The Soviet of the High Pastures



SARY-TASH is the summer encampment of yurts which, by virtue of plentiful grass, has become the temporary capital of the Vale of Alai. Water also is plentiful here, but not good water; rather a network of ruddy, opaque streams drawing color from the mud of surrounding cliffs and named Kizil Su, or Red Waters, the upper branches of a river which, after many wanderings west and south, joins the Oxus. The summer population of Kirghiz herders was continually swollen by a population still more temporary — caravans from Osh to Kashgar which stopped here for a rest in good pastures after crossing the Alai Range.

Thus Sary-tash became also the natural centre of government. The Soviet of the High Pastures was located here, a new experiment in a traveling city hall, following its populations; under it came the People’s Court, the Schools for Illiterates, and the Women’s Organizer. Here was located also the Medical Station, sent from the District Health Department at Osh. My first encounter in Sarytash was with none of these, but with the Gostorg, or State Trading Company, direct representative of far-away Moscow.

The government trader, Abakumof, was so thin and shabbily unimportant that at first I took his big burly Russian assistant for the boss. Abakumof sat cross-legged on the floor of his yurt while a comely Kirghiz woman made us tea. ’I’m a natural-born Kirghiz myself,’ he grinned, ‘though I come from North Russia! I know all the Eastern ways — Chinese, Dzungars, Afghans, Tadjiks, and Kirghiz. I can talk with them all more or less.’ With a grin he explained his two weeks’ growth of beard, which added to the unkemptness of his appearance. ‘I’ll shave once for all when I get back to Osh,’ he said. ‘Here we are out of the world.’

Clearly Abakumof was no gentleman traveler, dressing each night for dinner in the jungles. Yet he had his own homely self-respect, which consisted in cheerfully bragging of the risks of his job. ‘In 1923, the Gostorg sent the first Trading Expedition to the Alai, and it disappeared without a trace! Its goods were too well chosen; the Kirghiz wanted them—and took them! This is the first time a regular store was ever set up in the Alai. Forty thousand rubles’ worth of wares, chosen to delight the taste of Kirghiz, and two hundred versts of mountains between us and the railway. I never sleep well nights,’ he added, ruefully.

‘Not for any property or success of my own would I so venture. But this is a government affair. It is party policy to bring together the tribes and the cities. It is also policy to help the poor Kirghiz against the richer. Formerly a Kirghiz journeyed all the way to Osh to sell a few poods of wool clip and buy himself tea and sugar. Naturally the rich man, who had much wool and could afford the journey, exploited the poorer Kirghiz who gave him products to sell.

‘All this we shall change. Now we sell goods here cheaper than you buy them in Osh. We sell cheaper than any retail store in Central Asia. For we are not a retail store; we are an arm of the Central Trading Company, bartering factory goods direct for raw materials and cutting out both buying and selling middlemen. But did you ever hear of a trader who went so far in the wilds in order to sell cheaper than the cities?’ he ended with a grin.

‘I am more popular than the doctor is,’ he bragged whimsically, later. ‘He has twenty or thirty people waiting at his yurt, but I have a couple of hundred.’ And, in fact, during my stay in Sary-tash I saw constantly a stream of Kirghiz in front of the trading yurts, weighing out wool clip, selecting iron pots, zinc-lined washing troughs, and strong, bright-colored cotton goods. Little by little I learned the history of Abakumof, and came to respect him — an outpost of government, laying foundations of a future socialist commonwealth among the wild tribes of Asia.

Abakumof never knew his father. ‘He was a mechanic in a Petersburg shipyard, an underground worker for revolution. In 1905 he disappeared into the Peter-Paul fortress like many others, and was never heard of afterward. My mother moved with us children back to her native village near Orel.

