Faded Reds, Ardent Blues, A Portrait of Kyrgyzstan 30 Years after its Independance

Marylise Vigneau

2019 - 2021


On August 31 2021, the republic of Kyrgyzstan celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its independence that followed the implosion of the USSR.

The collapse was violent; a whole generation was impoverished, industries were decimated, and the ideology in force for so many decades suddenly be disowned. Many lives would be put into abeyance.

The last three decades were tumultuous. After three revolutions and eight presidents, Kyrgyzstan has seen fundamental political, economic, and social changes but has not attained the stability and welfare that successive and corrupt governments had promised.

Under a dense sky, in a landscape of mountains, birds and wind, but also of industrial ruins and polluted wastes, a conflicted nation tries to shape its future.

It is a story of existential struggle and memory, of disillusion and hope.

This series consists of intersecting stories that constitute a fragmented and subjective portrait of a little known country landlocked in Central Asia.

A former KGB officer revisits his memories, a prima ballerina offers a fake rose to a controversial hero, a mother mourns her kidnapped and murdered daughter while another mother remembers her son who fell in Afghanistan. Young girls speak of desire and feminism while the voices of older women break, recalling memories rooted in an ideology that no longer exists.

The construction of diptychs suggests secrets, reveals contradictions or unexpected similarities and aims to convey the place's enduring poetical phantasmagoria.

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  • Right: Kadji Say, April 24, 2021.
    Lenin still greets passers-by in Kadji Say. This mining town was once a prosperous place where people were happy to come to work. After the fall of the USSR and the closure of the mines, a massive exodus took place. The town is now vegetating.

    Left: Jurgulan valley, April 20, 2021
    The Jurgulan valley in the east of the country is known for its beauty and horse trekking. The valley enjoys a microclimate thanks to the altitude coupled with the surrounding Ala-Too Terskey mountain range — it is never too hot in summer or cold in winter.
    However, in this spring of pandemic, tourists are absent, and some miners work in the coal mines abandoned since the end of the Soviet Union. These mines are more or less illegal, and the labourers work under precarious conditions.

  • Left: Aalam Ordo, April.24, 2021
    Along the southern border of Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, there is an abandoned complex full of decaying murals. This one is supposed to depict the young boy in the novel "The White Ship" by Chinghiz Aitmatov. It is the story of a young boy who grows up with his grandfather on the shores of the lake. He spends time exploring, listening to legends from his grandfather, and looking out over the lake as white ships sail along. A world of tales and beautiful legends, as perceived by the impressionable child prone to a fantastic perception of reality, conflicts with adults' harsh existence engrossed in their own problems.
    Right: Bulan Segettu, April.18, 2021
    On this April day on the other side of Lake Issyk Kul, the beaches are still deserted. The clear water is glacial, and Nurlan, who lives in the neighbouring village, is about to swim for the first time of the season.

  • Left and right: Min Kush, April.15, 2021
    Min Kush, which means "A thousand birds" in Kirghiz, was formally established in 1955 as an industrial town built around a uranium mine.
    During Soviet times, uranium was mined here for Russia's nuclear program. It was regarded as so crucial that the Kirghiz town was ruled directly by Moscow and attracted highly skilled labour from all over the Soviet Union; wages were double the national average, and employees were given special privileges and holidays. So secretive was Min Kush during Soviet times that it did not appear on any maps, and a permit was needed to enter.
    Today the place is deteriorating; many buildings are empty and boarded up, and radiation levels can reach ten times higher than the norm. The Min Kush area is mountainous and earthquake-prone, and torrential rain could trigger potentially devastating landslides, which could change the course of the River Tuyuk-Suu, and/or wash away the waste dump, one of the biggest identified. In post-soviet Kyrgyzstan, legacy uranium tailings are a severe issue for the people and the environment.

