A bishkek is the wooden spoon-like utensil with which koumys (fermented mare's milk) is stirred. A favourite story explaining the origins of the capital's name (and perhaps reflecting the high regard in which koumys is held) relates how a woman left her bishkek behind when her people struck camp on the edge of the Alamyedin river long ago. This is far from certain, however, as there are several quite plausible alternatives. Another possible derivation might be from besh kek, which translates literally as 'five chiefs', or even besh bik, which is Kazakh for 'five peaks'. The name Bishkek may even have a more ancient etymology and derive from pishagakh, an ancient Sogdian term that translates as 'place beneath the mountains'. With the 4800m, permanently snow-capped rampart of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range looming over it, the Sogdian name still fits.
Whatever the name's origin, all of these appellations are of central Asian derivation, a fact that is at odds with the reality that Bishkek is clearly a Soviet city with a Russian - or, at the very least, the ghost of a Russian - soul. Like a scaled-down version of its Kazakh rival, Almaty, Bishkek is a Russian city displaced several thousand kilometres to the east by the geography of empire: a purpose-built capital with buildings and monuments resonant of Europe west of the Urals. The city is relatively new, barely a hundred years old but built on the site of a much older Sogdian settlement that was a staging post on one of the lesser branches of the Silk Road. Even before this, there is evidence of habitation in the area, and stone hand-tools that date back 7,000 years or so have been discovered close to the present-day city.
The earliest signs of human habitation in the region are Stone Age implements found around the Alamyedin hydroelectric station, dating back 7,000 years. The Hun war machine, which so terrorised Europe, was replaced by the nomads of the Western Turkic khanate who, in the seventh century, mingled peaceably in the Chui valley with the Persian Sogdians, sedentary people who colonised the area from Samarkand. They established a string of trading posts which flourished and waned with the fortunes of the Silk Road. Even today under the streets of Bishkek lie the ruins of Jul, whose heyday was between the eighth and 13th centuries. As was typical of early Silk Road centres, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Nestorians and Manichaeists lived and traded peaceably. In the 13th century the unforgiving Mongol storm of Jenghis Khan destroyed the city and the region returned to nomadism. Although many artefacts from this period of Sogdian settlement have been found, all evidence on the ground has been destroyed after Genghis Khan in the 13th century.
Bishkek's visible past began in the 1820s when the Kokand khanate built Pishpek fort to guard the caravan routes from Tashkent to Kashgar. It was a little clay fort, one of several along caravan routes through the Tian Shan mountains. Apart from a military garrison, the crenulated and moated fort housed a collection of hostages, donated by Kyrgyz chiefs as peace-pledges. Settlers and traders accumulated around its walls. Such a powerful statement attracted the attention of the Russians from across the steppe but it was actually the Kyrgyz (in hindsight they might have made a different decision) who led the definitive attack on the fort in 1862. The Solto and Sarybagysh tribes joined forces under the leadership of Baitik of Solto; they invited Kokand's commandant to a feast and murdered him and his entourage on their way home, then attacked the fort. Lacking the appropriate weaponry to finish the job, however, they called on the Russians at Verniy (now Almaty) who were eager to oblige. The Russians thereafter administered Pishpek, and set up a garrison of their own. The town of Pishpek was founded 16 years later, swelled by Russian peasants lured by land grants and the Chuy Valley's fertile black earth.
The bazaar that grew up around the fort was the embryo of the modern city. Adobe huts along what is now Jibek Jolu housed Cossack farmers and Sart (Uzbek) merchants and craftsmen. When Kyrgyz people took up settled farming in the area, they built adobe houses with open verandas, very different from the enclosed houses of the Sarts. A slow migration of land-hungry Russians, many of whom were freed serfs, had started to settle here by now, attracted by the fertile soil of the Chui valley as well as by tax breaks and a free supply of wood with which to build houses.
The city's finest hour came in 1878 when the regional administration moved to Pishpek from Tokmak, which had been devastated by floods. The city grew in surges of civic planning. By 1898, the mayor, Ilya Terentev, counted 752 houses in the city but no sewerage, and limited health and education (for Russians only). The Kyrgyz population could be counted on one hand and the remaining population was made up of Dungans, Sarts, Tatars, Russians and Ukrainians, each inhabiting their own districts. By 1914 the population had exploded to 20,000, but these were almost entirely newly arrived Russians or Dungans who had migrated from China, as at this time the number of Kyrgyz settled here were very few. City started to grow and cinemas, pavements and places of worship had begun to appear.
Revolutionary activity came late to Pishpek. When the Pishpek Duma (a too-little- too-late tsarist concession to democracy) was inaugurated in August 1917, Bolsheviks were already staging demonstrations in the city's leafy squares. The end of 1918 saw the region in turmoil as a counter-revolution swept in from the village of Belovodsk, 30 kilometres to the west of Pishpek. After eight days of fighting in Pishpek, the Bolsheviks were victorious under the leadership of Yakov Logvinienko, whose name still graces a central street in Bishkek today.
By 1920, Pishpek had been reduced from a healthy trading city lo a skeleton town. While the Red Army preached the communist message to stunned residents, an enthusiastic Czech workers collective called Interhelpa began in 1925 to build the new world: factories, institutes, hospitals, schools, street lighting and theatres went up, including many of the finer buildings you see in Bishkek today.
In 1926, Pishpek was renamed Frunze ('green leaf'), after its illustrious son, Mikhail Frunze, who had been instrumental in the Bolshevik advancement into Central Asia. Frunze was born in Bishkek, he was the Russian Civil War commander who helped keep tsarist Central Asia in Bolshevik hands and hounded the basmachi rebellion into the mountains. It was a typically insensitive choice of name for the town, especially given that the sound 'f' doesn't feature in the Kyrgyz alphabet.
In the late 1930s, Frunze was hit by Stalin's purges and in 1957 the secret police massacred 138 Kyrgyz bureaucrats outside the capital. During World War II some of the Soviet war effort was moved here out of the reach of German attack, and it was at this time that much of the city's heavy industry became established. A number of clothing and pharmaceutical factories were established here too. A great deal of this industrial base closed down following independence, to leave a capital that was noticeably less-polluted but also undeniably poorer than before.
Otherwise, Frunze's journey to the 1980s as a socialist capital was unremarkable; development continued apace and awards were bestowed with pleasing regularity. May 1967 saw a rare anti-Soviet upsurge. Riots broke out in the central bazaar after policemen beat up a customer. The Soviet authorities blamed the unrest, which lasted days and only ceased after Red Army tanks moved in, on Chinese sabotage and agitation' and arrested scores of Uighur and Dungan grocers. The real reason, however, was deeply-rooted discontent about police racketeering of bazaar traders and bureaucracy.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the 'Golden Years of Stagnation', the First Secretary, Turdakun Usubaliev, constructed the monumental marble buildings which now dominate the city centre; the National History (then Lenin) Museum, the While House, the Philharmonia and the Alatau Square ensemble. The shortage of housing (still an issue today) sparked off mass demonstrations in January 1990, when angry residents took to the streets as rumours circulated that housing priority was being given to refugees from an earthquake in Armenia. It was the beginning of the end for the Supreme Soviet.
In October 1990, Askar Akaev became president and in April 1991, the capital reclaimed its ancient name, Bishkek, the Kyrgyz form of its old Kazakh name.