‘All the rest of my family were killed by Denikin. I was at the front, fighting for the revolution. The forces of Denikin raided and destroyed our village. They killed twenty-three of our women, after first violating them. Among these were my mother, my sister, and the girl — well, I suppose you might call her my wife. What with always working underground or at the front, I was never what you call a registered family man. What could I do with personal ties? But this girl — well, she lived with me five years and she stayed with my mother when I was away. She was the nearest thing to a family I ever had.

‘They were all illtreated and killed. A year later, when Denikin was driven back and we gathered the orphans into children’s homes, I found my youngest sister, five years old, in a home in Kharkov. The Children’s Homes were bad in those days; no food and no fuel, though we gave them the best we had. But my youngest sister lived, and now she’s in a special Children’s Home in Moscow for the children of martyred revolutionists.

‘I myself go where the Party sends me, but mostly in Central Asia. I took the first trade shipment into Tadjikistan in 1925, nearly to Horog! There was also some risk there,’ he ended cheerfully.

This little touch of brag was one of the means whereby Abakumof kept himself going in his lonely job amid an alien people, who so readily formed bands for plunder, swayed by a past he could not penetrate. He had also a phrase which served the same purpose — ‘we who make up the apparatus.’ He used it often, as if here in the far wilderness he wished to take hold of kinship with those who had sent him.

‘We who make up the apparatus must n’t have wealth of our own,’ he said on one occasion. ‘Now I had an album of the civil war covering scenes not written down elsewhere, with pictures, documents, and similar material. The Museum wanted it, and so I sent it; what can a wandering man do with an album? A pleasant thing to look at nights, perhaps; but suppose someone steals it? Then one day I hear I get a thousand rubles for my album.

I hear it in this way. The Central Committee says to me: “You are to get a thousand rubles from the Museum, of which half will be your own, and the other half you will give to Mopr (the Society for the Relief of Political Prisoners). Please sign this paper,” they said, “giving five hundred of it to Mopr.” So I signed the paper, and I hope Mopr has now the five hundred rubles, for I have n’t yet seen the half that was to come to me.’

At my expressions of commiseration he laughed, saying, ‘Once I got also a thousand rubles in the Lottery Loan, of which four hundred is still mine in the bank, but the rest has gone to Mopr, the Children’s Commission, and various other funds. We who make up the apparatus must support the whole apparatus.’

Abakumof offered the hospitality of his yurt, but advised me to stay with the doctor. ‘The doctor has a very swell yurt,’ he said, ‘and here it is rather crowded.’ I looked around the tiny enclosure, where, amid bales of cotton goods, Abakumof slept with his Russian helper and his Kirghiz woman of all work. His other yurt was completely full of stored merchandise. I decided to seek out the doctor.


Across a little ravine, and under the brow of a hill by a stream,I came to two more yurts, the office and residence of the doctor. The residence was large and luxurious, the finest yurt I saw anywhere in the Alai. It was a circle some eighteen feet across, enclosed by the firmest of thick felt, which lapped close to the ground, excluding all wind. There was a more than ample hanging door of felt. Inside, the grassy floor had been covered with rugs, and in the centre of this floor an upturned packing box, covered with newspaper, was dedicated to permanent use as dining table and writing desk. Feminine touches betrayed the doctor’s wife; a second box had been erected into a toilet table against one wall of the yurt, containing tooth paste, eau de Cologne, face powder, soap, and a mirror. But the fire for cooking copied the Kirghiz model, with its solid flat-topped tripod to hold big iron pots.

The doctor had come for the summer from the hospital in Jalalabad, drawn by the higher pay and the chance to camp in the famous Alai, where he wished to investigate venereal disease among the nomads. His wife was a trained nurse and midwife, also drawing government pay. His household was completed by a baby son and a Kirghiz servant, who spoke Russian, chopped wood, made fires, brewed tea, and helped in the office with the patients. The doctor’s wife did not welcome me with quite the same interest shown by the Gostorg representative; she was generally much less interested in the changing life of the Alai. But she took it for granted that I had come to stay with her, and showed me a place on the rug to put my baggage. She also made it plain, after the first hospitable meal of potato soup, that henceforth I should have to forage for my own food, which was scarce in the Alai.

