Amidst Manas, Aitmatov, and Lenin: Nationalism and Belonging in Kyrgyzstan

Moira O'Shea, University of Chicago

“At last the old era of Lenin has passed…Now we begin a new era of national history, which is connected to our state, to our independence, having concluded the old one.” These were the words of the Secretary of State of Kyrgyzstan, in 2003, explaining his support for the removal of a monument to Lenin which had stood in Ala-Too square since 1984. However, this was not the first — nor would it be the last — change in the symbolic landscape of Bishkek in the last hundred plus years. While the history of the political manipulation of public art and architecture is admittedly long and complex, there are few areas of the world in which this history has been as explicit as in the Soviet Union and its successor states. Today in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, one can see an uncommon level of preservation of Soviet statuary in prominent public spaces, as well as a plethora of new, specifically Kyrgyz public art. This symbolic duality makes Bishkek a unique space in which to investigate how public art exists as reflective of history, as an object of memory, and as a lens through which to investigate how Soviet, nomadic, and Islamic historical narratives exist together in present-day Bishkek. This is paper takes into consideration the historical and political uses of public art and specifically, the perception of these uses, asking: how do denizens of Bishkek understand and interpret these symbols as mediators of a sense of belonging to the political project of Kyrgyzstan. Through interviews and archival research, I show how these public works of art are perceived and produced, and I explore how the memory of certain pasts as symbolized by these works is connected to both a sense of shared identity and a sense of historical break.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 20. The Politics of Knowledge and Historical Memory