Kyrgyzstan: Where is it?
In recent weeks we've been overwhelmed with news about a civil uprising and the toppling of the government in Kyrgyzstan. (Journalists had it easier with the country's former name, the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic, but I assume its inhabitants are happier having been unleashed in 1991 from the Kremlin's rule.)
Most Americans probably never heard of the country, nor could they find it on a map. As a lifelong geographic buff, my own familiarity with the country has been based largely on old TV travelogues showing nomadic, Mongol-looking horsemen galloping across the Central Asian plains against the backdrop of huge mountain ranges. But my image of the Kyrgyz people has been sharply altered by the latest TV and newspaper photos showing urbanized people in Western garb conducting a political rebellion.
The Kyrgyz people have a special place in history as descendants of one of the marauding hordes of Mongol tribes against whom China built its famous Wall for protection some thousand years ago. The nomadic Kyrgyz later migrated to the southwest. In the 1860s and 1870s, their nation, now about the size of South Dakota, was annexed by Czarist Russia along with the lands of such other Central Asians as the Tajiks, Kazakhs, Turkomen, and Uzbeks.
Like these other Turkic-speaking peoples, most Kyrgyz are Muslim. Many living in the nation's northern region, however, still practice totemism, a form of animism, tracing back to their Mongol roots.
The Kyrgyz did not have a written language until 1923 when they adopted the Arabic alphabet. They quickly shifted to Latin script and then finally, under Soviet Russian pressure, adopted the Cyrillic alphabet. The Russian influence undoubtedly explains why most Kyrgyz--like their fellow Turkic-speaking Central Asians--have names with Slavic suffixes.
The country's frequent alphabetical switches may account for its high rate of illiteracy. Curiously, however, its recently ousted president had been a prominent physicist in the former Soviet Union.
Much of the Kyrgyz population of about 5 million is comprised of nomadic herdsmen. The result has been prolonged conflict with the country's minority Uzbeks, who tend to be farmers. There is apparently less ethnic tension with another minority group, the Russians, who make up at least 10% of the population. Russian is considered a second official language.
Today Kyrgyzstan has the distinction of being the only country in the world that houses military bases of both the United States and Russia.