by Aminat Chokobaeva

Pic ChokobaevaWe stopped at a narrow gorge with forbidding sides; a steep ascent lay ahead of us. Yet I had asked the bus driver to stop here because it was at this location that an obscure monument to the victims of a forgotten uprising rested. Two hours from Bishkek, the Boom Gorge is home to a small monument commemorating the victims of a local uprising against Tsarist authorities in 1916. The uprising itself is commonly known as Urkun (‘exodus’ in Kyrgyz). After taking a few of photos, I got back on the bus, only to be bombarded with questions.

‘Was the monument dedicated to the victims of the Andizhan massacre?’ a young Kyrgyz man asked. ‘Why are you interested in the subject?’ asked the middle-aged Kyrgyz driver, and finally, a spiteful ‘Got what they asked for!’ from an impatient Russian woman. Coming from a mixed audience of various ethnic backgrounds and age groups, these questions give an accurate picture of what the contemporary public in Kyrgyzstan thinks of the events of the recent past.

The last uprising in colonial Central Asia, Urkun, counted the nomadic Kyrgyz and Kazakhs among its most numerous victims. Actual numbers are difficult to establish, but about 4,000 Russians, mostly farmers, had been reported killed or missing and 200,000 Kyrgyz herders are said to have perished between 1916-1921 as the result of indiscriminate killing by Tsarist punitive forces, as well as of hunger and diseases. Despite the scale of the tragedy, public discussions of revolt were silenced; as one middle-aged respondent stated ‘Russians did not want us to talk about Urkun.’ This selective ‘forgetting’ was a part of the Soviet campaign to remove any reminder of ethnic dissent, which would interfere with the vision of the ‘Friendship of Nations’ they wished to propagate.

The fall of the Soviet Union opened up opportunities for speaking openly of the Urkun. Still, it was not until 2008 that the parliament passed a law establishing a commemoration date for the victims. Even then, the draft law met bitter resistance from Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. This caution on behalf of local authorities in dealing with Moscow can explained by the continuing economic dependence of Kyrgyzstan on Russia, coupled with the consciously unapologetic stance of the Kremlin towards the nationalizing histories of the former Soviet republics. However, as the centennial anniversary of Urkun approaches, there are increased calls for a greater awareness of the massacre. In the words of community leaders, the people of Kyrgyzstan should know and remember Urkun so it does not remain a ‘black spot’ of their history. But how to remember the Urkun? Many nationalists talk of genocide or Kyrgyn (‘extermination’), but others see Urkun as a misstep in an otherwise amicable and beneficial relationship between Kyrgyzstan and Russia.

This resurgent interest in Urkun is part of a wider and concerted reclamation of the past to construct a new national identity. Yet in Kyrgyzstan, reclaiming this past is politically fraught. If one talks to the elderly people whose parents survived the escape to China it becomes clear that the resentment and ancestral blame for the massacre continues to circulate and that this resentment is directed against ethnic Slavs. In the transcripts of interviews collected in the 1950s by Kyrgyz Soviet ethnographers the subject of inter-ethnic relationships is approached with great caution and sometimes outright confusion, even though their accounts of the violence emerge as clearly ethnic. But these interviews also recount the emancipation and freedom granted by the Soviet state to the Kyrgyz. In my conversation with one of the few remaining survivors of Urkun – a one hundred and two year old man who also fought in World War II – he reminisced fondly of Lenin, and was certain that the great leader saved the Kyrgyz from being massacred to the last man.

Ultimately, this debate must confront the reconciliation of enduring emotional and cultural capital of the Soviet legacy with post-Soviet nationalism. That Urkun can be a source of intense nationalist sentiments is beyond doubt. But can a supplicant Kyrgyzstan afford to antagonise the great Russian bear? And does the commemoration of Urkun risk marginalising minorities who have an important part to play in a peaceful future?

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Aminat Chokobaeva is a PhD student at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (The Middle East and Central Asia), Australia National University. She is conducting research on the politics of memory in Kyrgyzstan.