Monday, November 21, 2016

Kyrgyz Who Fought Bolsheviks in Central Asia in 1920s Now Guard Turkey’s Eastern Border

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 21 – One of the most remarkable odysseys is that of the Kyrgyz who fought as basmachis against the Soviets in the 1920s, fled to China before the communist takeover there, moved to the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan before fleeing again to Pakistan in 1978, and then, blocked from moving to Alaska, resettled around Lake Van in eastern Turkey.

            Some 4,000 of them have been living in Turkey since 1983, 3000 near Lake Van and the rest in major Turkish cities.  And in yet another remarkable twist of fate, they have largely lost their language but not their culture and in addition to their traditional agricultural pursuits, work as border guards for Turkey.

            Over the last 25 years, Bishkek has sometimes displayed interest in their return to Kyrgyzstan, but that interest appears to have waned in recent times, although the Kyrgyzstan authorities have supported visits by Turkey’s Kyrgyz and an expedition to the Pamir region of Afghanistan where some of the relatives of Turkey’s Kyrgyz still live.

            Not surprisingly, this small community has attracted only occasional attention internationally. (For background on this, see But in the past month, two remarkable articles have appeared in Kyrgyzstan about them and how they have grown apart from Kyrgyz in their homeland.

                The articles by Almir Almambetov ( and provide some telling details on what appears likely to be the last stop of this Kyrgyz odyssey.

            According to the members of this community, their “most important problem” is the lack of opportunity to study Kyrgyz. In the 1990s, Bishkek sent teachers under the terms of an agreement between Bishkek and Ankara; but that agreement has lapped. Now, they say, “almost no one converses in Kyrgyz.”

            But otherwise, the Kyrgyz of the Lake Van region says, “there are no other problems.” Things are better for them than for those who did not leave the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan when they did, although perhaps not as good as they could have been if the US had allowed them to resettle in Alaska as they had hoped.

            Relations between the Lake Van Kyrgyz and the Kurds in eastern Turkey are also relatively good. “We seek to live quietly and peacefully,” the Kyrgyz say; “and they in their turn do the same.” 

            The Lake Van Kyrgyz are grateful to Turkey for providing them asylum and display their gratitude by serving as border guard and maintaining stability in their own villages.  The Kyrgyz border guards stay in one place for ten to fifteen years, they point out; and they receive a monthly salary of 350 to 400 US dollars.

            The Kyrgyz of Lake Van seek to maintain their Kyrgyz culture, but over time, they suggest, “many differences” have emerged and it appears more are likely to as the Kyrgyz of Lake Van are Turkified.  Indeed, those Kyrgyz who have tried to resettle in Kyrgyzstan have found it hard, and most have come back to Turkey after a few years.

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