I was out in Kyrgyzstan with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, speaking at a conference. With impeccable timing I arrive there the day the coalition government collapses, so after the conference I head to the Parliament building for talks with the leader and the secretary of Ata Mekan, our sister party and a fellow member of the Socialist International. The Parliament was set on fire during the 2010 revolution, which saw the overthrow of the country’s President and 88 people killed in rioting. The politicians I met on this visit described what’s happening now as “a mini-revolution”, taking place within Parliament rather than on the streets; they’re very excited about the possibility of reform.
My flight into the capital, Bishkek, had arrived at 3.30am, which is always a surreal time to see a city for the first time. Imagine brutalist architecture with the occasional ‘ethnic’ yurt-shaped construction, lots of snow and lots of trees. And bizarrely, quite a few 24 hour night clubs, casinos and karaoke bars, covered in garishly flashing lights. Apparently the Government is banning all casinos from the 1st January, because gambling addiction has become such a problem. Most people think it will just go underground instead.
After a few hours sleep I grabbed the chance to head out into the city, to Victory Square first, and then to see the Circus building, described by Lonely Planet as looking “like a 1950s UFO that crash-landed and lacked the impetus to move again”. It’s brilliant. I love the idea that back whenever it was built they thought that’s what the future would look like. We had art deco streamlining, constructivism, the Bauhaus, Frank Lloyd Wright…. a futuristic vision of modern architecture. Little did they know that in the 21st century the neo-vernacular of fake Georgian pillars, cornices, leaded windows and mock Tudor beams would reign supreme. We need to go back to the future.
But back to Bishkek… I went on a bit of a hunt for the statute of Lenin which used to be the centrepiece in one of the main squares but has now been moved to a less conspicuous slot. The best situated statue of Lenin I’ve seen is in Yalta, on the Black Sea coast, right outside the McDonalds. (I’m pretty sure Lenin wouldn’t be impressed.)
There’s a dilemma I suppose for town planners or whoever decides such things. Do you keep historical reminders of what is now seen as an unwelcome period in your country’s history, or do you pretend it never happened? I’ve visited Russia five times over the years, starting in 1984 when I was studying Russian in Leningrad, and of course the country then was festooned with Soviet propaganda. Gradually over the years the billboards proclaiming the glory of the Great Soviet Socialist Republic have been replaced by glossy adverts for things no-one can afford to buy. Consumerism is the new ideology. It doesn’t seem like Russia anymore. I know it’s ridiculous to expect them to preserve relics of a political ideology they no longer espouse, just for the sake of those of us who want to visit a Soviet theme park, but it feels like history is being airbrushed. Having said that, there are actually still some pretty impressive social realist monuments depicting the workers striding purposefully towards the glorious socialist future, and one of the best places to visit in Moscow is the Graveyard of the Fallen Monuments, which is where the old statues have been dumped. Even Stalin can be found there, and the reviled Dzerzhinsky, who headed up the notorious Cheka, the precursor to the KGB. There’s something very poignant about it, seeing huge statues of once feared or revered men toppling over, half-buried under the snow.
There are no McDonalds in Kyrgyzstan, as far as I could see, or other Western chains. There are some Chinese restaurants, naturally – I ended up in one called Kung Fu, having first been on a trek to find the Japanese place recommended in the Lonely Planet guide which was, of course, shut for the day. The local food is not exactly vegan friendly. Delicacies listed in the Lonely Planet guide include beshbarmak (a special holiday dish of noodles and horse meat, the name means, literally, five fingers because you eat it with your hand), ashlyanfu (cold noodles, jelly, vinegar and eggs), kurut (small balls of tart dried yoghurt, a common snack) and chuchuk (horse meat sausages, ‘a popular vodka chaser’). Drinks include fermented millet, fermented barley, fermented mare’s milk… They also, judging from menus I read of things I couldn’t eat, are fond of doing things with pomegranates. One dish on the hotel room service menu was cabbage leaves stuffed with trout, served with mashed potato, fried tofu and pomegranate sauce, which sounds like the sort of thing that features on @CommonsFoodHell (a twitter account featuring weird food combinations in the House of Commons restaurants and cafeterias).
Before heading back to the hotel, as it began to turn dark and more snow started to fall, I went into an orthodox church where a service was just beginning. Bright blue and gold domes, icons and incense, and mostly very elderly, very devout women in mismatched flowered headscarves and dresses, with little chunky boots. I’m not religious at all, but there’s something quite moving about watching them pray. It’s the same in Russia, and remarkable how their faith survived through the Communist years. There was also an amazing choir in the church, just local people, the men still in their anoraks, but singing some really strange harmonies and making a quite compelling sound.
In the summer Kyrgyzstan is baking hot, and Bishbek’s trees turn the city green. It’s a popular destination for trekking through the mountains, or you could try to pick up the route of the Silk Road, as Marco Polo did in the 13th century. I didn’t get to the museums, but spent quite a bit of time on the trip reading up on the country’s history, from Genghis Khan and the marauding Mongol Oyrats of the Zhungarian empire, to the Soviet era and the ‘Tulip Revolution’ of 2005. (Genghis should apparently now be called Chinggis, as that’s how the Mongolians say it, but I tend to go by the rule that five years after Melvyn Bragg starts saying it is the optimal time for adopting such practices without sounding ridiculously pretentious. I’m still wrestling with Boudicca.) Genghis/ Chinggis, incidentally, was responsible for introducing the traditional sport of buzkashi to the region; it means ‘grabbing the goat’ and that’s what you do: charge round on horseback trying to grab the decapitated carcass of a dead goat and get to the far end of the field with it. Sort of like rugby, only a little less civilised.
So I’ve come back armed with the business cards of new political friends, who believe Kyrgyzstan can be the beacon of reform in a troubled region. It will be interesting to see how it pans out. Oh, and as for music, I didn’t hear any, except in the taxi which collected me from the airport: Kylie and Jason, Roxette and ‘Losing my Religion’. I don’t think we should judge them on the basis of that.