Thursday, February 24, 2011

Big V/Culture, part II

I1.) Big V

Big V is an ethnic Russian from Osh. He has a serious mustache, the likes of which one rarely sees in the West these days. He has one of those Russian complexions that looks like baked brick all year round– Americans might know it as a John-Wayney complexion, or maybe not. He smokes a lot and coughs more. When I first met him he was smoking slims in an effort to cut down. Now he just smokes lights. He served in the Soviet special forces, but says very little about that time of his life. He says very little about most things.

Big V isn't particularly big, physically. Russian men, I find, tend to be lean and hungry, unless they're fat, in which case they're not lean and hungry.  Big V eats hungrily but not much. Big V can tell when honey has been interfered with, and when it's raw, and he can tell you which honey to buy and which not to buy, but he doesn't eat much honey himself. His grandfather was a beekeeper in Osh, and he says he overdosed as a child.

When we stopped at Dyadya Vasya's on the way back from Osh, he bought some propolis to make a cream for his granddaughter. She has a burn on her hand that she got when she was younger.  They went to Moscow a few months ago and took her to the doctor. The doctor asked what had taken them so long, and said that the burn would have been very treatable and was now very serious.  The doctor gave them some cream. They brought it home to Bishkek, where there couldn't find a doctor who knew what to do with it.

When I first met Big V, two summers ago, I didn't know he was from Osh. "Did you grow up in Kyrgyzstan?" I asked him. "Yes," he said, "I'm one of the lucky ones." How wonderful, I thought. I wasn't familiar yet with his irony. Almost everything Big V says is ironic and sincere, simultaneously.  Big V said it was too bad I wouldn't have time to go down south, where life was calmer and the fruit was better. D told me that Big V went to Moscow sometimes and thought it was okay, but no place to live. Big V said that in order to be normal, people needed mountains. D said he didn't know a single Russian in Kyrgyzstan who wanted to live in Russia. They said they didn't feel comfortable in Moscow– and I guess the Russians who are left don't feel they have anywhere to go but Moscow.

During pheasant hunting season, Big V always brings some big pheasants for D. I picture D plucking them himself, throwing the feathers out the kitchen window and watching them flutter down onto the heads of people coming out of the stairwell.  Big V was excited when D and I arranged a trip to the Chong-Kemin valley that summer: He would go hunting before driving back to Bishkek.  D asked how he hunted the pheasants. "You know," he said, using the formal "you"– he and D always use the formal "you" with one another– "I just chase after them and strangle them." D says that even though he considers Big V a very good friend, he sticks to the formal "you" so as not to cause others whom he addresses with the formal "you" to wonder why they're not the friendly "you." E is a formal "you," because she's a mother and tells D not to wear his old corduroys, anywhere, and also because she's a secretary and calling her the friendly "you" could send the message that he views her as personally subordinate instead of merely professionally subordinate. Small V is the friendly "you," because he's unambiguously small. Small V isn't really small, physically. But he has big, wide eyes, and always buys his mother that garishly patterned discounted housecoat she asked for, and when an official fancies a shakedown, he heads straight over to Small V. Big V says "Listen, Small V, no one is going to get arrested." Small V told us that. Small V has a big head with a big brain, and likes to say smart and nice things, many of them about Big V.

2.) Culture, Part 2

We were stopped at a checkpoint on the road to the inn at Chong Kemin. The man in the booth asked D if he was going up into the mountains. Yes, tomorrow, D replied. "I think maybe I will go with you," said Mr. Checkpoint. His Russian was strained.  The next day we were introduced to him as Akylbek, our guide. He and his sidekick, a tiny 12-year-old named Aybolot, spoke little. We all spoke little. They rode Lucky and Apollo, while D and I walked. Aybolot was such a good rider that he could stretch out and go to sleep on Lucky, and Lucky would keep on doing just what Aybolot wanted in the meantime. In the evening Akylbek made dinner. He gave me and D enormous portions while he and Akylbek shared a single bowl. Didn't he want some of ours? we asked. He was fine, he said, he was used to harsh conditions. Over dinner, he told us the park's long-horned goats were threatened by Chinese poachers who were killing them for the powder in their horns, which is thought to have magic powers. I had trouble speaking Russian to him. I felt he was nervous speaking Russian, so I became downright stuttering. It was getting dark, and even colder. Weren't they going to pitch their tent, we asked. They'd just sleep in the open, they said. It got windy. They dumped out the contents of their tent sack. They circled the pieces thoughtfully. They did so for about ten minutes. Did they want help? we asked. D and I set it up for them. It rained that night and the tents shifted a few feet with the wind.