Already the doctor regretted the impulse which had made him volunteer for the Alai. He claimed to have found much less syphilis than he had expected. ‘One understands that the nomad races are rotten with it, and I expected a field for study, but here in the Alai not more than two to four per cent have it, judging by my patients, which is a low record for any locality or nation.’ He was already talking of return to Jalalabad, though he had been only three weeks in the Alai and had brought supplies for a much longer time. He said in justification that he found little sickness of any kind in the valley.

At least a hundred patients had been gathered about the yurt on the day of my arrival, but the doctor said these were not ill, but had come chiefly for vaccination, since a couple of cases of smallpox occurring in one of the encampments had scared everyone. This fact speaks volumes for the effect of medical propaganda among the Kirghiz, for it is only a few years since the news of Western medicine first reached them. Another doctor of my acquaintance went in 1922 on the first Health Expedition among the Kirghiz, and was surrounded at every halt by a mob of excited patients who demanded, ‘What is the word that you use? Tell us before you go, that we also may use it when you are here no longer.’ To the Kirghiz of a few years ago, medicine was simple magic, a charmed word being its most important ingredient. Perhaps it was still magic to the hundred patients who came for vaccination against smallpox, but at least they had learned where to come. All social workers testify that schools and work for women advance slowly among the Kirghiz, but that the medical stations of the Health Department, introduced only since the revolution, are most popular.

A different reason for the wish to depart was given me by the doctor’s wife, who told me frankly that they were afraid of bandits. ‘We hear the band of Jina Bek has come over the border from China. Not long since they raided some villages east of Gulcha. At present they are known to be about fifty kilometres away in the hills. And what is fifty kilometres to men like those but one dark night’s ride through the passes?’

She added that it was the custom of the basmachi, or ‘bands,’ to travel by night, especially on dark rainy nights, and to fall on sleepers when dawn made evident the location of yurts. For the next two nights she felt reasonably secure because of the presence of five armed men of the G.P.U., who were camping temporarily in a yurt of the Pasture Soviet. But they would soon move on to a yurt two kilometres away, and our site would be defenseless. Even a band of forty-five men, she said, would not bother to come against five armed soldiers of the G.P.U., for the bands had few arms, and a very scanty supply of ammunition, and preferred raids on peasants and herders whom they could terrify without wasting shot. For the next week or two she thought the site of Sary-tash would be reasonably safe, during the exchange of troops along the trail to the Pamirs; after that, she and her husband had decided to leave.

They left, temporarily, even sooner. On the second night, when the five armed men of the G.P.U. moved camp to a yurt farther up the valley, the doctor’s family accepted an invitation to join these soldier police in an evening feast of a slaughtered sheep. The doctor’s wife told me frankly, as she left, that they would not return till morning, as they thought it safer to pass the night in the yurt of the G.P.U. She made no apologies about leaving me alone with her Kirghiz manservant, to receive any bands that might come in her absence. The night was the kind she described as ‘typical,’ the only rainy night I spent in the Alai. But no bands came.

A traveling representative of the Gostorg, who had lived in the same district as Jina Bek and known him personally, told me how Jina Bek had come to be bandit. Under the Tsar he had been a wealt hy Kirghiz, and he had survived as village potentate even under the first days of the Soviets. He had ‘five thousand horses, eight wives, and uncounted sheep,’ according to the tax collector. Clearly a real ‘prince’ of the Kirghiz, yet he had none the less managed to send his son to the university in Tashkent when the Soviet Power opened that institution to native races and before the ban against sons of the wealthy was enforced.

During the first years of Soviet rule, Jina Bek evaded the tax collector and all regulations by the ancient ways of the East — bribery and local terrorism. But steadily the local governments became better organized, and at last a tax collector of determination called on Jina Bek and presented a bill. It was a very large bill, covering many arrears of super-taxes. That night Jina Bek packed his wives and movable property on sixty camels, and by dawn was over the hills toward China. He is seventy years old, living vengefully in Kashgar, and financing the band of raiders which his son leads.

