Certificate of purges (Kyrgyzstan)

Certificate of purges (Kyrgyzstan)

This birth certificate is a typical Soviet document of personal identification. Its aim was to register individuals and create a relationship with the state. Birth certificates registered one’s name, parents’ names, and ethnic belonging. Known as the “fifth paragraph”, the ethnic belonging decided not only one’s career prospects, but also that person’s fate. During Stalinism, ethnic belonging could result in purges.  

This was more than a simply bureaucratic fixing of personal identity. The document is also a monument to societal silence, fear of Stalinist ethnic violence, and peoples’ humanness. It carries a story of concealment, distortions, assimilation, subversions and inter-ethnic cooperation. The document shows Sart-Kalmak (misspelled as ‘Sarat-Kalmyk’) and Tatar as an ethnic identification. However, the person later changed to ‘Kyrgyz’ identity to avoid Stalin’s purges. Soviet identity documents were material objects that not only established truths, but also concealed and subverted them. It is only through personal histories that we can resurrect their making and their force.

Sometime during Stalin’s rule, probably in 1942, my paternal grandfather, Turdukhodzha Iskakov, wrote to Stalin to spare a large group of ethnic Sart-Kalmaks from arrest. They were stopped on their way to the frontline to fight Nazi Germany and suspected of collaboration with the Nazi regime. ‘Kalmak’ sounded too close to ‘Kalmyk’ of the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic that was occupied by the Nazi and accused of collaboration with Hitler. Sart-Kalmaks, along with several other ethnic groups, faced immediate deportation to forced labor camps in Siberia. My grandfather, also Sart-Kalmak and a senior Communist Party official in the Kyrgyz SSR at the time, wrote to Stalin with a plea not to associate Sart-Kalmaks with Kalmyks, and to save them from repression and possible extermination (it’s likely that several other party leaders signed the letter as well).

The effort paid off – the Sart-Kalmaks were released, but the Soviets never trusted the ethnic group to serve in the Red Army. The incident shook the community and marked a turning point in the determination of Sart-Kalmaks to blend with the Kyrgyz. From then on, Sart-Kalmak children were registered as Kyrgyz. Until the end of the Soviet regime, Sart-Kalmaks also chose to deny any attempts by Kalmyks to build ties between the two communities.  

Sart-Kalmaks have lived on the eastern frontier of today’s Kyrgyzstan since the nineteenth century. They differ from Kalmyks considerably: while the Sart-Kalmaks are Muslim, Kalmyks are Buddhist. Prior to the Soviet period, they spoke Oirat, a Mongolic language. Today, many are still registered as ethnic Kyrgyz, and Oirat is on the brink of extinction.

Both the Sart-Kalmak Kyrgyz and the ethnic Kyrgyz kept quiet about forced assimilation. And yet it is central to the story. The power of silence had it costs. We’ve lost history of an entire ethnic group.

I learned this story in the late 1990s, long after my grandfather’s death in 1959. When becoming privy to the secret, I didn’t question the story or ask for more details. It was a fleeting remark made between conversations among his elder children, my aunts and uncles. Even though decades had passed, this act of defiance was still silenced. Over time, the story was rarely repeated and faded into family lore. I had to collect disconnected threads from different relatives – my father, uncle, and cousins.

Despite his action, my grandfather’s career advanced in the Kyrgyz SSR. He served as a minister of agriculture (1953-1959), deputy chair of the council of ministers (1943-1953) and a deputy in the Supreme Council. That glorified Soviet side of his biography is carefully preserved. In the family’s favorite picture, he stands in front of a horn of plenty overflowing with corn kernels and baked goods. My grandfather’s high rank in the Party granted him direct access to Stalin, a connection that likely contributed to the survival of Sart-Kalmaks. Only Stalin’s decision could spare an ethnic group from extermination, anyone below him was too afraid to make a move.

I still have many questions. How, exactly, did my grandfather tried to persuade Stalin not to punish his fellow Sart-Kalmaks? What did my grandfather feel when seeing his fellow villagers faced grave danger? Did he realize he was taking a huge risk? How could he have ascended into the highest ranks of Party leadership knowing what the Soviet regime had done to his community? Was he afraid for his own life?

Dr. Erica Marat is an Associate Professor at the National Defense University, USA. Her research focuses on violence, mobilization and security institutions in Eurasia, India, and Mexico. She has authored several books, including most recently The Politics of Police Reform: Society against the State in Post-Soviet Countries (Oxford University Press 2018). Her articles appeared in Foreign Affairs, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Eurasanet, and Open Democracy.