When A Name’s Not Just a Name

Schools in Kyrgyzstan are registered according to a number, but people identify a school by its namesake. A school might be named for famous Russian writers (Pushkin School) or revolutionaries (Lenin School), for respected Kyrgyz leaders (Kalygul Bai uulu School) or ballerinas (Beyshenalieva School).

The ability to name a place – whether it’s a school, a street, a government building, a town, or a whole country – is huge, and one can see what and who is valued by looking at the names of places. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the process of renaming these things has been an important step in shaping national identity. Towns and streets have been Kyrgyz-ified: Sovietskaya Street is now Baitik Baatyr or Abdrahmanov Street, depending on where you are in the capital, which also underwent a name change from Frunze to Bishkek.

Government efforts to rename the public space aren’t always effective, though. Names of streets in Bishkek have been changed, but are locally referred to by their old name, such that cab drivers don’t know what you’re talking about when you ask to go to Abdryzakov, and only respond when you finally demand to be taken to Sovietskaya. My host parents in Cholpon-Ata, whose Russian was quite weak, still referred to Balykchy, a large town on the western tip of lake Issyk-Kul as the Russian Rybachy.

Kerimbekov or Karasuiskaya

This (tiny side-) street is officially called Kerimbekov, but graffiti shows that it’s known as Karasuuskaya. Photo cred: my girl Valentina Michelotti

How can we discern how much of this – the renaming of public places, but locally referring to them by their old names – offers some sort of commentary about national and ethnic identity, as opposed to just a force of habit?

Both are surely at play, and after just 25 years of independence from the Soviet Union, questions about what it means to be Kyrgyz and Kyrgyzstani still dominate the forefront of public and state dialogue. Kyrgyzstan is a multiethnic country struggling with how (and whether) to celebrate that.

I’ve seen this struggle play out especially in the sphere of public education. In Kyrgyz, the word for education is bilim beruu, which literally translates as “giving knowledge.” Teachers, vessels of the state, feed children knowledge; who controls the knowledge (and how it’s delivered) has huge repercussions.

Sure, there are questions about methodology, but the primary concern about delivering information comes down to language. Russian is Kyrgyzstan’s “official” language, while Kyrgyz is the “national” language – in some parts of the country, it’s common for a Kyrgyzstani person to know basically no Kyrgyz and rely entirely on Russian (or another language, likely Uzbek or Tajik) to get an education, to find a job, to fall in love, to raise their children. In other parts of the country, it seems obvious that a Kyrgyzstani person would only know Kyrgyz.

It’s written into the constitution that minorities have the right to study in their native language. Over 15 ethnic groups call Kyrgyzstan home, but for logistical reasons, schools offer education in Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek (plus a tiny handful of Tajik schools in the Batken region). When we say a school is “Russian” or “Kyrgyz,” that doesn’t necessarily reflect who studies there, but rather describes the language that kids learn algebra, history, or chemistry in.

There are practical limitations to which language these classes can be offered in: a shortage of teaching materials, shortage of teachers, or shortage of students.

One of the 2 schools in Cholpon-Ata town, Issyk-Kul region is technically “mixed,” but it’s effectively a Russian school. The school administration is made up of mostly ethnic Russian women who don’t speak Kyrgyz, which has an undeniable effect on the atmosphere among teachers and students who are more comfortable in Kyrgyz.

osmonov kids

Kids in this Cholpon-Ata school’s 7th grade Russian track class. The vast majority of students are ethnic Kyrgyz.

There’s a certain irony that this school is named after Alykul Osmonov, a writer who published almost exclusively in Kyrgyz, even as other famous Soviet-era Kyrgyz writers pushed out work in a combination of Russian and Kyrgyz. Osmonov published over 500 original poems in Kyrgyz, and translated the work of Shakespeare and Pushkin into his native language. Our school is named for this man, whose face is on the 200-som bill, because he wrote the poem “Ata-Jurt, Fatherland” while on holiday in Cholpon-Ata; for that reason, there’s a one-room museum dedicated to him on the 3rd floor of the school. Many of the people who work and study in the school can’t read his work in the original Kyrgyz, but still they are proud of this school and their town.

osmonov poster

A series of posters about Alykul Osmonov’s life, family, and poetry (written all in Russian) greet those who come in through the school’s main entrance.

In Dostuk village, Jalal-Abad region, 3 of the 4 Uzbek schools converted to mixed language schools. Some might say it’s because the national government is forcing Uzbek-language schools to switch to a Kyrgyz-language curriculum, but local villagers told me it was just because there haven’t been enough young Uzbek-speaking children to fill 1st grade classes. Accompanying the switch of curriculum, the government asked these schools to choose a new (and more Kyrgyz) name.

Farhad Agai, my host in Dostuk, poured himself another cup of green tea as he told me proudly that his school, the 1 Uzbek school remaining in his county, pushed back against the requested name change. The school is named after Alisher Navoi, a famous poet and central figure in Uzbek cultural identity; the same way Manas is omnipresent in Kyrgyz infrastructure, Navoi’s name is on main streets, metro stations, libraries, universities, and an international airport in Uzbekistan. It’s amazing that this tiny school, where enrollment has dropped significantly in recent years, has survived as Navoi School. In the main entrance, students and visitors are greeted by a massive portrait of Navoi and two descriptions of his life: one in Kyrgyz, one in Uzbek. How special, that residents of this town – who are simultaneously proud of their country and their ethnicity – can represent both those identities, against the odds of being in a town that experienced interethnic violence in 2010, in a region of the country experiencing heavy pressure from the national government to favor Kyrgyz institutions and Kyrgyz language.

navoi outside

The gate of Navoi school in Dostuk village.

navoi kids

An 11th grade class at Navoi school; every student but 1 identified as ethnic Uzbek.

navoi poster

The entrance of Navoi School — a portrait of Alisher Navoi and a description of his life and legacy in Kyrgyz (left) and Uzbek (right).

Names and nuance matter; it’s never as simple as dividing people or regions into categories like Russian, Kyrgyz, Soviet, or Uzbek. Exactly how those identities, languages, and histories relate isn’t entirely clear, and certainly not stagnant, but it’s worthwhile to critically engage assumptions about how they play out.

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