Why can you buy German bread in Kazakhstan?

A story of mass movements throughout Central Asia, by Nikolai Klassen.

Not only is Russia a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma: fragments of the puzzle are also replicated and recapitulated throughout Central Asia, with the five ‘stans’ all bearing idiosyncrasies that point to a past as rich and unpredictable as the present. Let me address one such mystery: why, like myself, are there so many German-Kazakhs? Nowadays, Germans represent a sizeable minority in each Central Asian country, for example, there are still 179,476 ethnic Germans dwelling in Kazakhstan. However, ethnic Germans only began to form a sizeable chunk of Kazakhstan’s demography shortly after 1941. So, why did so many Germans go to Central Asia? And what does my grandmother have to do with this story?

German settlements throughout the globe, notice the concetration around northern Kazakhstan.

Like my grandmother’s family, many German speaking settlers moved east in search of opportunities off the back of Russia’s developmental efforts. Under Ivan II (1462-1505) some experts, such as doctors, architects, and military officers migrated to Russia. At the time of Peter the Great (1682-1725), Germans increasingly began settling along the Volga River in significant numbers. Another figure driving German Migration in Russia was Kathrine the Great. In 1762, she invited German farmers and craftspeople to Russia to help modernize her country, giving them land, religious freedom, exception from military service and tax exemptions. Escaping high taxes and political tensions in the Holy Roman Empire and later Prussia, most came to lay the foundations for new settlements. Some 30,000 arrived in the first wave between 1764 and 1767 and they had a profound impact on improving Russia’s agricultural output. More started coming after 1789 and they kept coming until 1863. Most of them were Catholics or Mennonites seeking religious freedom, a new place to settle and political stability. As they swept down to Russia’s eastern and southern borders, the first German settlers arrived in modern-day Kazakhstan by the end of the 18th century. In due course, Germans founded their first permanent settlement in 1785, called Friedensfeld. During the period of the Stolian reforms in 1905—1911, Germans had already formed towns such as Alexandertal, Altenau, Königsgof, and Puggerhof. The migration did not stop there though: German settlers even tried to reach as far as Azerbaijan in the 1930s. The reason: increasing hostility and distrust directed against the settlers due to the political climate in Germany at that time. This time, Mennonites have been suspected not because of their religion but because of their nationality.

History is rarely kind, and World War II is known for its forceful relocations within the Soviet Union. Most of the Germans were offspring of Volga Germans, who lived in the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic located in Russia, or the Black Sea Germans, who lived in Ukraine and Crimea. This demographic spread reached an abrupt ending during the early 1940s; with forced relocation to Kazakhstan being initiated in July 1941, after Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union. Moreover, Stalin initiated a state of emergency: Germans were declared spies a priori, a decision which resulted in all working-age men (15-85) being confined to Soviet Labour camps – the so-called gulags. According the Soviet Government, a decree to relocate the Germans was imposed because:

“Among the German inhabitants, who live in the Volga Region, are thousands and ten thousand of saboteurs and spies who are awaiting a signal from Germany to execute explosions in other regions, but also against their own people.“

In the course of the deportation, my granduncle and my great-grandfather were sent to two different gulags nearby Archangelsk to work in a forestry station in pitch-black winters and all-day summers. Fortunately, they were working as doctors and were important for the camps’ overseers. They were able to survive the extreme temperatures and harsh labour conditions, and were lucky not to have been sent to an even-more punitive camp, where their medical skills may not have been called upon.

Photos from Crimea, taken before my family’s re-location.

