...THE YEAR IS 1999...



Oct 10, 2010



I didn’t plan to base my story on the women of Central Asia.  Instead as I moved around the country a pattern emerged and gradually, without realising it, their story became my story. 

The women I met and conversed with in the two central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were in themselves a contradiction of their birth place.  They were wonderfully erudite, elegant in a European manner, excellent in their work but completely dominated by men of their family and by the state’s Communist Party. Russia may have begun to remove itself from their satellite countries, but its dominion and influence still remained; and to add to the woes of these women they had still to contend with the looming threat of total control by either Muslim and tribal fathers or husbands.

In many ways they lived in a catch 22 situation.  Under Russian rule the women  could work at jobs their husbands and fathers would never have allowed, enjoying a freedom their work ensured.  But now with the obvious breaking up of these small USSR countries, while happy to see the Russians go, many were also dreading a return to male domination and even worse to the  veil and chador.
I found these women fitted a certain pattern, but I’ll let you decide that for yourselves.  We will start with Mina of Frunze.  To protect their identity, because in some cases they opened their hearts perhaps unwisely,  I have changed their names.


Queuing for ice cream in Frunze
Back at the Ala Too Hotel Mina had my Russian money and counted it out, 1600 roubles. I tucked it away in the wallet I wear round my neck and we set off to see the sights. 

At this stage I didn't doubt the rate of exchange.  Later as Mina recounted the impossible cost of living, constantly refusing my offer of payment for her company, deriding the growing mafia and the black market it spawned and yet was able to locate rare and beautiful art books for me to purchase, in foreign currency of course,  I realised the guilt she was struggling to live with. 

I didn't begrudge her a share of the transaction, to claim knowledge would have embarrassed her deeply. I only hoped she made a handsome profit from my small purchases.

Frunze, I'll stick to that name because even Mina, an ethnic Kyrgyz still used it rather than its new name Bishkek, reminded me of an old German city.  It had a stately, European feel.  We walked down wide avenues where tree branches met overhead ... oaks, chestnuts, birch, fir...all now dropping their leaves, ankle deep in some parts, but Mira told me, providing a wonderfully cool canopy in the summer.

 Shady nature strips in the middle of wide roads merged into parks with sculptured fountains and patriotic statues.  We walked through the park into the big and impressive Soviet Square that had been designed as a forum for parades and political rallies. Facing the square were stately columned theatres and art galleries looking like props for an elaborate spaghetti western. 

We had been walking for the best part of an hour enjoying the crisp air and the sunshine before I realised we had passed no billboards or advertising signs, no visual pollution. I wondered how long it would take for emerging advertising moguls to rectify that unnecessary need.

Before the revolution, Mina told me, Frunze or Bishkek as it was known those seventy odd years before, had been a small tribal town centered round an old wooden fort.  Ignoring the political changes be they for good or bad, Frunze now was a centre of great beauty and serenity with cultural amenities far superior to most Australian cities.  In size it equated roughly with mid size provincial towns like Toowoomba or Armidale yet Frunze supported four theatres of drama, opera and ballet, a puppet theatre, permanent circus, six museums and art galleries. 

Mina made no mention and I remained, for a while, in ignorance of the shanty towns on the other side of Frunze where people faced the coming winter without power or water.
We passed small picture theatres showing Russian and Indian Bollywood movies. On the footpath outside Frunze’s largest department store private entrepreneurs had set up stalls selling oddments of clothing and shoes and whatever else they had managed to scrounge.  

One stall might have no more than half a dozen pair of second hand shoes, another a few dresses or some underwear. Gypsy women mingled in the crowd hawking packets of cigarettes.  Officially cigarettes are rationed to two packets a month.

Inside the four story department store I was stunned by the empty shelves.  In some sections staff had attempted to disguise the bareness by draping plastic shopping bags between items. There wasn't much variety in the goods that were on offer, rows of identical garments, ugly styles, and poor quality fabric all highly priced.

Apart from rubber galoshes there were no shoes at all for sale in the footwear section, just rows of empty shelves and staff standing idly about not even trying to conceal their boredom.

I asked how on earth people managed, what did they do when their shoes inevitably fell to pieces. We had been walking down the stairs to the second floor, and ignoring people around us; Mina stopped and took off one of her navy court shoes indicating the leather sole.  The shoe had obviously been repaired to within an inch of its life.

‘There is a man I know who sometimes brings in shoes from Europe.  If he finds a pair to fit me they will cost one thousand roubles.’  Other shoppers pushed past us as Mina balancing on the step below me, replaced her shoe. ‘It takes me a long time to accumulate such money, my pay when I get it, is only five hundred roubles a month.’

As we strolled back to the hotel I let Mina ramble on, she was after all an Intourist guide, she told me that Kyrgyz translated means forty tribes or clans; that over 70 nationalities were now represented in the peoples of Kyrgyzstan; and that before the revolution her country had not even had an alphabet for their spoken language. Once all this token propaganda had been offered, and digested on my part, we sat down on a park bench and got stuck into some 'girl talk'.

Mina was an extremely attractive woman in her early forties, her father had been a senior judge in Kyrgyzstan’s judiciary. She had originally studied the Italian language and traveled abroad with trade delegations.  In Rome she had met the love of her life, an Italian architect.  Mina’s big brown eyes glistened with tears as she told me how precious her life had been then, fifteen years before. She was spending more and more of her time in Italy, she and the architect fell deeply in love and before long sought permission to marry from Russian party officials.

Permission was denied, the Italian was refused entry into the U.S.S.R. and Mina was abruptly transferred to Intourist duties within Kyrgyzstan and prevented from returning to him in Italy. Her lovely face clouded with emotion, she sighed, and described it as a tragedy of the heart.

I asked had she thought about contacting him now that so many barriers were down and she shook her head.  A few years earlier, her Italian architect passed through Frunze with a tour group and made contact with Mina. 

‘He had with him,’ she told me her eyes welling with tears, ‘his new wife and baby daughter.’

Mina had resisted efforts by her father to marry her off to local men.  ‘I have known too much freedom, how could I live as a prisoner?’ She now resigned herself to being a spinster and lived with her widowed mother in a tiny apartment.

We sat for a moment in silence; then she sighed again and indicated we should move on. I found it difficult to find appropriate words of comfort. Mina was left with only fond memories of her Italian and I could hardly make comment on the insensitivity of the male of the species.  I should think Soviet versions of ‘Mills and Boon’ would sell a million.

Selling fish in Frunze
A street vendor in Frunze, fish from the nearby sea, in reality  Lake Issyk Kul , one of the world's largest mountain lakes. Note the abacus used to calculate prices. The woman surveying his wares most probably wishes she could afford to buy.

A short while after I took this photo a policeman tried to confiscate my camera.  When I explained I spoke no Russian he realised I was a ‘tourista’.  He and the stallholders then relaxed and joked about the mistake.

They had assumed I was a Russian and possibly a KGB spy.

I never did get to the Frunze Circus that initially influenced  my itinerary.  Mira had booked a ticket for me and arranged a taxi pick up for that night.  But then I bumped into Cari in the foyer of the hotel, he was off to a business meeting. 
When I told him my plans for the night, he became visibly upset.

'No, you must not go out at night unescorted', he said.  'It is far too dangerous.'

Of course I argued that a taxi there and a taxi back should ensure my safety.  But he soon convinced me that there were taxi drivers and there were petty criminals, and a foreigner alone, male or female, was an easy target.

Instead I stayed home alone, gazing out over the flimsy little balcony and wondering what the next day would bring.


Episode 7  The Agony of Tipping

Robyn Mortimer ©2010

No comments: