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In Kyrgyzstan, A New Interest In Russified Names

Tens of thousands of Kyrgyz are changing their names to sound more Russian in the belief it will make their lives easier.

During the past 10 months, Kyrgyz officials say, some 38,000 of the country's citizens have officially modified their names to sound more Russian.

The changes might seem of only cosmetic importance. A man changes the ending of his name from the Kyrgyz suffix "-uulu," which means "son of," to the Russian suffix "-ev" or "-ov," which means the same thing. Or a woman changes her suffix of "-kyzy," which means "daughter of," to "-ova" or "-eva."

But the growing trend -- up from 36,000 similar name changes last year -- is much more than a caprice. It appears to be driven by recent changes in how many Kyrgyz view Moscow and the belief that things will be better for them if they have a Russian-sounding name.

Omurbek, a 29-year-old man in the southeastern province of Batken, recently changed his last name, which he does not want to reveal. He is one of tens of thousands of people in the province -- one of Kyrgyzstan's poorest -- who migrate to Russia in search of work. But since 2012, Russia has progressively expanded its list of foreign migrants it bans from re-entering the country for periods of up to five years because they breached Russian laws and administrative regulations during their stay.

Now, Omurbek, who claims he is on the list over a charge of violating public order, says he and many others feel the need for a different identity.

"We have been unexpectedly deported from Russia," he says. "But how can I stay away for five years when I have to take care of my family? I have to return there. That is why I had to change my name and get a new passport, but it is a difficult thing to do."

Omurbek says changing his name should help in two ways. One is the hope that border officials will not recognize him with a slightly different-sounding name. The second is that he and many other migrants believe that Russian authorities will treat them better in general if their names sound less "foreign."

To get a new passport required some work but not much money. Omurbek had to collect 16 documents to show the passport office and make a payment of $2. He obtained his new passport within a month.
Officials say that many others in the province changed their names this year for the same reason.

"In general, 3,325 residents in the Batken Oblast applied to change their surnames, names, and patronymic names," says Gulmira Omosheva, the head of the state office for Registration of Civil Documents in the provincial capital. "When we ask the reasons, they answer that they are planning to migrate to Russia and say that there is a 'blacklist' at [Russian airports], where people are being returned back."

Officials say that some 25 percent of those changing their names choose a new name that is entirely different from their previous one.

But fear of the blacklist does not appear to be the only motivation for the interest in new names. Some other Kyrgyz, particularly young people, say they prefer a more Russian-sounding name because they believe it will be better for their future.

"All my classmates are now changing their surnames," says Meerim Asanova, who is in her last year of high school in Bishkek and has changed her last name from Asankyzy. "After I graduate from school, I plan to apply to the [state] university's international relations course, if God wills it. I am applying for my passport [with my Russified name] to avoid possible problems when traveling abroad in future."

Elsewhere, others seem to feel the same way. In Naryn, the capital city of central Naryn Province, some 800 high school students changed their names this year, according to Kyrgyz media.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (shown here on the right with Russian President Vladimir Putin) frequently speaks of the country's future in terms of a closer economic relationship with Russia.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (shown here on the right with Russian President Vladimir Putin) frequently speaks of the country's future in terms of a closer economic relationship with Russia.

The return to Russified last names reverses a previous trend of dropping Russian suffixes in favor of Kyrgyz ones after the country became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. In some cases, the children of families which changed their names to sound more Kyrgyz at that time are the ones who are adopting the Russified forms now.

The new development comes as Russia and the Russian language continue to hold immense sway in Kyrgyzstan, including in popular culture, education, and politics.

Russian television channels broadcast into the country and many parents believe that teaching their children Russian as well as Kyrgyz will give them greater opportunities. In larger cities, parents often can choose between sending their children to mostly Russian-language schools, which are generously supported by Russian public foundations via the Russian Embassy, or to Kyrgyz-language state schools that have fewer resources.

Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambaev frequently speaks of the country's future in terms of a closer economic relationship with Russia. On December 23, Bishkek will join the new Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which goes into effect at the start of the new year. The EEU, which also includes Armenia, is an expansion of the current Customs Union that groups together Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Similar name-changing goes on in Tajikistan among migrants, though statistics are not available. Migrants tell media that Russifying their last name helps avoid problems with Russian police and employers who complain they cannot distinguish Tajik first names from family ones.

Elsewhere in Central Asia, there is little sign of people Russifying their names.

In Kazakhstan, one reason may be that few Kazakhs migrate to Russia in search of work. Instead, Kazakhstan is a destination country for migrants from other Central Asian states, mostly Kyrgyzstan.
In Uzbekistan, too, there is little name-changing. But the reason may be that altering one's name there is made virtually impossible by strict government rules regarding identity documents.

Turkmen, who tend to look to Turkey rather than Russia as their shared cultural space, also have shown little movement back toward Russified names.

Written in Prague by RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel, based on reporting in Batken by Jenish Aidarov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service