Officially, people were never deported: they were brought to safe towns, away from the frontlines. The areas to “spread” the Germans across the countries were areas, such as the Altai region (650,000 re-located), the Qaraghandy region (500,000), Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (both home for 70,000 Germans). The regions where Germans were spread generally had a low population density and a demand for workers in agriculture and mining. The labour shortage arose from the huge demand for troops to send to the Soviet frontline, leaving many Central Asian towns stripped of their male populations. As German settlers were suspected to be spies and saboteurs, the authorities saw fit to keep an eye on them and extract their productive energy through keeping them in tightly-controlled labour camps. In addition to forced labour, Germans in the Soviet Union were subject to forced assimilation, such as through the prohibition of public use of the German language and education in German, the abolition of German ethnic holidays and a prohibition on their observance in public. Not only were Germans stripped of their language and culture, they were often openly discriminated against and publicly mocked. At around this part in our story, my Grandmother, then a young girl, was making her way across the frozen midwinter Steppe in a cattle wagon. In 1941, she, her mother, and other 38 people put into the wagon were forcibly relocated to Serenda (Зеренда, nowadays in Kazakhstan).

My Great-grandparents at their house in Найман with their dog друг, who once survived being shot on the misapprehension that he was a wolf.

Suppression of ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union did not end with the Second World War. Though some Germans were able to live unofficially in German communities in tows they’ve been sent to, their culture had to remain hidden: still, they were able to secretly hold holy services, speak German, and celebrate German holidays. In 1949 most Germans were finally released from the labour army, although no public apology or excuse was given for the 4-year delay. In August 1964 the Soviet Government finally began rehabilitating the Germans to their pre-war settlements. According to the newly appointed president Breshnev, the accusations against were not justified, and a terrible mistake had been made. However, most chose to stay on in Central Asia, and only a few returned to the Volga area. Others travelled around and went where they could find employment. Others still tried to claim their pre-war homes, even though they lost the right to do so. After 1964, the German population became dispersed and mobile – finding new homes and shaping new identities. The number of Germans involved in agriculture declined while those occupied as academics and teachers rose, as those living in the country moved to the cities. In that process Germans finally managed to blend into their milieu, losing their cultural uniqueness as their language, arts, customs were becoming more and more Russified. Many Germans moved in among non-Germans and started families with people of other ethnic descents. The trend towards urbanization also caused a drop in the birth-rate and the size of German families, which had been erstwhile characterized by high birth rates. By 1991 less than half of the German Russians claimed German as their first language, and instead regarded Russian as their mother tongue.

The horrors of deportation and the tragedy of Stalinist cultural subjugation became far better known through historical studies during the 1980s and 1990s, after the Soviet Union fell apart. Most of the remaining ethnic Germans emigrated to Europe and beyond, with a majority opting for Germany. In 1990, after my Grandfather returned from a visit to Canada, he and my grandmother decided to move to Germany, where they felt they would be treated as equals. From there they invited other parts of my family and finally also my father and my mother, who was pregnant with me while moving.

Germans in Russian Folklorist outfits; Taken in Karaganda, 1953.

In 1990, there were around 2.9 million ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union, of which only 41% resided in modern-day Russia. The rest were spread throughout Central Asia and the Caucuses, with 47% being based in Kazakhstan, 5% in Kyrgyzstan, and 2% in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. As these populations either blended into their cultural woodwork, or made their way to Germany, these populations have fallen to about 1/3rd of their original size. Yet their footprint lingers on in countless aspects; so, should you ever find yourself North of Astana and notice rock-hard dark breads curiously similar to German pumpernickel, please spare a thought for my Grandmother who, like so many other Soviet-born Germans, has left a lasting mark on Central Asia’s demography.

Creative Bishkek: Ulan Djaparov

A leading figure of Bishkek’s post-Soviet arts scene: CAF interviews Ulan Djaparov as the latest instalment in the Creative Bishkek series.

Ulan Djaparov is seen by some as the godfather of modern and contemporary art in post-Soviet Bishkek.

Alongside founding a contemporary art and architecture space, Studio Museum, he is a driving force of the city’s recent artistic boom through his work on social media – primarily as the administrator of the influential Facebook group Central Asian Pavilion of the Contemporary Art.

What is Studio Museum and why did you create it?

The architectural studio Museum has a long history. In 2018, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the studio’s official status and the thirty-first anniversary of the creation of the group Museum. During this time, there have been several generations of ‘studioists‘.

