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The land of Kyrgyzstan

The high plains

In the summer months on the high plateau in Zyrt (between 3 and 4 hundred metres above sea level) we can see yurts2 inhabited by herdsmen and their families. Sometimes we find two or three yurts together, and sometimes we find them standing by themselves. In addition to the little village of Artshaly we can see the odd cowshed as well as sheds for tractors and road-building machinery. The vast grasslands are otherwise pastures for yaks, sheep and horses. The high plateau is virtually devoid of sound. In spite of the fact that one always has a view of the snow-covered peaks in the distance, the expanse of open land is enormous and the silence all-embracing. So high above sea level there can be frost at night even in the summertime. The winters can be tough and it is not unusual for the temperature to fall to something approaching -30° C.

Mountains and valleys

Some days’ ride eastwards from Artshaly takes us past the Canadian-Kyrgyz goldmines and on to the highest-lying areas in the whole of the Tien Shan (“Celestial Mountains”). The highest mountain in Kyrgyzstan, Pik Pobedy or Victory Peak (7339 m) lies in this area.

Through a mountain pass at the northern end of the high plateau the horse track goes down to Lake Issyk Kul and the village of Bokonbaevo, where many of the herdsmen live in the winter. Only a handful of herdsmen spend the winter in the high mountains to look after the yak bulls, which are both unhappy and liable to become ill in the lowlands, and also to attend to buildings, machines and other equipment. In a couple of places at the side of the trail small bathhouses have been put up. The water that runs out of the houses has a temperature of 40 to 45° C and it is said to be healthy to bath in it. Down in the valley runs a river that collects water from the surrounding high mountains. Not far above the village all this water is collected by a huge dam, which via a well-developed irrigation system makes it possible to water the soil in the village and the surrounding areas in the dry summer months too.

Issyk Kul

At the foot of the Terskey-Alatau Range, roughly 1600 metres above sea level, lies Lake Issyk Kul (hot lake), which is 180 km long and up to 600 m deep. The lake contains salt and never freezes over. It has about a hundred inlets but no visible outlet. The Kyrgyz are certainly no great fish-eaters, so even though there are some fish in the lake, they can live long and safe lives until they fail to escape a Russian with a fishing rod. In the summer Issyk Kul is a favourite attraction for tourists from both Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet republics.

The lowlands

Three to four hours by car from Issyk Kul lies Bishkek. A travel guide says that the city has approximately 320 days of sunshine a year. The conditions of growth are good because a well-developed irrigation system in the city’s streets makes it possible to sprinkle the town with water in the dry season.

In the Soviet period a great many weapons and high-technological components for the spacecraft industry were produced in Bishkek. The vast majority of the experts in this industry were Russians. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union these specialists were offered work with good terms of employment in Russia. The emigration of well-educated Russians has been very considerable, which has contributed to the fact that much of the industry in Kyrgyzstan has had to be closed down.

The lowlands in the north and in the areas around the towns of Osh and Jalabad in the Fergana Valley have a hot, dry climate the whole summer. A temperature of 35 to 40° C is not uncommon. In these areas bordering on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan there is agriculture and among things we find tobacco, fruit, cotton and maize.


From the turn of the first millennium and right up to the end of the 18th century various Turkish groups, Mongols and Chinese fought among themselves for power in the area. The Kyrgyz were the whole time the inferior party in these states. In the 1760s the Kyrgyz came under Chinese rule, then around 1820 they were brought under the Kokand khanate, to be finally incorporated in Russian Turkestan in 1876.

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In 1916 parts of Turkestan were shaken by powerful resistance against the regime of the Czar. The rising came partly as a response to significant increases in taxes and prices in the area and partly as a consequence of the Russians’ wish to conscript the Kyrgyz for service in the war. The revolt was violently suppressed and the population suffered great losses.

Until 1924 the areas in which the Kyrgyz lived were part of the autonomous republic of Turkestan. In that year the area was given the status of an oblast (province) of the Russian Federation of Socialist Soviet Republics (RFSSR) and was now given the name Kirgizia. Two years later Kirgizia became an autonomous republic and in 1936 the area gained the status of a full union republic.

The nomadic past

The Kyrgyz have throughout their history had a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle. The nomads lived in the lowlands in the wintertime, while in the summer they took their cattle with them to grazing areas in the high mountains. In the summer half of the year they lived in scattered settlement clusters consisting of between just a few and up to about 200 yurts. A unit of settlement of this kind was termed an ail, and those who lived together were normally connected to one another through family ties. When it was necessary for the purpose of making the best possible use of the available pastures, they would move and establish smaller units.

