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10.00  Authentic Kyrgyzstan: Top-Down Politics Meet Bottom-Up Heritage

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The Soviet modernist policy of severing ties with the past has left the rapidly globalizing post-Soviet Kyrgyz Republic with some difficulties in the presentation of national heritage identity. Nevertheless, heritage identity is an important political tool and development commodity and government officials have identified nomadic culture as the only authentic Kyrgyz heritage. When I first came to Kyrgyzstan I was told by educated people living in the capital city that, since nomads do not leave anything behind, Kyrgyzstan has no significant material heritage. However, people living in rural areas enthusiastically claimed that their ancestors created the huge burial mounds (kurgans) and stelae (balbals) that are scattered across the landscape. In other areas, villagers are proudly aware that they live atop buried medieval cities. In fact, Kyrgyzstan is an archaeologist’s paradise, with a record of human activity extending from the Paleolithic across history to include the remains of Zoroastrian fire-altars, Hindu monasteries and magnificent Kara-Khanid monuments. Whether Kyrgyz heritage is credited to a single lifeway and language group is not merely an abstract issue as conflicts between Kyrgyz speakers and Uzbek speakers of the southern Fergana Valley (whose heritage is supposedly not nomadic) have become violent. 

Over the past twelve years I have collaborated with Kyrgyz citizens to promote a national conversation about heritage, based on grass roots engagement and sentiment. Countering the essentializing political rhetoric about nomadism, small community museums showcase diverse local heritages and celebrate culturally complex pasts. Kyrgyz speakers happily present the artifacts of ancient cities alongside the balbals of ancient nomads in their community museums and have collaborated with Uzbek speakers to create a national heritage society. No history spanning millennia is without conflict, but the heritage of the silk roads can be understood as a triumph of negotiation, cooperation, and collaboration that bridged the eastern and western worlds for centuries. In this paper I will describe several grass roots education programs and community museums that I have been involved with in Kyrgyzstan and consider their potential for countering ethnic violence.

Anne Pyburn


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