Younger participants condemned Putin for meddling in the affairs of a sovereign nation, showing strong support for an independent politics in Ukraine. But only a few made critical reflections about the ways ethnic groups have been instrumentalized for the purposes of Russian and Soviet wars of 1916 (the Steppe revolt),10
the Second World War11
and the Soviet-Afgan war.12
I attribute this failure to see parallels with one’s history to Kyrgyzstan’s unaddressed colonial past and fragmented memory politics. Neither history textbooks nor university curriculum critically assess these major historical events. As we know from other examples, secondary and higher education can remain a product of coloniality long after independence. However, Elmira Nogoybaeva, the head of the Kyrgyz Research Center Esimde, which conducts important public research related to memory of the past, says memories are transmitted orally and by collective practices from one generation to the other, and hence this knowledge persists within society if even fragmentarily.13
What was interesting about those who supported Putin is that they echoed Russian state propaganda word for word. There were typical references to the “evil West” that provoked Putin and that Russia was only defending itself. There were also references to the shared history and culture, however. Many seniors underscored their nostalgia for the “great Soviet Union,” because Soviet identity provided them with a feeling of being part of a bigger, glorious project. The present-day Kyrgyzstan, with its perceived ever-corrupt elites and ineffective state, could not but offend that image of a great past.
So, this nostalgia serves as a bridge between past Soviet belonging and current loyalty to Russia as the USSR’s main successor. The catastrophic transition in the 90s, together with the ongoing difficulties in building a new identity, explains the longevity of nostalgia as an identity specific to the older generation in Kyrgyzstan. From their perspective, the net effects of association with Russia are positive for the Kyrgyz people. “What is bad about a closer partnership with Russia? Russia is building schools, providing teachers with salaries and our children with a hot meal. Russia has opened its doors to our migrants, in the absence of jobs at home, and they can feed their families. Russia sells us its cheap gas and fuel. Kyrgyzstan has only benefited from the partnership.”14
Among this older generation there were, however, also those who categorically disapproved of Russia’s war against Ukraine. While having lived in the same Soviet Union, they were aware of the other, dark side of the Soviet modernization experiment. These citizens were able to connect to the pain of Ukrainians through their own experiences of subjugation during the Soviet period.15
They see in present-day Ukraine the possibility of getting rid at last of Russian domination. “Despite the official discourse of Soviet brotherhood and sisterhood, Russians always came first. If at work and there was just one Russian, we all had to speak Russian. Russians were promoted faster than us. Our village boys and girls received the worst treatment due to their bad Russian. How much humiliation we had to swallow due to this daily feeling of inferiority. Today, our boys and girls are still treated as animals in Moscow.”16
Still others were focused on realpolitik
: they see Kyrgyzstan as being geographically stuck between two major powers, and Russia’s defeat would mean falling into China’s hands. The considerable Sinophobia in the country, built up over decades, creates a false geopolitical binary in which Russia appears as a lesser evil. Moreover, strong anti-Americanism, spread by Russian state propaganda and the domestic regime, helps rooting Russian power in these places further. For the majority Muslim population of Kyrgyzstan, Western presence in the region only means LGBT rights, feminism and NGOs, which have been vilified in past decades. Thus, Putin’s conservative ideology centered on family values, religion and clearcut hierarchies between man and woman, between state and society serves as a frame that helps to make sense of larger geopolitical developments.
Despite these diverse opinions, when asked how the Kyrgyz government should respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the respondents agreed that due to the heavy historical dependence on Russia, the Kyrgyz government must not openly oppose Putin. These typical narratives of fragile statehood were recently further deepened by the escalating conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. During Tajik aggression in Kyrgyzstan’s border areas in Batken in September 2022, the Russia-led CSTO did little to intervene and deescalate the conflict. Moreover, in Batken and other southern provinces rumors among civilians were spreading about Russia’s backing of Emomali Rahmon, the president of Tajikistan.17
People I spoke to at that time were associating this shifting Russian allegiance toward the Tajik leadership with the invasion of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan’s position on it. For them, the escalation of the conflict was nothing else but a signal from the Kremlin that should Kyrgyzstan dare to support Ukraine, the punishment from Russia would be swift. Local people were angry with fellow activists who had been staging anti-war and pro-Ukraine protests in the capital of Bishkek – a careless act of rocking the boat, according to them.
Whereas in the previous essay I looked at various grassroots initiatives that aimed at countering Russian hegemony, in this memo I drew on large segments of society who still entertain positive representations of Russia. Because of the ways Russia has been intertwined in people’s understandings of Kyrgyz sovereignty, there is currently resistance to believe that Russia, their historical ally, can be wrong. Hence consumption of only certain mass media is a choice that serves to maintain the image of Russia that people got used to from previous times. Until recently, popular representations of Russia in Kyrgyzstan were hegemonic. However, they are neither permanent nor stable. Future entanglements with Russia will depend not only on developments in Ukraine, but also in Russia. If images of declining Russian military and economic strength come in, they may shake up the established representations of Russia in Kyrgyzstan.
More importantly, they will evolve alongside the ability of the current populist regime to shift sources of legitimacy and sovereignty on the one hand, and their perception by the population on the other. Current unresolved security threats to the border areas and the unreliable Russia-led regional security mechanisms argue for cautious changes within President Sadyr Japarov’s government. Russia’s decision not to intervene in Batken shook up popular imaginaries of Russia as Kyrgyzstan’s unfailing ally. Further diversification of partners in the direction of Asia and the Middle East and increased leaning on Turkic identity have become new avenues for shaping Kyrgyz sovereignty.