The Kyrgyz have traditionally had an egalitarian political structure, yet on the other hand relatively strong ties of loyalty to the family and the clan. There was no tradition of electing leader figures as there was for example in the Buddhist land areas of Mongolia and Tibet. The elders had their power and position by virtue of their age and their personal influence.


Stalin’s collectivisation of the land was probably one of the most comprehensive changes in Kyrgyzstan after the Revolution. Through collectivisation the Soviet authorities wanted to gain a firmer grip on the somewhat uncontrollable nomadic population. The government saw it as absolutely necessary to gain control of those areas of the Soviet Union that bordered on non-Soviet states. Collectivisation was therefore more thorough in the border states than in central parts of Russia. In the course of the 1930s practically all the Kyrgyz were affiliated to a collective or state farm.

With a view to winning the widest possible support among the Kyrgyz population, the authorities appointed Kyrgyz people to leading positions in the collective farms. Since the Soviet power structure could not simply be incorporated into the egalitarian Kyrgyz political structure, some of the leaders had problems in getting support from their own people. They were given an appointment to which they could not say no at the same time as they were often looked upon as traitors by family and friends.

The nomads resisted collectivisation as best they could, but they soon had to capitulate in the face of superior force. The centralisation of the keeping of livestock led to the forcing of a large number of animals into an ever smaller area. The consequent over-grazing laid waste huge areas and brought about a sharp decline in the number of domestic animals. In Kazakhstan in the period from 1929 to 1934 Bacon relates that the number of sheep fell from 27 to 2 million and the number of horses from 4 million to 200,000 (Bacon 1968: 119). In the 1950s the Soviet authorities came to the conclusion that a larger number of animals could survive if the old grazing techniques were used. The reorganisation then led to an increase in the number of animals in the area.


The Kyrgyz speak a Turkic language that is closely related to Kazakh, Karakalpak and Kazan Tatar. Not until 1924 did Kyrgyz become an official and written language of its own. The alphabet was first Arabic, then Latin, and since 1940 Cyrillic. Throughout the Soviet period the language of inter-ethnic communication was Russian. Today Russian has the status of an official second language, while Kyrgyz is the national language.

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Right up to the 1950s and 1960s the local languages had a prominent place in all the former Soviet republics. In the union republics it was usual for the children to attend national schools where the teaching was conducted in their own languages. A change in this policy came with Khrushchev and the implementation of what has been called "Thesis 19"3 (Karklins 1986: 104). There was now a desire to strengthen the knowledge of Russian in the population, partly to be able to give people a better education, but also with the fact in mind that it was easier to control the population when people knew Russian. At the same time there was an increase in the migration of Russians to the different border states of the Soviet Union. All this came as a consequence of general population growth and a considerable pace of modernisation and industrialisation, which in the 1950s took place at the same time both in the Soviet Union and in Europe and America.

In the course of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s the pace of Russification was so great that practically all the Kyrgyz were taught Russian. By the end of the 1980s Russian was therefore the prevailing language in urban areas of Kyrgyzstan. In the ten years that have passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union we can see that Kyrgyz has gradually taken over as the dominant language in the towns as well.


Around the turn of the first millennium Islam was introduced into Central Asia. Islam was first introduced in those areas that had the greatest density of population, and the largest towns in today’s Uzbekistan became the core areas of this religion. The nomadic population also adopted Islam but has throughout history been more loosely tied to the faith. One may perhaps say that the Kyrgyz are religious eclectics. They have willingly blended together different religious beliefs such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Shamanism. Islam is today on the increase and with funding from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran a large number of mosques are being built. We can also see in the northern parts of the country that relatively many Kyrgyz have converted to Christianity. Factors that may have played a part in this tendency are the large numbers of foreigners who visit or work in the region and the fact that many Christian missionaries have found their way here.

We can see today a reality in which poverty is growing among the great mass of the Kyrgyz in pace with the wealth among a very few at the top of the social hierarchy. This disparity between poor and rich has led to a political opposition that sometimes advances fundamentalist ideas. Some of the opposition groups make use of religious rhetoric in their argumentation. After the events in New York on 11 September 2001 the government became much more watchful and far less understanding of groups in opposition. Particularly strong pressure is exercised against groups that have religious motives.

Published Dec. 15, 2020 11:58 AM - Last modified Dec. 15, 2020 11:58 AM