New East Digital Archive

Letter from Bishkek: Soviet utopia meets postmodern charm in Kyrgyzstan’s garden city capital

The modernist gem of Soviet Central Asia, Bishkek was once the site of radical utopian experiments. Where does it go now?

9 August 2018

In 1930, the Czechoslovak journalist Julius Fučik made the long trip eastwards to Frunze, the capital of Soviet Kyrgyzstan; when he left, he wrote a letter of thanks to his comrades there, stating: “we had set out for a country which the bourgeois story-tellers described as savage and exotic… what we have received from you we shall take to the proletariat of the whole of western Europe.”

Bishkek, as the Kyrgyz capital has been known since 1991, might have seemed an unlikely source of utopian inspiration. But this city has repeatedly played the role of an unassuming archetype. Fučik, an ardent Communist Party member who was murdered by the Nazis for his role in the wartime Resistance, made the trip from Central Europe to Central Asia in order to visit Interhelpo, a brief experiment in communal living founded on the outskirts of the Kygryz capital in 1925. Frunze was itself named in honour of Mikhail Frunze, a Moldovan Bolshevik who was instrumental in winning the Eastern Front for the Reds in the post-revolutionary Civil War. This distinctly modern city has always been marked by internationalist intervention, seen as a tabula rasa by a succession of outsiders (predominantly Russian, of course) who have had to contend with the intentions of a native Kyrgyz population whose impact on the shaping of their own capital is often problematically elided. Which is to say: the extent to which Bishkek now is a (post-)Soviet capital is very much up for debate, as is what precisely that “Soviet” heritage might mean for today’s residents.

Walking central Bishkek in late afternoon sunshine, my initial impression was just how pleasant a space it was — a banal conclusion, but when it comes to post-Soviet cityscapes, this is nothing to be sniffed at; you could almost say there’s something utopian about it. Central Bishkek is a walkable grid riddled with parks and potholes, greener than any other post-Soviet city I’ve seen; there are leaves sprouting from every crack in mortar and the yawning natural awnings of oak trees casting shade on the streets. There’s a human scale to the whole thing, too, certainly in comparison with my only other experience of Central Asian urbanism — the scorched earth po-mo oddity of Kazakhstan’s new-build capital Astana. Contemporary Bishkek is pretty unchanged since the 90s, the Soviet plan largely undisturbed; Kyrgyzstan’s economic liberalisation didn’t exactly free up money for a radical makeover.

Bishkek is practical and verdant; you’re only really taken out of the moment by the occasional glimpse of the Tian Shen mountain range to the south

The centre is largely made up of prefab brezhnevki from the 70s and 80s, unobtrusive concrete blocks of five or so storeys that reward closer inspection thanks to their “national” ornamentation: the usual practice in the Soviet periphery of adding “folkloric” reliefs and brise soleils to standardised buildings, a kind of rote local flavour. (Bishkek also has a particularly fine range of Soviet mosaics, including some borderline psychedelic offerings.) Dotted around are a handful of striking Brutalist landmarks — including the old Central Mosque, the first and only built in the Soviet Union — and the usual post-Soviet requisite of postmodern civic architecture, most notably the governmental ensemble of arcades, elevations and golden domes on Ala-Too Square, flanked by the concentric white cubes of the State History Museum. There are comparatively few of the kind of bizarro-Stalinist, classically-inclined high rises that you find in even middling Russian cities these days, and my companions told me that it was hard for locals to pin down who exactly could live in those that do exist. We do know, though, who lives in the hastily thrown-up, borderline shanty towns that line the city’s outskirts: the internal migrants who come to Bishkek from the countryside for work, outstripping any incentive towards new affordable housing even as they prop up the country’s nominally optimistic post-Soviet and post-2011 revolution economy.

So, regulation Soviet monumentalism aside, this is a practical and verdant urban space; you’re only really taken out of the moment by the occasional glimpse through the not-so-high-rises of the Tian Shen mountain range to the south (the main draw to Kyrgyzstan for foreign travellers). The city today has the usual mix of small businesses that have taken over the interstitial spaces in the post-Soviet urban fabric: “national cuisine” fast food joints, off-brand malls, rickety antiquarians and uneasily imported bar culture — if you want to, you can come to Kyrgyzstan to listen to house music played uncomfortably loudly in an exposed brick and bare bulb cocktail bar.

It was on the post-colonial peripheries of the Soviet space that some of its most thrilling experiments could be found

I was shown around town by Georgy Mamedov, lately of now-defunct artistic-activist groupuscule SHTAB, who has thought more than most about the radical past and future of Bishkek. In a 2015 SHTAB collection titled Utopian Bishkek, he described the city as a “ideosyncratic utopian patchwork woven together from many scraps of fabric, whose utopianness is practically invisible at first glance.” For Mamedov, those looking for precedents can see Bishkek as a modest but workable combination of past urban idealisms — Campanello’s City of the Sun transmuted via Soviet planning and the English eccentricity of Ebenezer Howard and his garden city movement. As Calvert Journal architecture guru Owen Hatherley points out in his latest book, it was on the deep, post-colonial peripheries of the Soviet space that some of its most autonomous and thrilling experiments could be found.

