expand on some of my own (casual, non-academic, non-sociological) observations about one particular rural corner of the former Soviet Union. In the first essay I wrote on this subject, I described Talas as suspended in the middle of four kinds of networks that, it seems to me, persist across much of the former Soviet space.

In particular, in the first essay I wrote about two of those kinds of networks: the familial networks which, rather than associational (running clubs, book discussion groups) provide so much structure to life there; and regional- and national- level networks that help organize politics in these places. In Talas, for example, regional identity was incredibly strong, led people to flaunt conventions like the rule of law – and yet their sense of Talas being ‘the strongest’ or ‘the most authoritarian’ (‘authoritarian’ in a positive sense, of course …) province in Kyrgyzstan was also grounded in a pride in being Kyrgyz in the first place, of Kyrgyz as more proud or dynamic than their neighboring Uzbeks or Kazakhs.

In this second essay, I want to focus on the transnational networks that interweave places like Talas. I see there being at least three dynamics going on here. One is the Soviet legacy – how Soviet institutions and cultural practices gave a coherence to Talas, even as these traditions were later interpreted as ‘national’ or ‘Kyrygz.’

One of the reasons I was interested in visiting Talas in the first place (beyond the fact of meeting my host family’s extended family) was that it is, in some sense, the most Kyrgyz of any province of Kyrgyzstan. The reason for this is the Epic of Manas, an epic poem and oral tradition that forms a crucial part of Kyrgyz culture. Starting in (probably) the 18th century, Turkic-speaking people around the region which is now Kyrgyzstan began to develop an oral tradition to recount and celebrate the (from their point of view) victory of Turkic-speaking people over Mongol groups that had attempted to invade the region. A legend began to circulate of Manas, a heroic warrior who fought back against the Mongols. Storytellers, bards, and poets known as manasçi (Manas specialists) who could recite the legend (up to hundreds of thousands of lines of poetry) began to emerge, particularly in Talas, where Manas is reputed to have been buried in a gumbez (mausoleum), pictured below. Even if you’re not terribly interested in the poetry itself, the mausoleum is fantastic, and I enjoyed sitting outside it with my hosts and a mullah whose job it was to monitor the mausoleum; I paused for a moment of silence as they performed a prayer in the cold air – a nice respite from a day of driving around, watching horror movies, and the crass, busy bazaars of Talas.

The mausoleum (kümböz/gumbez/mazar) of Manas, near Talas, Kyrgyzstan

It all seemed so … Kyrgyz, grounded in a local context. But as I entered the museum and memorial complex built around the mausoleum, it became clear how much more complicated the real history was.

There’s a disturbing tendency among some cultural élites in America or Western Europe to treat any discussion of ‘Islamic art’ (itself a complicated topic) as a history in which an imperialist, colonialist, racist, exploitative, thieving, etc., etc., etc., West did little but trash the artistic and cultural heritage of the early modern Muslim World. (One recent article by Souren Melikian, the art critic for the IHT, exemplifies this line of thinking.) This line of attack – trash Western cultural history, cite Said’s Orientalism, and fail to engage with Western scholarship as anything other than some anti-’Oriental’ conspiracy  - is a well-worn career move among those in the orbit of ‘cultural studies’, but in addition to being wrong, it’s also usually ignorant of an enormously rich heritage of Russian and Soviet Orientology, collection of ‘Islamic art,’ and the ways in which curation of ‘Islamic art’ in non-Muslim lands often led to rich results for both imperial powers as well as Muslims themselves.

The museum at the Manas memorial complex is an excellent example of both the heritage of Russian/Soviet Orientology, as well as how ‘national’ myths like Manas are actually largely the creation of specifically Soviet institutions. Walking through the museum, the tour guide (a mandatory part of the museum visit) explained to us how Kyrygz manasçi of the late 19th century could recite hundreds of thousands of lines of poetry. The Manas cycle, she happily emphasized to me, was longer than the Odyssey and the Iliad combined. But a look around prompted a few obvious questions. Manas had started as an oral legend, but what was with all of these printed volumes? How had the Manas legend changed in the 20th century under the radically changed conditions of cultural production of the USSR?

The next room provided some interesting examples of how Soviet scholarship and cultural production had dramatically changed the Manas cycle. In the late 1920s and 1930s, as the Central Asian SSRs were molded into distinctly Soviet, national republics, Soviet cultural élites faced some challenges. What to do with tiny, largely illiterate Kyrgyzstan?

