Contested Identity of Kalmaks in Contemporary Kyrgyzstan
My dissertation focuses on the identification processes in the village Chelpek. This village is known in Kyrgyzstan as Kalmak or Sart-Kalmak to most part of the country, at least, to Kyrgyz-speaking population. Being a Kalmak/Sart-Kalmak is an ascription for everyone who is connected to this village. A first question of taxi drivers on your way to Chelpek from Karakol is about your connection to “ Kalmak/Sart-Kalmak”. When it is time for you to get documents such as military ID, for example, you are first ascribed as a Kalmak. You are going to marry someone from this village, and first note you get from your relatives when you inform them: “Are going to marry to a Kalmak?!”. There are number of characteristics you are getting under this ascription as well, both positive and negative.
Chelpek inhabitants themselves got used to this attribution, they were born and live with it. Many of Chelpek’s inhabitants would say either they are Kalmaks, or Sart-Kalmaks, or Kyrgyz depending on the context. Those who move in, mainly women who get married to, in a while if not immediately become ascribed in different extent to one or another characteristic of a label “Kalmak/Sart-Kalmak”.
Depending on age and gender Chelpek inhabitants face different feelings on this ascription as to be proud, hesitated, challenged, or disinterested. The most striking fact I met in Chelpek during my fieldwork there at 2011-12 is a desperate need for search of the “historical truth”. This, as they hope, will help them to answer on the question “Who are we in fact?” This is the demand they have to take from their neighboring villages and Karakol, as well as from mass media, mainly represented by Kyrgyz majority. The current Kyrgyzstan’s reality and the soviet heritage of national policy shape this question.
The majority of publications, both academic and media, tell about this village as Kalmak/Sart-Kalmak. Censuses contain a title “Kalmyks” in the list of nations/ethnic groups. However the village represents itself officially as Kyrgyz at the raion level events.
In this dissertation I want to answer to the questions: what and how constitutes the cognitive schema called Kalmak/Sart-Kalmak, in what circumstances what role it plays, and how it explains the current national politics of Kyrgyzstan?
My interest under this is who, when, how and why define (and understand) three concepts: Kalmak, Sart-Kalmak and Kyrgyz. How boundaries work between them? How has the understanding of this boundary shifted through time, and how are contemporary social, political and economic processes influencing particular kinds of identity claim? How are the boundaries along the lines of ethnicity have produced and erased in daily life? Why is it important to some people to keep their “other” than Kyrgyz identity in contemporary Kyrgyzstan? Through understanding the boundaries of these ethnic concepts in one particular settlement I aim to analyze the dynamics of ethnic relations in Kyrgyzstan within minority and the state paradigm.
Abteilung Integration und Konflikt, Max-Planck Institut für ethnologische Forschung
Photo 1: Head of the local administration of Chelpek gives an interview to Mongolian journalist, after the meeting with Mongolia President, Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, April 2012, © Aida Alymbaeva
Photo 2: At the mosque, that is claimed to be the oldest in northern Kyrgyzstan by Chelpek villagers, Chelpek, Kyrgyzstan, © Aida Alymbaeva
Photo 3: Genghis Khan: The Genghis Khan small shop at the center of the village is used to be considered by visitors as one of claims to the Kalmak roots of Chelpek villagers, © Aida Alymbaeva