  • Left and right: Bishkek, April.8, 2021
    A demonstration takes place in front of the Interior Ministry.
    The day before, the dead body of 27-year-old Aizada Kanatbekova was found in a car. She had been strangled after having been kidnapped at the beginning of the week.
    The kidnapping was caught on a CCTV camera. On April 5, a woman crossing a Bishkek street on a rainy spring day is approached by a man, his red Honda parked askew on the roadside. She tries to walk past him, but he takes her arm. As she begins to struggle, two other men come into the frame, and they help the man drag the woman toward the car. She is then pushed into the car as another pedestrian crosses the street, and the road traffic continues.
    During this demonstration, Protesters demanded accountability; they called for the police to finally act to counter a practice that has been illegal since 2013 but continues to occur: "Ala kachuu", "bride kidnapping." Some claim it to be "tradition", while it is one of the many aspects of systemic violence against women.
    On the image on the left, on the sign in Kirghiz, one can guess the sentence "I want to live".

  • Balykchy, April.25, 2021
    Left : Left : Nazgul Shakenova embraces the coat of her murdered daughter. It has been 20 days since Aizada Kanatbekova was found strangled in a car, with the body of her murderer beside her. She was 27 and worked as a translator in a Turkish textile company.
    Weary with sorrow, Nazgul recounts how wonderful her daughter was. "Aizada was kind, attractive, intelligent, determined. Aizada loved animals, had excellent grades and was helpful. Aizada was in the national team of volleyball and basketball. She also knew several languages.
    She was about to leave for Turkey to work and to escape from her stalker. She had her ticket and her visa."
    She says that her daughter and her murdered had met on Instagram, that she had had a disquieting feeling as she saw his picture. "He looked like a real maniac". Aizada, for a time, concealed the behaviour of this man from her mother. The way he pursued her, the violence of his words, his threats, his incessant calls. And this is what tortures Nazgul: if her daughter had only told her everything, she could have acted and protected her.
    On 5 April, the day she was killed, a distraught Aizada called her mother, and her last words were: 'I am going home now". Nazgul still hears her daughter's screams. Nazgul is confident that the police had the necessary information to rescue her daughter (the abduction was recorded on security cameras, and the vehicle's make, model, and licence plate were visible on the recordings) but chose to ignore it. She knows that the disappearance of the child of a wealthy family would have been immediately investigated. Instead, police officers appeared to see Aizada's kidnapping more as a rite of passage than as a crime. "They said: 'You will live it up at the wedding! The matchmakers will come to you soon, you will see!".
    The mother of Aizada found out about her killing on Instagram. The police did not bother to contact her before six days.
    She received many condolence visits in the days following the funerals; "Even strangers came to cry".

  • Left: Osh, May.5, 2021
    Muhayo Abduraupova is a human rights lawyer. In 2011, she founded the ONG "Positive Dialogue". The organization supports marginalized and vulnerable communities such as LGBT+, HIV positive persons and, women. Muhayo seeks to eliminate discrimination towards women and girls by making juridical consultations more accessible for victims of domestic and gender violence from remote areas, specifically.
    She was beaten once on the street; she received many treads, including menaces of beheading.
    She also got attacked by nationalistic, patriarchal groups such as "Kyrk Choro", members of which think that she promotes Western values conflicting with the Kyrgyz culture, which is based on traditional values and conservatism.
    Right : Osh, May.5, 2021
    Amina, is a transgender woman and a sex worker. She encounters much violence. Sometimes clients come mainly to beat her.
    She is from a village near Jalalabad, and her parents are farmers.
    She would like to go through sex reassignment surgery and open a small business like a beauty salon.
    Before she was born, her grandmother dreamed that she had a granddaughter named Amina.
    Thus, much later, she chose this name as her female name. For Amina, it was like finding her true identity through her grandmother's dream.

  • Left: Naryn, April.15, 2021.
    Kanisa Chungulova, 84, holds the portrait of her late son, Murat Saratov, who was sent as a young soldier to Afghanistan in 1979 and was killed there.
    She lives in a small house just in front of the cemetery where her son is buried. She greets her visitors with a smile, both cheerful and melancholic and recounts her long life.
    While Kanisa’s mother was eight months pregnant with her, her father was deported to Siberia as a counter-revolutionary and never returned. It was Stalin’s period, and these things occurred. She nevertheless had a relatively happy youth. She married her high school love, but he died of a brain tumour before reaching 40. She had 7 children and worked as an accountant in a meat kombinat that no longer exists. One of her other sons was hit by a car and left disabled. Her voice breaks when she talks about her sons. However, she says that she is grateful to God for this life and blesses us at the moment of departure.
    Right: Kochkor, April.16, 2021
    Once upon a time, there was a fierce red star in the public park.