On the second day we lost D just before lunch. He had been hanging back watching some buzzards. I had pulled ahead of him in an effort to catch up with our guides, who were far ahead on the horses. The three of us sat down at our lunch spot, a small volcanic lake, and waited. We waited half an hour. Akylbek got on Apollo and went looking. Ten minutes later he returned empty-handed. It started raining and the air got icy. "How are we going to find him now?" asked Akylbek? Maybe he went to look at the other lake? "Why would he have stayed there," I asked, "when it was obvious we weren't there? He would have turned back by now." Everything Akylbek said was suddenly sounding ridiculous, insulting. He galloped away again, then returned, shouting to us from atop Apollo. "How on earth are we going to find him now? What's going to happen to us now? What's going to happen to us? What misfortune!" "Why are you saying this to me?" I yelled. He galloped off in a frenzy. I ran back and forth across the top of the hill shouting over and over, in every direction, "Da-a-ad!" I sat down on the grass and sobbed. Aybolot came and put his arms around me.  "Let's pitch the tent?" he said. "Why?" I said. The rain got harder. I agreed to pitch the tent. We didn't need the stakes, I insisted. We lugged all the bags, then ourselves, inside. The tent shook in the wind. It was deafening. I went out and put the stakes in. Aybolot and I started going through the bags. We drank some water and ate some of the sweets that Lucky had been lugging for us. Then we found Akylbek's wool floormats, wrapped ourselves in them, and shivered. Every so often a drop of rain would strike one of the tent's cross bars with a thud, and I would poke my head out, thinking someone was outside. After a while I sank back into the far side of the tent. I thought about the phone call to my sister and mother, telling them D was dead. I thought about how D would never know his granddaughter. Did Aybolot have a father? I asked. And a mother? He did, as well as two brothers. I was going to search myself, I decided. I started packing a bag with D's first aid gear, which he'd ill-advisedly loaded onto Apollo in the morning. I packed his phone, water purification tablets, and all of his dry clothes "What are you doing?" Aybolot asked. His voice was a little nervous. "Just in case, " I replied. "Wait," he said. He flung himself across the tent and stuck his head out. "It looks like they're coming!" I looked out. A horse was plodding towards us, up the hill. Akylbek was on it. I looked for a body stretched across the horse behind him. The horse got closer. D was seated behind Akylbek. I dashed over to them, sobbing.  I grabbed my father and hugged him. "I'm also about to cry," said Akylbek, "I thought we weren't going to find him already." When the rain started, D had jumped into a fir tree for shelter. Akylbek had missed him the first time he went by, but had heard his voice when he'd gone back to check, in a last-ditch effort.

D had some chocolate. It stuck to his mouth. He drank some water. He changed into dry clothes. The sun had come out. Akylbek's heavy wool coat was soaked through. Didn't he want to change? we asked. He was fine, he said smiling – his jacket was Soviet-army issue, impenetrable. D and I walked in a pair as Akylbek and Aybolot led us along the lake. We found a dry spot beneath some trees that was warm in the afternoon sun. Akylbek cooked dinner as D and I sat by the fire, speaking to each other in English. Akylbek passed us our dinners and then retreated to his tent to eat with Aybolot. While bringing D back to safety on his horse, Akylbek had somehow given rise to a narrative whereby I was the brains of the rescue operation. I wasn't quite sure how to disabuse D, or whether I wanted to. Having first refused to pitch the tent, then refused to stake it, and then pictured D's funeral before I had even packed a rescue kit, it was nice to discover that I was, after all, a hero. 

The next day was the day of our descent. Our itinerary had said we were arriving at Tam Chi. We managed to establish, with some difficultly, that Akylbek had never heard of Tam Chi. Didn't we want to go to Balykchi? We looked at the map. Balykchi was some 40 kilometers from Tam Chi. "Amazing!" D said. "The man has no idea where we are going!" I hmmmed in response. We had never established whether Akylbek understood any English; in any case, I feared that D's tone made his attitude quite obvious.  We cleared our final peak, and a bright blue sea spread across the horizon. This was Issyk Kul. "There's the lake," Akylbek told me, after it had been visible for some minutes. "Do you see the lake? It's there, see?" I told him I did indeed see the lake. We said goodbye to Akylbek and Aybolot at the base of a red canyon. "I apologize if something was not quite right," he told D. I got them to write their addresses in my journal. "Thank you for finding my father!" I said.  Akylbek said he was also relieved to have found him. They rode off.  "What a fool," I remember D saying. To be fair, I'm sure D's actual comment was somewhat more virtuous.

We were out of water. Rushing streams had criss-crossed our entire route, and we saw no reason to think this would change. Then in the last hour things suddenly turned irony and arid. D managed to get a phone signal and called E, telling her that we were on some dirt road or another just below a canyon that was near a canyon, a canyon, and a canyon, somewhere on the northern bank of Issyk-Kul, which is 113 miles long. We sat down and prepared for a long wait. I started planning mentally for the 8-mile walk to the lake, where we could procure water if nothing else. It was highly doable, I said.

