When 37-year-old Georgii Kolotov was growing up in Bishkek during the last decade of the Soviet era, he was largely unaware of a Jewish community. There were more than 10,000 Jews living in Bishkek at the time, but for young Kolotov and most other Jews, there was little sense of a distinctly Jewish identity.
There were no Jewish celebrations or social gatherings, and Kolotov was unaware of the covert synagogue. The only thing that gave him a feeling for what it meant to be Jewish was family visits to his grandparents’ graves in a small cemetery on the outskirts of the city. There he saw the surrounding headstones also bore six-pointed stars. Kolotov didn’t fully understand it at the time, but as he grew up it became clear: in spite of its official ideology of internationalism and friendship of peoples, “the Soviet Union didn’t welcome different ethnic communities,” he said.
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Matthew Kupfer is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.