One of the things that makes traveling in the former Soviet Union is the combination of monotony and diversity you encounter over such a huge landmass. The Soviet Union comprised about 22 million square kilometers when it existed – an area two and a half times the size of China, the United States (including Alaska), or Canada today. Russia today has nine time zones. As a history professor in college once put it, the Soviet Union – the same applies to the former Soviet space today – is like a mix of Finland, Pakistan, Iran, and China, all in one country.
Writing the history of the Soviet Union, as my dissertation partly tries to do, means making mental compromises as you try to understand this diverse space, and how Moscow tried to govern it. Facts like the (disappearing) ubiquity of Russian and drinking Baltika beer (which is ironically owned by a Danish company), along with decrepit apartment buildings and potholed streets remind of the integrating tendencies afoot in this territory. Sometimes, these integrating tendencies can make it easy to speak of ‘a’ post-Soviet space, or to think historically about ‘the’ Soviet Union – when in spite of the unifying things like non-commercialized institutional cafés serving borshch and shorpo and, in Central Asia, mediocre lepëshka bread, the place had many regional identities, disintegrating tendencies, and centrifugal forces that élites had to manage, too. Effectively governing a space of 22 million square kilometers, nine time zones that borders on both Poland and Afghanistan is probably inherently impossible. But it’s in identifying and thinking about the tensions between integrating tendencies and centrifugal that historians, political scientists, and sociologists can best come to grips with the space historically – and maybe reach broader conclusions about federalism, centralism, and integration more broadly, too.
Over a long weekend during my stay in Kyrgyzstan this January, I had the opportunity to make a long weekend trip from Bishkek, the capital, to Talas Oblast’, a province in the isolated northwest of the country adjacent to Kazakhstan. My host mother and host father had grown up in the Talas Valley that gives the province its geographical logic, and with a trip to the more bustling Almaty (the largest city in Kazakhstan and probably the most dynamic city in all of Central Asia) the next weekend, a trip to the provincial countryside sounded wonderful. In what follows I’d like to try to provide a brief account of some of my reflections – both for my own purposes of jotting down the memories but also providing some armchair impressions of life in one very specific part of Kyrgyzstan. (In other words, don’t expect any in-depth academic in this treatment; for such a take, consider this or this.)
Before diving into some direct reflections, it might be useful to jot down a few words on Talas itself, and the position it occupies within Kyrgyzstan. (People who study Central Asia or have spent some time in the region could very well skip over this paragraph.) Coming from a relatively culturally homogenous country like the United States – which in spite of its federalism and different regional traditions and noted class divisions is still a country where people speak the same language, enjoy some associational life, and can simply physically travel from any part of the country to any other part at any time of the year – I was frequently reminded in Kyrgyzstan by how much I take this kind of homogeneity for granted. There’s a significant North-South divide in Kyrgyzstan both geographically and politically, between the Kyrgyz-dominated North (Talas, Chui, Naryn and Issyk-Kül) and the South (Osh, Jalalabad, and Batken) with a larger Uzbek population, which tends to speak more Uzbek, be more religiously ‘conservative’, and comes from a sedentary tradition of agriculture and more centralized governance than the nomadic, more decentralized traditions of the north.
