Friday, September 10, 2010


Recently a relative asked me whether or not it was a good idea to accept a job in Kyrgyzstan. I told him that I couldn't see an upside to the offer, but admitted that, this blog notwithstanding, I knew nothing at all about the place. Since then I've meant to conduct a brief Internet search to learn more about the republic. Although I never did get around to it, the new issue of Russian Life has offered me my first glimpse of the area.

Apparently, Kyrgyzstan is home to ethnic diversity (Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Cossack Russians primarily), religious diversity (Islam and Orthodox Christianity), Communist-era ruins (Lenin statues, Communist-era street names), Mosques and Orthodox churches, various tourist activities (dead goat polo, horse trekking, yurt camping, opera, watersports, mountain climbing), a unique and short-legged horse species (Przewalski's Horse), a spectacular mountain range (Tien Shan), and a beautiful lake, Issy-Kul, which is enormous and never freezes over. The country is as large as Nebraska but almost all of it is over 1500 meters above sea level, according to Russian Life. Historically, the area lay along the Silk Road and was once home to Mongols, Turkic nomads, and Scythian. Russian influence in this former Soviet Republic is not hard to detect, although the editor claims that the ethnic Russian population has already fallen from 22 percent in 1989 to 9 percent today. That influence was initiated by Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky, a Russian explorer, geographer, naturalist, Sinophobe, and soldier.

And what of Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyzstan Republic? According to Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare of Russian Life, the city is home to one fifth of the country as well as Russian and American air force bases. It's also a somewhat gloomy city, filled with ancient cars, slush and ice, and Stalinist-era apartment buildings. Bishkek, formally named Brunze in honor of a local man who became a leading Bolshevik and Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council, was once home to an ethnic Slavic majority (Russians, Ukrainians, etc.) who helped to modernize the country and integrate its economy with that of the Soviet Union, at great cost to local nomadic traditions of course. In fact, as late as 1991, the authors say that 89 percent of the population voted to remain within a renewed post-Soviet federation. At independence, Bishkek suffered a severe shock when it was cut off from its main trading partners. Overnight, the economy shrank, GDP fell, and professionals and ethnic Europeans fled. Worse, the country soon fell victim to political-ethnic rivalries and one of the worst corruption rankings in the world.

The attacks of September 11 had an immediate impact and Kyrgyzstan and its beleaguered economy. America's military and political presence expanded rapidly, and Russia's own diplomatic and military presence soon followed suit. What is more, America's involvement triggered contact from a host of NGOs and businesses. Since then, the country has been torn by fierce political, ethnic, and Great Power rivalry.

It is my hope that this relative, or his spouse, will in the near future provide Soviet Roulette with more specific reports on the country and the legacy of its Soviet past.

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