It was Georgy who took me to the western edge of town to see what’s left of the Interhelpo commune. A cluster of modest streets, weary in the heat, around the overgrown Josip Fučik Park, near the railway on which the first Czechoslovak volunteers arrived. In the seven years after it was founded, 1,081 people joined the collective. In the 1930s, it housed a factory, a tannery, a smithy, a carpentry, a cobbler and a tailor, as well as hosting theatre groups, sports teams and an orchestra. During lunch breaks, the commune’s newspaper Ilichevka would be read out over a loudspeakers for all to hear. In 1939, Interhelpo was broken up and its manufacturing parcelled out to various state ministries. You can still visit the old House of Culture and sit its the musty, homely theatre, built by and for workers, trying to imagine what it must have been like to get on a train in Bratislava and end up here, beneath Tian Shen, with the conviction that an entirely new way of life was not only possible but urgently necessary.

Interhelpo was a practical experiment in internationalism (the name itself means “Mutual Aid” in the Ido variant of Esperanto), which in its own idealistic way spoke to Bishkek’s history of foreign imposition and negotiation. This is not an old city: it only really took shape when the Russians founded a military fort here in the 19th century, and to this day it has always had a disproportionate “Russianness” in comparison with other Kyrgyz towns, most obviously in the predominance of the old imperial language. There are no tourist-friendly reminders of the “ancient”, “traditional”, “Oriental” culture of the steppe tribes on the standardised, international modernist grid of Bishkek. The Russians could, in their imperial eyes, start from scratch here; whether the modernisation programmes carried out by the Soviets were a continuation of or a break with the colonial project is a heavy question.

Georgy was keen to point out to us how the debate around Russian/Soviet colonialism in Central Asia tends to elide the lived experience of its actual residents. When it came to putting Soviet Frunze together, the relationship between Moscow and the local powers was not unilateral — for instance, pressure from Kyrgyz comrades swung the decision to base a number of heavy industries (including cosmonautics) in the city, bringing work and engineering prowess into the city. Some of these enterprises are still running in the otherwise pretty tattered fringes of today’s Bishkek, increasingly at odds with their surroundings, like the echo of a bell ringing in an quiet room.

If nostalgia for the Soviet period is as high in Bishkek as anywhere else, it’s easy to see why

You could see this back-and-forth dynamic played out in a very different manner in the national gallery, the Gapar Aitiev Fine Art Musuem (one of Georgy’s favourite spots, and with good reason; as a rule, the more “provincial” the Soviet-era gallery, the more eccentric and rewarding its collection). Here you can watch the synthesis of Kyrgyz concerns and Soviet style unfold, since the first few rooms of the permanent collection showcase the works of the very first Kyrgyz artists to receive “formal” training in Russia. Either side of the more militaristic showings from the 1940s, works from the 30s and 50s combine formalistic flourishes with a mix of steppe-and-mountain landscapes, freshly unveiled women, miners and intellectuals, and perhaps most pressingly, depictions of the 1916 uprising against Tsarist military conscription, whose brutal repression is the founding myth of Kyrgyz nationhood. It feels fitting that the two formative artists of revolutionary Kyrgyzstan were Semen Chuikov, an ethnic Russian who celebrated the anti-Russian uprising, and Gapar Aitiev himself, the first Kyrgyz painter to receive an education in Moscow.

By most reckonings, nostalgia for the Soviet period is as high in Bishkek as anywhere else in the former USSR. It’s easy to see why when you’re walking around an amiable, locally-planned and built, modernist garden-industrial city that is now the capital of a nation as economically depressed as contemporary Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps its because today’s cityscape still hews so closely to the patterns laid down in the post-war era that it’s easier for people to imagine a reiteration of the Soviet experience. When the modern iteration of this city was coming together in the 50s and 60s, a million people — 40 per cent of the population — were moved into new or improved housing. Nothing like that is likely to ever happen again. The socialist nostalgia here isn’t forceful, perhaps largely because it doesn’t need to be, given the government’s comparatively democratic leanings in relation to its Central Asian neighbours; no one’s doing much policing of the past here, at least not in public. Now as in the 1930s, Bishkek certainly isn’t, as Fučik was warned, savage and exotic. But its place in the world is ill-defined, and no one is likely to rock up on a train these days looking to found a radically new society.

The place I felt most at ease was a short walk down the road from Interhelpo, among the expansive Selmashevets factory complex — a (still partially operational) industrial hub that had, in true Soviet fashion, its own ecosystem of social and leisure units. The crumbling crown jewel was a multi-purpose stadium into which anyone can now wander. Its façade still bore faded Soviet slogans and a display outside its gates carried the results from the second ever Kyrgyz football league, in 1992. The stands were now just exposed concrete, but a group of children was still chasing a football around the grass pitch beneath graffitied chimney stacks. In the spring sun it was a pleasingly stereotypical model of Soviet stridency and post-Soviet neglect. Reclining on the concrete, Georgy told us that this land was coveted by developers — but that no one knew anymore who owned it, and so it couldn’t be requisitioned. Fučik and his Kyrgyz allies would have appreciated that inadvertent sentiment: if a place belongs to nobody, then it belongs to everyone.

Text and image: Samuel Goff