Kyrgyzstan’s Red Revolution gets redder

Kyrgyzstan, the small Central Asian country which sprung onto the global scene in April, boggling the minds of American news anchors, has returned. What I then called the “red revolution” has turned redder as ethnic violence swept through the southern city of Osh and Jalal-Abad this weekend. On Thursday, marauding gangs began rampaging, attacking Uzbeks, burning government buildings, banks, cafes, and even an Uzbek theater first in Osh and then in Jalal-Abad. Uzbeks locked themselves in their homes as rumors spread they would be killed on the street. Uzbeks, being the minority, fled over the border in the tens of thousands into Uzbekistan. Interim president Roza Otunbayeva declared a state of emergency and countrywide curfew, dispatched troops with shoot-to-kill orders, pleaded to Russia for help, and blamed supporters of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiev for the violence. President Medvedev balked at sending a full force to stabilize the situation fearing that a large force could drag Russia into a much unwanted quagmire. Instead he sent a contingent of 300 paratroopers to protect Russia’s Kant airbase. On Sunday, RIA Novosti reported that Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic leaders were prepared for reconciliation talks. We’ll see how prepared they are and whether they matter in the coming days. The numbers as of now: 113 dead, 1292 wounded, an estimated 75,000 refugees have fled into Uzbekistan.

A Prayer for the Presidents

Contrary to what most people think, I see few signs of the neo-Sovietization of Russia. What I have observed, however, is a return to Russian traditionalism, even a kind of re-embrace of Tsarist symbolism. I’ve noticed this in several areas of Russian daily life: Christmas cards with the recently canonized last Romanov family, icons of the last Tsar sold in kiosks, large portraits of Petr Stolypin and Sergei Witte at the entrance of the International University, and book after book reevaluating the late Tsarist period, newly published volumes of Stolypin’s collected works, and the memoirs of not only Witte, but the diaries and biographies of princes and princesses in bookstores.

Let us also not forget the growing assertiveness of the Orthodox Church in cultural and political life, or the fact that Dmitri Medvedev’s inauguration looked like a Tsarist coronation more than anything. They might as well had placed the Russian Constitution on his head rather than having him swear to it. To me, “Sovereign democracy” is more reminiscent of Nicholas I’s “Official Nationality” with its cornerstones Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality. Indeed, even the portraits of Putin and Medvedev hanging on chinovniki’s walls are more Tsarist in origin. As is the “cult of personality” Putin recently denied he had. This is not to say that Russia hasn’t changed. It’s only to suggest that it takes from its Tsarist as much as its Soviet pasts as it negotiates the present contours of its national character.