But even within the North there are differences and divides. Bishkek’s population has grown in the last decade and a half, but no one I met there openly claimed to actually be from Bishkek: regional identities and familial networks remain crucial, with most Bishkek residents I met coming either from villages around Lake Issyk-Kül or Naryn. Geography and infrastructure complicate the situation: road maintenance in Kyrgyzstan is iffy even in the best of times, but particularly in winter – when I was there – road access to Talas can be a challenge; it requires driving along twisty mountain roads along part of the Bishkek-Osh road, traveling through a high-altitude tunnel, and, after that, getting your car over the Ötmök Pass (see picture below). My host family, ever insistent on the ability of Talas natives to get the job done, told me not to worry about the snowdrifts, ice, and cattle on the roads, but at times in winter the roads become impassable due to snow and ice, even for people from Talas. During the Soviet period, this wasn’t a huge problem – traffic could take an easier route from Bishkek to Taraz, Kazakhstan that doesn’t require mountain adventures. But the lack of customs and tariff agreements between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan after independence made it harder to do cross-border business at the same time that independence didn’t automatically create close ties across Ötmök to Bishkek. This lack of unity has had serious consequences: without going too much into the details, riots in Talas were a major – and the first – event in the 2010 Kyrgyz Revolution that saw the ouster of the then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
What interested me most during my time in Talas was how oddly situated I felt between any number of networks. I was firmly ensconced in a largely familial network (a large Kyrygz extended family network that had taken me in), but also one that felt strong allegiance and viewed itself as part of a larger network of families and relations within a specifically Talas-centric, regional network. While this regional identity was used as a battering ram against Kyrgyz political figures not from Talas, it also co-existed with a national Kyrygz identity, which, while highly contrived (as I’ll go into), appears to be entirely heartfelt, even among people who grew up in the USSR. But what made the experience of spending the weekend in Talas disorienting was the fact all of these highly Kyrgyz moments were going on at the same time that I was being exposed to supranational networks or influences – non-stop streaming of crappy American films from the 1990s that form a huge portion of the media consumption of the people I lived with, or the fact that much of the so-called Kyrgyz, ‘national,’ stuff trotted out was actually directly inherited from the Soviet Union, specifically institutions and networks that were only possible thanks to a certain kind of Soviet cosmopolitanism.
After arriving in the afternoon, we had some time to kill while the women of the household were preparing a massive feast – it was totally out of the question that I as a guest or any of the male hosts would take part in preparing the meal, other than, perhaps, slaughtering a sheep or getting some bread at the local market. We (a member of the extended family hosting the feast that evening) and I headed out for a few errands, then: first, to get his black BMW 5-series washed at the local car wash (pride over cars, especially mid-1990s German luxury sedans was huge among the men I met in Kyrgyzstan); second, to pick up some food from the local market in Talas (the smallish city that’s the capital of Talas Oblast); and third, if there was enough time, to take me to the Manas Ordo Complex, a center devoted to the Manas legend that’s one of the central artifacts of Kyrgyz culture today.
Before I go into more detail on what we actually did during the day, I ought to explain my vague description of the fellow driving me around, and what it suggests about family networks. One of the things you have to understand about me is that I enjoy learning foreign languages. Indeed, one of the reasons I was in Kyrgyzstan in the first place was to get some exposure to Turkic languages for future research and reading purposes; I was taking intensive Kyrgyz-language courses at a language school in Bishkek during my time there. I enjoyed it tremendously. Turkic languages are, in my view, super-logical, relatively easy for native English speakers to pronounce, and – unlike certain other languages whose syntax often makes parsing the meaning of sentences ambiguous – are easy to understand syntactically, at least at a beginner’s level like the one I was at.
There is, however, one thing I found devilish about Kyrgyz during my time studying it: its words for familial relations. Many of the other languages I’ve studied have, in my mind, fairly sane schemes for describing family relations; German is almost the same as English, and while there are a few tricky points in Russian (“cousin” is literally “once removed brother”), it still all basically makes sense. Kyrygz, however, like the other Turkic languages and Persian, breaks things down into not only brother/sister/mother/father relations, but also axes of which side of the family someone is on (i.e. a maternal-side uncle is a different word from a paternal-side uncle). Not only this, but special words crop up for relationships that most Americans wouldn’t even think of as familial: specific words for extended family through in-law relations (with different words for, say, the mother of a wife vs. the mother of a husband, or different words for ‘nieces in law’ of a sister in law vs. ‘nephews in law’ for a brother in law). For an American like myself, who grew up with a familial life that was hardly clannish but still involved semi-frequent visits to grandmothers, uncles, cousins, and so on, it was all simply hard to keep track of so many words, and my effort in learning the word for ‘the guy that drops in to fix the sink of your mother-in-law’s second cousin, because he is married to *her* niece-in-law,’ as opposed to words like ‘do,’ ‘make,’ and ‘eat’ occasionally slipped at times, I admit.