The doctor, who relied for his safety on the G.P.U., was ready enough to evade them if it was to his advantage to do so. He was negotiating with a Kirghiz from another encampment to take him and his possessions back to the railroad when the camp should close. This Kirghiz had many horses and did a business of transport; he was clearly one of the wealthy Kirghiz against whom the Soviet Power discriminates. They bargained long; the Kirghiz demanded a high price in rubles, but agreed to take the doctor’s family and goods for practically nothing if the doctor would sell him a rifle. The Kirghiz was a lishenetz, a man deprived of vote on account of his wealth and occupation as trader; he was denied the right to possess arms. But the doctor had easily secured both a rifle and hunting weapons, besides his revolver; he got the needed permit in view of his profession and because he had volunteered for work in a wild region.

The Kirghiz wanted the rifle and the few hundred rounds of ammunition that went with it. He offered far more than the doctor had paid. In addition, he would make great concessions in the transport of people and goods to the railway. To such as he, rifles were worth their weight in gold; quite possibly he would sell it for even more to the bandits, with whom such disaffected traders are often in alliance. I could not help wondering how soon the doctor’s weapon would fall into the hands of the very band he fled from. The doctor decided to sell. Next day again he wavered. It might come, he said, to the knowledge of the G.P.U. and cause him unpleasantness. He decided to refuse. What his final decision was after I left I have no means of knowing.


Not more than a couple of hundred yards away from the doctor’s yurt, and over a slight hillock, were three shabby yurts occupied by members of the Pasture Soviet. In one of them I learned that a People’s Court was in progress. The dogs barked furiously at my approach, but were quieted by their masters and soon learned to know me, a recognition never accorded me by the dog at the Gostorg, who bit me twice and always sounded a mad alarm when I came near.

Outside the People’s Court, on the grass in the sun, sat the culprits and complainants in various cases, awaiting the summons to enter the yurt. The first case called for trial was that of an under-age marriage, combined with the payment of kalym, or ‘bride purchase,’ which is now forbidden. Such new laws run counter to ancient customs and are hard to enforce. This marriage had taken place some months before in a distant village, remote from law courts. Now that the villagers had moved up to the high pastures, someone had reported the case to the Pasture Soviet. Was it a zealous village Communist? Or a personal enemy? Or a man who combined both parts in one person? The complainant was not present, and may have been unknown.

Inside the yurt two threadbare rugs covered the ground, and on one of these at the side opposite the door squatted the judge, a Kirghiz in a corduroy blouse, high boots, and a fuzzy skin cap which was pushed down over his head so that the edges expanded and made a sort of fur halo. There was no table. Close to the judge was a sheaf of papers wrapped in a large red kerchief; the clerk of the court lay flat on his stomach for better ease in writing, placing both paper and ink on the ground. To the right of the judge sat two women, swarthy, with shawls on their heads. They were the ‘ People’s Co-Sitters,’ chosen according to law from the local population to sit with the judge in a limited number of cases and supply the point of view of the ‘local conscience.’ They had equal rights with the judge; all decisions must be unanimous.

The fathers of the young bride and groom first entered; the first was a hard-looking man with round, beefy face, who looked easily guilty of worse crimes than selling a bride in the ancient manner. Shy, but naïvely selfimportant, next entered the bridegroom, a boy of some fifteen years in long black coat and black velvet hat, the edges of which were thickly trimmed with a circle of astrakhan fur. Then came the bride’s mother, ushering in the bride herself, a girl clearly older than the boy.

The girl timidly draws a vivid orange shawl across her face. She kneels before the squatting judge, not in any gesture of obeisance, but because kneeling is the easiest form of temporary repose in a yurt, and squatting is a more permanent form. The boy, who is already kneeling, edges toward her with a gesture of protection and possession. The only change from this posture is made when they stand to answer the questions of the judge.

