Kyrgyzstan’s Forgotten Role in World War II

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Kyrgyzstan’s Forgotten Role in World War II

In total, around 365,000 Kyrgyz were mobilized by the Soviet Union to fight against Nazi Germany.

Kyrgyzstan’s Forgotten Role in World War II
Credit: Catherine Putz

Despite emerging victorious in their fight over Nazi Germany and Hitler’s fascist ideology, World War II ravaged the Soviet Union, claiming the lives of tens of millions of soldiers and civilians – 26 million by some estimates. While the better-known battles of the Great Patriotic War, including the Battle of Stalingrad and the Siege of Leningrad, took place in Russia’s western sphere, the tragedy of war and the scale of its devastation was undoubtedly felt all over the vast Soviet Union. Tucked away in the mountains of Central Asia, located 3,000 kilometers southeast of Moscow, the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic – modern-day Kyrgyzstan — was just one of the many Soviet republics that contributed to the war effort. By the time the war ended, it had claimed the lives of 70,000 Kyrgyz soldiers and 50,000 civilians – roughly 8 percent of the entire local population.

In the years following the war’s end, the Soviet propaganda machine painted a picture of common patriotism and heroism across its territory, creating grounds for identifying with the wider Soviet state and its leadership. Such common ground in Kyrgyzstan was not easy to establish, however. In the first few years of the war, Kyrgyz men had to be coerced into the Soviet army by draft; earlier, in 1916, there had been an anti-Russian revolt among Kyrgyz in response to World War I conscription. While Soviet propaganda would later tell an overarching war story of heroic voluntary recruitment, in reality most Kyrgyz men could only be drafted via brute force and intimidation. The early war years also saw unsustainable levels of grain and livestock requisition. Thousands of Kyrgyz people starved to death as a result of the subsequent famine. The number of deaths was considerable, because local people used to operating in a nomadic or semi-nomadic economy were often forcefully deprived of their livestock.

Owing to its comparatively isolated geographical position — a safe distance from the German front — Kyrgyzstan was also chosen by the Soviet authorities as the ideal location to support the USSR’s industrial base during the war years. It was a time of enormous economic and social change for the country, which underwent a mini industrial revolution of sorts to accommodate the demands of the Soviet war effort. Dozens of key factories and military-related industrial plants were moved to the Kyrgyz cities of Bishkek (named Frunze from 1926 to 1991) and Tokmak after being evacuated from regions threatened by the advancing Germans. The Kyrgyz cities not only became indispensable to the Soviet war effort due to their industrial output; they remain the backbone of Kyrgyz industry to this day, with Bishkek in particular developing an extensive machine-building and metalwork industry.

Continued hostilities on the frontline also resulted in thousands of refugees seeking safer pastures, fleeing the Soviet Union’s embattled western regions. This included an estimated 45,000 Jews of varying nationalities fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe and the Nazi-occupied European regions of the Soviet Union. A synagogue was opened in Bishkek in 1941 to accommodate the refugees and they were put to work like the rest of the Kyrgyz population, working in agriculture to supply food to the Red Army. In future decades, the majority of these European Jewish refugees would immigrate to the newly created state of Israel. Kyrgyzstan was also host to the Jewish Theater Company of Warsaw, which included the renowned actress Ida Kaminska. The theater was evacuated to Bishkek until it returned to Europe after the war ended. While Bishkek remained their temporary home, the theater company conducted shows in Polish, Ukrainian, and Yiddish. 

Much like their comrades from around the Soviet Union, including the other Central Asian republics, Kyrgyz soldiers were sent to fight along the Soviet Western Front. The front, known in German as die ostfront (the Eastern Front) witnessed some of the most intense fighting of World War II. The fighting would ultimately result in victory for the Red Army, but at a devastating human cost. Kyrgyz soldiers fought in various battles throughout the war, including in the region that is now Ukraine. One such solider was Dair Asanov who was the last surviving Kyrgyz Hero of the Soviet Union (Asanov passed away in Bishkek in 2009). Awarded the title in October 1943, Asanov, a member of the 6th Army, was said to have single-handedly destroyed several German tanks, armored vehicles, and machine gunners on the outskirts of the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. 

Other Kyrgyz war heroes include the 20-year-old Red Army pilot Ismaelbek Taranchiev. Tarancheiv joined the Red Army in 1941 and the Communist party in 1944 before entering combat in January that year. Already a recipient of the Order of the Red Star for his part in the defense of Leningrad, in March 1944 Taranchiev’s plane was hit by German anti-aircraft fire in Estonia before he deliberately crashed his plane, along with his gunner, Alexey Tkachev, into a concentration of German tanks. Taranchiev was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union in May 1991 – the last Kyrgyz soldier to be so awarded. Despite his family’s efforts at lobbying the Russian government for equal recognition, Tkachev did not receive the Hero of the Soviet Union title – the highest distinction in the Soviet Union.

In total, around 365,000 Kyrgyz were mobilized during the Great Patriotic War. An estimated 70,000 were killed in battle while a further 50,000 more are believed to have died as a result of food shortages and disease caused by wartime shortages. While other Central Asian states like Uzbekistan have resisted Russian-style Victory Day celebrations — renaming the May 9 holiday the “Day of Memory and Honor” — the attitude of the Kyrgyz authorities is more tolerant to a shared history with Russia. Although Kyrgyzstan no longer holds a full-scale military parade, there are yearly remembrance marches in the country’s main cities to remember those who served or died in the war. According to Kyrgyz state media, only 251 veterans of the Great Patriotic War are still alive. These veterans will receive a one-off payment of 75,000 Kyrgyz som ($125) this year from the central government to mark the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory.

Recent efforts to commemorate Kyrgyzstan’s war heroes also include the ongoing construction of a memorial park in Bishkek named after another Kyrgyz Hero of the Soviet Union — Cholponbai Tuleberdiev. Killed in action on the Voronezh Front, Tuleberdiev was buried with full military honors in the Lysaya Gora region of Volgograd. The park named in his honor some 2,500 kilometers from his final resting place will represent a fitting local tribute to a man who, like so many others, lost his life so far from home.

David Prentice is a freelance writer currently based in Dubai. He holds a master’s degree from Taiwan’s prestigious National Chengchi University and has lived and worked in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, and the UAE.