We started videotaping ourselves discussing our probable strandedness. As we were taping, a red four-wheel drive appeared in the distance, snaking its way gingerly towards us. "Miracle of miracles!" I cried. D was visibly moved. "He really is in a class by himself," he exclaimed as Big V rounded the final bend. V parked about twenty feet from us and stepped out of the car, grinning. "Welcome!" he called. He explained that there were two drivable roads on that stretch of the northern bank, and he had made a lucky guess. "Who were these idiot guides you had?" he asked, sputtering with laughter.  "What was our guide's name?" D asked me.  "Akylbek," I said. Akylbek is a very common name. "Akylbek," Big V repeated. He shook his head.

Tam Chi was a nostalgic Soviet-style resort, full of plastic palm trees, bleached blond women in skin tight jeans, food stalls run by women in sweatpants and house slippers, and men offering to photograph you next to their donkeys. I had planned to swim, but the lakeside was so littered that I didn't want to take my shoes off, let alone go in the water.  A large camel knelt at the water line, hobbled.  Next to her a baby camel wailed plaintively.  We really should have gone to the south shore of the lake, Big V told us.

We drove back towards Bishkek along the south shore. It was empty other than the odd Soviet sanatorium tucked discreetly back into the rocks. The orange rocks formed a brilliant contrast with the bright blue of the water. I went for a swim at a muddy little inlet alongside some cows. "It was so warm," I told Big V when I came out. "Of course it was," he said, with a joyful snicker. "It's very shallow here, that's why it's warm. And the cows probably don't hurt either."

We got back to Bishkek. A few days later we met with the Moscow bureau chief for an American newspaper. With him was the paper's Bishkek stringer, and a Muscovite cameraman whom I had apparently met when I was a toddler.  We met for dinner at Jalalabad, a Kyrgyz restaurant that, people have since told me, serves Uzbek food by default, as there is no such thing as Kyrgyz food.  Did I like Bishkek, the bureau chief asked. I loved it, I said, its courtyards felt just like the Moscow I remembered as a child. The cameraman's eyes softened. "Have you heard that Maksim is dead?" said the stringer. D stiffened. "What?" Just hours ago D had been giving his standard lecture on the steps Maksim was taking to prepare to inherit the presidency. The bureau chief asked whether Maksim had not died several times within the last year. Who would have been behind it, he asked. D grinned conspiratorially: There weren't really a lot of options– it had to be his uncle Janysh, famous for having human fingers delivered in suitcases to his political opponents via processionals of uniformed men.  "This will really change things," said D, his eyes aglow.  He couldn't  really be dead, the bureau chief insisted. D got out his phone. There was silence at the table.  D greeted the person on the other end in a jocular tone. "Is the boss free to meet next week?" Negotiations were conducted, concluded. "Well?" said the bureau chief? "Well," said D, "Either he's dead, or I'm having lunch with him on Monday." "Or both?" I suggested. D did have lunch with him on Monday, and he was alive, much to my disappointment.  D and the stringer gave the bureau chief, at the latter's prompting, the standard talk on the north-south divide in Kyrgyz politics: Bakiev was from the south, he and his family portrayed themselves as the voice of the southern Kyrgyz, of a historically marginalized and neglected people. Such a position was seen as implicitly hostile to the Uzbek population, which dominated the Ferghana valley both numerically and economically. The conversation then shifted west to Uzbekistan itself: Didn't Uzbeks in general see themselves as the core of Central Asia, the bureau chief asked. Oh yes, said his stringer: "The heart of culture in Central Asia! It's such nonsense. The heart of human rights violations in Central Asia!" D concurred that Uzbekistan was, of course, "pretty tacky" in a great many dimensions.  And of course the Tajiks were fond of reminding the Uzbeks furiously that Bukhara and Samarkand were Tajik cities; that the Tajiks had been settled while the Uzbeks were still pillaging on horseback.  Rahmon had been known to remark that when Karimov's regime fell, he would of course have to protect his people in Uzbekistan. In short, the Ferghana valley was overdue for an explosion on one, or all, of three sides.

The bureau chief asked what Dushanbe was like. Oh, it was so much nicer than Bishkek, the stringer said;  I should really try to go. "The people in Tajikistan are very exotic, very Asian– not Asian like us, they have these dramatic eyes," said the young Kyrgyz woman, who had dramatic eyes. Kyrgyzstan was kind of blah by comparison, she said. 