The boy claims to be eighteen years old; he is asked how he knows and he replies that someone told him. His parents? asks the judge. The boy denies that his parents have told him anything. He is confused; he does not want to incriminate his parents, so he sticks to the statement that he is eighteen. The doctor testifies that the boy is only fifteen and not yet sexually mature. Both boys and girls develop late among the Kirghiz of the hills, much later than among the prematurely developing folk of the Central Asian valleys.

The bride stands up. She has been dressed in all her best clothes for this serious occasion; a long sleazy cotton gown of brilliant rose-magenta color, covered with a black velveteen cloak and a large orange shawl embroidered in many more colors. These clothes make her a formless figure of comedy rather than tragedy. Seen from the rear, she might be any age up to fifty, but her face is unformed, youthful, and bewildered. She claims to be nineteen years old. How do you know ? asks the judge. The doctor testifies that she is about sixteen, also immature up to the time of her marriage, but at present no longer a virgin.

‘With whom have you had relations?’ asks the judge. She answers: ‘With my husband.’ Except for these brief answers she says no word, nor does any emotion cross her face. The boy edges a little nearer to her, but makes no other movement.

It is claimed that three hundred rubles, thirty sheep, and two good horses were paid for this young girl. Girls come high among the Kirghiz, for they are much fewer than boys, and are much needed. They do all the work of the household. They make the yurt, lirst rolling the heavy felt and then decorating it. They milk the cows, the ewes, the yaks, and make the various forms of sour milk and cheese used in Kirghiz diet; they make the receptacles for liquids, by cleaning and boiling sheep’s entrails. Laboring hard, and bearing children without medical care, the mortality is high among them. Therefore a healthy girl of good family is worth many sheep.

The payment of kalym seems probable, but is not proven. Sheep, indeed, are shown to have changed hands, but who shall say for what payment? Both defendants deny any sale or purchase of the girl. The under-age marriage is, however, very clear. The defendants move from the yurt and sit on the grass awaiting the judge’s decision. He wants to give the two fathers the limit of the law — a year and a half in jail. But the two CoSitters are more merciful. They hold out for eight months’ enforced labor, without confinement, a sentence which will disturb the Kirghiz’s soul, but not his household, since his wife does all the labor there. The judge is angry. ‘Illiterate, under bonds of tradition,’ he says to me, later, of the two CoSitters.

Two other cases are before the court that morning. A former village president has been superseded by his rival, who claims that the first man grafted ninety-one rubles of the ‘people’s money.’ It is found ‘not proven.’ Then comes a sheep herder, suing for payment of wages. He has worked a year and a half for a wealthy Kirghiz without a wage contract. His master, the ‘bey,’ has given him occasional presents in kind and a few advances in money; now he wants settlement, and the bey decides to pay him on a basis of twenty rubles a month. The laborer is dissatisfied and appeals to the court; the court sustains him and orders the bey to pay at the trade-union rate of thirty-six rubles. The bey announces that he will appeal the case. He will gain little by this except postponement, and perhaps a settlement out of court with the laborer. This illiterate herder has worked a year and a half without knowing his wage rate — mute testimony to the primitiveness of Kirghiz customs. Now into this primitive wage situation has come a modern tradeunion. Henceforth the herder will no doubt be a member, and get his wage contracts on union scale.


The court adjourned, and we went to the adjoining yurt where lived the judge, his wife, and a varying number of other Kirghiz. The judge’s wife was a beautiful creature; the thin green veil over her long black braids, and the red, green, and purple khalat which she wore, somehow only accentuated her dark charm. She was smilingly nursing her baby; but the child, on seeing his father, stopped feeding and cried to be put on a horse. He was true Kirghiz, learning to ride before he learned to walk. The judge happily took the baby, seated him high on a horse’s back, and pretended to let him ride, whereat the child crowed happily.

