When money made its appearance, the well-being of the people went away.
Moldo Klych, akyn
Kyrgyz nomadic society is traditionally organised into various clans and tribes, with clan leadership coming from a bai (or manap), a chief who makes decisions following consultation with a council of aksakals that represent each village (or ail - collection of yurts) within the clan. An aksakal, quite literally, means a 'white beard', ie: an aged and presumably wise, village elder. The bai is not elected but usually earns his position by being the most senior of the aksakals, a role in which respect has to be earned for the bai's decisions to carry any weight.
Sometimes the position is hereditary but the son would always be required to earn the respect of the clan members, lest his position be usurped by a rival. Any petty tyranny by the bai would be to the chief's detriment as the various ails that constitute the clan are always free, as nomads not tied to a particular location, to join another tribal group with a less autocratic leader. But by the end of the 19th century, Kyrgyz society was already weakened and cultural ties dilluted. The growth of mining and trading under the Russians, and an increased reliance on bazaars, meant the traditional Kyrgyz economy of self-sufficiency and barter was being dismantled.
At the same time the social structure was dislocated: the bi (most senior head of family group) were drawn into the Russian administration, away from their traditional role, and increasing land ownership weakened tribal and kinship ties. The authority of the bi was challenged by the Russian courts, whose rulings were biased, arbitrary and generally ignored by the Kyrgyz. Social harmony came under pressure as the gap between rich and poor widened.
Although in traditional Kyrgyz society women have rarely held positions of power, there have been exceptions. The most notable of these was Kurmanjan Datka, who took on the leadership of the southern Kyrgyz tribes when her husband, Alymbek Datka, died - there is a statue of her in the centre of Osh. Kurmanjan Datka's place in Kyrgyz history is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, as women in patriarchal Kyrgyz society generally have little influence on decision making other than within the home, and only 4% of the members of Kyrgyzstan's parliament are women.
In the pre-Soviet period, women had a subordinate status that depended exclusively on their fathers, until the time came for a potential husband to offer a dowry or kalym for them to become a wife. In some cases, the ritual of bride kidnapping took place and there are well-documented accounts that these incidents continue to occur quite frequently even in recent times. The kalym was, and still is, usually paid in livestock and is viewed as promoting both financial and social ties between the would-be groom and the family of his prospective wife. On some occasions, in order to raise the necessary capital for the kalym, a young man will work for his prospective father-in- law for a specified period of time, thus cementing the social bond between the two families even further.
In standard jailoo life, everyday tasks are shared between men and women while domestic duties like cooking, cleaning and milking are always performed by women. However, given the liberating nature of the nomadic Kyrgyz lifestyle, women are usually equal partners in practice, even if they are not in status in the eyes of Kyrgyz society.
Determined to create 'Soviet Man', the Soviet authorities mounted a multi-layered assault on local cultures and beliefs. After the trauma of collectivisation and the horrors of Stalin's purges, in which the revered song-storytellers were all but wiped out, the Kyrgyz adopted a dual life, outwardly complying with the Soviet system while continuing many of their old practices in private.
Bride price, designated a 'crime against the state' (along with polygamy and marriage below the age of 18) dwindled in popularity but was still paid. (In 1928 it averaged one horse and 30 sheep, though livestock was gradually being replaced by cash.) Weddings still took place, now mostly in autumn, women travelling by truck instead of horse. Dowries were given, though now in the shape of European style furniture-the new status symbol. It seems almost miraculous that so much of the Kyrgyz culture survived.
Nowadays the average age for marriage between Kyrgyz is around 25 for men and 22 for women. Providing that he is not planning to commit ala kachuu (bride kidnapping), when a man decides to marry he goes with his family to visit the home of his prospective bride, where his intention is made known and negotiations begin regarding the kalym (bride price) required to marry the girl.
Traditionally, once the kalym has been agreed between the groom and the bride's family, the groom gives a present of golden earrings to his future bride and they are considered to be engaged. The wedding takes place as soon as possible afterwards, although it is normally traditional for older brothers to marry before their younger siblings, and a younger brother may have to wait for his older brothers to marry before he can get wed himself.
On the day of the wedding, the bride's female relatives erect a white yurt from which the bride is collected by the groom's party. A ritual called arkan tosuu is frequently performed before the ceremony takes place, in which a rope is strung across the road and a ransom demanded for the bride, accompanied by wailing from the bride's female relatives and friends. The ceremony itself usually takes place at a registry office or a wedding palace - a secular inheritance of Soviet times - after which the couple may go to the mosque for a blessing, although sometimes a mullah is invited to the wedding itself in order to bless the union. The ceremony is normally followed by a group promenade in which frequent stops are made for photographs at scenic or historically important spots like war memorials or sculpture parks. The party then proceeds to the reception where everyone present takes turns in expressing their good wishes to the newly-wed couple.
After the ceremonial proceedings are completed the groom's family bless the bride by placing a scarf over her head. The bride customarily spends three days with her new family, a period in which she receives visits from well-wishers. Following this, the married couple move to their own home, apart from occasions where it is a youngest son who has married, in which case they will stay with his parents because, as the most junior male offspring, it is his responsibility to care for his parents in old age. The bride herself is not permitted to visit her own parents on her own until a preliminary visit has been made, in which she is accompanied by her new in-laws who offer a present to the bride's mother as recompense for the trouble she went to raising the daughter. After marriage, a daughter-in-law is expected to be subservient to her new family and serve her new parents as dutifully as her husband.
In Soviet days the Kyrgyz excelled in finding ways to circumvent the regulations. Within the collective farms (kolkhoz) a small number of animals were allowed for private ownership. The Kyrgyz took this so much to heart that, in 1961, one farm counted 560 kolkhoz-owned and 10,470 privately-owned goats.
In the 1960s, Nikita Khrushchev decided that the nomadic lifestyle was, after all, an efficient means of farming steppe and mountain, and that the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs showed considerable skill in this field, so a semi-nomadic life re-emerged in which the family groups of the collective farms took to the mountains in the summer months. Mobile adult education units were set up in so-called 'Red Yurts' to ensure the 'correct thinking' of the nomads.
In this turbulent time the only traditional craft to survive truly intact was felt making, although artificial dyes introduced new colours and harsher tones. Silverwork skills were lost and traditional embroidery was replaced by Russian, Uzbek or Ukrainian designs.
While the Kyrgyz have undoubtedly absorbed Russian elements into their lives, many of their non-traditional accoutrements are foreign, not just Russian. Bread only started to appear on a Kyrgyz 'dastorkon' (table) in the late 19th century, but as Uzbek nan rather than Russian khleb, the Kyrgyz adopted Russian samovars, but only at the same time that tea was adopted from China.
Although nomadic life is firmly a thing of the past, the yurt still holds a fond place in people's hearts. Those who can afford a yurt put one up in the garden every summer, while many rural people are still semi-nomadic, spending the summer months in yurts on the high pastures with their livestock. However, ask them if they would like to go back to living in a yurt full-time and the response is a resounding 'No! It's damp, there's no heating and no TV!' A Kyrgyz journalist recently summed up 20th century changes thus:
Now, looking back at our paradoxical past, with all our hatred of the socialist-type command administration system, we nevertheless should do justice to it, first of all for the excellently exercised policy of transition from a nomadic to a more settled life.