About Kyrgyzstan

Sure, John Kerry was Secretary of State and even he couldn’t figure out how to say this country’s name. But come on, say it with me, Kur-gih-stan. Now spell it with me, K-Y-R-G-Y-Z-S-T-A-N. 2016 is the Year of Culture and History (Тарых жана Маданият Жылы, Tarykh jana Madaniyat Jyly) in Kyrgyzstan, so in honor of that decree, there’s no time like the present to learn about this place I call home.

Where is Kyrgyzstan? Who lives there?

Kyrgyzstan is a small country in Central Asia; it’s about the size of South Dakota, but the mountains that cover 90% of the country’s area make it take 3 times as long to get around. Kyrgyzstan shares borders with China, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, but Russia’s not far away and is still very influential here. About 6 million people call Kyrgyzstan home, though estimates say that 1 in 6 Kyrgyzstanis live somewhere else – mostly Russia and Turkey, where there’s more promise of employment and a higher paycheck.

Come on, Kyrgyzstani? That’s got to be a joke.

Nope. Kyrgyzstan is home to more than 15 different ethnic groups, many of which have their own language and cultural traditions that are quite different from Kyrgyz. English sometimes struggles to differentiate between national and ethnic identity (ie we say French and French to describe a person whose cultural roots are French and also to describe someone, maybe with African or Southeast Asian ancestry, who has a French passport). So, Kyrgyzstani might sound ridiculous, but in a multiethnic country like Kyrgyzstan where people are working hard to maintain peace and friendship across different groups, it’s only fair to use the term.

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A Dungan mosque in Karakol.

Has Kyrgyzstan been a country for a long time? 

The place that we now know and love as Kyrgyzstan has a long history, stretching more than 2,000 years. Prior to its absorption into the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan wasn’t so much a unified geographic designation as a swatch of land where nomadic tribes had gathered for centuries. Kyrgyzstan was incorporated into the Russian empire through a diplomatic treaty negotiated by the “Queen of Alai,” Kurmanjan Datka (a fantastic movie was made about her life in 2012). The territory was renamed and its borders were redrawn after the Bolsheviks took power and the Soviet Union was established in 1917. Kyrgyzstan finally became a full-fledged constituent state of the Soviet Union in 1936, until 1991 when it declared independence on August 31. Since then, Kyrgyzstan has seen 2 revolutions and 38 Prime Ministers – it’s the only Central Asian state to have different leadership than the day the Soviet Union fell, though, earning it the title “Central Asia’s Island of Democracy.”

Kyrgyzstan is divided into 7 oblasts (oblast is to Kyrgyzstan as state is to U.S.A.): Chui, where the capital is; Issyk-Kul, where I live now; Talas; Naryn; Jalal-Abad, where I spent 8 months; Osh; and Batken. Each oblast is further divided into raions (raion is to oblast as county is to state), and there are 40 raions total. Whereas the U.S. is a federation, in which the states maintain a sizeable authority over the national government, Kyrgyzstan is a unitary republic, meaning that the central government reigns supreme.

What language do they speak in Kyrgyzstan?

Technically, Russian is the official state language of Kyrgyzstan, but Kyrgyz is the national language. Both are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, but they’re quite different languages; Russian is a Slavic language, whereas Kyrgyz is a Turkic language. Overlap comes in the form of a code-switching, borderline pidgeon language that volunteers lovingly refer to as Krussian. Take a Russian verb, add a Kyrgyz pronoun ending, add some Russian food vocabulary, some Kyrgyz prepositions and you’ve got a Krussian sentence! It’s been a wild linguistic rollercoaster for me, given that I studied Russian before joining Peace Corps and learned Kyrgyz in my training here.

If it was part of the Soviet Union, what religion is most common in Kyrgyzstan now?

About 80% of Kyrgyzstanis identify as Muslim. Islam has a long, interesting history in Kyrgyzstan (and the former Soviet Union in general). It was introduced between the 9th and 11th centuries and morphed with local shamanistic practices. Religion was largely suppressed during the Soviet era, but many still practiced Islam (maybe not explicitly as Islam, but as phrases and gestures with Islamic origins that passed across generations). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there’s been a revival of interest in Islam, and in recent years the number of people who pray, go to mosque, and wear a headscarf has grown a lot.

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What’s Kyrgyz culture like?

What a broad question! It’s one I’ve been trying to get throughout my service with posts about weddings, families, holidays, and work – these are all observable behaviors, visible expressions of culture. The values, beliefs, and attitudes that make people behave one way or another are a lot more difficult to pinpoint. If I had to break it down, though, I’d say the most defining thing is the importance of tradition and family. This is a collectivist culture, meaning that people consider themselves members of a close-knit, interdependent family, tribe, and nation. Everyone has a role to play, and social harmony is possible only when everyone follows through with their responsibilities.

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This barely scratches the surface of questions someone could have about Kyrgyzstan – if any more pop up, get in touch and I’ll do my best to answer.

To wrap up, let’s try this again: Spell it with me, K-Y-R-G-Y-Z-S-T-A-N. Say it with me, Kur-gih-stan.