While the official rhetoric of the Soviet Union extolled its constituent republics’ unity despite their myriad cultural differences, post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, like many CIS states, has witnessed a rise in nationalistic – and in some cases xenophobic – attitudes and institutions as it strives to define and consolidate a national identity. Throughout the nation-building process, language policy has assumed a central role in discussions regarding cultural identity. The popular Kyrgyz saying “til tagdyr, el tagdyr” – “the destiny of the language is the destiny of the nation” – reflects common attitudes toward language. Kyrgyzstan is the only post-Soviet Central Asian nation that has retained Russian as an official language – and the politics of language use has developed into a proxy battlefield for larger debates about the country’s cultural trajectory.
Over the past two decades, the Kyrgyz parliament has passed handful of laws designed to prioritize the use of Kyrgyz language over Russian; however, these laws have been implemented with mixed success. The military, for example, has adopted Kyrgyz as the official language of operations, and has even published a Russian-Kyrgyz dictionary of military terms. And in May 2009, two presidential candidates were forced withdraw from elections, as they were unable to demonstrate proficiency in Kyrgyz. But many parliamentarians still speak in Russian, often provoking the ire of Kyrgyz nationalists – the same year, a parliamentarian demanded that the Minister of Labor speak in Kyrgyz, triggering a row that ended the session early.
In Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, it is Russian – and not Kyrgyz – that is the lingua franca. Academics, businessmen, and other well-educated elites – not to mention the sizable Russian population – conduct most of their affairs in Russian, as the use of this language allows them to engage directly with contemporaries in other Russian-speaking countries. Chingiz Aitmatov, the most famous Kyrgyz author, wrote almost exclusively in Russian, so that his works could reach a wider audience. Two-thirds of all university courses are taught in Russian, as most scientific materials are not available in Kyrgyz. Most signs are printed in Russian. Indeed, Bishkek is a thoroughly Russified city.
I’ve met a handful of ethnic Kyrgyz who’ve spent their entire lives in Bishkek, and consequently don’t speak much Kyrgyz. Sadly, these people are frequently subjected to harassment and abuse from their own compatriots, simply because they don’t speak Kyrgyz. One Russian-speaking Kyrgyz friend, Batyr, told me that he’d been violently assaulted by a group of drunken Kyrgyz-speaking men, simply because he was speaking to a Kyrgyz girl in Russian. Batyr speaks Kyrgyz fluently, and he said that he’s now more cautious about when/where he speaks Russian. Sadly, in a land where roving bands of Kyrgyz nationalists endeavor to preserve cultural heritage through whatever means necessary, it’s no wonder that some Russian-speaking Kyrgyz feel threatened.
I’ve witnessed linguistic micro-aggressions on multiple occasions. For instance, Kyrgyz-speaking marshrutka drivers will sometimes ignore Russian-speaking Kyrgyz passengers’ requests to stop, but immediately heed the requests of ethnically Russian passengers (or Russian-speaking foreigners, such as myself). Almost all marshrutka drivers speak Russian and Kyrgyz – or at least understand basic commands in Russian – but feign ignorance just to piss off their Russian-speaking compatriots. Similarly, I’ve seen street vendors speak Russian to ethnic Russians, but then categorically refuse to speak Russian with ethnic Kyrgyz, even if the customer only speaks Russian.
It’s troubling, but not terribly surprising, that efforts to establish a national identity and preserve cultural heritage have widened existing seams in the social fabric of Kyrgyzstan. And while language laws might actually encourage rural, Kyrgyz-speaking citizens to participate in policymaking – a positive outcome, no doubt – the negative effects of these policies affect the day-to-day lives of many Kyrgyz citizens in a way that other such laws do not. It’ll be interesting to see how the politics of language use continues to play out in Kyrgyzstan – especially as the country continues to gravitate toward Russia.