  • Left: Bishkek, April.7, 2021
    Bishkek, April.7, 2021
    Adele Omorova, 21, was born in Jalalabad to a single mother who went to Russia to work when she was only three years old.
    Since 2017, she has been a member of the Reproductive Health Alliance, the only organization in Kyrgyzstan that addresses issues like early pregnancies, contraception and gender equality. Since 2019 she also works for the NGO "dance for Life". She visits schools and educates young people about sexuality and reproductive health. She currently studies diplomacy at the National Kyrghyz University and is determined to contribute to the betterment of her country. She poses in the Sports Palace of Bishkek, where the office of "Dance for Life" is located. Behind her, Alimbek Datka, a historical figure of a pre-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, is almost smiling.
    Right: Bishkek, December.15, 2019.
    Named "Evermust", this work by Kazakh artist Zoya Falkova was part of the first "Feminnale" in Bishkek at the Kyrghyz National Museum of Fine Arts. "Evermust" is a sculpture composed of a black-and-red punching bag shaped like a female body. It is a statement on gendered violence in a region where such incidents are frequent. Evermust was one of six pieces removed from the museum on the orders of the Minister of Culture after conservative groups expressed outrage over the exhibition's inclusion of nudity and messages sympathetic to the LGBTQ community. The uproar forced museum director Mira Djangaracheva to resign amid threats of violence.

  • Bishkek, April.9, 2021
    It was an election campaign day, and 10 minutes and less than 100 meters separate the two images.
    On the right side, Valentin Melchinuk, 69, is seen at a meeting of the communist party of Kyrgyzstan. He used to be an engineer during soviet times. He is nostalgic for the green Frunze of his youth and the lost industrial prosperity. "30 years of capitalism have been a social disaster. I will vote on Sunday for the Communist Party", he says.
    On the left side, strangely, Lenin does not turn his head.
    Although Kyrgyzstan has been independent for almost three decades, one needs only walk for a short while in the streets of Bishkek to glimpse traces of its Soviet past. Here, this period has not been cancelled like elsewhere in Central Asia. Most of the time, it has just been left to rot. Lenin has been relocated to the back of the Historical Museum, but he still points the way while a young woman is posing for her friend.

  • Left: Tamga, April.21, 2021
    Two young wrestlers, Azat and Samara, are training on the monumental stairs of a former Soviet Military Sanatorium. They belong to the Sambo Wrestling Federation of Kyrgyzstan. Sambo is a martial art and combat sport created in the USSR in the 1930s, combining judo, boxing and wrestling.
    That day, Samara was the only woman in the team.
    This sanatorium is known as the place where Yuri Gagarin convalesced after his first space flight. Japanese prisoners of war built some of its steps.
    Right: Bishkek, May.10, 2021
    Portrait of Svetlana Lysenko. She is a former gymnast. She has a soft spot for Opera, extravagant clothing and the Soviet period.

  • Left: Bishkek, April.11, 2021
    In a most modern shopping mall, a small exhibition about Kyrghyz Soviet cinema is taking place. It shows a portrait of the actress Aiturgan Temirova from the "Red Poppies of Issyk Kul" by Bolotbek Shamshiev (1972). This film was used to galvanise soldiers on the eve of fighting in Afghanistan. It uses a plot that follows the classic formula of the red western: a larger-than-life Bolshevik superman fights a violent native band of opium traffickers operating under the leadership of a ruthless criminal patriarch. The film is memorable for its superb camera work, which eulogises the beauty of the Kyrgyz wilderness in sumptuous widescreen images.
    Right: Bishkek, May.9, 2021
    "I will pose with white flowers. Red flowers one should deserve", says Vasilii Kaveshnikov at his place on Veteran Day. Born in 1924, reminiscent of his distant memories, he revisits the mining town of Sulukta, the garden where the school graduation took place and this girl. He recalls how shy he was to hold her hand but walk her home at dawn. The very morning after, the war was declared. His father was drafted into the army, and Vasilii remained with his illiterate mother and a little brother. That day, adulthood began for him. Long after the war and after a time working in the mines, he came to Bishkek and spent 40 years working for the KGB. "The revolution can't be done with white gloves. Yes, there were harsh measures, repression, but it was necessary, we had a huge country, and we needed to keep it under control. The Soviet era brought education. There was justice and equality: "Those who don't work don't eat". Working-class was the intelligence," he said. And he concluded: "I love life, with all the hardships in it."

