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Kyrgyzstan, The People of Kyrgyzstan

Dungans, Fergana Valley, Chinese Muslims, Kyrgyz language, Turkic language

Kyrgyzstan has a population (2002 estimate) of 4,822,166, giving it an average population density of 24 persons per sq km (63 per sq mi). The population is clustered in two principal areas: the Fergana Valley in the southwest and the Chu Valley in the north. Only 33 percent of the population lives in urban areas. The two largest cities are Bishkek, the capital, located on the Chu River in the far north; and Osh, located in the Fergana Valley.

Ethnic Kyrgyz constitute about 57 percent of the population of Kyrgyzstan. Russians, who live principally in Bishkek and other industrial centers, are the largest minority group with about 18 percent of the population. Uzbeks live primarily in the Fergana Valley and constitute about 14 percent of the population. Other ethnic groups include Ukrainians, Tatars, Germans, Kazakhs, Hui (Dungans, or Chinese Muslims), Uygurs (Uighurs), and Tajiks. More than 200,000 Russians and 60,000 Germans have emigrated since Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991.

Since 1989, Kyrgyz has been the state language of Kyrgyzstan. Because of the country’s large Russian and Russian-speaking minorities, Russian is recognized officially as a language of interethnic communication. It remains the most important language in national politics, commerce, and higher education. Kyrgyz is a Turkic language that is closely related to the Kazakh language. It was written in the Arabic script until 1928, when the Soviet authorities mandated a switch to a modified Latin (Roman) script. In 1940 a modified version of Cyrillic (the script of the Russian language) officially replaced the Latin script. In 1991 the government of an independent Kyrgyzstan announced its intention to gradually reintroduce the Latin script.

The predominant religion in Kyrgyzstan is Islam. The Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations, along with the country’s other Central Asian groups, are almost all Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. The Muslims in the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan are generally more devout than those in the north. The Russian population is traditionally Orthodox Christian. Kyrgyz people practiced ancient rituals of shamanism before their conversion to Islam, which occurred mostly in the 19th century. During most of the Soviet period the officially atheistic Communist regime severely restricted religious practice. The importance of religion has increased substantially since Kyrgyzstan became independent.

Kyrgyzstan has an adult literacy rate of 99.6 percent. Illiteracy was nearly abolished during the Soviet period, when the government instituted a comprehensive system of free and universal education. Education is compulsory for ten years, or until the age of 16. Institutes of higher education include Kyrgyz State University, the Kyrgyz-Slavonic University, and the Kyrgyz-American University, all located in Bishkek.

Oral epics dating from ancient times are an important cultural tradition in Kyrgyzstan and throughout Central Asia. These epos (unwritten narrative epics based on legend) are performed to a melody by minstrels, who the Kyrgyz call akyndar. In Kyrgyzstan the tradition includes an entire series of epos called Manas. The narrative revolves around a heroic archetype called Manas and his battles against hostile hordes in order to carve out a homeland for his people. Akyndar who can recite and improvise from the Manas epos are called manaschi. The oral tradition waned during the Soviet period as literacy increased, but in the mid-1990s the Manas epics were revived. They are venerated as a vital part of the Kyrgyz literary tradition.

In the early 20th century a reformist school of thought spread among the intelligentsia of Central Asia. One member of this movement was Kyrgyz poet, scholar, and nationalist political leader Qasim Tinistan-uulu. Tinistan-uulu was executed in 1934, during Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s massive purges of Soviet society. Later in the Soviet period, Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov gained international renown, beginning with his collection of short stories entitled Tales of Mountains and Steppes (English translation published in 1969). His other important works include Farewell, Gulsary! (1970), The White Ship (1972), and The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (1980). Aitmatov also cowrote the play The Ascent of Mount Fuji (first produced in Moscow in 1973) with Kazakh playwright Kaltay Muhamedjanov; the play delves into the moral compromises that people had to make under Stalin. Kyrgyz writer Kazat Akmatov used fiction to express criticism of Soviet oppression. Among his works is the novel Years Around the Sun (1992). In the late 1980s both Aitmatov and Akmatov were active in reformist politics; Aitmatov sought to revive interest in the Kyrgyz language, while Akmatov was a prominent figure in the Kyrgyz movement for democratic reforms.

Cultural institutions in Kyrgyzstan are limited mainly to the urban centers. The Kyrgyz State Museum of Fine Art and the State Historical Museum of Kyrgyzstan are both located in Bishkek.

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