Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The left boot of history. Kyrgystan's return to feudalism

I lost my left hiking boot in Kyrgystan last week. I know, you are surprised it didn't make world headlines! It was, believe, me a deeply traumatic experience.Kyrgystan is a land of contradictions and contrasts; a small, poor country fighting for survival in the midst of the great imperial game being played out by Europe, US, Russia and China for control of Central Asia's natural resources. Arriving in Bishkek airport from Moscow is a perfect introduction to contemporary Kyrgystan, as one observes a company of American soldiers heading back to their military base in Manas. Kyrgystan is among the most Russian-oriented states in Central Asia, hence the American presence!

Making our way to the hostel we were accosted by a Kyrgyz lad who spoke little English and much German. He works part-time as a guide for Swiss tourists and wanted to practice German with us in preparation for the next tour, even offering to accompany us for free into the mountains of Tian Shan in the east. My girlfriend and I readily accepted, and so the three of us, an Irishman, French woman and Kyrgyz man, departed for the wilds of Kyrgystan all speaking German! I felt there was something fittingly peculiar about the whole thing!

The word Kyrgystan translates as the land of 40 maidens. On our trip around the country our guide gave us many insights into the nations troubled history. Like Irish, the Kyrgyz language has never attained the same status as Russian, although unlike Irish, Kyrgyz is still spoken by over 60 percent of the population on a daily basis. But most books, signposts and administrative paraphernalia are still in Russian. There is an interesting diglossia in this country that somehow seems to work. Most educated people are perfectly bilingual, but the two unrelated languages operated on two distinct sociological registers. There has been a concerted effort by the Governement to promote the Kyrgyz language since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 but unlike Kazahstan where the language is triving due to ambitious state guidance, the Kyrgyz authorities lack the funds and expertise to translate more books into Kyrgyz. Therefore, Russian is still the language of universities.

Kyrgyzstan also shares an important historical date with Ireland. A few months after Irish revolutionaries had seized the GPO in Dublin's nationalist rising, Kyrgyz rebels were fighting the Russian Czarist autocracy in the mountains of Tian Shan bordering China. The rebels opposed conscription to fight in the first world war and were brutally slaughtered by the Czarist forces. As many of the fighters were Bashmachis, that is to say, conservative muslims opposed to women's liberation and modernisation, the Kyrgyz slaughter known as the 'Urkan' or tragedy, was not taught in schools during the Soviet era.

Modern Kyrgystan pretty much begins and ends with the formation of the Kyrgystan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936. Before the socialist revolution, Kyrgystan was a predominantly nomadic society. The Soviets, however, began a massage education and industrial progamme. Women were forced to burn their hijabs, attend schools and work to build socialism. The Bashmachi revolt was put down, agriculture collectivised and by the 1950s Kyrgystan was a modern and successful industrial republic with universal free education at all levels and a highly advanced free health system.

However,since the fall of the Soviet Union, Kyrgystan has actually gone backward, in some cases, it has gone back to pre-revolutionary poverty using donkeys instead of tractors, unthinkable during the Soviet era.Capitalism promised hope to Kyrgystan and delivered poverty.
As we strolled with Salamat through the many verdant parks of Bishkek, I was struck by so many poignant contrasts.Salamat's parents remember the Soviet era with fondness as they had a higher standard of living and less stress. My parents remember the past as a time of more poverty. My father came from the so-called 'free world' but did not have the money to go to university in the 1950s. Salamat's father lived in the 'unfree world' and had the luxury of free third level education and guaranteed employment. But now the Kyrgyz are free; free to be poor, free to be unemployed, free to vote for corrupt politicians, free to despair. As night throws its melancholy cloak over Bishket, a statue of Marx and Engels, deep in conversation, sits disconsolately facing the American University of Central Asia, and on the potholled roads that wind through the rugged landscape of Kyrgystan, mosques creep up behind futuristic soviet iconography.It seems that the forty maidens of Kyrgystan have, like me, lost their left boots. Thrust against its will into the piercing gaze of a globalised world, Kyrgystan hops precariously on a tired right foot!

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