Thursday, May 05, 2005

Holiday number two

Today is Constitution Day in Kyrgyzstan, the second of three holidays in the first week of May. But the real focus is on Victory Day, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II (here called the Great Patriotic War) which will take place on Monday.

Yesterday I saw two trucks full of soldiers dismounting near the central square.

“Oh no. What’s happening now?” I asked our driver Malik, fearing new unrest.

“They are preparing for the Victory Day parade,” he said.

Many surviving veterans have been invited to Moscow and the red carpet seems to be rolled out for them during the whole journey. On my flight yesterday from Osh to Bishkek, airport staff greeted, seated and catered to two old Kyrgyz men in gold-embroidered kalpaks. I only realized at the end of the flight that they were probably veterans going to Moscow.

On my flight from Bishkek to Moscow, several old men (mostly ethnic Russians) wore jackets filled with dangling metal Soveit pins. As we boarded, they were pulled aside to be reseated in business class.

“I guess we’re flying separately,” one old man joked as a second was pulled out of line.

The intercom at the Moscow Sheremetyevo airport announced that veterans could get free tickets for a bus ride into town.

It’s moving to see these survivors and imagine the horrors they must have been exposed to at an early age. Going thorugh the war should have been enough sacrifice for one lifetime. But some of them must also have been among those sent into Stalinist labor camps upon their return, or must have lost friends or family in Stalin’s purges. I wonder what they think that where their country and people have come since ten and I hope they feel the horror they deserve for their sacrifices.

I’m now on my way to Holland, to meet my boyfriend for the holiday weekend. It was difficult getting the one work day off of work and I’m very glad to be on my way.

I spent yesterday evening with Gulnara and her family. In honor of my visit they prepared manti, steamed dumpling filled with potatoes, greens and fat. Gulnara baked a fresh loaf of bread, as she does every day, and made a salad from tomatoes, radishes and cucumbers. When her sister-in-law, a 10th grade student, opened the mayonnaise to put on the salad, she rubbed off a contest piece and found that she’d won an iron.

Her brother-in-law Ruslan grilled me on history, especially about the U.S. role in World War II and seemed to gloat in my poor knowledge. Though they were all Kyrgyz, none of them seemed to particularly like the south, taking pride in the fact that Bishkek is “more European” and has “more ethnic Russians.” Given the mass exodus of Russians that took place after the revolution, I’m not sure how much longer that will last. “It’s kind of life how it was in America, when there was a war between the north and the south,” Ruslan said. “It could be the same way here.”

It doesn’t help that there is a clear north-south division between the two primary presidential candidates. Bakiyev, the acting President, is from the southern city of Jalalabat and was put in power by protestors from the south. Kulov, an authoritarian figure, has a Russian wife and reputedly has trouble speaking Kyrgyz.

Gulnara sat me on the bed she shares with her husband Shakir and showed me the pregnancy book they read together in the evenings. She told me that she’s found an obstretrician she likes and the hospital where she’ll give birth (maternity ward #4). In Kyrgyzstan, women don’t receive any painkillers unless there is a serious problem.

“They told me that if I got painkillers then I wouldn’t feel anything. And if something happened like the baby pressed against the kidneys, I wouldn’t feel it and they could explode.”

She recently graduated from a local MBA program and her graduation ceremony was on the day of the revolution in Bishkek. I asked if she had any photos.

“Not really. I’m waiting to get some from friends. We were all dressed in our caps and gowns and we planned to spend the whole day together, to go out to a cafĂ©. But the administration told us that people were gathered and that they’d just taken over the White House. So we needed to get home.”

I’m now seated on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Amsterdam. The difference in flights heading west versus east is astonishing. I have a whole row to myself, the seats are spacious and skinny, the cabin is cool and bright and the flight staff nicely attired. The flights to Bishkek have old, crummy seats, in which my knees press into the seat in front of me, the air is heavy and dark and the service poor in the best Russian tradition.

I’m entering a part of the world with higher standards, where fewer people complain about the lack of work and absence of a future for their children.

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