To over-simplify a history that, I hope, some scholar will explore in more depth in future serious work, Soviet cultural élites found a way to re-invent Manas. The historical basis of the legend was already fairly well-known among Petersburg/Leningrad-based Orientalists like the hyper-cosmopolitan V.V. Radlov (the founder of Turkic studies in the Russian Empire); the next step was to find ways to shoehorn it into the ‘national in form, socialist in content’ formula behind Stalinist cultural production. Cultural élites had to invent Manas operas, Manas ballets, and incorporate this oral history into an educational program that strongly emphasized written and read literacy.

As (Soviet) Russian higher education rebuilt itself and became once again capable of sponsoring archeologists, ethnographers, and linguists to investigate the histories of Eurasian peoples, primarily Russian archaeologists carried out excavations of Central Asia, literally unearthing in the 1960s and 1970s many of the sites and cultural treasures that would later be presented as part of … the ‘eternal Kyrgyz cultural heritage’ and so on. V.V. Bartol’d, a Russian Orientologist, had ‘discovered’ the Manas mausoleum already in the 1890s, but a later generation of Soviet Orientologists – some escaping the Nazi invasion in the 1940s – would land in Bishkek, learn Kyrgyz, and re-invent themselves as specialists on this and other Turkic legends.

V.V. Bartol'd, one of several late Tsarist-era Russian Orientologists who studied Central Asia

The result was ironic: by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, its archaeologists and ethnographers – particularly those active during the Brezhnev era – had unearthed, studied, and documented a tremendous collection of interesting stuff from all across Central Asia. Often true scholars and serious academics, they did so primarily out of a passion for the subject, but were also born by a learned tradition of Russian Oriental Studies that continues to this day. And yet the work they carried out, the museums they built, the cultural artifacts they had unearthed, the oral, rural traditions like Manas that they had transmogrified to be useful substance in a state-building process suddenly fell into the hands of post-Soviet national élites who, with the fall of the Soviet Union, gained independence but not much else: no money, no economy, an antiquated political structure, and a citizenry ill-trained to think in exclusively national terms.

 Part of what I think we see when we look at the Manas legend is how an old transnational network – the Soviet Union and the archaeological and ethnographic tradition it sustained – could be reinvented to serve national needs. After independence, it seems to me, it was precisely this Soviet ethnographic and archaeological legacy that was quickly mobilized as part of the nation-building process. The Manas Complex has only been operating since the mid-1990s, but according to my hosts and others, it was not only a patronage project for Talas élites but also a (successful) domestic tourism project: middle- and upper-middle class Kyrgyz will occasionally take their kids to the Manas Complex to learn more about their ‘Kyrgyz’ cultural heritage – but doing so by taking in the popularized version of a Soviet scholarly legacy.

This is what makes talking about ‘national’ or ‘regional’ identity in Talas so complicated: sometimes, like when people talk about Talas being ‘authoritarian’ or ‘courageous,’ that appears to be a moment of regional identity that existed independently of Soviet institutions. But a full understanding of the networks that sustain people’s identities in Talas, or elsewhere in the rural former Soviet Union, demands an understanding of how Soviet institutions and practices could be reinvented to serve national ends – even when the people working in those Soviet-era institutions, like the Brezhnev-era archaeologists, had no idea that their work could later be re-invented to serve presentist state-building ends.

 What of Final Destination?

I want to treat that topic more in a third, and final essay on Talas, one in which I highlight the Islamic factor and the Western one in understanding Talas. Almost every Kyrgyz I met was a Muslim (I had some conversations with a Kyrgyz Christian priest, incidentally), but while few are as intensely pious as some South Asian or Arab Muslims can be, they often viewed their lives and homes as being part of a vaguely-defined ‘Muslim World,’ too, that gave it meaning.

But these legacies existed side-by-side with the penetration of a Western legacy. Not only were food items like pizza and hamburgers readily available in Bishkek or even Talas, but even in a largely Kyrgyz- and Russophone milieu, Hollywood films like Final Destination were a huge part of the cultural canon of many of the young Kyrgyz I met – even more so than the supposed cultural touchstones that people repeatedly held up to me as the ‘national song,’ the ‘national food,’ the ‘national opera,’ et cetera.

Keep your eyes posted for that piece soon.

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From → Foreign Policy

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