Remembering World War II in Kyrgyzstan

May 2016 marked the 71st anniversary of the Allies’ victory over the Nazis. In the American popular imagination, we won World War II. Who dropped atomic bombs on Japan? Who stormed the beaches of Normandy? For those living in former Soviet countries, though, World War II is remembered in an entirely different way. Even when it comes to naming the war, people here rarely refer to it as World War II. Instead, it is called the Great Patriotic War in both Russian and Kyrgyz (Великая Отечественная Война, Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voina, Great Patriotic War in Russian and Улуу Ата-Мекендик Согуш, Uluu Ata-Mekendik Sogush in Kyrgyz).

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May 9 2015 Victory Day celebrations in International village, Chui oblast, Kyrgyzstan: the village’s veterans stand before the World War II monument for a moment of silence

Tucked away in the mountains of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan may have been far from the fighting, but the country could not avoid the effects of the conflict. At the time of the war, Kyrgyzstan’s population was about one and a half million; 363,000 people went to fight, and 160,000 of those men did not return. At least one person from nearly every village, city, and town in Kyrgyzstan died during this war; monuments stand in almost every town to commemorate those who sacrificed their life. There’s an entire park in Jalal-Abad (Жеңиш Парк) with statues and monuments honoring the war and listing the names of Jalal-Abad natives who died in the war. In late March, I spent an hour reading every name and watching the eternal flame that burns there.

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Credit: Aibek Baiymbetov in Kyrgyz newspaper Кок Асаба, May 7 2012.

160,000 from Kyrgyzstan were killed, but millions more from across the Soviet Union also sacrificed their lives. Estimates of casualties range between 10 and 11 million Soviet soldiers and 16 and 26 million Soviet civilians who died from 1941-1945. The scale of death and destruction experienced by the Soviets is unimaginable. It’s treading on morally ambiguous ground to weigh one country’s grief against another’s, but to begin to grasp the significance of World War II for former Soviet countries, it’s telling that the United States lost 419,000 people during the war, 0.32% of the population compared to 13.7% of the Soviet population.

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Credit: Central Government Photo Archives of Kyrgyzstan, 1945. Accessed: Кыргызский Фотоархив

Kyrgyzstan’s struggles during the war weren’t limited to the deaths of soldiers; World War II was a time of massive economic and social change for the country. Millions of people made their way to Central Asia during the war, some were deported, some were evacuated, and some migrated by choice. Kyrgyzstan also underwent an industrial revolution of sorts during the war; Soviet leadership moved the pillars of the manufacturing industry from the western parts of the USSR away to Central Asia, where Germany would have a harder time reaching it. Life changed considerably as factories went up; before World War II, Kyrgyzstan was largely an agricultural center, and with so many men gone, work fell onto the shoulders of women. Chyngyz Aitmatov, arguably Kyrgyzstan’s most famous author, set his first-published work Жамилия (Jamiliya) in a village during World War II. Though the novella is largely a love story of sorts, it also addresses the heavy weight of the war on small communities and the massive social and economic changes affecting Kyrgyzstan at the time.

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A Kyrgyz stamp featuring Jamiliya.

Last year (2015) was the 70th anniversary of the USSR’s victory over the Nazis.The 70th anniversary celebrations in Bishkek were huge; thousands of Kyrgyzstanis attended events held on Ala-Too Square, where Russian soldiers marched in a procession for the first time since Kyrgyzstan’s independence. Even in my tiny training village, International, there was a parade, a concert, and a strength competition (3 volunteers ran a mile in rain and mud with other young men from the village). Veterans and their widows were presented with a cash bonus in honor of their contribution; students sang war-era songs; local women performed a short play to show the difficulties of being a Kyrgyz woman during the war years.

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May 9 2015 Victory Day Celebrations in International village, Chui oblast, Kyrgyzstan

It was an amazing experience to attend these festivities after being in Kyrgyzstan for only a few weeks, and I was really looking forward to this year’s Victory Day celebrations. Based on last year’s experience, I expected Victory Day celebrations of that scale and pomp to be an “every year” thing. But, as Turat, the proprietor of the guesthouse where I stayed this weekend in Naryn explained, the attitude in Kyrgyzstan toward Victory Day has changed and falling into step with Moscow’s way of celebrating is no longer such a priority. Kyrgyzstan’s president Almazbek Atambayev declined to hold another huge military parade in Bishkek, and in Naryn, there was no parade, no celebration – only an informal митинг (miting, loosely translates as public gathering/protest).

I got home to Cholpon-Ata from Naryn around dinner time, just in time for a televised concert on the Баластан (Balastan, Child-stan) channel. Young Kyrgyzstani kids dressed up in both Kyrgyz national dress and Soviet-era military uniforms to sing and dance in both languages. A performance of a Russian song about the greatness of the Soviet army immediately followed a Kyrgyz translation of a famous Soviet song about Victory Day. It was at once strange and totally normal to watch this blending of language, song, clothing, and dance on a Kyrgyz public TV channel.

Regardless of how Victory Day was observed this year, the Kyrgyz and Russian phrases carved into the stone monuments that stand all around the country ring true:

Эч ким, эч нерсе унутулбайт! Ech kim, ech nerse unutulbait! Никто не забыт, ничто не забыто! Nikto ne zabyt, nichto ne zabyto! No one, nothing will be forgotten!

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