Natives of the studio are now working in various cities in the world – from Vladivostok to Cologne, and from Moscow to Auckland. The speciality of our studio is that, in addition to architectural projects, we are also engaged in projects in the field of contemporary art, as well as personal artistic practices. Another emphasis of our studio is seen through our wide network with other artists throughout Central Asia, as well as people from different fields (non-governmental organisations, businessmen, etc) who are interested in art.

How much has the contemporary art scene in the city changed in the last few years and how have you contributed?

Modern and contemporary art as a phenomenon appeared in Kyrgyzstan relatively recently – a little more than 20 years ago. Originally, there was not a single art institution or official centre for contemporary art. Everything was done on personal enthusiasm. The museum and I, as the curator of many of the first exhibitions, were among the several initiators of this process.

Nowadays there are a couple of generations of young artists and art activists, with new ideas and forms of existence. Of course, there are some minor differences between groups – the generation of 35 to 40-year-olds still remember the Soviet era, the difficulties of the 90s and so on. The generation of 20 to 25-year-olds is already very different – they are more mobile, practical, not so tied to ‘old’ values.

Nonetheless, everything still depends on the personal drive of artists in Bishkek, insofar as the commercial art is itself out of reach, Bishkek’s modern art scene is still led by the artists’ personal interest and desire to put forward challenging ideas.

Do you participate in other projects in the city, and if so, which ones?

Our studio Museum is quite specific, and has been since its creation. We mainly cooperate with good friends who have interesting ideas and we help them to design and visualise them their ideas architecturally. Ideally, we help them to realise what is not always possible. Often, this is the development of architectural concepts. In addition, sometimes we organise exhibitions of contemporary art.

We cooperate with young, but also more experienced, artists from all over Central Asia. A few years ago, I was the editor-in-chief of the Central Asian almanac Kurak (art and society). Recently, we began to cooperate with some NGOs. For example, we are developing and recommending on ‘setting models of a safe educational environment with the help of design in pilot schools of Kyrgyzstan’.

What is the role of modern culture in the development of Kyrgyzstan?

The situation is interesting. Everyone has a different understanding of what modern culture is. Some appeals to some kind of archaic or purely national forms and wrap them in modern packaging, others try to relay to us ‘universal cultural values’ (but often this is the result of working off grants, or for marketing purposes), while again someone else is looking for/creating a culture at the junction between our real situation and specific and modern form.

Meanwhile, there is a large layer of religious culture in the background, which is becoming increasingly pronounced every year. Modern culture has only really taken form in the urban space, as the population of the city has greatly changed since the 1990s.

How important is cooperation between creative people in the city?

I think that the concept of creative people is somewhat broad and vague, but the process of cooperation itself is interesting and this is almost our only opportunity to do something interesting here in our current situation. And if earlier there was some tightness in different social groups and strata, now there is a certain interest in interdisciplinary projects and cooperation.

How is Bishkek changing? Are these changes primarily positive?

Bishkek is changing a lot; some people see this as positive, while others lack the same enthusiasm. Outwardly, Bishkek has turned into a larger city (high-rise buildings, shopping centres, offices, etc.). Some elements have also become more civilized, which is nice. However, in most cases, there is some negligence.

For example, there have some rather aggressive new developments in the city that do not consider the current context and primarily have money as a motivating factor. The problem does not only concern short fallings in town-planning policies, but also concerns a vanishing social consensus about common cultural values; especially with respect to prevailing urban environments and their connections with private initiatives.

