Many cities around the world deserve more attention than they will ever receive because they’re not fashionable, or famous, or rich. Bishkek is one
The gateway to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan is full of fascinating Soviet architecture and statues that were never torn down after the fall of communism. Bishkek is a time capsule; a relic of an era when people only had to worry about nuclear war between states with rational leaders.
Now, it seems rather quaint to have a single enemy at which the rage of the people could be directed. Truthfully, throughout the cold war both sides knew full well that the best either could do was give each other a black eye. It was that or mutual destruction.
And with the lack of internet, information could be easily managed and disseminated, particularly within the USSR. Those who controlled the past, controlled the future.
Public space in Bishkek is still performing the functions that the apparatchiks needed fifty years ago. The only difference is that the hammer and sickle on the flag flying over the space have been replaced with the shadow of a yurt’s roof. The yurt, a nomad’s tent, is the symbol of Kyrgyzstan, and the Central Asian people.
Lenin stands tall, fist raised, expounding at length upon the greatness of revolution; Marx and Engels sit in a London pub, deep in an intellectual discussion on the plight of the working class; a woman, fifty feet tall, leads the charge into battle against the nazis. The only statue to have disappeared is Stalin’s. Presumably, after Stalin’s death, everyone gathered round to say they’d never really liked him anyway.
These socialist realist monuments are only the tip of Bishkek’s iceberg. And what do they show, other than these are the figures that were revered by communism? The job of socialist realism was always to communicate an easily understandable message – strength, intelligence, and equality of the classes and sexes.
Finding the propaganda is the fun bit.
If we are honest with ourselves, it was the Red Army that won World War II. It was they who destroyed the nazi forces on the Eastern Front, and then rolled their tanks thousands of miles to Berlin. For communists, there can be no greater victory than smashing the fascists.
Victory square stands to the east of the city centre, near the great, formerly state-owned, shopping centres of Tsum and Gum. At the centre of the rose-planted red stars and the statues of men carrying heavy machine guns and ammunition into battle, stands the framework of a giant yurt. It is peculiarly specific to the region.
An explanation can be found a few hundred metres away in a wooded park filled with ageing, probably extremely dangerous, fairground rides. It is named Panfilov Park.
Panfilov and his 28 guardsmen is one of the founding myths of the USSR, other than the revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat.
The story goes that Panfilov and his men held off a division of nazi panzers in the battle for Moscow. Mostly Kazakh and Kyrgyz, the guardsmen destroyed 70 tanks and killed hundreds of soldiers. None survived, but the nazi column was halted and Moscow was saved.
Like the 300 Spartan’s battle of Thermopylae, Panfilov’s story is untrue. But that didn’t stop the Central Asian Soviet Republics from naming as much as possible after him and his men. The story places them at the very centre of saving the revolution and the destruction of fascism.
I do not go on any of the rides for fear of ending my life like a molotov-immolated panzer gunner, even though the screams appear to be those of joy. However, the park offers the chance to escape from the heat of the day and pink candy-floss is sold from the back of a bukhanka; a Red Army personnel carrier, shaped like a loaf of bread.
A tiled, modernist pillar rises from the edge of the park. A weathered mural rings its base. It appears to hover ten metres in the air. This is the People’s Friendship Monument – a symbol of the USSR’s hope for all mankind.
Most major cities subjected to communism have one – it is a stock idea, with only the design changing to reflect local conditions. On Bishkek’s, both less impressive and less abstract than others, the mural shows the Kyrgyz and Russian people holding hands as comrades.
Where Bishkek does appear to approach the abstract is in its architecture. Many of the state buildings are in the imposing stalinist style and are still well kept, presumably out of necessity. These dominate the edges of Panfilov Park and Victory Square.
However, after a few minutes walk it is possible to see constructivist buildings begin to appear. Constructivism grew out of the incredibly abstract Russian futurism, and redirected its energy into social and industrial concerns. It was art in the hands of the people, working for the people.
Much of Bishkek’s social housing in the centre appears to be from the movement’s revival following Stalin’s death (he much preferred classical styles to these carbuncles).
The apartments may never have been luxurious, but they would have had running water and all the modern amenities needed. Grocery shops and hardware stores would have been part of the original design. They were meant to hold everything a family could need within a few minutes walk.
From the outside, these buildings are foreign to my eye. They are structured with the clean lines of modernism or brutalism, but in a style I have never seen. Domes rise out of wavy steps and curved balconies jut at odd angles away from each other. It is all impeccably designed – the architects clearly had enough freedom to draw what they wanted, as long as it contained a formal structure – but it is rotting.
This is one of the great shames about Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country that is still in love with Leninism. It holds few resources and is no longer a centre of trade. That means there is no money to keep the building in a state of repair.
The State History Museum sits on the edge of Ala-Too square. The huge rectangular building appears to be carved out of concrete. Perfectly cut steps lead to a ginormous plate of glass set into the entrance. But it is closed for repair.
From the rear, where the statue of Lenin calls the workers to revolution, wires and cables hang out of the broken windows. It is nothing but a Potemkin Village.