Kyrgyz National Identity

Iraj Bashiri

copyright 1999




Often a nation's national identity is summed up in the character, personality, or actions of one of its many native sons. Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Abraham Lincoln, and Alexander Solzhinitsen represent ancient Iran, ancient Greece, the United States, and Russia in this respect. Kyrgyzstan is proud of its own native son, Chingiz Aitmatov, known in some circles as "the man who walks on water."

I became acquainted with Aitmatov's works long before I met him in person in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1996, where he was the keynote speaker at a symposium we had organized exclusively around his talent and world view. I had become fascinated with his works after hearing about him in a lecture on contemporary Russian literature and reading his Jamila. It was through this novella, especially the unusual character of Daniyar, that I realized how simple Soviet youth were drawn to the "Sugar Candy Mountain" of Communism. Similarly, his Farewell Gyulsary! made me aware of the pervasive corruption that permeated the Soviet system. Aitmatov communicated this sensitive information skillfully and through the use of symbols, the nightmare of the Soviet censors. The significance of his works became even more poignant when they were placed in their proper historical perspective. Jamila was written in the late 1950's and Farewell Gyulsary! in the late 1960's. In the latter work, the horse Gyulsary, the main character, Tanabai Bukasov, his colleague Choro Sayakov, Tanabai's son, and the rebellious shepherd boy each stand as symbolic representatives in the formation of a Soviet identity that smacks of decadence, corruption at the top, rebellion, and inexplicable poverty. More importantly, Aitmatov reveals, in detail, how all of this is cleverly swept underneath a veneer of prosperity, Communist justice, and administrative accountability.

Kyrgyz national identity, however, has its own exclusive templates and frames of reference. They consist, among others, of Kyrgyz culture, ideology, regionalism, tribalism, and ethnicity, each one of which necessarily subdivides into different frames dealing with mythology, religion, a lack of economic proportion, language, and struggle for power. This introductory note on the subject of Kyrgyz national identity probes some of the main formative templates outlined above seeking to portray the dynamics of life in the republic without delving into kiosk economy, Manas mania, or the impact of Marlbobo ads bombarding the youth of Kyrgyzstan.

Roots of Kyrgyz Culture

Kyrgyz written culture does not have a long history. Kyrgyz oral tradition, however, is both profound and informative. It includes the conceptual frame of Kyrgyz thought which encompasses Kyrgyz social mores, struggle for independence, and Kyrgyz national consciousness. Among the songs and stories that establish Kyrgyz oral heritage first place is usually awarded to Manas, a poetic account of the literature, culture, and art of the Kyrgyz people. The genesis of the epic is usually attributed to one of Manas's forty warriors who had been blessed with poetic capabilities. After him, his fellow manaschis continued and refined the practice. Whether AD 840 should be recognized as the beginning date for this epical performance remains to be seen.

Manas is a trilogy consisting of "Manas," which deals with the life and heroic deeds of the founder of Kyrgyz national identity; "Semetei," the story of Manas's son and successor who continued Manas's efforts for gaining the Kyrgyz their independence; and "Seitek," the story of Semetei's son, who brought the efforts of his father and grandfather into fruition.

According to Mukhtar Auezov, Kyrgyz national identity owes a great deal to the Kyrgyz hero who, after defeating the Uigurs, united the forty disparate Kyrgyz tribes and led them to the Altai; from there, they eventually moved to the Alai region where they are found today. In fact, Mukhtar Auezov himself, a Kazakh, is a major contributor to the establishment of Manas as a mainstay of Turkic cultures in general. It is due to his untiring efforts and those of Chingiz Aitmatov that Manas continues to remain a part of Kyrgyz culture.

During the Soviet era, Aitmatov contributed to the revival of the epic by outlining the reasons for revisiting this icon while Auezov provided the scholarship on which the arguments regarding the distance of Manas from religion and nationalism could be established. Otherwise, like other epic traditions, Manas, too, would have been condemned and destroyed. Auezov argued that Manas belongs to all the Turkic peoples irrespective of their socio-economic, political, or geographic affiliations. And, to a great extent, Auezov is right. As an epic, Manas does not recognize any temporal or spatial boundaries. It is a poetic and artistic expression that has passed from generation to generation and contributed to the vibrancy of the culture of the Kyrgyz. Etymologically, however, the epic goes back to the tenth century. As such, thanks to the self-less contributions of countless manaschis who have retained the archaic forms, today Manas serves as the cornerstone for the reconstruction of the nomadic life and culture of the Kyrgyz of the steppe.

