Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Folk Hero Replaces Freedom Monument

Authorities in continual search for new symbol of national identity.
By Dina Tokbaeva
  • The epic figure of Manas rides forward on Bishkek’s main square, providing what the authorities hope will be a symbol of national unity. (Photo: Dina Tokbaeva)
    The epic figure of Manas rides forward on Bishkek’s main square, providing what the authorities hope will be a symbol of national unity. (Photo: Dina Tokbaeva)
  • Manas was preceded by a statue of liberty. Like President Kurmanbek Bakiev, shown giving a speech here, the winged figure has been swept away. (Photo: Igor Kovalenko)
    Manas was preceded by a statue of liberty. Like President Kurmanbek Bakiev, shown giving a speech here, the winged figure has been swept away. (Photo: Igor Kovalenko)
  • A postcard from the Soviet period when Lenin occupied pride of place. At that time Bishkek was called Frunze, after a Bolshevik military commander.
    A postcard from the Soviet period when Lenin occupied pride of place. At that time Bishkek was called Frunze, after a Bolshevik military commander.

I went down to the central Ala-Too Square in Bishkek to see for myself the new statue of Kyrgyz national folk hero Manas.

Unveiled on August 31 this year to mark the 20th anniversary of Kyrgyzstan independence, the nine metres-long bronze figure on horseback is called “Manas the Magnanimous”.

Manas, the central figure in a long epic poem of the same name, is regarded as a symbol of unity for bringing the various Kyrgyz tribes together in times of danger.

As I looked at the statue, I spent less time thinking about the message the authorities were trying to send than about how this was the third monument to occupy Ala-Too square in recent years, each one marking a new attempt to turn a page in history.

The bronze horseman replaces a statue called “Erkindik” – Liberty – a winged female figure on top of a globe, holding aloft a “tunduk”, the circular frame that forms the top of a traditional Kyrgyz yurt.

Originally built in 1999 to celebrate independence from the Soviet Union, the winged figure moved into the square only five years ago to replace Vladimir Lenin, who had survived there until 2003.

Living in Bishkek, I have seen these statues come and go. Putting up new monuments to replace old ones seems to me a futile attempt to erase the past. It’s impossible to wipe people’s memories of what they lived through in Soviet times, in the early years of Kyrgyz independence, and periods of popular unrest in 2005 and 2010.

I was four when Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, so I have only a vague recollection of Lenin’s statue – I used to pass it on my way to school. People of my generation grew fond of the Liberty statue because it reflected exactly how we felt, compared with our elders – we could express ourselves freely and travel abroad.

Some questioned the aesthetics of the winged statue, while others argued that its message was too abstract. But I believe it did manage to articulated the aspiration for freedom which everyone in Kyrgyzstan genuinely felt.

The idea of demolishing the statue came from a group of historians and politicians who based their argument around a legend that a woman carrying a “tunduk” is an ill omen. They said the turbulent events of recent years – mass unrest that caused regime change in 2005 and 2010, and the ethnic violence last summer that left more than 400 dead – showed the statue must come down.

As an alternative, the idea of a Manas statue came up. The authorities lent their weight to the campaign and appealed for public donations.

It is in fact only the latest in a long list of monuments and places named after Manas – the latter including the country’s main airport. Schools in Kyrgyzstan are to start teaching the Manas epic as a separate subject.

So Manas is an instantly recognisable name in Kyrgyzstan. The problem is that it isn’t a particularly inspiring one. There is, at best, only a tenuous link between the story of how he forged a tribal alliance and the present-day challenges facing Kyrgyzstan – how to move towards peace and cross-community reconciliation after the ethnic bloodshed of June 2010.

From personal experience, I know that such ideologically-driven projects invariably fail to win public appeal unless they reflect universal values such as freedom or peace. People will still come to Ala-Too square and have their pictures taken in front of the statue, but they won’t necessarily identify with its symbolism.

Moreover, those of us who grew up in the more liberal environment that followed Soviet rule are sceptical about political leaders coming along and imposing a national hero on us, and then expecting us to subscribe to this collectively.

Depending on who I talked to among people who had come along to see the Manas statue unveiled, I heard a range of differing views.

One older resident who had lived in Bishkek for nearly 50 years, for example, expressed nostalgia for the statue of Lenin.

“Despite all the criticism and blame attached to the Soviet Union for every conceivable problem, a great deal was achieved over those years, in Soviet times. Look how many schools, nurseries, hospitals and public places they built,” he said.

Struggling to hold back the tears, he added, “We don’t fully understand the meaning of freedom. It’s seen as overstepping the bounds of decency, holding endless rallies, demanding things, and crossing the line of decency in the newspapers. But it’s really the opposite – it’s about taking responsibility for every step and every choice you make.”

A businessman called Bolot, visiting the square with his wife and children, said it was a bad idea to use up vital funds – some 380,000 US dollars – on this new statue when the economy was in such bad shape. He said it would have been better to spend the money on supporting the poor.

Two young men, Jyrgalbek and Kytaibek, who were visiting from outside town in hope of finding jobs in the capital, were spending the day sightseeing with their girlfriends. They took a less complicated view of the monument.

“It’s nice here on the square, it’s beautiful,” said one of them. “It doesn’t matter what monument stands here. The most important thing is that we’re in Bishkek. This is our country.”

Dina Tokbaeva is IWPR regional editor in Bishkek.