Frunze Museum, Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan)

Frunze Museum, Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan)

Mikhail Vasil’evich Frunze (1885 – 1925) was a Bolshevik leader during the Revolution and the Civil War. Frunze was born in Bishkek (then: Pishpek) into an imperial settler family. Frunze’s father Vasily, a military physician of Moldovan origin, served in the Russian colony of Turkestan and stayed there. His mother Martha had moved to Russian Turkestan as a peasant settler from Central Russia. Frunze graduated from the men’s gymnasium in Verny (now Almaty). In 1904, he moved to European Russia for studying and began his career as a revolutionary. He didn´t return to Turkestan until February 1920, when he entered Tashkent as the victorious commander of the Red Army’s Turkfront, and left in autumn of the same year. He reached the peak of his career in 1925, replacing Trotsky as People’s Commissar of War and Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council. His early death on 31 October 1925 during an ulcer operation gave rise to rumours about him being murdered by Trotsky or Stalin, which are being retold until today.

Frunze’s birthplace became a museum already in the year of his death in 1925. It contained an exhibition about Frunze’s achievements as a leader of the revolution and his early years.
Original items belonging to the Frunze family had to be re-obtained, as Frunze’s mother had moved and sold away most belongings after her husband’s death. The original house constructed by Vasily Frunze was heavily modified in 1937 and was replaced by the new museum building still standing today, which opened in 1967, the October Revolution’s 50th anniversary. The original living building of the Frunze family was torn down, an annex that housed the summer kitchen and the doctor’s practice of Vasily Frunze was remodelled and is now inside the museum. The ground floor houses the former annex, the exhibition is to be found on the upper floors. The exhibition – which, according to the museum staff, is basically still the original one – tells Mikhail Frunze’s life as that of a revolutionary hero, displaying a mix of objects and documents, both originals and facsimiles, articles or speeches in Russian and Kyrgyz using the Cyrillic alphabet, memorabilia of all sorts, and pieces of art. The 19th century Frunze house displays original items which once belonged to the Frunze family and presents an idealized view on the lives of settlers in 19th century Turkestan.

The museum also presents a brief exhibition on the history of the city. Bishkek carried the name Frunze for 55 years – from 1926 – 1991. Frunze was the capital of the Kyrgyz Socialist Soviet Republic. Its population rose from about 35.000 to 620.000 during this time. Frunze became a Soviet model city, dominated by modern Soviet architecture – like the Frunze museum, whose architects Iuri Karikh and Gennadi Kutateladze prominently engaged in projecting and constructing the modern city of Frunze. Despite all changes it has undergone under its new – and purportedly historic – name Bishkek, the city is still shaped by this soviet architectural heritage. Bishkek`s townspeople – as in many cities of the former Soviet Union – continue to use the old Soviet street names instead of post-soviet ones. Mikhail Frunze is omnipresent in Bishkek: his equestrian statue stands opposite the main railway station, cars speed along Frunze street in the city centre, townspeople can buy their food in the Frunze supermarket chain’s stores, eat out in Frunze restaurants and lunch counters, and have a Frunze beer.

The celebration of Frunze as a hero of the Revolution and the Soviet Union was in line with an early established Soviet practice. Cities were named after revolutionaries – like Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Ulyanovsk (Simbirsk), Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg), or Poltoratsk (Aşgabat) – and places of significance in their lives turned into museums, serving the purpose of worship. The 1967 Frunze museum is a modernist monumental building made of concrete and glass. In many aspects, it is a smaller and modest version of the gigantesque Lenin memorial in Ulyanovsk, which opened in 1970 and enshrines the house where Lenin-Ulyanov was born in its courtyard. Both museums include a movie theatre, a place for temporary exhibitions. Unlike Bishkek, Ulyanovsk even kept its Soviet name.

The museum section “Frunze and the present” is symbolic in this context: it informs about (mostly military) institutions named after Frunze, the most important of which, the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow, however, discontinued to carry his name in 1998. Despite the showcase “Bishkek – the capital of Kyrgyzstan”, which has been added recently, the “present” of this museum is the Soviet era. In this trajectory, the Soviet heritage is not rejected but integrated into the Kyrgyzstan of the 21st century. Frunze is among Bishkek’s most important sons, symbolizing aspects of a Soviet past todays Kyrgyzstanis can be proud of: modernity and military prowess. The museum bridges the Soviet past – Soviet era literature from and about Frunze is for sale in its shop – and the post-soviet globalized and digitized present with all resulting seeming inconsistencies. It added English language descriptions and QR-codes leading to an audioguide in the exhibition. The museum displays itself on its Website, Facebook, and Instagram. It houses temporary exhibitions honouring 30 years of Kyrgyzstan’s independence, or Jusup Abdrakhmanov, Kyrgyzstan’s first Soviet head of government and a victim of Stalin’s great terror – but it also celebrates centuries of Russian-Kyrgyz friendship. Rumour has it that the Frunze exhibition will be replaced and the museum redesigned into a museum of history of the city of Bishkek. Be this as it may – the formative 55 Frunze years of nowadays Bishkek would have to be an important part of such a new exhibition.

Gero Fedtke is research associate at the Chair for the Comparison of European Dictatorships at Friedrich Schiller University, Jena. He studied Russian and East European History at Cologne University and obtained a PhD in History from Jena University. He has previously worked with the Buchenwald Memorial Foundation on the History of Forced Labour in Nazi-occupied Europe. His research focuses on Russian and Soviet Rule in Central Asia and Soviet literature on Nazi Concentration Camps.