Where Russia’s Declinist Rage Isn’t Enough

An ex-Soviet state’s national myths—as well as the forces of nationalism, economics, culture, and religion—all pull it away from Moscow. Can Russia really compete?

A photograph of a Lenin monument in the village of Kadj Sai in Kyrgyzstan
A monument of Lenin in the village of Kadj Sai in Kyrgyzstan (Ruben Salvadori/contrasto/Redu​x)

The novel Jamilia tells the story of a free-spirited woman trapped in a passionless marriage who is suddenly awakened by the arrival of a mournful, lonely outsider who touches something in her soul. Set in Kyrgyzstan, it achieved a degree of fame in the West after it was praised by the French poet Louis Aragon as “the most beautiful love story in the world.” But there is a darkness to the story as well, a suggestion of violence and control, of forced marriage and a sapping of the human spirit when it is not free.

Woven throughout the novel, published in 1957, is an ambiguity—both about Jamilia, the protagonist, and the society she inhabits; one that is a loyal part of the Soviet Union but with its own connections and feelings for a past distinct from Russia. Jamilia, like Kyrgyzstan, is part of a wider family, but an outsider within it; a woman with passions and desires beyond those imposed upon her in a marriage whose circumstances are left intentionally vague—the reader doesn’t learn whether it was ever of her own choosing.

I read Jamilia last month while traveling through Kyrgyzstan, a small, extraordinarily beautiful country on the eastern edge of “the stans,” those former Soviet republics in Central Asia that seem to have collectively merged in the Western mind. While there, I was traveling through the lost Russian world of Vladimir Putin’s dreams, one he is seeking to bring back to life with appalling brutality in Ukraine. Yet throughout, it was hard to escape the feeling that the tide of the Russian world is on its way out; the waves of its civilization may still lap over its near-abroad, but not as powerfully as they once did. In Kyrgyzstan, like everywhere else, the tidal pull of other civilizations can now be felt. Like its national myths, which look south and east, to battles with Uyghurs and Afghans, the forces of nationalism, economics, culture, and religion all pull it away from Moscow. Russia can stem this tide for a while yet because its influence remains strong, but, in the long term, can it really compete?

At one point in the novel, Jamilia’s mother-in-law tells her how lucky she is to have come into such a “strong and blessed house” by marrying (or being forced to marry) her husband, Sadyk. “That’s your good fortune,” the matriarch says. This is Putin’s vision of the Russian world, a strong and blessed house with Russia as the paterfamilias, tough and occasionally harsh, but ultimately benevolent, sharing the fruits of Russian civilization with those who belong to its world. Jamilia’s mother-in-law, though, completes her remark with a warning. “Happiness, though, belongs to those who retain their honor and conscience.”

Kyrgyzstan is part of the land once known by the Russians as Turkestan, a place that sat at the confluence of competing civilizations that have poured into it over the years, whether Turkic, Mongol, Chinese, Islamic, or Russian.

It was not until the late 19th century that Russian power formally spread over Central Asia, thanks to the usual mix of apparent “invitation” and conquest met with resistance and suppression—a marriage with murky origins of its own. In Kyrgyzstan’s case, the resistance culminated in a mass uprising against conscription into the Russian army in 1916 that was put down with appalling brutality. Not until 1991 would the country win its independence, along with the rest of the old Turkestan.

Kyrgyzstan—a land of snow-capped peaks and lush valleys, yurts and minarets, roaming horses and frozen waterfalls—remained part of the Soviet Union long enough to, in some way, become Soviet. The script is still Cyrillic (Kazakhstan has switched to the Latin alphabet), and guides called Sergey and Vlad can take you to Russian Orthodox churches or valleys marked by statues of the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The national flag might depict the central opening of a yurt, but in the capital, Bishkek, it flies opposite the Soviet-era Parliament, close to an imposing statue of Lenin and a giant mural celebrating Soviet victory in the “Great Patriotic War,” Moscow’s nomenclature for World War II.

There is something astonishing about being so deep into central Asia and feeling the remains of this Russianness, a reminder of Russia’s cultural depth that is hard to comprehend in Western Europe. Russian remains the lingua franca, and Moscow retains a military base as well as close economic and diplomatic ties that mean Kyrgyzstan lies within Russia’s purported sphere of influence. While I was walking in Bishkek on the day I arrived, a four-by-four drove past with a giant Soviet flag attached to its roof.

But to visit Kyrgyzstan is also to understand that it is assuredly not Russian. Its people are mostly Turkic, not Slav; Muslim, not Christian. Although 300,000 Russians are still in Kyrgyzstan, out of a population of about 6.5 million, this is down from the more than 900,000 that lived there before the fall of the Soviet Union. Jamilia’s author, Chinghiz Aïtmatov, himself embodies many of these contradictions. Aïtmatov was a hero of the Soviet Union; he even became a Soviet ambassador to multiple European countries later in life. Yet his novels focus on his native land of Kyrgyzstan, the land for which his father was executed in 1938 after being found guilty of “bourgeois nationalism.” Aïtmatov is the country’s most celebrated author, honored with a display of his work at the national museum and with a statue nearby. Reading Jamilia, it is impossible not to speculate about the real Aïtmatov lurking beneath, to wonder what he truly thought and felt about the Russian world and his own country’s place within it. “How could someone … know what’s in a person’s soul?” Jamilia asks at one point in the book. “Nobody knows.”

