Human Journey

Kyrgyzstan: 85 Years of Memories

Dooronali, 85, wearing the national kyrgyz hat for men (kalpak).    Photo by toby a. cox

Although history is often talked about as something as objective as mathematics, it, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.

That historic events happened is perhaps the only thing semi-consistent across cultures; but how these events were experienced and are perceived can be drastically different depending on where you happen to be in the world.

Living in Kyrgyzstan, a post-Soviet country, I’ve learned a lot about these differences in ‘history,’ especially when it comes to the Soviet Union, by talking to people who grew up during that time.

Dooronali, 85, grew up during World War II, reached adulthood while Kyrgyzstan was a republic under Soviet rule, and is now retired. In his community, Dooronali is respected as an elder, held in high regard for his accomplishments, skills, and work ethic, and admired for how he treats others.

There is a man in the village – he is Dooronali

He appreciates everybody, regardless of the age,

He comes to work early and goes home late.

He drives a tractor and likes it.

For everyone around he is helpful,

He does not offend anyone.

He is very good at driving a tractor,

and is always ready to help others.

– A. Imanbekov, (1992)

It’s easy to see how that is the case. When I met Dooronali he greeted me with kindness and welcomed me into the room with an unexpected, genuine warmth. As I set up my camera, he rolled up his prayer mat that was in the corner, placed in the direction of Mecca. He generously offered me a cushion to sit on before getting one for himself. When he was ready to begin, I asked him about his life and the stories unfurled, one after another. He first spoke of his youth, often pausing, struggling to remember fleeting memories.

Talas is the region west of Bishkek near the Kazakh border.

He was born in 1932 in a village in Talas and grew up during War World II. When he was a child, his family moved to present-day Yntymak, also known as Kalinina. Dooronali said that at that time, the village was a German collective farm. Although he wanted to go to school, he could not afford to. He became a shepherd to help support his family, but said he had ‘only twenty sheep.’ He worked as a shepherd until 1948 when he became a tractor driver. He worked for 42 years – 20 years as a tractor driver and 22 years as a local irrigation expert.

yntymak village in talas. photo by toby a. cox

“When I was young, I could do any work. I worked during the war time [World War II]. It was the most difficult years, many people suffered. We did not have enough food. I was young then and I remember it was the hardest of times,” Dooronali recalled.

After World War II, Dooronali said that life under Soviet rule was peaceful – work was plentiful, food was affordable, and education was accessible.

newspaper clippings. photo by toby a. cox

Dooronali showed me a folder containing newspaper clippings of articles that were written about him. In one of the articles, the writer notes that people in his village often said that Dooronali had “golden hands” when talking about his diverse skill-set: he was a skilled machine operator, combine operator, a key master, a blacksmith, a carpenter, a tailor, and dairy machine operator. When Dooronali was 60 years old, he broke a farming record for the area, yielding the most grain and hay per hectare.

“During the Soviet Union life was really good. People lived in peace. I did a lot of jobs. I woke up early at 4 in the morning and worked till the evening. But now it is not like this. Some people are hard-working, but some people are not.”

He remembered life under the Soviet Union fondly, as does many who grew up during that time. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many jobs disappeared and people struggled again; unemployment is still very high in Kyrgyzstan, resulting in many people emigrating to other countries to find work.

A flour mill that provided work for the local community during the Soviet union, now abandoned.  Photo by toby a. cox

Under Soviet rule, religion was restricted – mosques were shut down and people who remained religious prayed in the privacy of their homes. Dooronali said that when he was young, he didn’t have time for religion, since he worked from sun up to sun down. It wasn’t until after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Dooronali began praying 5 times a day, reading the Quran, and trying to fast during Ramadan. For him, Islam and Kyrgyz culture are intertwined.

“As God made me, I was born Kyrgyz and so I will be Kyrgyz.”

Dooronali is in good health and lives with his wife, his son, and his son’s family in Talas. For him, hard work is still the most important thing. He works as much as he is able and finds satisfaction in being able to contribute to his community.

children, many of whom are relatives of Dooronali, playing soccer in a field behind the village mosque. photo by toby a. cox

Talking to people like Dooronali has made me realize how subjective history can be. Although many people celebrate Kyrgyzstan’s current independence, democracy, and the religious freedom that comes with it, many people who grew up during the time of the Soviet Union tend to remember it positively, as a time when life was easier and unemployment was low.

Toby A. Cox is a 2017-2018 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow exploring the story of Islam and religious identity in Kyrgyzstan. She will spend the next 9 months conducting interviews in all seven regions of the country, gathering stories on how the Kyrgyz people perceive the role of Islam and Islamic values in Kyrgyz culture. Through this fellowship, Toby aims to learn more about how Kyrgyzstan’s history has impacted the religious identity of individuals and the multidimensional Kyrgyz identity. She will use writing, videos, photos, and maps to offer insight into the religious landscape of Kyrgyzstan, simultaneously shedding light onto the diversity of Muslim identity. Toby studied Foreign Affairs and Middle Eastern Languages at the University of Virginia and is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Jordan and Kyrgyzstan. 

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