Manas, memory, and the making of the Kyrgyz national myth

“Truth is not necessarily fact, and fact not necessarily truth” (Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)

The plane ride into a new country makes for a good opportunity to brush up on a bit of local knowledge. For some, that’ll mean drowsily browsing through a handful of helpful phrases on the red-eye shift before a dawn landing. For others, it’ll be a quick peruse through the sites, sounds and tastes proposed by a guide book. For those inclined to the culturally refined, it may even mean a dig into the nation’s house author — every Russia has a Dostoyevsky just as every Nigeria has a Soyinka. Yet, looking at the little orange puffs of the oil fields in the dark expanses on a night-time flight over northern Kazakhstan, I didn’t want to turn on the light for fear of disturbing the gentle chorus of snores from the seats around me. Instead, I found myself listening to Harvest by Neil Young, and pondering whether I was the first to do so in this situation. (I probably wasn’t, but I imagine I’m safely embedded in the first ten).

As such, my ignorance on arrival is somewhat justifiable. As I was to find out, a dive into the Epic of Manas would have served me a better education on the country I was entering. At 500,000 lines though, the Kyrgyz epic poem is no Aeroflot flick — indeed, it is one of the longest epic poems in the world. All the same, Manas is a dynamic, indeed living document on Kyrgyz history — and a touchstone for Kyrgyz identity. So much so, that there exists a special role in society for the bards who perform and pass on the story of Manas, the manaschi.

As an account of the past, it is an “absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history”… yet this is why it is so damn interesting

Why then, is the story of Manas so important? As a story, it follows the lives of three generations of Kyrgyz leaders: Manas, the skilled horsemen who throws off the yoke of Uighur domination to return his people to their mountainous homeland; and his son and grandson — also respectable warriors. This might be fascinating in its own right, but it does little to justify Manas’s pre-eminence among other stellar tales by Kyrgyz authors.

As an account of the past, it has been described by VV Bartol’d as an ‘absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history’ — its age is unknowable (although it was likely transplanted, and hence frozen, in writing during the eighteenth century), and it concerns events that occurred between 995AD and 1800AD (albeit, most likely closer to the latter), and its account of these events muddles them considerably. Yet it is this last point that makes it so damn interesting; how can the fluidity of a myth mould and be moulded to the malleable memory narratives of a changing society, and hence tinker, support, and challenge national identity? Just as individuals build their identities on the string of memories that fit their stories, so too does a country. By this process of self-shaping, a nation can look to the past to define its future. As William Faulkner posits, “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past”.

The Kyrygz composer, Abdylas Maldybaev, here pictured on a Kyrgyz 1 som note, based his first opera, Ai-Churek, on the Epic of Manas.

Here stems an antagonism between historicity; the eurocentric ideal of history as a linear account of verifiable events in a fixed and static past; and narrative, with its focus less on what actually happened, and more on what should have happened. The former approach treats our present reality as a moment created by, but ultimately cut off from, the past. Narrative, on the other hand, is a fluid story that seeks to explain and guide the present. Narratives compete and constantly adapt. Perhaps the most apt example of this is the historic treatment of the Bible — selective interpretations have justified everything from the Jewish pogroms of Russia to the liberation theology of Latin America.

From these two approaches to the past, it’s no surprise that the European world sanctifies written text — but Central Asians have long feared the potential loss of oral traditions, and the living flexibility that comes with them. In The Uses and Abuses of History, Nietzsche decried static monolithic accounts of history, and instead favoured memory as a dynamic and critical exercise: memory makes us, and as such, we should work to make memory.

How does this relate to the Epic of Manas?

Enough theory. How does this relate to the Epic of Manas? To explain this, we should look to the differences between Manas the man and Manas the myth. Sometime during the the 1920s and 1930s, Manas’s apparent tribe ceased to be the Nogay people and became the Kyrgyz. This highlights the importance of establishing an ethnic link around the time that Kyrgyzstan was organising its place as a state in the USSR.

Moreover, although it was widely agreed that the events described in the epic took place  only about 400 years earlier, in 1995 the new Kyrgyz government hosted mass celebrations of Manas’s thousandth anniversary. No doubt linked intrinsically with the collapse of the USSR four years earlier, this disparity between dates emphasises the need in Kyrgyzstan to establish deep historical roots; the legitimacy to hold together a brand new nation state.