Kyrgyzstan does not easily fit into Joe Biden’s democracy-versus-autocracy framing; the NGO Freedom House rates it low on both political rights and civil liberties, and both, at least based on this rating, have worsened in the past year. What Kyrgyzstan represents, instead, is something else: a country that is part of a declining Russian world, but is not Russian; a country that must incorporate its Soviet past into its own independent national story, which is broader and deeper than the one Moscow wants to tell.

To Putin, of course, the loss of Kyrgyzstan and the other Soviet republics that left Moscow’s control in 1991 forms part of what he characterizes as the wider “humanitarian disaster” that befell Russia and the people who were left behind outside their motherland. This is partly a reflection of Russian nationalism, but it’s also a longing for the role Russia used to have. Notice how Putin speaks of Nurmagomed Gadzhimagomedov, the first Russian soldier acknowledged to have died in the invasion of Ukraine, for example. Gadzhimagomedov was an ethnic Lak from Dagestan, a Russian republic in the Caucasus. Putin said that although he himself was Russian, Gadzhimagomedov’s death made him want to say: “I’m Lak, I’m Dagestani, Chechen, Ingush, Russian, Tatar, Jew, Mordvin, Ossetian.” Once, he would have been able to include Kyrgyz in that list and, of course, Ukrainian. This is the house Putin wants to rebuild.

When we visited a beautiful valley where Yuri Gagarin used to holiday, I asked our guide whether the statues of the Soviet cosmonaut meant that Kyrgyzstan still had pride in the Soviet Union. “No,” he replied. “It’s gone.” In Jamilia, Aïtmatov seems concerned with the ebbing of Kyrgyz rather than Russian culture, reflecting on the power of custom and how it can be lost. “If a storm uproots a mighty tree, the tree will never grow again,” he writes. This is Putin’s problem.

In a town called Karakol, near the Kyrgyz border with Kazakhstan and the Chinese region of Xinjiang, we visited a mosque built by Muslim-Chinese refugees, whose renovation was paid for by Turkey, according to a sign outside it proudly displaying the Kyrgyz and Turkish flags. At another site, we toured a 10th-century minaret being maintained with money from the European Union. Traveling back to the capital, I was told about speed cameras from China replacing useless ones from Belarus. In Bishkek itself, we watched as a musician sang Radiohead and Frank Sinatra in an Irish bar for a crowd of hip young Kyrgyz. To the tune of “New York, New York,” he sang: “I want to be a part of it, Bishkek, Bishkek.

Today, Russian hegemony over its old empire is being challenged not just militarily in places such as Ukraine, but everywhere, and across politics, religion, and technology. In the long run, unless Moscow snaps itself out of its declinist rage, it is hard to see how Russia can compete against this encroachment—not only of the West’s cultural appeal, but of Islam’s religious appeal, China’s economic appeal, and even Turkey’s notion of shared civilizational appeal.

The question for Russia is, right now, what does it have to attract its former colonies beyond history? It is not rich enough, advanced enough, or ideologically compelling enough. Nor does it show the kind of love that suggests it would preside over a happy family. Instead, Putin offers a harsh Russian nationalism without any of the sense of progress, possibility, and even pride that, at least at one point, the Soviet Union seemed to offer (at least to some people). Of course, what the Soviets provided was an illusion too, but there was an idea. All that is left today for Moscow, beyond its history, is coercion, control, and corruption. Which country in the world today aspires to be Belarus or Crimea, let alone the Donbas?

In Aïtmatov’s novel, set during World War II, Jamilia’s husband, Sadyk, is at the front, leaving her, the other women, and the boys in the family to harvest their crop and transport it to the nearby railroad station to be ferried west. Doing this work, Jamilia meets a man named Daniyar, a former soldier invalided out of the war, who seems distant and dreamy until, one day, he begins to sing while on their journey, songs in Kyrgyz and Kazakh, transporting Jamilia and her brother from the reality of their life.

“Before me flashes strangely familiar scenes from childhood,” Jamilia’s brother recalls. “First the delicate, smokey-blue, migratory spring clouds floating at crane’s height above the yurtas; then herds of horses racing across the ringing earth, neighing and pounding to their summer pastures, the young stallions with streaming forelocks and wild, black fire in their eyes proudly overtaking their mares, then flocks of sheep slowly spreading like lava over the foothills.”

So begins a love affair that ends with Jamilia escaping with Daniyar, leaving her husband and family in fits of rage at her betrayal. Nations are rather like Jamilia, containing within them a certain spirit that, perhaps, can be sated for a time within a strong and blessed house, but not in a weak and coercive one. But as Russia is discovering in Ukraine, they cannot ever really be happy without a sense of honor and conscience of their own.