Rural Teachers in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan

by Damira Umetbaeva

“During the Soviet Union teachers earned and lived like ministers.”

“In the past teachers were respected by everyone, even by the president, because they earned well and had a strong knowledge.”

These are the accounts of Janarbek about his position as a teacher in the past, told from his present socio-economic status as a teacher. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the quality of education in Kyrgyzstan, as did the quality of many other public services, decreased substantially. Since the break-up of the USSR, the country has not managed to support this sector well, which along with many others, had been generously subsidised by the Soviet state. As a result, there are many acute problems in the education sphere and if these are not addressed soon, they will lead to the total collapse of Kyrgyzstan’s education sector.

Janarbek is a history teacher in a rural area of northern Kyrgyzstan. He has been teaching at school for over 27 years. He lives in a rented house with his wife and three teenage children after migrating to this northern village from his previous home in the mountainous Chong-Alai region (in the south of the country). He migrated in search of better living conditions. But now he spends more than half of his salary for the rent. He is at his school every day teaching from 7am until 6pm to earn money by teaching as many lessons as possible. Nevertheless his salary is not even enough to buy the daily bread for his family. Therefore he buys bread on credit from one of his own pupils who helps out his parents in a small village kiosk. When Janarbek receives his monthly salary he pays off his debt to the pupil and from the next day starts accumulating this debt again, until he receives his next salary.

When asked which countries he has visited so far, Janarbek replies with a child’s helplessness, disappointment and sincerity that, although he teaches his pupils about different places of the world, he has never been able to travel to any of them. He wishes he could see some of the places he got to know so well from books and history textbooks, but he does not have money for such expeditions. Janarbek has other dreams too: to open up a historical museum at his school and decorate his classroom, but again, such initiatives are hindered by the lack of money. Instead, he has to buy textbooks for history lessons from his salary, since the government fails to supply his and other schools adequately with textbooks and other supplementary teaching materials. The situation is dire: only Janarbek owns the necessary textbooks for his history classes, which he bought with money that could have fed his family with bread for two months. This kind of sacrifice could even be justified, if his pupils benefitted from the textbooks and Janarbek’s lectures. Instead, most of them miss Janarbek’s classes, either because they are not interested in studying, or because they have to contribute to their family’s income by working in the field or in other family business projects.

Another disappointing aspect for Janarbek is the deficient training of his younger colleagues at school, if any younger teachers join the school at all. “They did not study as hard as we did. They just bought their diplomas without studying” Janarbek comments about his younger colleagues. There is some truth in Janarbek’s words about young teachers. One of the gravest problems in education is the lack of well-educated and motivated teachers. Because of the extremely low salary and hardships described above, trained teachers prefer to find other jobs that will allow them to earn much more than teaching at school. In most cases, the only teachers working at school are those who could not find more well-paid and prestigious jobs. As Janarbek argues, they are in most cases poorly prepared to convey knowledge to pupils and to earn their respect.

Based on other interviews with school teachers that I collected for my research in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, Janarbek’s situation does not seem exceptional. We can expect the dire situation of young teachers to continue, wrapping basic education in a vicious circle. Education at Kyrgyz rural schools is more or less manageable as long as Soviet-trained teachers like Janarbek remain at school. But the number of such motivated and experienced “cadres” is decreasing from year to year as they retire. Who will then teach our children? Teachers’ salaries should be high enough to purchase one’s daily bread without having to experience humiliation and despair, as in the case of Janarbek. He hopes that with the help of God, the state will become strong enough to raise teachers’ salaries and prestige in the future, so that their image in society will improve. How long will he have to wait for such a miracle?

Previous versions of this article have been published on BBC Kyrgyz and BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Damira Umetbaeva is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the European University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. In her work she focuses on the interplay of collective and individual memory of history teachers in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. She is active in the scholarship initiative Mugalim. Mugalim is an NGO created and run by young people from Germany and Kyrgyzstan who are concerned with the acute shortage of teachers in rural areas, and in general with the deterioration of the quality of secondary school education in the country. The iniative aims at providing monthly stipends to young teachers in rural Kyrgyzstan in addition to their regular salary. Read more about Mugalim on the following website or write to the author at