Perizat Saitburkhan, a journalist from Kyrgyzstan and former Prague Civil Society Centre fellow, discusses decolonisation in her country: “We are not them! We are free”.
Perizat is a journalist, political analyst and former TV host with Kyrgyzstan’s Next TV, which was closed by authorities in 2022. During her three-month fellowship with the Centre in the spring, Perizat researched how 20th century Kyrgyz and Central Asian history has been presented in the media broadly in Central Asia, and began developing her own media project aimed at rethinking, re-evaluating and decolonising Kyrgyz history.
How prominent is the topic of decolonisation in the public discourse in Kyrgyzstan?
The themes of decolonisation and colonisation are not very common in our society. There are people in some activist circles who have been trying to raise these topics, but even in these circles, the information is not presented entirely reliably. We lack research.
What themes are you competing with? What worries the people of Kyrgyzstan?
In the last five or six years, we have seen a recession in the economy caused by the pandemic. The situation only worsened after the start of the full-scale Russian war in Ukraine.
What would you like people from other countries to know about Kyrgyzstan?
We are not like them [in Russia]! We are free. It is crucial that people understand that Kyrgyzstan is not the USSR.
How do you plan to develop the decolonisation discourse?
First, with the help of political education because this is the only way to build a strong political nation.
Speaking of education, in one of your interviews, you mentioned that your role model is Malala Yousafzai...
Malala famously said: “The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons” and I could not agree more. I would even say that if children are not given books, they will take up arms sooner or later.
It was very nice to see that your role model is a woman. Unfortunately, this is rare in countries that are struggling with the consequences of the Soviet Union. What would you say about the state of feminism in Kyrgyzstan?
There is a myth that feminism was more developed in the USSR than at the same time in Europe and that the USSR brought feminism to the colonised countries. But this is not the case. First, what is positioned as feminism has often been simply labour exploitation of women. And secondly, the USSR took away from us the traditions in which women could have a leading role in society. For example, we had the Alai Queen Kurmanjan Datka [19th century female leader]. Now we need to recover, and much work must be done. Also, we cannot discuss the history of feminism in Central Asia using European or American conceptual apparatus and historical categories such as waves of feminism. We had our own historical process.
What other harmful myths exist about Kyrgyzstan?
Exoticization, widespread stereotypes and misconceptions about nomadic peoples harm us. Allegedly, we are uneducated, cannot read and write, are not civilised and live in yurts. And there is a myth that the colonisation of the USSR brought us education and literacy.
And how was it really?
We really could not read and write—in Cyrillic, that is. We have our own language, and we used to have the Arabic alphabet. The USSR forcibly introduced the Cyrillic alphabet. And it is still used in Kyrgyzstan.
What is the current language situation in Kyrgyzstan?
Recently, we have noticed a significant improvement in the position of the Kyrgyz language. With the independence of Kyrgyzstan, our language was given the status of a state language. Even though Russian is still popular, Kyrgyz is increasingly used in official institutions. In addition, we are seeking to rename city streets back to the Kyrgyz.
What should I read, watch or follow to learn more about Kyrgyz culture?
I recommend the Kyrgyz scientist and writer Chyngyz Aimatov as an example. He lived during the Soviet Union and simultaneously published his novels and short stories in Kyrgyz and Russian. Now they can be found translated into 174 languages. Chyngyz Aimatov drew inspiration from the Kyrgyz epic, for example, the Manas epic. Another exciting example of our culture is the World Nomad Games, competitions in ethnic sports of the peoples of Central Asia. Kyrgyz athletes participate in the Games every year, and twice the Games were held in Kyrgyzstan.
Interviewed by Olena Kushyna, Prague Civil Society Centre.