While hard economic times in Kyrgyzstan may prompt feelings of nostalgia among some for the Soviet era, few days pass in the remote mountain village of Orto Talaa when many residents don’t curse the calamity that was Communist central planning.
Orto Talaa came into being in 1988. Soviet state planners back then envisioned the new settlement as a safe-haven from the nearby village of Buiga, where persistent landslides had flattened homes and devastated livelihoods. A second wave of relocation occurred in 2004. Now, there are about 50 families in Orto Talaa, all of them transplants. While residents are thankful that their homes no longer face the threat of being crushed by cascading rocks, life in Orto Talaa has not lived up to the promise of a better future, a promise made by a Soviet government that no longer exists.
“There is no school, hospital, or market here. … It is very difficult in winter because of the cold and wind,” said Jamilya Mineshova, whose family settled in Orto Talaa during the first migration wave in 1988. Pointing to a pipe, the only source of water in the village, she laments, “People and animals drink from the same water here.”
Where Orto Talaa now stands on a plateau in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan Mountains there used be a wheat field, watered by a massive Soviet-built irrigation system that coursed through the hills. Although the clear, blue Tar River is within sight of the village, the pumps that once brought water up to Orto Talaa’s fields fell into a state of disrepair and were later looted by scavengers. “There is no water here for vegetables,” says Mineshova. “There is no land for agriculture. We only keep animals. When we came for the first time, I grew some vegetables, but not anymore.”
Walking along Orto Talaa’s muddy streets offers a stark reminder of the extent to which Kyrgyzstan’s rural towns are products of central planning. In the 1960s and 1970s, state planners raised production targets for meat and wool. That forced the ever-underperforming Soviet agricultural machine to expand into the foothills of the Tien Shan; nomadic pastoralists found themselves transformed into collective farmers. Towns with names commemorating mythic events in the Communist calendar – like “First of May” and “October” – were outfitted to satisfy the needs of a settled society. But in Orto Talaa, founded just as the Soviet experiment started to teeter on the precipice of collapse, promised infrastructure projects were never finished.
Villagers explain that children are the ones who, these days, suffer the most. A half-baked Soviet legacy means that what should be mundane activities, such as walking to and from school, have been turned into a daily hazard for kids in Orto Talaa.
Jakshylyk Tashmamatov will graduate this year. He was born in Orto Talaa, but since the village has no school he attends classes in Tokbai Talaa, three kilometers away. “Young children don’t go to school in winter sometimes,” Tashmamatov says, standing on the empty lot where Moscow had promised to build the village school. “In spring it takes half an hour. In winter it takes an hour [to walk].”
Villagers explain that the combination of cold temperatures, heavy snow, and the strong winds that sweep down the narrow Tar River valley can transform the daily commute into an exhausting trudge, especially for younger children. And if severe weather was not enough, another danger lurks along the way. “There are coyotes here in the winter,” observed Nurale Amatov, a local teacher. “It is dangerous for children.”
Without the resources to fulfill Moscow’s broken promises, Kyrgyzstan’s government these days must choose between addressing the school crisis and nature’s unpredictability. In Buiga, locals claim the number of landslides has increased in recent years as a result of changing precipitation patterns and the region’s persistent seismic volatility. Landslides continue to threaten families in Buiga, and every year the government tries to relocate people to Orto Talaa, despite the lack of basic services there.
In winter, the winding road from Orto Talaato Buiga, located farther up the river valley, is impassable by car. Daut Toktobaev, a local veterinarian, frequently makes the trip back to his former village on horseback to reach clients. Toktobaev, who relocated in 2004, is among those who see life in Orto Talaa as an improvement. “Life is good here, better than in Buiga. In Buiga we always lived in danger.”
That danger persists for the residents of Buiga who, despite unsafe conditions, have refused relocation. “Some people stay in Buiga, especially elderly people, because it is too difficult to move,” says Mineshova. “They feel that it is their home. They say ‘my grandmother lived here.’”
Michael Igoe is a freelance reporter specializing in environmental issues in Central Asia.