  • Left :
    Bishkek, Feb.14, 2020
    Bermet Borubaeva is a researcher, an activist, and an artist. She engages with the politico-economic issues of food production and conservation, labour, migration, urban environment, and gender emancipation in her multi-faceted practice. Borubaeva holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University and a Master of Arts in Political Analysis and Public Policy from Moscow School of Economics. She regularly organizes protests against gender violence and air pollution in front of the Parliament.
    Her portrait was staged on the premise of the Sadikov Academy of Arts of the Kyrgyz Republic.
    Right: December.14, 2019.
    A "Babuchka" (grandmother) stands in Oak Park, one of Bishkek’s oldest public gardens. The title of the statue by Shestopal V is "The Waiting ".
    Dotted around the park are various sculptures. They date back to 1984, when the All-Union Sculptors Symposium was held in Frunze and sculptors came from around the Soviet Union to display their works.

  • Left: Bishkek, February.12, 2020
    Encounter on what remains of the former Frunze (Bishkek nowadays) airfield.
    Timurbek, 21, studies agriculture in the nearby university and walks here every day. He learns German and hopes to be able to emigrate. All around, a new district is under construction.
    Right: Bishkek, April. , 2021
    Lisa, 81 years old, is walking her dog in the park in her neighbourhood this spring day. She used to be a cook in a factory that has been demolished. Her memory is filled with places and people that no longer exist.

  • Right : Somewhere between Bishkek and Balykchy, December.12, 2019
    Left : Kadji Say, February.6, 2020
    A Russian cemetery not far from Kadji Say. This little town was known for its uranium and coal mines during soviet times. Today, former uranium processing plant and mines are in abandonment. Most of the ethnic Russians have left.

  • Right: Bulan Segettu, April.18, 2021
    Venera Shakenovna, 48 years old, has worked as a cook at the Aurora Sanatorium for the past 12 years. She is not apprised of the circumstances of the arrival of this dinosaur in the park of the sanatorium. The ship-shaped sanatorium Aurora, located on the shore of the Issyk-Kul Lake, was built in 1979 for the Communist Party elite.
    Although many sanatoriums came to decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union because of the lack of governmental funding, some still run to this day, keeping their popularity among the locals.

    Left: Bulan Segettu, April.18, 2021
    Taking advantage of a free moment between two patients, two nurses, Guilia and Dillia, apply to themselves an unusual treatment with ultraviolet lamps. These sterilization lamps are placed in the ear, nose, and throat and are supposed to kill germs.
    It remains popular among the guests of the Aurora even during this Covid-19 pandemic time.
    Since the inception of the pandemic, the sanatorium has never closed.

  • Left : Kadji Say, April.24, 2021
    The bonds between man and eagle on the slopes of the steppe have been passed down from generation to generation over the centuries, and the Kirgiz are some of the best in Central Asia at training these giant birds to hunt.
    A handful of expert hunters left to this day are determined to keep this ancient practice alive. But nowadays, eagles are primarily trained for sporting competitions like the World Nomad Games and for demonstrations provided for tourists.
    Right : Bishkek, April.6, 2021

  • Left : Bishkek, December.12, 2019
    Backstage at the national circus. The bear and his tamer had come from Tajikistan.
    Right : Bishkek, April.4, 2021
    Alina Mambetalieva, first soloist at the Kyrgyz National Opera dances around a veiled warlord, Bishkek Baatyr.
    Later, on April 14, the President of Kyrgyzstan Sadyr Japarov inaugurated his monument. Bishkek Baatyr, is mentioned in the school syllabus, but historians are sceptical about his existence.
    Since the 90's, statues of Baatyr (warlord in Kyrgyz) have been erected all over the country. Each place is supposed to have its own Baatyr. For the regions, it is a way to express their importance and underline their history. Many of the new monuments in Kyrgyzstan were erected to the hero of the eponymous epic, Manas. It combines historical facts and myths. Manas is a legendary baatyr who united the Kirgiz tribes and returned their homeland.

