On August 3, a group of people will descend from the mountains of northeastern Kyrgyzstan where they buried the bones of those who succumbed to the elements during that 1916 flight to China. With Kyrgyz officials and local residents, the group will hold a commemoration feast in the village of Barskoon, on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul.
By some accounts nearly half the Kyrgyz from the northern part of the country died during Urkun. Even the lowest estimates put the death toll at more than 100,000 people.
Uprising Brutally Suppressed
The group leaving the mountains this week buried the remains of some of the thousands of people who died fleeing Tsarist forces in 1916 at the Bedel border post near the Kyrgyz-Chinese border on July 30.
A photo gallery of images from the Urkun expedition (Flash required)
History professor Tynchtykbek Tchoroev (Chorotegin), who is also the director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, is the author of a book on Urkun.
"Already forced off prime farming land by newcomers from Russia and Ukraine, the population finally revolted in 1916," Tchoroev says. "The main reason was a call for men in Russia's Central Asian colonies to serve in the Tsarist army fighting in World War I under the Russian flag. The war in Europe was a strange and unnecessary conflict for the local [Central Asian] nations. The uprising broke out across Central Asia and was brutally put down."
Into The Mountains
In the eastern part of what was then Russian Turkestan, tens of thousands of Kyrgyz and Kazakhs who were not killed in the fighting fled toward China. Having escaped the bullets of Tsarist troops -- those fleeing came up against a more formidable obstacle in the Tien-Shan (Tengir-Too) Mountains.
There, they died by the thousands in mountain passes more than 3,000 meters high. It is the bones of some of these people that were buried on 30 July.
Burkan Zulkainarov is a member of the Asaba Party, one of the initiators of the trip into the mountains to retrieve and bury the remains.
"From the Bedel Pass -- which is 4,000 meters above sea level -- to the Chinese border a river flows whose banks are covered with human bones," he says. "I was shocked. In Soviet times, there was a military garrison there and, as we were told, soldiers from Muslim [Soviet] republics were never taken in there."
Neither was the tragedy covered in Soviet-era history books.
Some Kyrgyz scholars, such as the late professor Kushbek Usonbaev, tried to publish research about Urkun during Soviet times, but the communist authorities in Kyrgyzstan did not appreciate their efforts. A monograph by Usonbaev was removed from publication in the early 1980s.
It was only in 1991, the last days of the Soviet Union, that people in Kyrgyzstan could openly take an interest in Urkun. Some did so immediately.
Well-known Kyrgyz politician Jypar Jeksheev was one of them, and he told RFE/RL about the first commemoration of the Urkun in 1991, before the Soviet Union collapsed.
"That was the 75th anniversary," Jeksheev says. "We gathered in the village of Asylbash [in the Sokuluk district of the Chui region] from where many of the people in 1916 left. There were about 70 people, and they held a meeting and after the meeting there was a march to Issyk-Kul -- the 'Journey of Life.'"
In July 1991, the group marched toward the Soviet-Chinese borders in two directions (in the Issyk-Kul and Naryn regions), the destination of survivors in 1916.
Trying To Understand
Historian Toktorbek Omurbekov, the dean of the history faculty of the Kyrgyz National University, has researched Urkun. He told RFE/RL that there are still opportunities to learn more about the revolt and the flight through the mountains from first-hand sources.
"Now, there are still people who are 90 or 100 years old and can tell the tale of the bloody events in the Chui region," Omurbekov says. "[These events] are not recorded in any books. Only now are they talking about the massacre."
The word "massacre" -- and even "genocide" -- is increasingly on the lips of people in Kyrgyzstan when they remember Urkun. It is a difficult issue, as times have changed greatly since 1916. Today there is still a sizeable ethnic Russian population in Kyrgyzstan, and the Kyrgyz government is anxious to keep them there.
But there are some, like journalist Toktorbai Bekturganov, who believe an official apology from Moscow is needed.
"[Russian President Vladimir] Putin himself, recently in St. Petersburg, said every people has a sovereign democracy," Bekturganov says. "If we take this at face value, then Russia should apologize and put up a monument that says 'Forgive us.'"
Others, like prominent Kyrgyz playwright Mar Baijiev, say 1916 is a long time ago and while the event should not be forgotten, it should also be remembered that both sides suffered losses during the fighting in 1916.
"I think that we would be one-sided if we said Russia committed a massacre," Baijiev says. "There is such a tendency [to do so], but in fact we are guilty also. It seems that Tsarist Russia didn't want to send our men to war, but to send them to tend to the animals [used by the army] and provide support [for troops at the front]. I think it's a tragedy, but a historical mistake also."
A Time Of Remembrance
Jypar Jeksheev, without casting blame on anyone for Urkun, said it remains an important event in the history of the Kyrgyz people and deserves some special and official attention.
"If historians could pick one specific date, then we should mark that date as one in which hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz died," Jeksheev says. "There should be ceremonies and that date should be noted in the constitution."
The remains of people and animals that fled during the 1916 Urkun uprising (RFE/RL)
Incidentally, Kyrgyz historians stress that the issue is not a reason for an anti-Russian sentiment, because Russian liberals like Aleksandr Kerensky -- the head of the provisional Russian government from February to October 1917 -- and some Russian historians, were the first to bring attention to these massacres.
Viktor Chernomorets, an ethnic Russian politician in Kyrgyzstan, was among those who marched in 1991 toward the Kyrgyz (then Soviet)-Chinese border to commemorate the heroes of the 1916 uprising and victims of the massacre and flight.
During the 1916 revolt, in at least two regions of Kyrgyzstan (Kemin and Kochkor), the local lords proclaimed themselves khans (leaders of sovereign states). Even though their attempts failed, it showed that the local regions were eager to use any opportunity to become independent of Tsarist Russia.
That is why local historians say the 1916 uprising was one of the engines that impelled the Soviet regime to create autonomous republics in the region.
(Venera Djumataeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)