Reciting Manas needs singular talents. More than that, it requires a special personal inspiration rooted in either the nomadic tradition itself or in Islam or in both. Without free access to this well-spring, the manaschi cannot motivate himself to invest the energy required for the recreation of the repetitive, albeit necessary, verses outlining the deeds, wealth, character, and motivation of the many colorful individuals who populate the epic.

The storyline of Manas is quite simple. At the age of fifteen, when nomad boys normally choose a profession such as shepherding the khan's cattle, Manas forms a band of warriors and teaches its members the ways of war. To keep his supporters united, he prepares feasts and organizes games for them. The lambs that he kills to provide food for these feasts belong to Oshpur, a shepherd who is requested by Manas's father to educate Manas.

After many bloody encounters with the Kalmyks in which Manas shows his mettle, the young warrior is elected the leader of his tribe. As such, with the help of his father and his forty companions-at-arms, he organizes the migration of the Kyrgyz from the banks of the Yenisei to the Altai mountains and, subsequently, from there to the Alai region. During this same process, he marries Kanike, the daughter of the ruler of Bukhara. The marriage proves fruitful for both Manas and the people at large. It is fruitful for Manas because Kanike actively participates in her husband's struggle for independence. It is fruitful for the population of the region because it puts an end to the feuds brewing among the settled and nomadic inhabitants of the Ferghana valley and the Altai highlands.

Births, circumcisions, weddings, and funeral feasts constitute a major building block in both family formation and personal recognition among the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. The feast held on any of these occasions is scrutinized by the community; merit is awarded only if the efforts of the host surpass the expectation of the participants. The popularity of an individual among his tribal peers, thus, depends on the number of people who participate in a funeral feast he holds for a dear departed. Still more important is the distance various chiefs are willing to move their subjects to participate in the funeral feast. Other indicators of importance are the type of games included in the plan, the value of the prizes awarded, and the number of horses, camels, and sheep slaughtered for the occasion.

For three years after Koketei Khan's death, Koketei Khan's son, Bokmurun, and Manas work on the logistics of a repast to be held in the great khan's honor. Kyrgyz tribes from all over the region are commanded to participate in the feast. Manas personally makes sure that everyone contributes generously to the success of the feast and that tribal squabbles, a main disruptive feature in such gatherings, are kept at a minimum.

After the Kyrgyz are assembled, Manas organizes and empowers them to triumph over the Chinese and the Kalmyks--their mortal enemies. At the end, the Kyrgyz drive all the cattle belonging to the Chinese and the Kalmyk to their own yurtas; they are won either as trophies captured in battles or as prizes awarded to victorious contestants. Like the funeral repast that is held in honor of Koketei Khan, the rich resistance culture that emerges from the repast feast, especially the unity that leads to an overall Kyrgyz victory against the Kalmyks and the Chinese, is unprecedented in Central Asian annals.

Kyrgyz Education

During the Soviet era, especially after 1960, the language situation in Kyrgyzstan deteriorated. In fact, the deterioration continued into the 1990's when steps were taken to strengthen not only instruction in the native language but also the utilization of the native tongue at various levels. Eventually, in 1998, a language law was adopted. The results--instruction of Kyrgyz in some high schools and vocational schools and publication of certain textbooks in Kyrgyz--proved unsatisfactory. The disheartening thing about all this is that the main culprit in undoing the language law was not the public, as one would expect, but the Kyrgyz administration itself. Government administrators shunned the law from its very introduction, making the 1998 language law as good as the paper it is written on.

Not all administrators, however, are equally to blame. Kyrgyz government is top heavy with Russians who do not speak Kyrgyz and Kyrgyzes who feel more comfortable in Russian. The White House, for instance, does not use Kyrgyz, even though Kyrgyz is rich enough to be the official language of the republic. Used as the republic's state language, Kyrgyz is used primarily in cultural functions.

Additionally, in more recent years, the English language has entered the arena as a strong contender against Russian. In fact, within a short period of time, English has replaced Russian as the international language of the republic. This to the point that some Kyrgyz have come to see Russian in a new light as the language of the CIS countries, allowing Kyrgyz to attend to Kyrgyzstan's national and international communication needs.

