Nation Building and Nation Branding on the Streets of Bishkek

International Relations is more than an academic exercise- it's people's lived experiences, and we can see it all around. Here, I go looking for my research topic in building sites, and get sunburnt in the process.
Nation Building and Nation Branding on the Streets of Bishkek
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This is the Bishkek of tomorrow. For now, it’s a dusty plain, on the very edge of the city, dotted with residential developments. Some are finished, but most are half complete- empty concrete shells. Walking along a dual carriageway, I’m exposed to the sweltering midday sun. The trees along the route, newly planted, are barely old enough to cast shade. The tower blocks may be high rises, but they’re dwarfed by the Tian Shian mountains which loom in the background to the south of the city. I'm walking along the Southern Magistral. It loops around the bottom of the city, connecting the dots of these developments to the main roads leading out of Bishkek. Everything to the south of it is the new Bishkek. I seek refuge in a cup of Квас under the umbrella of a drinks seller, the kind that can be found on every street corner in Bishkek. I’m her only customer- she’s serving a population not yet arrived.

I’ve come to find some of the places where the people of Bishkek see their future. This might also be in flashy new apartment blocks, but I'm not here for the buildings or the urban development of the city. "They put their dreams on the real estate", I was told. I've come to look at billboards and signposts. But what’s in a name?

The Past

Back in the centre of the city, I’m walking with an architect and historian through 50 years of Soviet monumental architecture. We start in what was once the main square of Bishkek (then called Frunze)- Oak Park, now a green oasis, a pleasant place for our evening stroll. It’s littered with statues- tributes to Kyrgyz and Soviet heroes, past and present. Some are folkloric, some are very much real- all are part of the fabric, the past, the identity of this nation. This isn’t really what I’m here for, but it’s a good reminder of the nature of identity. It’s not just something we talk or think about in academia. It’s something we build, both literally and metaphorically. The Soviet authorities, famously, were masters of this, leaving their mark on every city in their Empire. Whether in statues, mosaics, or propaganda billboards, Bishkek was no different. It’s a legacy which continues to permeate everyday life in the city, as explored in this brilliant recent article. Soviet “nation-building”, the top-down construction of identity, was a unique blend of “national” and “socialist” concepts. In Bishkek, this involved trying to mesh a “Kyrgyz” national identity with a wider civic “Sovietness”.

I found this on a street corner, where Manas Avenue met Moscow Avenue. Moscow, of course, was the symbolic heart of the Soviet imperium. Manas? An epic, about an eponymous hero, longer than the Iliad and the cornerstone of Kyrgyz national culture and identity. So much tradition and meaning are derived from the content and moral of the tale. The epic’s place in Kyrgyz identity was controversial during the USSR (both redemptive and national). Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, he’s become the foundation of nation-building efforts. His portrait can be found in every souvenir shop, his book in every bookshop. An airline, the international airport and the Turkish University in the city bear his name. The statue of Lenin, which was once the centrepiece of the central square of the city (Ala-Too Square) now stands at the back of the National History Museum (once the Lenin Museum), replaced with a statue of the folkloric hero. Our guide says this means something in itself- Lenin, despite having been demoted, still stands (the only statue of Lenin still in a Central Asian capital). Sovietness isn’t gone from identity, she tells us, even if the Union itself is.

Manas in front
Lenin at the back

The Present

There’s a tendency to think that putting ‘identity on the streets’ is a practice of authoritarian or nation-building regimes- an attempt to influence the ways people live and think through what they see, the top-down implementation of identity. We assume that the streets of modernity are politically neutral. Instead of political policies, we assume they embody tastes, trends, and maybe the requirements of a capitalist market economy. But the fashions of today, what we are drawn to and what appeals, reflect who we are. Our identity.