Alexeivka, the women’s organizer for the valley, lived in the judge’s yurt between her various trips among the scattered settlements. Like most of the organizers in the Alai, she was from Northern Kirghizia, where the Kirghiz have been longer in contact with Russians and are therefore more advanced. After the revolution she had learned to read, and had then taken a year’s course in far-away Moscow to fit her for organizing and educating the backward women of her race.

When Alexeivka learned that I was unmarried, she nodded her satisfaction. ‘It is good. I also shall not marry; it is better without.’ I asked the reason for her aversion to wedlock, and she nodded toward the judge’s lovely wife, who was nursing her baby. ‘Because, when you marry, then those come along, and life is bad. Then you can do no work — nothing at all. . . .

‘It is hard to agitate among women in the Alai,’ she admitted. ‘Not one woman in all this valley can read. They are afraid to learn anything; they run away when I come. We have three schools for illiterates in the valley, so that those who come from distant villages without schools may use the summer pastures for reading lessons. All, all were illiterate here; now a handful of boys come to the schools. They wish learning in order to rise among the Kirghiz, since now we have a government of our own. But I cannot get a single girl to come to the schools. I tell them they all need knowledge, and that they should not marry off daughters so young, and that men should have only one wife. In Northern Kirghizia now the teaching of women goes well. But the women of the Alai are very dark; they are still afraid.’

Another occupant of the yurt—to whom, indeed, it belonged as much as to the judge — was Kolpaief, secretary of the Soviet of the High Pastures. His winter job was that of Superintendent of Schools for the whole of Southern Kirghizia. Clearly he was an exceptional man, one of the builders of the new education of his people. He had been educated in a Mohammedan school even before the revolution, and had been designed by his father for a mullah, the chief post open to a Kirghiz educated man in those days. But he had still been only a boy when the World War came, followed by the Kirghiz insurrection and the revolution.

‘When the war came,’ he said, ‘we refused to be the Tsar’s soldiers. We killed many Russians and many of us also were killed. We fled in great droves over the borders of China, leaving our yurts and all our fixed possessions, but driving with us our cattle. I myself went with my father as far as Peking. We sold our animals and returned empty; there was neither harvest nor cattle, and many of us died. We fled in 1916 and returned in 1917 or 1918. We lost by the war perhaps 70 per cent of our cattle and 30 per cent of our people. Did any other nation lose as much as this by the World War?’

The answer was clear; of all the nations that suffered by the battles launched in Europe, these distant, ignorant, unparticipating tribes in the heart of Asia had suffered most. Yet the makers of war, and of peace, had never heard of them.

As Kolpaief made this clear to me, in that battered smoke-filled yurt under the Roof of the World, I began to get. an idea of the man himself as a propagandist. I was next to learn his quality as a teacher. ‘Take your notebook and write it down,’ he said to me, as if preparing in school for a lecture, ‘and I shall tell you all about our people.’ Then he proceeded to discourse, under heads and subheads, about the economic and social history of the Kirghiz, their marriage, birth, and funeral customs, and the aims of the revolution.

‘Before the war,’ he said, ‘there were many rich Kirghiz. The richest were known as beys; there were sonic who had two thousand horses, ten thousand sheep, and one thousand other large animals, such as cows and yaks. They lived well, in a big yurt with many quilts, and great quantities of koshma, the beaten felt which is used by us for rugs and yurts. Even these beys, however, went seldom to town to trade and had few foods from the city. They bought tea, sugar, and flour in the town, and ate in winter their own meat and cheese and butter; but they ate no vegetables and few fruits. They had a drink called boza, made of rice or millet, so strong that a man would get drunk on a single cup.

‘Besides the beys were the manaps. They were the biggest of all, though they might have no cattle of their own. But they controlled pastures, and for the use of grass everyone paid the manaps, who connected themselves with the Mohammedan mullahs and the Russian riders. The manaps of different tribes met together and decided how much taxes should be and who should pay them. A manap was “white-boned,” noble, while the rest were “black-boned,” common. A manap would say, “Give me that horse,” and he would take it. He said, “Give me that woman,” and he took her. He killed any man he wished and no one brought him to judgment.