  • April.15, 2021
    A cemetery somewhere between Kochkor and Min Kush. Snow melts and faces fade away.
    Up in the mountains or lying in desert plateaus, Kyrgyzstan’s ancestral cemeteries reflect the country’s complex religious and cultural identities. Earth coloured structures blend Islamic architecture with nomadic and Soviet influences.

  • Right: Barskoon, Dec.21, 2019.
    Malik is a taxi driver in Karakol. During the Soviet period, he was a train driver on the Bishkek/Almaty line. His personal history embodies the complicated past of this region. His mother was German but born in Crimea. The Second World War came, and being German automatically made her family suspect. They had to flee and ended up in Kazakhstan. One day, Malik's mother was arrested on her way to fetch milk from the neighbouring village and spent five years in a Gulag.
    Malik’s father was from Kazan. One morning he was arrested for no reason. He spent 10 years in a gulag and never knew why. Then he was deported to Kyrgyzstan because former prisoners were not allowed to rebuild their lives in mainland Russia. During the 1930s, categorization of so-called enemies of the people shifted from the usual Marxist-Leninist, class- based terms to ethnic-based ones. The result was a forced population transfer in the USSR from the 1930s to the 1950s, ordered by Stalin.
    Malik grew up in a Kolkhoz. Life was harsh, but he is nostalgic about it. "During the USSR, we were a continent, things were working. Now the landscape is dotted with ruined industries. Look around you".
    Malik was born Alek. He changed his first name to celebrate the memory of his father's best friend. He speaks broken German, and the way he says, "Meine Mutter" (my mother) is poignant.
    Malik poses in front of a giant head of cosmonaut Gagarin carved directly into a massive rock that can be found driving up the gorge from Barskoon into the mountains.
    Left: Osh, May.6, 2021
    In the middle of the main square of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, looms a sizable statue of Lenin. It is said to be the largest statue of the Soviet ruler still standing in Central Asia. Just behind it, there is a weird place called ”Love Park” where families come for a stroll, newlyweds get photographed, and lovers meet.

  • Left : Aalam Ordo, February.6, 2020
    Aalam Ordo was constructed in 2009 along Lake Issyk Kul by a local millionaire, Tashkul Keriksizov, with the support of the former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. It was supposed to become a centre for culture, science, and spirituality. The vision behind the project was grand. It would have been a place where the Kirghiz youth could meet elders to exchange ideas and learn from each other. However, in 2010, president Bakiyev was overthrown in the Second Kirghiz revolution, and his successor abandoned the project. The remains of the complex sit empty now, a ruin slowly being taken. It symbolizes the cycle of corruption and how those fighting it have become just as corrupt once they became part of the system. Some say that the hand one sees in this picture is that of the deposed president.” Thus passes worldly glory”.
    Right: Bishkek, May.8, 2021
    The artist Satar Aitiev poses in front of one of the mosaics he designed for the Kirghiz National University in 1976. It is a side panel of a work that covers the whole facade of the University and is called “The path of enlightenment”.
    Spending an afternoon with him and his son was a delight. His conversation is as subtle as his art. Although he was an official artist and the son of the most acclaimed Kirghiz painter during the Soviet era (the Bishkek Museum of Fine Arts still bears his name), Satar Aitiev never believed in the Soviet ideology. For him, aesthetic pleasure is paramount, and he was never thrilled by the canons of Socialist Realism. He, therefore, had to find ways around the didacticism of the time to preserve his artistic freedom and the ambiguity that he likes. For instance, referring to the red flag of the main mosaic, he smiles and says: “You may interpret red in various ways. It is also a technical solution to a colour problem

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