Finally, beyond being an adept ruler and a skillful warrior, Manas fought off neighbouring societies to establish the independence of what is now Kyrgyzstan. A powerful counter-narrative to historic occupying powers (indeed, the USSR suppressed circulation of the Epic of Manas on account of its apparent ‘bourgeois-nationalism’), it now acts as a defiant symbol for a free Kyrgyzstan — a nation with a nomadic past and an independent future. Every major town and city is pillared with images, statues, accounts and museums that revel in Manas. Even the flag invokes Manas — its forty rays represent the forty tribes united under Manas. It is through these symbols that interpretations of the past form the identity of the present, and set the course of the future.

The Epic of Manas, even in English translation, is by no means light reading for a airline journey into Kyrgyzstan. Yet a quick dive into the history of the epic could explain why, four hours by plane from Moscow, one might find oneself touching down amidst the last of the winter snow on a chilly March morning at Manas International AirportBishkek.

The main terminal building at Manas International Airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

The only tourists in Bishkek

Ironic travel, Central Asia, and earning a place on the map.

The cultural clout of the famous ‘International Brigade’ during the Spanish civil war won, and continues to win, a romantic niche in the sentiments of young artists and activists. In 1961 the (then) young Canadian author, Leonard Cohen, saw in the anti-imperialist fight of the nascent post-revolutionary Cuba a chance to fulfil his internationalist duties as an artist. With little haste, he grew out a beard, bought some khakis, and boarded the next boat to Havana. But rather than valiantly battling the boats of United Fruit at the Bay of Pigs, Cohen quickly found himself an unwanted accessory to the streets of Havana — eventually penning the mournful poem The Only Tourist in Havana. Finally, an embarrassing diplomatic telephone call from his mother warranted his return to Quebec.

It was an odd link, but mingling with the characters in the ex-pat hangouts of Bishkek, Cohen’s words weighed somewhat heavy in my mind as I slowly came to the realisation that, in the middle of March, we may well be the only people actually holidaying in a city whose architecture Lonely Planet charmingly described as ‘forgettable’. Among the myriad people we met, it seemed that we were the only tourists in Bishkek.

A track leads to Issyk-Kul, a Kyrgyz landmark and endorheic lake, which sits beneath the Tian Shan mountain range.

But this by no means brought the feelings of lonely melancholy burdening Cohen. We were in a part of the map of which an awareness is quite literally absent from the minds of most of our compatriots. This provided an enormous sense of freedom and discovery. Kyrgyzstan, as with most corners of Central Asia, remains unjustly unknown in Europe. Hence here we turn to the meta-narrative of the article; the purpose of the forum, to build a time-neglected bridge between these two worlds. This certainly isn’t an argument for cultural globalisation, manifest in a desire for a Hilton, Starbucks, and McDonald’s on every street corner from Astana to Osh — neither is it an attempt to weave further cobwebs of stereotypical narratives surrounding self-acclaimed ‘deep travel’ in the ’stans’. Rather, this is an ode to unfortunate unknown — what you make of it is up to you.

First, we have to ask ourselves why, along with her ’sister stans’, does Kyrgyzstan remain unknown? Why is it that, in moments of silence, the radical astonishment one has at the thought of actually being there (let’s go ahead and call these moments Kyrgyzstential crises) creeps up and leaves you nervously giggling?

We can turn first to politics and the hangover of the Cold War. Most of the Central Asian republics only gained independence from the USSR in the early 1990s — thousands of years of history had been subsumed in a couple of centuries of Russian rule: not only had the alphabet become Cyrillic and the city design Soviet, but the area had been effectively off limits to those west of the Berlin wall. Consequently, the countries of Central Asia have only had a handful of years to imprint themselves on the international consciousness, and some have had little agency in fashioning that imprint (take the free ticket the ‘orient unknown’ element has granted shows from The Ambassadors through to Borat, or the go-to stories about the amusing lives of certain dictators).

