For centuries the Kyrgyz nation was comprised of several separately living tribes leading a nomadic lifestyle in the Tien Shan mountain range. Rulership of the region often changed, but due to the lack of border control these nomadic tribes could easily move to a neighbouring country. This all changed when the Russians took over the area in 1876. The next 120 years of institualization and central control gave birth to Kyrgyz national identity, changing the primarily tribal society to a modern state.
The era of Kyrgyz independence (1991-) is one of change. An era of people, who want to live by Western standards, speaking Russian, using post-Soviet infrastructure and institutions, trying to honor their nomadic traditions and values.
This phenomenon might catch you off-guard in the beginning. The radios play the most trendy music from the US, people are driving the same cars, buying the same brands, watching the same movies and TV series as Westerners. Walking on the streets with smartphones, then they get on the 30 year old marshrutka using the roads of the Soviet era to get to the bazar. Of course this is just one example taken out of the context of daily life here, but it truly represents the blend of cultural impacts. Just imagine the following scene; nomads -who left their city homes to look after the herd of sheep during the warmer Summer months- in front of their yurt. After serving the traditional tea and bread to the guests, they offer to exchange contacts for Whatsapp or Facebook on their smartphones. Not something you would expect to encounter in rural Kyrgyzstan.
Thanks to the spreading of internet, and lately the social media, ambition of people to see world and learn languages is growing, but with more access to information the values change as well. Kyrgyzstan is in the beginning of the process, so the usual polarity between city and countryside, elderly and youth, self and community is even stronger.
The first opposition is between cities and the villages. Bishkek and Osh city represent a totally different league in terms of westernization than the rest of the country. The difference mainly lies in the two big cities having access to information, while the countryside in generally is in lack of this opportunity. Therefore Bishkek and Osh are more developed in terms of technology, computer literacy, infrastructure and on the other hand, people have a more individuum-focused attitude. In brackets it’s important to mention, that Osh is more traditional, than the capital. The root of this lies in the smaller amount of russification in the 20th century in the Southern parts of the country, where nomadic and Muslim traditions are much stronger.
The question of change in values within the society is somehow a vicious circle. Western values like tolerance, self-realization, women’s emancipation, career, etc… does not seem compatible with the nomadic-Muslim values of family, community, tradition, humility and stability. So when youngsters with connection to the rest of the world confront their parents and grandparents of traditional values, the conflict is born between older generations and the process of westernization.
From the traditional point of view the lower number of arranged -and generally speaking- marriages, more and more adults leading a single life, the change in cuisine, the smaller amount of respect paid to older people, young adults leaving the country are of course a hit to values. But ask an 18 year old if he wants to have a freedom of choice about his life or not.
It is very hard to arrive at a conclusion on this topic, as the country is at a point of immense change itself. From what I’ve experienced, Kyrgyz people want to have Western living conditions, to have it all. But on one hand they have to learn how to align the benefits of that lifestyle with the values that come with it through connection. This process of aligning progressive values with traditionals might be a struggle, but it would be very interesting to see the result. If you visit Kyrgyzstan this year, make sure to come back in ten years to witness it!