Who Remembers the Soviet Past in Central Asia, and Why?

15/01/2018

(Re)interpretation of life under late socialism by residents of the post-Soviet states and the growth (mainly since the early 2000s) of people’s interest toward that period is an intriguing theme of research. Even in the Baltic countries where memories of the Soviet time are stigmatized and banned from the public domain, recent research testifies to the fact that many people, including members of titular groups, speak positively about the late socialism in their respective countries. My own research conducted between 2007 and 2014 in the four cities of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan confirms this.

One of the main research questions is Why — what are the reasons behind outbreak of fondness for the (Soviet) past. Widespread explanation saying that people seek refuge in the past when they are not fully satisfied with their present, seems to be too generalized and falling within a category of “commonplace mode of thinking”. We thus need to add question-words “What” (what elements of the past are most cherished) and “Who” (who are those — let them be individuals, communities, ethnic/cultural/professional groups, etc.) who remember these very “elements”.

The case-study on the city of Ferghana (Uzbekistan) raises important issue of discrepancy/contradiction/conflict between institutionalized, state-sanctioned “places to remember” (this complex of ideas has been elaborated by French historian Pierre Nora under the rubric of “sites of memory”, “les lieux de mémoire”), and the so called “grass-root sites of memory” — memory which may awaken on the individual/group level in opposition or as parallel to the symbols, markers, sites, etc. proposed/imposed by the state.

It is worth noting here that massive re-symbolization of the city space in the post-Soviet countries (toponymic changes, destruction/removal of monuments, reshaping of museum expositions, etc.) has become one of tangible manifestations of a “radical turn” in historical/political attachments of the new “nationalizing” elites. Struggle for a street-name or monument is in fact a struggle for a symbolic “rule over a city” or some part of it. In the post-Soviet period one might expect a divergence of opinion between Russians (in a broad sense) and the titular populations in regard to changes in this sensitive domain.

However, empirical research does not support these trends and testifies to a widespread indifference of both groups of city-residents towards new “state-sanctioned” symbols — probably, because “idols” of a previous epoch whom all of us were supposed to prey, together with the “new” ones, are associated with ideological pressures of communist regime and are rejected on this ground as objects of respect and/or emotions.

If so, might this function be passed to any other elements of a city landscape bearing some other meanings in the minds of ordinary people?

In the city of Ferghana many symbolic markers of the city space which could serve as appealing “sites of memory, did not evoke any expected feelings. Alternatively, not a few respondents, old city-residents of different ethnic origin, told a lot, with nostalgic smiles, about… a gastronom (food shop) of the Soviet times. This building which no longer exists, due to its central location and its function — to supply the city population with many kinds of “deficit” goods, for many years was, together with adjacent small park, a main city meeting-point of people with shared biographies, views, hobbies, etc. Judging by these recollections, gastronom might really be a site where, in the words of Pierre Nora, “cultural memory crystallizes and secretes itself”. This memory is about the past which is now an “imagined meeting point” of very different people belonging to a vast community of Ferghana intelligentsia, having been consolidated not so much by formal professional backgrounds, but mainly by cultural orientations values, and urban lifestyle.

Using this example of a "localized memory", it can be suggested that in the post-Soviet context cultural memory “crystallizes itself” as possibly peculiar de-ideologized objects. They perform — on a level of small urban communities, a function of rejected, forgotten or re-evaluated “sites of memory” symbolic value of which was largely acquired in the previous epoch through patronage of a state.

The case-study of Bishkek (capital of Kirghizistan) focuses on a city which has tried, since the late 1980s, to withstand pressures of waves of internal migration, mainly from the depressive rural regions. Due to the ongoing “battle for the city” not only the most widely used public spaces (squares, parks, marketplaces, etc.), but the city as a whole turned, for migrants and old residents, into a huge “contested space”. Migrants whose appearance in the city was largely associated by the old residents with recent socio-political turmoil (“revolutions”, self-seizures of land, appearance of new ugly settlements around the city, and general de-modernisation of urban space), have been taken as unwanted others, whose hopes to belong to the city were seen as ungrounded.

Under these conditions, an appeal to the “Soviet past” turns out to be an important resource of self-affirmation for the “old residents”. An “affectionate nostalgia” for Soviet times emerged through the respondents’ (Kyrgyz and Russian) descriptions of the city. Firstly this is seen in an appeal for the image of “our (my) wonderful Frunze (former name of Bishkek)”, which operated on an ideological, consumer and aesthetics level. Secondly, “Soviet” becomes a synonym for the norms and rules of the globalized industrial urban order. Thirdly, “old residents” demonstrated a sense of fatigue in relation to the uncontrolled nature of contemporary market processes, where a weak state, here the local administration, is unable to impose “law and order.”

The appeal to a “wonderful Frunze” as an ideal image may be one of the examples of the so called de-localized memory — turn to the past “as a whole” provoked by dissatisfaction with the present life “as a whole” in a particular socio-political context.

References

  • S. Hoelscher, D. Alderman, Memory and Place, “Social and Cultural Geography, 2004, vol. 5, n. 3
  • Pierre Nora,: “There are as many memories as there are groups…” (Between Memory and History, “Representations”, 1989,  vol. 26, n. 7.)
  • Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past. Ed. by P. Nora et al. Vol. I, 1996.
  • M. Flynn, N. Kosmarskaya, G. Sabirova, The Place of Memory in Understanding Urban Change in Central Asia: the Cities of Bishkek and Ferghana, "Europe-Asia Studies", 2014, vol. 66, n. 9;
  • N. Kosmarskaya, A. Kosmarski, G. Sabirova, Ala-Too as the Main City/Country Square: Changing Forms, Uses and Meanings // Central Asian Affairs, 2017, vol. 4, n. 2.