A man wearing a cowboy hat and an American-flag shirt sits astride a Pershing missile. His face has been peeled away, exposing his skull. Nearby, a Kyrgyz grandmother in traditional dress, a naked child and a Russian Orthodox priest, among others, demand, in English, “No more Hiroshimas!”
The mural is one of many elaborate paintings adorning the ceilings of Bishkek’s State History Museum as they guide visitors through a broad tract of Kyrgyzstan’s history: from cavemen and mounted warriors, to the cruelties of the Russian tsar, to the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II and the years of the Cold War.
Today the fate of the murals is uncertain. In January, Kyrgyzstan’s culture minister proposed to hide away the museum’s communist past and focus more on the country’s non-Soviet history, AKIpress reported. President Almazbek Atambayev said he supported the idea.
Little else has emerged about the plan. Both the museum’s director and the Ministry of Culture refused to discuss the collection’s future with EurasiaNet.org.
The cowboy sitting Dr. Strangelove-style on the missile is widely thought to be former US President Ronald Reagan. After all, the Lenin Museum, as the building was then known, opened in 1984, shortly after Reagan proposed his Strategic Defensive Initiative, or ‘Star Wars,’ to defend North America against a Soviet missile attack. The proposal sparked fears of a new arms race between Washington and Moscow. NATO, meanwhile, was deploying a new generation of Pershing missiles in Europe. It wasn’t a time for subtleties.
The museum, like others across the vast Soviet empire, celebrated Vladimir Lenin’s triumphs in the revolution of 1917 and the glories of the state built by his Bolsheviks. There are also nods to Kyrgyz culture: yurts, felt kalpak hats, a life-size model horse wearing an elaborate saddle. Some of the murals celebrate idealized visions of that culture: horsemen in kalpaks, a fruit-laden wedding, a man strumming his fretless komuz.
All this failed to capture the imagination of the few visitors on a recent Saturday: children playing with a ball, a teenage couple canoodling in a dark corner. Outside the landmark white cube of a building on Ala-Too Square, few people queried by EurasiaNet.org had ever heard of Reagan or even been inside.
Today the museum is a bit of a time capsule. It holds virtually no exhibits on the past two decades, with their two revolutions and the rise of a new national pride, sometimes ambivalent, sometimes aggressive. All the former Soviet republics in Central Asia have been rewriting their history since independence, often lionizing semi-mythic kings – in Kyrgyzstan’s case, Manas – and usually playing down Russian and Soviet influences. But in Kyrgyzstan, those efforts have stayed outside the history museum. At least for now.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.