A great deal of the linguistic situation that obtains in Kyrgyzstan today is related to the degree of comfort that the speakers of Russian or Kyrgyz feel in satisfying their daily linguistic needs. In other words, the educational base of the individual is a main determining factor in how that individual interacts in society. If the Kyrgyz individual is a graduate of a Russian school, he or she feels comfortable in Russian because he or she also thinks in Russian. Similarly, those who graduate from Kyrgyz schools feel comfortable in Kyrgyz and think in Kyrgyz. In fact, individuals educated in the Kyrgyz language feel uncomfortable when speaking Russian and, often, have difficulty expressing themselves in Russian.

Still another factor is the demography. Whether the individual, especially the youth, is urban or rural plays a major role in the type of attitude that is expressed in given educational contexts. An urban youth may use Kyrgyz at all levels but might choose to speak and think in Russian. In sum, demography and educational context constitute two of the major deciding factors in the promotion of languages and the levels of comfort in each.

As far as a script for Kyrgyz is concerned, Cyrillic seems to be the winner; it will remain viable at least for the near future. Shift to Latin is desirable--in fact, it was raised by Turkey at the time that Azerbaijan shifted to Latin--but was turned down. The shift entailed expenses that the financial situation of the republic could not possibly meet. This does not mean that Kyrgyz intellectuals and decision-makers are unaware of the shortcomings of their modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet. They are fully aware. They know, for instance, that they can never access the internet using their modified Cyrillic script. But they have no alternative. A perennial lack of resources necessary for addressing the problem fully plagues the system.

The future of the Kyrgyz language, however, the Kyrgyz feel, is not affected by either the Russians' cold shoulder or the negative attitude of some Kyrgyz intellectuals towards it. Culture and its subsidiary, language, the greater Kyrgyz population states, are created by people. Neither foreign nationals nor any particular native clicks can surpass the dictate of the culture at large. This, however, remains a contested issue. The disappearance of Kyrgyz handicraft and other visible vestiges of culture from the bazaars of Kyrgyzstan testify eloquently to the dim future ahead. How can Kyrgyz society solve its linguistic and, more importantly, educational problems, if the government chooses to ignore its own enacted laws?


Kyrgyz ideology is rooted in faith on the one hand and in reason on the other. As Hanafi Sunni Muslims, the Kyrgyz believe in Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, and the holy Qur'an. But as faithful believers, they fall somewhat short; they are rarely acquainted with the Shari'a or practice the fundamentals thereof. This, of course, is not to deny the existence of ardent believers in the south and among the rest of the population. In general, however, it can be observed that the rituals of the faith, for the common Kyrgyz faithful, are reduced to passing the palms of the open hands across the face at the end of each meal. Even that is usually performed in as much a matter-of-factly fashion as the situation permits. Given the fact that the Kyrgyz were Shamanists until the sixteenth century, it is fully understandable that Islam as a way of life should sit quite lightly on some, if not on all of them.

In the epic tradition of a Muslim nation one expects to find a full treatment of the Islamic faith. Yet, Islam is not a main theme or even a main idea in Manas. Some chapters are devoted to Islam, it is true, but the treatment of the faith itself is not drastically different from the treatment of any of the other faiths. Furthermore, the existence of those chapters falls within the prerogative of the manaschi. If he is religiously oriented, he might amplify or, indeed, improvise poems that express his Islamic inclination. Neither is the manaschi the only contributor. The audience, too, plays a main role. A manaschi who sees a large group of Russians in the audience is likely to add verses with which the Russian segment of his audience identifies.

Teaching a course on the fundamentals of governments that are based on divine right of kings, I asked my class about the extent of their knowledge of Islam. They indicated that they knew very little. In fact, in a class of thirty, only one student knew the difference between the Shi'i and Sunni factions and was vaguely familiar with the concept of the imamate. Knowledge of the fundamental role of the imam as a source of special knowledge and the relation of that divine inspiration with rulership in Shi'ite Islam, for instance, was totally absent. Looking at the college curriculum, too, I observed a glaring absence of courses dealing with this major subject which is covered by universities all over the globe. Availability of such core courses at an institution that educates future scholars in the finer points of diplomacy and government, I thought, was a must.

The rational dimension of Kyrgyz ideology is even more interesting. Covering both branches of Humanism--socialism (1920-1990) and democracy (1990-present)--Kyrgyz society displays a fascinating array of personal and collective philosophies in this regard. In fact, I was not fully aware of the distance that the youth of Kyrgyzstan sought to place between themselves and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels until I read their responses to a query regarding the contributions of Marx to the formation of Soviet society. No one mentioned the efforts of those who, following the dictates of Marx, put the Sputnik into space, or those who dug thousands of miles of canals in the heart of the arid desert to expand agriculture to feed a hungry nation, or the Soviet educational system that has made illiteracy in the former Union a thing of the past. Many thought that their lives would have been much more fulfilled if they had not been obliged to follow the strict rules imposed on them in various structures by their parents and peers.

