Crossroads Asia

Memorializing (and Avoiding) the Great Urkun in Kyrgyzstan

“The Tsar wanted to kill everyone. We were saved by Lenin.”

Catherine Putz
Memorializing (and Avoiding) the Great Urkun in Kyrgyzstan

Lenin statue in Bishkek, Kyrgyzsatan

Credit: Catherine Putz

There are Lenin statues all over Kyrgyzstan. The large Lenin statue that once stood in Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square (formerly Lenin Square) south of the State Historical Museum was moved in 2003–years after similar statues around the region had been taken down. Now it stands two blocks north in the park behind the museum. Lenin’s hand, outstretched toward a government building, makes a perfect perch for pigeons.

Perhaps some of Lenin’s enduring legacy in Kyrgyzstan is in part linked to a 100-year-old tragedy: the Great Urkun.

The Great Urkun is what the Kyrgyz call the 1916 Central Asian revolt against the Tsar and subsequent mass exodus east to China. In 1916–in the midst of World War I–Tsar Nicholas II signed a conscription order for his Central Asian subjects. After decades of gradual colonization and incorporation into the Russian Empire, the call was met across the region with revolt.

Historian Tynchtykbek Tchoroev told Bruce Pannier in 2006–on occasion of the 90th anniversary of what some have come to call a massacre or a genocide–“The war in Europe was a strange and unnecessary conflict for the local [Central Asian] nations. The uprising broke out across Central Asia and was brutally put down.”

“The Tsar wanted to kill everyone. We were saved by Lenin,” a 25-year-old Kyrgyz man told me recently. Truncated history aside, the comment was surprising, as most nostalgia for the Soviet era stems from an older generation. It did, however, help explain the portrait of Lenin peering over the shoulder of a barista in a Western-style coffee shop in Karakol.

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As Bruce Pannier wrote earlier this year:

The Bolsheviks came to power in late 1917 and used the Urkun, and other tsarist repressions against Central Asian people, to their advantage by pledging to honor the fraternity of all the peoples of the newly created Soviet Union.

In this fashion, Lenin and the government he ushered into existence, first sought to capitalize on the Tsar’s sins. Then–as with a great many historical notes–the events were swept under the Soviet rug, too.

Regional historians say that 150,000 Kyrgyz died fleeing tsarist forces in 1916; some estimates range as high as 250,000 and none are lower than 100,000. They fled east into the Tien Shan mountains, hoping to reach China. The stories of those who did are harrowing, recounting a winter come early to the mountains and bodies of people and camels left behind. The Central Asian uprisings–which occurred to varying degrees across the region–were another stone weighing down the Russian Empire. Within a year, Tsar Nicholas II would abdicate; within two, he was dead.

A film about the events of 1916, which the Kyrgyz filmmaker hoped to release on Kyrgyzstan independence day, has reportedly stalled with state film authorities tasked with approving its release. As RFE/RL reported, the film’s producer, Mukhtar Atanliev, said, “I think…there is some fear [among the authorities] that the film may cause some issues between Russia and Kyrgyzstan.”

On September 2, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev attended a ceremony to mark the centennial of the uprising, flight, and massacre–held in conjunction with the unveiling of a memorial outside the capital.

While on one hand, Kyrgyzstan seeks to memorialize the dead; it also seeks to avoid irritating Russia with old bones of contention. No matter that the modern Russian state is at least two governmental systems removed from the Tsarist period, there’s a reason no other Central Asian state is marking the 1916 uprisings. The closest Kazakhstan came was a recent request from now-former Prime Minister Karim Massimov for Russia to return the skull of a hero of the Kazakh uprising (For more about that see my piece in the September Magazine).

As the RFE/RL article points out, it’s been suggested that authorities wanted to avoid having posters advertising the Urkun movie dotting the capital when Russian President Vladimir Putin passed through for the CIS summit on September 16. The state film authorities denied the accusation, of course, but the movie remains in approval limbo.