‘These manaps still live, but now their power is little, since the Soviet Power is against them, and they have no more the right of land. Now, since the revolution, maybe half the Kirghiz begin to settle on the land. Formerly we had only winter huts in the upper valleys, and stables for our cattle; we planted nothing, except perhaps a little fodder for the wintering of cattle. Now we begin to settle even in the lowlands, near the trading cities. We begin to plant vegetables, potatoes, onions. Many no longer take even in summer the road to the high pastures. And the land and pastures which formerly were the beys’ and the manaps’ are given to all the people.

‘Now I will tell you,’ continued Kolpaief, ‘what we did about marriage. Under the old system, the beys married chiefly with beys, giving a very high kalym for a girl of good family. Two or three hundred sheep, fifty large cattle, a full-blooded breeding horse, and some thousands of rubles in money were not considered too much to give for a girl of a “whiteboned" family. The kalym bought not only a girl; it bought a blood-relationship with an important household. The high ones seldom took poor girls, unless these were very beautiful; and for such girls they gave less kalym, proportioned to the standing of the girl, and not of the bridegroom. The poor also intermarried with each other and gave kalym, as much as they could afford.

’This is how it was done. The family wishing a bride for its son would give “earnest money” in the form of a horse or perhaps twenty sheep. After this the two families became khuda or blood friends. Then little by little they would pay the rest of the kalym, and after that they would take the girl and give a great feast for all the young folks of the region, slaughtering many lambs and perhaps even a horse, and inviting the mullah, who read the proper parts of the Koran over the bride and groom.

‘When a man died with us, they had first the funeral, and after seven days they gave a dinner, and again after forty days. After a year they gave a very big feast called the ash, at which many sheep and even horses were killed. After the ash the wife can marry again. But for the first year she must always sit at the side of the yurt, wailing and weeping very often and singing songs of lament, removed from life and going out seldom.

‘Now, since the revolution, this is much changed. The government decrees that brides cannot be bought, and that they cannot be married under the age of eighteen. They send women organizers to agitate for this. Already we have many women who are presidents of village soviets, and who are equal with men. Now, when a man dies, his wife can marry again on the very next day. Very seldom now does a wife lament for a whole year. This is right, for women among us are scarce, and why should she and some other man lose a year of life?

‘Next I will tell you,’ said Kolpaief, dividing his subjects with true pedagogical method, ‘about our culture and our religion. Before the war our only organized culture was religion. I myself was educated to be a mullah; this was our only education. But we Kirghiz were not very religious even then. Not like the Uzbeks, the Tadjiks, the Tatars — those folk are really religious. But we Kirghiz were nomads; only half of us, even in the old days, kept the laws of Allah, that a man must pray five times daily and that old men must make pilgrimage to Mecca. Now, since the revolution, very few read prayers any more.

‘In our former schools we learned only to read the Koran in Arabic, and to pray in Arabic, and to write a sort of mixed language, called the Mussulman language, based also on Arabic. After the revolution we began to write in the same Kirghiz language we were speaking, using twenty-four letters. Then there was produced the first Kirghiz grammar. Since 1925 we have gone over to the Latin alphabet, and half of our writing is now in this alphabet.

‘Now, since we write our own language instead of Arabic, we begin to write our literature also. We had always a culture of our own, in our songs — epic songs, lyric songs, people’s songs. But these songs were not written. Now we begin to write them down. We have authors of our own, who write poems and novels about what is happening in our lives. We have a national theatre with plays in our own language. We have a scientific committee working over the language and introducing the scientific words that we have never had from chemistry, geography, and physics. We are beginning to have science books in our language: biology, astronomy, chemistry, physics. I myself have translated books from the Russian.

