In the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, new nations emerged on the world map. While some, like the Baltic States, swiftly distanced themselves from their Soviet past, others, particularly the five Central Asian countries, remained within Russia's sphere. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan thrived due to abundant resources, but Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan faced prolonged turmoil. Tajikistan endured a bloody civil war until 1997, leading to ongoing dictatorship, while Kyrgyzstan grappled with the collapse of state institutions, resulting in chaos, unemployment, and societal challenges. Jobs disappeared, people faced challenges adapting to the free market economy, gangs proliferated, alcoholism surged, and there was a scarcity of both food and goods.
These nations maintained strong ties with Russia. Only recently have people begun questioning this relationship, pondering their proficiency in Russian over their native languages and questioning the persistence of Lenin statues and Soviet-style education. Despite economic and security reliance on Russia, a genuine quest for independence is hindered. The war in Ukraine triggered a decolonization process in Kyrgyzstan, while Tajikistan's authoritarian president spearheads a search for identity by reshaping the capital to express Tajik/Persian heritage.

Examining the origins and historical narrative of one's nation and people becomes crucial in the quest for identity.
Kyrgyzstan is experiencing a revival of memory, acknowledging its concealed history—the 1916 genocide, Stalinist repressions, forced deportations, and recent turbulent events, including three violent revolutions that toppled the government and a 2023 war with Tajikistan.

Once isolated from global trends, the region is now entangled in their currents. The worldwide surge of authoritarian regimes hasn't spared Kyrgyzstan, once lauded for its commitment to democracy despite authoritarian neighbours. Its recent shift toward authoritarianism is marked by closer ties to Russia, a diminishing parliamentary role, the imposition of conservative norms, increased censorship, and a concerning decline in press freedom.
As globalization reaches these countries, it brings opportunities and challenges, demanding a delicate balance between preserving traditions and adapting to modern demands. In 2023, these nations stand at a crossroads, navigating a resurgence of lost traditions while integrating into globalism amid mounting pressure from world powers. China has become the leading trading partner, exerting growing influence, while Europe, the United States, India, Turkey, and Japan express their intent to fortify ties and build strategic partnerships.
This ongoing reflection prompts a deeper exploration of Kyrgyz and Tajik identity, highlighting the challenges of rebuilding a prosperous independent state from scratch.

Alinazar worked for a few years in Moscow, like many Tajik men. The labor migrants account for almost 30% of Tajikistan's GDP. Labour migrants in Russia are greatly stigmatized and face a lot of racism there. Now Alinzar is jobless and back in his village in the Pamir mountains on the border with Afghanistan, where an increasing number of young men is seeking their fortune in Russia or beyond.

9th may is still celebrated in Kyrgyzstan. This Russian holiday celebrates the victory of the Soviet Union over the nazis. In 2023 the only leaders who attended Putins parade in Moscow were the Central Asian presidents.

A Soviet Era funfair in Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan. In summer, big crowds of tourists from neighboring Uzbekistan come to spend their holiday here

A textile factory with Soviet mural that says ''our work to you, the motherland!'' The factory is still in use. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

An USSR memorabilia shop in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Fara is dancing salsa in the park, Dushanbe, Tajikistan. She started giving salsa lessons to spice up the liveless capital. She said her family members were worried and tried to persuade her to just teach Tajik dance; the country is not used to new things and this is not our culture, is what they said.

The Wedding Palace, built in Soviet times, but still in use. Under communist administration, all public expressions of religion were banned Bishkek, so there were no mosques or churches for wedding ceremonies. The wedding palace was a compromise from the Soviet authorities.

Kyrgyzstan

Umed works as a musician in his village high up in the Pamir mountains. The Pamiri's are an ethnic minority in Tajikistan, today there is still animosity between the government in the west and the Pamiris in the east, stemming from the civil war when ethnic cleansing by the hand of government forces took place. At a wedding party he is dancing the traditional Pamiri dance after playing songs all evening.

Girls dressed up at Kolfest. A 3 day festival at the shores of Issykul, where eletronic music parties are held continously from friday evening till monday morning. It is a chance to dress up extravagantly without attracting negative comments. Issykul, KYrgyzstan (Tong, Issykul)

On Kurman Ait, the holy sacrifice holiday in Islam, people attend the overcrowded mosque for morning prayer. After the prayer, all families will slaughter a sheep and have a big meal with family and friends. Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan

Children of a nomad family blindfold their family member for a game where they have to try hit a bucket with a stick blindfolded. For 4 months per year they live in their yurts at this high altitude plain, to tend cattle and rent out yurts for tourists. There is no internet or phone and the temperature drops to zero at night in summer

the first KFC opened in Tajikistan in 2021. For months hourlong ques were the norm. 2 months later it is still immensly popular. Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Men playing Kok-Boru. Teams on horseback must pick up a decapitated goat carcass from the ground andthrow it into the other's goal. The rough game is played mainly by young men.

An emotional father saying goodbye to his 18 year old son who is going to the US to study, at a going away party in their home. Bisjkek, Kyrgyzstan

A girl is doing here makeup before going to the parties at Kolfest.

A fashion show was held at Kolfest, a 3-day festival at Lake Issykoel. More and more designers are incorporating old traditional patterns and methods into modern clothing

At museum night, women are demonstrating to visitors in the Natural History museum how the old traditional headdresses are put on. Bisjkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Musain is a luthier who spends his life crafting the traditional Tajik lutes, called Rubabs. Persian folk songs are played on this, which often take their lyrics from famous poets like Rumi and Hafez. Pamir mountains, Tajikistan

Men celebrating a birthday. For dinner, the men and women separated but rejoined at later moments. Singing traditional songs, eating horsemeat and men drinking vodka is common. 

Visitors at Museum Night at the national history museum look at portraits of the 6 presidents Kyrgyzstan had. 3 of them were ousted through violent revolutions.. Kyrgyzstan remains the only country in Central Asia where the population dared to rise up against their leaders. Current president Japarov came to power in 2020 after demonstrators removed him from jail and he was voted in a later held, although supposdely rigged, election. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Women participating in a cultural festival are tying traditional headgear. This headdress - the elechek - used to indicate a woman's social status, for example, whether she was married. Many traditional elements such as headdresses and hairstyles fell out of use or were lost during repressions during the Soviet Union, when expressions of Kyrgyz identity were banned. Nowadays there are regular cultural festivals showcasing traditional aspects of Kyrgyz life, such as eagle hunting, archery and traditional clothing. Kyrgyz people were alienated from their traditions for a long time, after they were suppressed and ridiculed by the Soviet government for 70 years. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in our own traditions, especially since the war in Ukraine. (Kyzyl-tuu, Issykoel)

members of the Munduz tribe play a traditional Kyrgyz song. They are presenting their customs at the World Nomad Games, a bi-annual event that aims to conserve nomad sports, traditions and culture. Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan

A boy cycles among the abandoned flats of Engilcheck.  A mining town set up by the Soviets and once crawling with workers and families living their life. After the collapse, almost everybody left. Almost all the buildings, mines and machinery have been left behind. A few families still live here in complete isolation.

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