Like most former Soviet republics, Kyrgyzstan spent its post-independence years hunting for a national identity separate from the one forced on it by Moscow, and that search included the resurgence of some very un-Slavic-sounding names. But today, with hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz depending on ties with Russia as their key source of income, bread-and-butter worries are trumping ideology. So it's out with the "uulus" and in with the "-ovs."
After independence in 1991, many Kyrgyz began dropping Russian suffixes like “-ov/-ova” from their last names. Under then-President Askar Akayev, nationalists saw the Kyrgyz suffixes “kyzy” and “uulu” (“daughter of” and “son of”) as important identity markers and began urging people to add them to a father’s first name, altogether dropping last names in the Western sense. At times, hospital staff did not give parents a choice, writing the new, aggrandized patronymics onto birth certificates.
Now, in a sign of Kyrgyzstan’s enduring dependence on its former imperial overlord, the trend is in reverse. Many Kyrgyz are succumbing to widespread rumor that they will face trouble with the names when they travel abroad, especially to Russia; they are re-adding the Russian suffixes for themselves and their children. For example, Ayana Bazarkulova, 15, was, until recently, Ayana Gumon kyzy.
“We changed our daughter’s name from having a kyzy ending to Bazarkulova, because I have heard that some problems might occur when she leaves the country,” Ayana’s mother Zahida tells EurasiaNet.org. “Also, I never really liked that kyzy and uulu thing because when my daughter was born in 1995 nobody asked when they were giving out birth certificates. When I received her certificate, she already had a kyzy name on it. Nobody had asked me.”
Today, fervent pro-Kyrgyz sentiment persists in local politics, with the most vocally nationalist of the country's parties scoring the most seats in last fall's parliamentary election. But Russia, with its regional economic-powerhouse status, is no longer the butt of bad feeling. That mantle has passed to other "others," from Uzbeks and Americans to independent-minded Muslims. And with so many Kyrgyz dependent on migration to Russia for work, a “Kyrgyz” last name, consisting of two words with the second always in lowercase, is seen as a bureaucratic liability.
“I changed my name from Begayim Kubanychbek kyzy to Begayim Kubanychbekova about two years ago. My relatives told me that I would have problems with my name abroad. I changed my kyzy name to avoid potential problems in the future,” Kubanychbekova, 19, says. “For me it doesn’t make a difference. For me it’s just a name.”
The change is registered at a local passport office, where officials confirm the trend is sparked by fear of Russian authorities. Officials estimate that in Bishkek alone approximately 1,000 people -- half men and half women -- are changing their names back to the Russian form each year.
“Lately, many people do it for Russia, because they have problems with kyzy and uulu names there. Russian authorities demand it [the change] to register in schools and universities and more,” Abulmajin Akmashaev, head of Kyrgyzstan’s Department of Citizenship and Passport Control, told EurasiaNet.org.
Ainura Busurmankulova, head of the passport control office of Pervomaisky District in Bishkek, stresses that the choice is voluntary.
“Nobody makes our citizens change their last names from uulu or kyzy to the -ov/-ova endings,” she says. “In the 1990’s people were told to take new uulu and kyzy names, but now people are changing their names voluntarily because many parents are afraid to send their kids to school or to work in Russia.”
Busurmankulova says that if Russian officials are practicing such discrimination, they are breaking their own laws, but admits the migrants from Kyrgyzstan have little recourse. “They don’t have the right to reject our names. Here we accept all kinds of names – Chinese and others. These are our traditional names. I don’t know why they wouldn’t accept them,” she says.
Despite the fear of problems abroad, for some, the traditional names are a badge of pride.
“I have heard about the trend, but I decided not to change my name. The kyzy suffix means more than just a name. For me it means supporting and carrying my national and cultural heritage. I wouldn’t want to change my name to something Russian sounding,” 20-year-old Jibek Nurdin kyzy told EurasiaNet.org.
Nurdin kyzy believes corrupt officials at home may be encouraging the rumors about trouble abroad simply to seek profit: “I have been abroad and I have never had problems with my name. But when I was getting my passport, they asked whether I would like to change my name to the old style. So many people are changing their names now. But I think for them [the passport officials] it is just another way of making money. It’s profitable to spread this kind of rumor.”
Alina Dalbaeva is a freelance reporter from Bishkek.