California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

Igmen’s Book Discusses Culture And Power In Kyrgyzstan

Published: November 14, 2011

The scholar’s heart of History’s Ali Igmen beats in the mountainous landlocked nation of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.

The struggling post-Soviet country bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest and People’s Republic of China to the east is the center of interest for the Turkish-born educator.

Igmen, a member of the university since 2006, explores Soviet cultural policies from the 1920s to the 1950s as the Soviet Houses of Culture, theater and festivals attempted to introduce the Soviet way of life to Central Asia in his latest book Speaking Soviet with an Accent: Culture and Power in Kyrgyzstan from the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Kyrgyzstan, or the Kyrgyz Republic, is one of the world’s six independent Turkic states. In the late 19th century, the territories of what is today Kyrgyzstan were ceded to Russia through two treaties between China and Russia. The territory, then known in Russian as “Kirgizia,” was formally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1876. Soviet power was initially established in 1919. In 1936, the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic was established as a full republic of the Soviet Union.

“Residents of what is now Kyrgyzstan made these Soviet cultural policies their own,” he explained. “I call this `speaking Soviet with an accent’ (inspired by Stephen Kotkin’s phrase ‘speaking Bolshevik) as both the state and the people altered Soviet cultural policies to match their understanding of what Soviet and Kyrgyz cultures were. I expect to be criticized for not taking a sterner tone with the Soviet system. There will be critics who believe I don’t mention Stalin enough. But the story I discovered from my oral history interviews was not about Stalin’s atrocities. It was about the strategies of resistance, success and survival of a people.”

When Igmen spoke to Kyrgyz people who matured during the Soviet period, he discovered that many in their 70s and up appreciated what the Soviets tried to do. “When I visited their homes, I’d see Muslim prayers side by side with posters of Lenin,” he recalled. “Lenin to them is still a savior. That is especially true for women. They still see Lenin and socialism as the source of their cultural liberation. I heard from professors that they could have been shepherds, if it were not for Lenin.”

Igmen takes a special interest in Soviet Houses of Culture, the name for major clubhouses in the former Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern European bloc that were supposed to aid “cultural leisure” of Soviet workers and children and to fight “cultureless leisure,” such as drinking and hooliganism. To do that, they offered all kinds of recreational activities such as sports and the arts.

Igmen devotes a chapter to the promotion of theater. “Theater was new to the Kyrgyz nomadic population,” he said. “Kyrgyz actors and playwrights started with one-act plays and learned to be theater professionals. The Soviet period featured ‘cultural Olympiads’ featuring events that meant to be cultural as opposed to athletic. These events actually meant something to these populations. This was their cultural showcase.”

Igmen hopes one of his book’s chapters on Kyrgyz women will expand into a new book tentatively entitled Daughters of Soviet Kyrgyzstan: Gender, Power and National Politics in 20th Century Central Asia.

“Soviet Houses of Culture offered women a larger role in Kyrgyz culture and they grabbed it,” he said. “The Soviet goal was the `modernization of nomadic cultures and they discovered Kyrgyz women had a strong and powerful role in their culture. I think many Kyrgyz women took advantage of this new way of being. They moved up.”

History’s Ali Igmen Book On Kyrgyzstan
Pictured (l-r) are Ali Igmen, award-winning Kyrgyz actress Sabira Kumushaliyeva and Kyrgyzbai Osmonov, the former director of the Kyrgyz National Theater.

Igmen describes four women from the same town called Tököldösh near the capital who all became successful actresses in theater, opera and film. One of them, born in 1917, lived until 2007 and was the subject of several of his interviews. “She was my inspiration for this project,” he said. “Her name was Sabira Kumushaliyeva. She was pretty confident that what we call `Soviet culture’ was her own culture. Eventually, the heart of Kyrgyz-ness became the heart of Soviet-ness. That was very interesting to me.”

He spent two years in this Kyrgyzstan researching the actresses. “It was wonderful,” he said. “Central Asia is home to a welcoming culture. My first trip came in 1995 and the second in 2002.” He lived in the southern city of Osh for a year, and later in Bishkek with frequent side trips to Osh and other Kyrgyz towns.

Igmen believes the Houses of Culture succeeded in their mission. “They didn’t work alone, however,” he said. “The Pioneers youth group and the teenage Komsomol played vital roles. They worked with schools and cultural groups to help youth read. How else could they read Lenin and Marx? They played movies to show how the Soviets did it. I also think the Houses of Culture were successful in introducing Western arts and literature to Kyrgyzstan. The literacy rate in modern Kyrgyzstan was almost 100 percent. Kyrgyz filmmakers were once billed as the ‘Kyrgyz miracles’ and in 2009 were featured at the International Berdyansk Film Festival.”

The new generation who did not experience the Soviet period looks more to the West for its future. “They dismiss their parents’ and grandparents’ attachment to the Soviet Union,” he said. “The young people are not interested in what happened during the Soviet period. They want to look forward. Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics yet it is a gorgeous, mountainous country. Maybe it has a great future as a ski resort. Maybe someday it could become the Switzerland of Asia. But they also have had a string of dysfunctional governments, and people are fed up after 20 years of it. They wonder when things will get better. They asked me why I studied the period at all.”

Igmen directs CSULB’s Oral History Program. He won one of the two university-wide Early Academic Career Excellence Awards this year. He received his B.A. from Uludag University in Turkey, his M.A. from the University of Pittsburgh, another M.A. and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He served as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Igmen will continue his interest in Kyrgyzstan. “After all, I have to travel to access dusty archives and interview individuals,” he said. “But because Kyrgyzstan is in Central Asia, I need funding to get there and that’s the hardest part. So far, I’ve been lucky. But I know this. One of the best aspects of my job is being out in the field talking to people. It’s inspiring when my colleagues and students respond encouragingly to my findings.”

–Richard Manly