What inspired me with the direction of my formal research, and the reason I went to Bishkek at all, was a belief that we are all agents of identity. So much research, especially on Central Asia (partly, I think, due to a colonial system of knowledge), denies “agency” to the region. The actions of states are seen to be at the whims of Great Powers (locked in a New great Game), and the domestic policies of the state are so often put down to elites seeking personal enrichment and security. There may, of course, be an element of truth to these, but the trouble is that it dehumanises what we study. We forget that policies and practices are also the lived experiences of individual people, who both affect and are affected by these concepts. My formal research was focused on elites, such as policymakers and academics (as a way of linking it more directly to foreign policy), but it’s also something that everyday people experience and enact. States see opportunities in the rest of the world, and so do individual people.

After all, my research is underpinned by a belief that the way we see our place in the world is an important part of the way we see ourselves. This is based broadly on identity theory; that we perceive imagined and real characteristics (such as history, culture, ethnicity, and politics) about ourselves and others, and from this set the boundaries of our identity. If we feel that we are part of a group, such as a region, we reflect this in ourselves and the way we act towards them. For my research, this involves looking at how people think about their place in the world- what “region” they are in (determined by what characteristics they share, and with whom). This connection might be imagined, through believing we share characteristics and a common destiny, but it becomes real in the ways this shapes our behaviour, and these behaviours further shape the ways we imagine these connections. It shapes policy and shapes people.

During my fieldwork, it struck me how strongly people felt that different ways of imagining their place in the world were an important part of who they were. Generational and socio-economic divides were characterised by the differences in which states and groups of states people saw as similar, important, or attractive to them. No matter these divides, however, I was always told that the image of the “Kyrgyz(stani)” self was inherently and markedly tied to the way people think about the rest of the world. That a large part of how people defined “being Kyrgyz” was about where it was- a country that is, for example, “Central Asian”, “post-Soviet” or “Eurasian”. Many different explanations for this were given- a nomadic heritage, the fact that Kyrgyzstan was “created” as part of the USSR, a free spirit, a certain insecurity about the self, or a reliance on other states for economic and physical security. And, the politicians and academics told me, this had a real effect on how people and the state interacted with the rest of the world- notably, where they saw opportunities. 

So although my research was focused on how identity and regions affected where the state saw opportunities and challenges, I wanted to go a step further, to give a bit of background and depth to my research- to see where normal people saw these. I went looking for this, a small representation of it, on the building sites and billboards of the Southern Magistral. 

The Future and the World

And what I found said something to me, and to what many of my interview participants said. As I walked along the Magistral, I passed development “Barcelona”. I walked through Champs Elysees. Florence. Oxford and Cambridge International Schools. A red phone box, yellow taxis, platform 9 ¾. To name but a few.

Now, a few caveats. I don’t mean to suggest that this is something unique to Kyrgyzstan, or that there’s anything particularly special about these places in particular. It happens all over the world, and I’ve seen it in Birmingham as well as Bishkek. Haven’t you ever been to a China Town? What I noted here, as did many of my interview participants, was the contrast. It represented, they said, change. Shifting boundaries, of new ways of seeing the world. They said that what this shows is that, for many Kyrgyz people, their future is tied to the rest of the world. A state and a population that’s always been a “part of something bigger”, one interviewee told me, and that’s made Kyrgyz people feel that their future is strongly ‘regional’. And they told me that you’ve always been able to read it on the streets of Bishkek- as we’ve just seen Lenin and Manas.

It's a trend that continues, but now there’s a new kid on the tower blocks. A new region, perhaps- a globalised world. Lenin and Manas now stand side by side with New York and Royal Park. Younger people especially, having grown up in an increasingly globalised world, see another realm of opportunity. New media, broadened horizons, and new experiences, lead people to look to another part of the world for opportunities and a part of who they are.

New ways of thinking, and new buildings, but the same patterns. Many regions, many ways of seeing the world, all overlapping, all an important part of ‘being Kyrgyz’. And all constructed- on the streets of Bishkek, and the Southern Magistral.

The Southern Magistral