By the next time D came to Philadelphia, Bakiev had fallen, D, if a rather heady message from the 8th of April can be believed, had drunk champagne in the charred ruins of the general prosecutor's office, and Max had fled to London. V's daughter, however, was spending a lot of time in Russia. D said Big V saw "the writing on the wall," and knew she was probably leaving Kyrgyzstan. Her husband–the father of her one-year-old– had recently dropped dead. He was in his late twenties, healthy as far as anyone knew, and one day on his way home from work he just had a heart attack and died. "Is she looking after the kid by herself now?" M asked.  No, D said, the baby was living with Big V and his wife. "You know, it's the old Russian style," he said. It was clear V's daughter had to leave, said D– there was nothing for her in Kyrgyzstan, "and she doesn't like the Kyrgyz." Her husband had been Kyrgyz, but she didn't have much in common with her in-laws. This was the first time I'd heard anyone– outside of Russia, that is– speak as though disdain for Kyrgyz on the part of other Kyrgyzstani groups were not only commonplace, but needed no explanation.

In the first days after I came back last month, I was amazed at how much my perceptions of the country seemed to have shifted. It was hard, I said to D, not to let June color my impressions of strangers. He agreed: "Whereas before, I might have thought, oh, now she looks like an interesting babulya, now I think, ah, look at her elbowing people out of her way. The new master race." Among the conversations I overheard on the street, the ones consisting mainly of  "blyat" and "yob" stuck most in my mind. A few bizarre-seeming comments from D also stuck with me. On my first day, he suggested that many of our neighbors were "not quite feeble-minded, but just on the edge." In an interview with a visiting master's student, he said that the June attacks were carried out mostly by youth with "the bare minimum of education and reasoning." Kyrgyz people had barely any brain activity, he seemed to say – they were barely conscious. Having recently traveled for 48 hours across 11 time zones, I, in fact, was barely conscious. People and words took on a fuzzy, menacing quality. Awkwardly worded statements and isolated observations had a way of seeming definitive.

A few weeks back now, on the road to Osh, Big V mentioned that his daughter was applying for Russian citizenship. She was also applying her daughter, whose hand now needed an operation. "So, it looks like that's it," he sighed.  And his other relatives in Osh? D asked. His parents had started the process of changing citizenship. And some cousins, and some neighbors, and some friends. "So, yeah, it looks like that's it. They're all leaving." He said this with only the barest trace of laughter. Once we'd had some time to look around in Osh, we asked Big V how things seemed to him: "Awful. The streets are all empty. You can hardly see any Uzbeks anywhere." He said he'd heard a guy on the street saying  " 'What are Uzbeks still doing here? They should have been gone by now.' I wanted to go up and say, you know, what you're saying is really maddening to me, but I think it's pointless."

On our last night the four of us– Small V, D, Big V, and I– sat at the kitchen table in our guest house drinking Kyrgyzstan brand cognac which, I announced, I much preferred to Hennessy. "Next there's going to be a cleansing from within," says Small V, his eyes glinting in that way journalists' eyes do when they drink: "Who's the most Kyrgyz of the Kyrgyz." Somehow we started talking about Issyk-Kul. "In Soviet times, there were at least some procedures you had to follow," Big V said. "For example, it was forbidden to build 200 metres from the shore." Now people were building right up to the banks of even the southern shore. "No one needs anything now," he said, as in, nothing is sacred. Bishkek was the same way– the shade trees in Ataturk, for example, were being cleared for parking lots. "I saw how Osh died, right before my eyes," said Big V, "and now the same thing is happening in Bishkek." He spoke of a familiar process that hardly needs articulating: The collapse of the social safety net had left a void, and an economy based on quick and destructive ways of making money had moved in to fill it. 

Analysts often make the point that ethnicity was a tool used in planning the attacks in June, not the cause of the attacks.  People whose careers depended on drug smuggling and systemic theft saw latent ethnic divisions as something to be manipulated, in order to increase their "earning potential." When I came here two years ago, I wanted to believe I had found an unlikely island of sanity: A country whose nomadic customs had allowed it to deal successfully with the mess of forced resettlement; that could eagerly absorb new influences, knowing that it was more than the sum of its parts. I wanted to think that someone could say "Our strongest tradition is hospitality" without appearing to minimize her nation's importance or her own; that such a person could be viewed not as an apologist for prospective invaders, but as an example for, literally, the whole world.  Clearly this was too much to hope for. The Soviet Union drew clumsy lines, in the form of improvised ethnic narratives and borders that failed to correspond to these narratives.  Divisions were manufactured even as official policy insisted they did not exist. It had taken its map, carved and stabbed at it, and then slapped a veneer of "friendship among nations" on top. The gloss washed off easily, but the divisions beneath have proven highly marketable in the post-Soviet world.


  1. Sharp — and disturbing — glimpse into another world. Riveting writing.