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“Watching Rome Fall: The Human Geography of a Former Soviet Republic” (Under Construction)


This project is based on observation and recordation. Although I have conducted some scholarly research on the subjects herein, this represents my own observations over three years of living and working in Kyrgyzstan (2011-2014). Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs and comments are my own (and are copyrighted as such). 


Civilizations rarely fall. Rather, empires wither. After a particularly nasty military defeat, many of the institutions and infrastructure tend to linger on, slowly crumbling into ruins. While this might not be the case when a cataclysm wipes out a civilization, but even the Mayan Empire took time to die from drought and warfare. Although Kyrgyzstan had a revolution in 1991, many of its leaders are still former Soviets, and much of its infrastructure—physical and institutional—simply continued on. Here in the FSU, 23 years after, there are some interesting parallels to any withering age. Because infrastructure, law, and services are the most obvious victims, and because the population had become mostly Russified under the Tsars and Supreme Soviets. The hordes didn't want to destroy Rome; they wanted to BE Rome. The legatees of Soviet power did not want to destroy their well-ordered society; they wanted control over it.

Click on the image to link to a WordPress blog with picture of KSSR, The Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic, when the capital was named Frunze. The image above is my own, taken in the Bishkek central train station. The main concourse has recently been restored, and workers carefully repainted the hammer and sickle in the center. Stalin is gone, but Lenin, Marx, and Engels are still very much around.

Almost all governmental services are provided through infrastructure built by the Soviet Union. New things, like roads, are being built, mostly by China. The country's only major export is gold, which is mined by a Canadian company. For utilities like electricity, water, heating, the lone railroad line, and public transport, unceasing repair is the rule. Money has flowed into Kyrgyzstan, but much of it has disappeared into the pockets of corrupt officials and their families.

Kyrgyzstan, like other Central Asian former Soviet republics, has a bittersweet nostalgia for Soviet times. Complicated by investment by the U.S. government, which comes with conditions such as nominal democracy, nominal freedom of the press, and enthusiastic adherence to the mythology of a free market economy, the human geography of Bishkek is often that of exclusion, contradiction, and disparity.

Nationalism is an ever growing threat to stability in Kyrgyzstan. I arrived in Kyrgyzstan in June 2011, about nine months after the latest revolution (there have been three). Rosa Otumbaeva was the interim president, and remarkably she surrendered the presidency after elections, which is the only time (that I am aware of) that a peaceful transfer of power has taken place in the CIS. In 2010, there were attacks on ethnic Uzbeks in the south of the country, and tensions still boil. A nation is its people, but the enforced multiculturalism of the USSR has been replaced with a narrowing definition of what citizenship means. This is the Kyrgyz Republic (-stan is a Persian leftover), but not all citizens are Kyrgyz. Since KG was Stalin's dumping ground for Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans, and uppity Chechens, the country is more diverse than other CIS nations. 

Kyrgyzstan is a nation of impassable and impossibly beautiful mountains. The shores of Issyk Kul, which doesn't freeze in the winter due to saline content, and the Chu River Valley provide some of the only access from China to points west. Rather than being a single track fro East to West, the Silk Road was a network of trading routes among China,  Europe, and Anatolia. Kyrgyzstan has few natural resources (gold and other minerals being the exceptions), so trade among China, Russia, and Turkey is the single biggest source of income in the country. The new silk road, Jibek Jolu in Kyrgyz (ipek yolu in Turkish) features not silk and spices but cheap China-made consumer goods and Turkish consumer electronics. Nonetheless, the markets and bazaars of Kyrgyzstan are a wonderful crossroads of cultures as diverse as Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Russian, Kazakh, Turkmen, Chinese, Dungan, Uyghur, Tajik, Yakut, and European/American ethnicities.

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