On the subject of sharing the fortunes and misfortunes that are offered by life, opinions were divided. Some thought that property acquired through one's hard labor should stay with him or her. Others felt that one cannot close ones eyes to the misfortune of others; but, at the same time, one should be watchful of the actions of opportunists who might exploit them under the pretext of sharing the results of collective labor proportionately. Many felt that the Soviet leadership's adherence to this latter philosophy divided the nation along two tiers: the wealthy who, after the break up of the Soviet Union formed the elite of the newly-formed republics and the destitute who now sell their meager belongings in the open market just to make ends meet.

The new kid on the block, however, is democracy. Everyone wants to be democratic but in a Soviet way. In discussions with colleagues, I have come to realize the depth of the chasm that lies between the elite of Kyrgyzstan and the common people of the republic. An attitude of alienation pervades conversations dealing with any assessment of individual contributions to the overall prosperity of Kyrgyzstan. The researcher often hears, "I don't care what they do out there (i.e., in the Kyrgyz "White House") as long as their actions do not interfere with my daily life." If apathy is not the poison that outlives democracy, I often wonder what is!

Analyzing the treatment doled out by the government officials to the people and the reaction they receive, it is obvious that the principles of democracy are circumvented by permissiveness on both sides. In other words, confinement within the strict parameters of the law is replaced with permissiveness in spite of the law. In such a context, the law becomes a tool used at the whim of authorities in any way that they feel it might generate greater capital. Under these circumstances, the individual can continue to break every law until he or she is caught. Then, using money and/or influence, he or she can negotiate with the authorities and return the situation to normal. Normal, of course, means a situation in which you are considered guilty unless proven otherwise. It is no surprise to a Kyrgyz, therefore, when the police flags down a car, insists to rummage through its contents, or accuse its driver of racketeering.


If there is one aspect of Kyrgyz identity that must be watched carefully by the government as well as the individual Kyrgyz, it is regionalism. Divided between the south (Osh and Jalalabad) and the north (Talas, Chuy Valley, Naryn, and Issyk Kul), Kyrgyzstan plays host to two divergent sets of political, economic, and ideological interests. The south, densely populated, is settled, ancient, deeply rooted in faith and, economically, a basket case. The north, still involved in a nomadic existence and herding, is much less affected by religion than by the other ideologies outlined above. This picture becomes even more defined if, in economic terms, Naryn is added to Osh and Jalalabad. Given an unrestricted flow of information for a period of time, the trio has the potential of becoming as formidable a threat to the normal administration of the republic as was the Iranian rural population to the kingship of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran in the late 1970's.

Indeed, there is a similarity between the Kyrgyz and Iranian cases. Self-sufficient Iran became a client of the west for the most necessary commodities within a couple of decades when the Shah allowed western interest interfere with the traditional modes of agriculture in the country. The dissatisfied farmers, in large numbers, headed for Tehran and other cities. This to the extent that the urban population of the country could no longer carry the burden, especially when the newcomers were the very people on whom the urban centers relied for their sustenance.

The picture in Kyrgyzstan is hardly different. After the break up of the Soviet Union the Kyrgyz were persuaded to abandon the kolkhoz and sovkhoz modes of agriculture for private ownership. The underlying concept was that Western authorities would pour money into the system until the Kyrgyz could stand on their feet. This, however, was not the case. The Western authorities supervised the dismantling of the old Soviet system but failed in replacing it with the system they had promised. Lack of jobs in the rural sections, therefore, forced the people of Osh, Jalalabad, and Naryn to flood Bishkek. There is no street in Bishkek, no matter how small, where two or three kiosks are not put up to serve the needs of the people. The irony in all this is that the commodities they offer are either too uniform to make a difference or too expensive for the ordinary Kyrgyz to buy.

Besides, this is only one side of the coin. Southern Kyrgyzstan borders the Ferghana Valley through which the Sunni fundamentalist Wahhabi movement has been making a slow but steady progress north. What happens, one wonders, if one or all three of these poverty-stricken regions were to provide a foothold for the promotion of the type of revolutionary fervor that swept Tajikistan's Rahmon Nabiev and, more recently, Afghanistan's Burhaniddin Rabbani out of office?

