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Kyrgyz Film About Mass Killings In Limbo Amid Russian Visit

  • Pete Baumgartner

A part of the memorial marking the 100th anniversary of the Great Urkun.

A part of the memorial marking the 100th anniversary of the Great Urkun.

A Kyrgyz filmmaker says the fear of offending Moscow has thus far prevented officials from approving his film about the 1916 revolt against tsarist Russia that resulted in the deaths of at least 150,000 ethnic Kyrgyz.

Producer Mukhtar Atanliev said he submitted his film, Urkun, to the state Goskinofond nearly three weeks ago and has yet to get that body's approval to show the film in Kyrgyzstan. "I think...there is some fear [among the authorities] that the film may cause some issues between Russia and Kyrgyzstan," a frustrated Atanliev told RFE/RL.

Atanliev, who said previous films of his have taken only a few hours or days to gain approval, said none of the members at Goskinofond -- the entity that determines which films can be screened in Kyrgyzstan -- "have the guts" to issue permission for him to show Urkun.

The filmmaker had hoped the film would be in theaters in Kyrgyzstan on Independence Day on August 31 or by September 2, when the Kyrgyz government unveiled a Great Urkun monument to mark the event's centennial.

Some observers have linked a visit to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, on September 16 by Russian President Vladimir Putin for a Commonwealth of Independent States summit as the reason Urkun has not been approved.

A scene from the film Urkun

A scene from the film Urkun

They suggest that having billboards around Bishkek promoting the film when the Russian delegation descends upon the capital could offend some Kremlin officials.

But Urmat Aytaliev, the head of Goskinofond, dismissed charges that his committee was dragging its feet in approving Urkun. He told RFE/RL on September 14 that a special commission would review the film within the next week. "We consider 10 or 20 films per month...and we are interested in showing [Urkun]," he said. "We cooperate with filmmakers and want to support them."

Central Asian 'Genocide'

The Great Urkun, which is an old Turkic word that means dispersal or scattering, occurred in various forms throughout Central Asia but was a direct reaction to aggressive Russian colonization of the region and the decision by the Russian government to force some 220,000 Central Asian men to join the tsarist Russian Army.

The notion of fighting for the colonial power was certainly not embraced by Central Asians and there was open resistance to conscription into the Russian Army.

St. Petersburg officials ordered Russian troops to quash the uprising, and the reprisals were bloody.

Some historians estimate as many as 250,000 Kyrgyz died in the uprising. A Kyrgyz public commission concluded on August 15 that the crackdown -- which took place during most of 1916 -- was genocide.

The commission's head, Azimbek Beknazarov, told reporters his commission's conclusion was based on data from archives provided by Russian and Chinese authorities.

Painting by S.Chuykova: Revolt Of The Kyrgyz People In 1916 (1931)

Painting by S.Chuykova: Revolt Of The Kyrgyz People In 1916 (1931)

In April, Russian State Duma Chairman Sergei Naryshkin rejected the genocide allegations in regard to the uprisings, saying that "all nations suffered 100 years ago."

​Tens of thousands of Kyrgyz families fled their homes and left the land for safety in neighboring China, although many succumbed to starvation, freezing temperatures, and disease as they tried to outrun Russian forces.

​Several of the mountain passes along the escape route taken by the Kyrgyz and within the Tien-Shan Mountains are still littered with the skeletons of people and livestock who didn't make it to China as winter came early in 1916.

'All Nations Suffered'

Atanliev's nearly two-hour film focuses on the travails of one Kyrgyz family as it flees with others toward the border as they are chased by Russian troops.

Medin Uchukeev, who directed the film, said the screenplay had been completed with the approval of historians, scholars, the Kyrgyz film department, and with ex-Culture Minister Altynbek Maksutov. Uchukeev told RFE/RL there was "no discrimination against any nationality" in the film.

Ethnic Russians, who in the 1959 census made up nearly one-third of the population of Kyrgyzstan, have slowly left the country since the break-up of the Soviet Union and currently account for about 8 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population.

A recent find of skeletal remains found along the path taken by Kyrgyz trying to escape Russian forces on the way to China.

A recent find of skeletal remains found along the path taken by Kyrgyz trying to escape Russian forces on the way to China.

"Kyrgyzstan has been talking for almost a year about the Urkun tragedy and what sufferings it brought to the Kyrgyz people -- that is exactly why we decided to shoot the film," Atanliev said. "So many archives have been opened, many books and articles have been written [and] they are all available in the newspapers and broadcast on radio stations. Our film probably shows just 5 percent of what has been written about the tragedy -- I do not understand why it is a big deal to issue the permission."

Although the revolt against Russian colonists and tsarist troops took part in various forms throughout Central Asia, the 100th anniversary of the insurrection is only being officially marked in Kyrgyzstan.

In Kazakhstan, then-Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced on August 12 that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had agreed to return the skull of Keiki Batyr, a leader of the Kazakh national liberation movement in 1916, to Kazakh officials for burial. The skull of Batyr, who was murdered in 1923, is currently stored in a St. Petersburg museum.

​But there was no official commemoration of the Urkun in Kazakhstan.

There likewise have been no official ceremonies in Tajikistan, the base of the fiercely anti-Russian Basmachi movement, which continued fighting Russian and Soviet forces until the 1930s.

With reporting by Bruce Pannier and the Kyrgyz Service's Zayyrbek Azhymatov and Venera Djumataeva