‘Our young folks are learning everywhere, in Leningrad, Moscow, and Tashkent. They study medicine and pedagogy, and return to organize our health and education. Formerly there was not a single school in our language; a Kirghiz could study only in Arabic to be a mullah, or in Russian to be an interpreter for traders. Now, even in the far auls the schools spring up.’

Kolpaief’s duties in the Soviet of the High Pastures were to agitate and educate Kirghiz for self-government in their winter villages. The winter auls are many, and hard to reach in the snow; but the summer pasture is spacious and easy of access, and here were gathered the people of scores of villages. ‘We are organizing some collectivefarming groups among the Alai nomads,’ he said. ‘We are starting a state farm, concerned chiefly with livestock, to bring into the valley breeding stock for the improvement of the herds. Naturally those who form collectives get the first use of the pure-bred animals. Later these groups will continue their work in the winter quarters, and will begin to organize methods of settled farm life. I spend the summer traveling in the high pastures, organizing these groups and making speeches on the new ways of farming, on taxes, on new laws and crimes, on labor regulation, on the international situation.’

In some amazement I asked what his audience could understand of the international situation. ‘Certainly they know nothing of the boundaries of America,’he answered, ‘and little of Europe, for they have never seen a map or a book of geography. But they know very well the boundaries of Asia, for they travel across them. They know the peoples of Asia. They can understand very well the struggle for power in Asia — the questions between Tadjiks and Afghans, between Britain and Russia. About these matters they themselves make very good speeches.’


Such was the propaganda carried on in the Vale of Alai, under the Roof of the World and not very far from India. Such were the people who made of Sary-tash an outpost. The unkempt, devoted revolutionist of the Gostorg, driving direct exchange of goods to the yurts of the nomads; the restless, dissatisfied doctor, from whom they had all learned vaccination; the Pasture Soviet, with its court, its schools, its women’s organizer, its able and energetic secretary, making speeches on ancient Kirghiz culture and the struggle for power in Asia.

The methods of living of Kolpaief were still those of a nomad. I dined with some frequency in the judge’s yurt, with whatever Kirghiz chanced to be present. I remember one typical meal and the labors it gave to the housewife — who was not, incidentally, the judge’s fair bride, but a hired woman. A big iron pot was placed on the central tripod and the fire kindled under it began merrily sending its smoke in our eyes and finally out through the roof. As soon as the water was boiling, large chunks of lamb were thrown in. After an hour or so, during which the guests talked around the fire, or went about their business, the chunks of lamb were taken out and passed around in a big bowl. Each guest took a bone in his fingers and tore at the meat with his teeth. Such was the first course of the meal.

Meantime the housewife was busily rolling a dough made of flour, water, salt, and a little sour milk. This dough marked the household off from the oldstyle nomad — they had flour. The kneading board was placed on the ground and the woman knelt over it, pushing a heavy roller back and forth. When the dough was very thin, she lifted the sheet at one end and rolled it lightly to a cylinder, cutting this crosswise into many thin strips. Thus she produced noodles. She cooked these in the broth from which we had taken the meat, and served us soup, full of a pasty mess of noodles. This was the second course of the meal.

The housewife’s labors were not yet ended. Emptying the iron pot of all soup, she placed in it the fat that had been cut from the lamb, and rendered it, filling the yurt with stifling smoke. Under the veil of this smoke she still worked at her kneading board, preparing a thicker dough to be fried into round buns. These are the lepeshka of the nomads, a heavy fried bun made after the meat and soup courses, and differing from the lepeshka of the cities, which are oven-baked.

Meantime Kolpaief carefully washed the grease of the lamb from his fingers and brought out a long stringed instrument which he handled with care. Talking stopped in the yurt; the guests leaned back, replete and content. Kolpaief, the agitator, the Superintendent of Schools for Southern Kirghizia, began to play old Kirghiz melodies, plaintive, monotonous, the heritage of the people who for ages and ages have kept sheep and held feasts in these hills.