Aware of the devastating power of regionalism, the Kyrgyz government has established a delicate balance between the north and the south in its promotion of cadres as well as in its appointment of key personnel to ministries and other sensitive governmental organizations. This, to a great degree, has alleviated the threat of a sudden uproar by the general population of the south. But it also creates the long-range threat of building the southern cadres too well and creating the situation that Rahmon Nabiev found himself in vis-a-vis the power of the Badakhshanis in Dushanbe.

Finally, Kyrgyzstan is primarily a settled tribal society. Thus, although the majority of its population does not nomadize, individual citizens are instinctively governed by a destructive force that bedevils settled tribes even after all apparent vestiges of tribal life had disappeared. For instance, it is of great importance in Kyrgyzstan to belong to either the right or the left wing of the Kyrgyz tribal confederation. The attachment governs people's ability to land jobs, own houses, and cars, if they belong to the wing in power. It also can mean feeling the full impact of the perversion of democratic rules, especially if the individual is a Russian, Uzbek, or one with no solid or real tribal affiliation. Unfortunately, unlike the case of the cadres, tribalism does not yield easily to solution through governmental appointments. It is based on blood relationship, rather than on appointment through personal merit.


Among the templates that are relevant to the formation of Kyrgyz identity, ethnicity is the one that has continuously given me pause. In 1992, when I first visited Bishkek, except for a few relics, the vestiges of Soviet past were mostly removed, creating a haunting vacuum, not only in the city, but on the faces of the people as well. Carrying empty bags from one closed store to another, the citizens were bewildered about the present as much as they were apprehensive about the vagaries of the future. A sad testament arising from heightened aspirations that had remained unfulfilled.

But today, I see a different Bishkek. I see a Bishkek imbued with life and energy and a people who, no matter how small their kiosk or table, struggle to make an honest living. I also see billboards announcing the arrival of the technological world heralded by Europe and America. What gives me pause, I guess, is the pace but what frightens me is the same permissiveness that has made a mockery of democracy. As a traveler in various lands with conflicting sociological and political agendas, I always side with caution. Here, however, I don't see any marker or indication as to where the shallows end and where the abyss, if any, might lie.

In this game of identity, especially with regard to westernization, the Kyrgyz have opted to rely on their own mind-set and mentality. Unlike the Uzbeks, who reject foreign influence, they welcome all foreign cultures with open arms. The underlying notion is this: Kyrgyz culture lies deep in the Kyrgyz soul. No addition to the native culture can change that essential soul.

I have talked to Kyrgyz friends about this hurried pace of westernization. They say, "The faster the better!" Yet, it was this same fast pace that undermined the rulership of the Pahlavis of Iran exactly twenty years ago. "Don't these people, who bring goods from America, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Korea, and China frighten you?" I ask. "Don't you think that they might have designs for your jobs, livelihood, and places of residence?" They respond, "We are a simple nomadic people; a tolerant community of Kyrgyzes, Russians, Dungan Chinese, Tatars, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, and Germans. Anyone who wishes to pitch up a yurta next to ours is quite welcome; we will be glad to make room." This is an extremely generous and admirable attitude that I would like to share with the rest of the world. But, at the same time, it is also a naive strategy that has the potential of undermining Kyrgyz ethnicity by crippling the fledgling Kyrgyz language and of dissolving the nascent modern Kyrgyz culture.


At the present, the Kyrgyz display a sharp negative reaction against socialism, an ideology they know well and a warm attraction towards democracy, something they believe might make a difference in their future. They prefer democracy over religion because they know much less about Islam than about democracy. But, more importantly, because they are frightened of the lifestyle imposed by the Talibans on the people of neighboring Afghanistan. Their own brand of democracy, however, borders on lawlessness for the elite and heedlessness for the masses. Used as a tool, the law finds its own victims and executes its own justice. Furthermore, capitalism, grafting itself to regionalism and tribalism, continues to thrive at the expense of Kyrgyz ethnicity and of Kyrgyz cultural integrity. The absence of a critical media and of an accountability that cannot be thwarted by family and friends heightens the danger of future ideological, economic, and ethnic unrest in the republic.

Iraj Bashiri
University of Minnesota
Bishkek, March 1999

See also:
Ethnic conflict in the Osh region in summer 1990: Reasons and lessons
Factors Affecting Tajik Identity
Tajik Ethnicity in Historical Perspective

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