These language learning adventures prompted several interesting conversations that illuminated aspects of the first kind of network that many Kyrgyz seem to inhabit, the familial network. As I described to my Kyrgyz host family my (fairly limited) relationship with, say, the uncle of my cousin’s wife, they often asked if this was unusual – like I was deliberately shunning that particular relationship. I explained that (as in the case of the lovely wife of one of my cousins) even extended families live quite far apart from one another – I’m from Los Angeles, while several other members of our family live in southern Oregon – and that it was not, in fact, scandalous that we weren’t going to visit them every other weekend. (In spite of what I made out about Talas and geography in Kyrgyzstan above, it’s important to remember that, weather permitting, virtually nowhere in the country is more than a [very long] day trip away from any other point, so there are really no excuses, in a sense, for not visiting your family.)
In short, extended family networks matter here, bigtime, and most social life is conducted through them. Very few Kyrgyz had the kind of associational life (clubs, sports teams, religious groups, church) that many Americans enjoy, still. Literally everyone I met in my weekend trip to Talas – and almost everyone through my host family – was a member of the extended family, somehow, or was an odnoklassnik of someone in that extended family (i.e. they had gone to primary or secondary school, typically in the same village together). I began to think of Talas, indeed, Kyrgyzstan in the larger sense, as composed of these quasi-linking familial structures, largely absent the incestuous university-consulting-banking community of non-biologically related people that makes up a large portion of my social world in the United States or in England.
But the familial dimension was only one of several levels of allegiances at play in Kyrgyzstan. Throughout the entire weekend I was in Talas, my hosts constantly emphasized – repeatedly – that people from Talas were the bravest, the most manly, the most courageous, the most ‘authoritarian’ (avtoritetnyi – a term of endearment in Russian) of all the people in Kyrgyzstan. This might sound like harmless chest-thumping at first, but the more I looked around, the more it seemed there was a real story here. As I alluded to earlier, part of the story behind the 2010 revolution in Kyrgyzstan was uprisings in Talas (the capital city of the province). Opposition leaders affiliated with Talas clans were arrested without real grounds, prompting protests and several attempts to seize the police station in the city. The President at the time, Bakiyev, ordered a curfew imposed (though only in the northern provinces – Bakiyev was from Jalalabad in the south), and dispatched the Interior Minister of the country to Talas to impose order. In a speech that several people in Talas referenced while I was there, the Interior Minister made disparaging remarks about the protestors. This turned out to be unwise, as protestors eventually stormed his location, beat him into critical condition, and took him hostage. In the course of two days, Talas – which again is geographically isolated from Bishkek – had become either autonomous or anarchic, depending on your perspective.
Several of the Talas residents I spoke were proud of the uprising, and hinted that they were effectively masters not only of the valley, but of the country in some sense, too; if politicians from the south of the country or other northern provinces misbehaved, they could raise enough hell to make life difficult for the center. This sense of being the strongest region in Kyrgyzstan – and the potential kingmakers in any coalition that would sit in Bishkek – extended to other areas of life, as well. My hosts noted that the traffic officers who watched the main road along the center of the valley had been appointed from Bishkek and didn’t necessarily come from Talas Oblast‘ itself. When I wasn’t cowering in my seat as we sped down the bumpy, icy road, I noticed that it was common for drivers to stare down and making intimidating hand signs to the police officers they didn’t know (probably people from outside of Talas), and to wave at the ones they did know (the boys from Talas). “They know who’s boss,” the family member driving me around would say. They knew that if they pulled over too many people – in an effort to demonstrate their sovereignty over people from Talas – there could be trouble. When it came to traffic cops in this province, Bishkek may have made the rules, but Talas enforced them. I’m still alive after several journeys on that road – a few grey hairs added after near-death misses of oncoming traffic when we were passing people, but my intuitions about political geography in Kyrgyzstan enhanced.
I’ll pull off here to conclude Part I of these reflections on my time in Talas, both for the sake of weary readers as well as to gather more reflection on the two other dynamics I want to point to from my time there – national and supra-national identities in life there. Visitors interested in an account of a trip to the Manas Ordo complex and the history of the Manas epic, as well as some reflections on the place of American shlock films in Kyrgyzstan today should return shortly for Part II, within a few days.