Politics goes hand-in-hand with geography. Whilst tourists are often happy to take the long flights out to tourist hotspots of the Thailand-Vietnam mould, the brute fact that countries like Kyrgyzstan are far away from highly-populated areas makes the trip out either an ordeal of connecting flights or one hell of a drive.

It’s, therefore, an esoteric rag-tag bunch that make it out. There are the lost business people, sent out by head offices to check on regional affairs, floating in flannel suits to the only establishments that sell a suitably safe Westernised cappuccino (thus negating the burgeoning local artisanal coffee scene) and wait for the return flight. There are of course the locals — amongst them a cosmopolitan youth with impeccable English and a penchant for the question, “How come you guys are in Kyrgyzstan? It’s not even the summer”.

Rope market at a village in Kyrgyzstan.

In addition to the locals, there are the culturally-local, say, Russians taking the trip to their summer house by Lake Song Kul, or undertaking a section of their studies. Then there are those dragged there by the winds of fate — to whom a job opportunity, a desire to escape, or even brute chance, has thrown an atypical parcel of land in what to most people is ’nowhere’. Marion, a young French woman, was a neat microcosm of this last category. After growing tired of teaching French in the UK, she cut up each country in the world, placed the names into a hat and pulled out Kyrgyzstan. True to form, she took up a post teaching English, and set out to pass two years in Bishkek.

Unavoidable (although notably absent in the final breaths of winter) are the infamous ‘adventurers’ — with Tibetan garms, fledgeling dreadlocks, and dreams of following the craggy mountains of the ‘Silk Road’ — they neatly pillar blogs with stories of adventures in the nomadic steppe of post-Sovietistan. It would be unfair to be so blindly acerbic to this latter band, they can be as sagacious as they are sanctimonious by way of travel. Finally, there is the small collection of travellers there on a similar premise to ours — an ironic journey into the unknown — a small attempt to make a facetious answer the question mark nestled south of Russia and west of China, if only because it is a question.

This is why we should be interested in taking the trip to Kyrgyzstan. I can’t help but indulge in subjective experience — as a comprehensive answer would require far more room for starry-eyed diatribes. Put simply, there are the possibilities for peregrinations in the present, and potential paths for forging a fascinating future. Chihoon, a Korean man who has spent his last six years in Bishkek, is perhaps the best embodiment of this mantra. He saw in Kyrgyzstan the opportunity to create a community hub based around good food (Korean chicken, and recently, a café), music, art and dance. In doing so, he has sought to enact a cultural movement from the ground-up, so as to prevent Kyrgyz city culture falling into the clutches of corporate hegemony — what he calls the Almaty-isation of Kyrgyzstan. The proceeds of his restaurant support local artists, entrepreneurs and performances. However, the open mic nights of a nascent international scene within Bishkek represents only a small portion of what Kyrgyzstan offers the traveller. As a beautiful country with rugged mountainous terrain, wildflowers in the high grassy jaloos, fascinating cultural quirks, and glassy Alpine lakes; Kyrgyzstan could cater to the taste of any tourist; especially in the reals of adventure travel.

Yet, to open up to the world, a number of steps will need to be taken — and a number of murky risks lay loathsome in the foreseeable future. Surprisingly, blowing away typical stereotypes need not be one of them; tourism may well thrive off the mysterious muddling of facts and fictions — and keeping the romance of the mountainous steppe alive, as in the novels of Chinghiz Aitmatov, may well pay dividends in bringing in wondering wanderlust travelers. A real threat will for the domestic ownership of ‘opening up’. If opening the doors to the world is to ostensibly benefit the people of Kyrgyzstan, then movements to accommodate the new trade — from horseback travel to alpine boating — should come from the people themselves, and not international conglomerates and foreign investors.

It’s cliché to expound the ‘hidden gems’ within central Asia — but as a sentiment it is also entirely just. One hopes that one day the question will shift from “how come you guys are in Kyrgyzstan?” to “so, when will you next be in Bishkek?”.