by David Leupold

From the Czechoslovak town Žilina to the Kyrgyz steppe ...

“Now we have arrived at the end of the world” (to sme teda prišli na koniec sveta) the members of the industrial cooperative “Interhelpo” would exclaim bitterly when they left their wagons to face an arid and desert-like wasteland outside a desolate Pishpek railway station. On April 24, 1925, the first cohort of a group of internationalists arrived here in Kyrgyzstan from the small town Žilina in present-day Slovakia. Pishpek, as Bishkek was called until 1926 (later: Frunze), had been a small late-Tsarist colonial town with approximately 752 households, consisting mainly of Russians and Ukrainians, as well as Dungan, Tatars and Uzbeks. The colonial settlement was practically pre-industrial and lacked both electricity and irrigation system.

At the outset things did not look rosy. Severe housing conditions coupled with a particular harsh winter in 1925 lead to the spread of lethal diseases such as malaria and typhoid, which killed up to thirty people – including all children up to the age of three – urged some of them to immediately abandon the city. However, those who stayed significantly contributed, not least with their state-of-the-art technical equipment, to the rapid urban development of Frunze as an internationalist actor in tandem with Soviet city planning.

Interhelpovcis were internationalists, but not dreamers

Participants of Interhelpo were internationalists, but not dreamers: from 1925 onwards they engaged in more specific actions, as they built from scratch a whole district including an electric power station (the first of its kind in the whole country), textile and furniture factories, workshops for tailors, shoemakers and joiners, a school, a kindergarten, a tannery, a brewery as well as unique residential buildings tailored to the architectural preferences of their constructors.

In addition to the construction projects, Interhelpo also shaped the cultural life of the early Soviet city - the "Club of the Paris Commune” (today: Club House Dialogue), built in 1930, would serve as the main hub for cultural activities. Besides this, it also functioned as an evening school (večerná univerzita) for adults and housed various working groups (záujmove krúžky). These groups included among others a theatre group led by Eduard Peringer and a club of amateur photographers.

Speaking ‘Internationalist’: Ido and Spontánne Esperanto

Over the years – and under the influence of policies of indigenization** – the cooperative expanded massively to include in their team many local members. Originally founded as a cooperative from Czechoslovakia, in 1932 cooperative members comprised alongside with Czechs, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Hungarians and Germans also Kyrgyz, Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Uighurs (Kashgar), Uzbeks, Tatars, Jews, Armenians and Ruthenians. By 1939, those local members even outnumbered the Europeans by 89% to 11%. In face of the resulting challenge of securing communication across language boundaries, the co-operatives had developed on the basis of the constructed language Ido an organic working language (spontánne esperanto) drawing from Czech, Slovak, German, Hungarian, Russian as well as words borrowed from local languages such as Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Uyghur.

Today only the crumbling houses of the Interhelpo district to the west of the city stand against the forces of time as silent remainders of a largely forgotten history of internationalism in Bishkek. The virtual exhibition “Relicts of Another Future” lends again a voice to the city-builders of a century ago…

Click here to explore Interhelpo:

* I want to extend my innermost gratitude to my colleague Lilit Dabagian as well as the participants of the “Visualizing Bishkek” workshop, Galina Anatolievna (NAZDAR) for her dedicated support during my research in Bishkek and the Slovak journalist Lukáš Onderčanin for graciously sharing materials from his private archive.

** Indigenization (korenizatsia) - the political and cultural campaign of the Soviet government on the national question in the 1920s and early 1930s. Designed to ease out contradictions between central authority and the populations of the national republics of the USSR, indigenization comprised the deliberate promotion of representatives of national minorities to leadership positions in the state apparatus through affirmative action, the creation of national-territorial autonomies, the introduction of languages ​​of national minorities in the field of work and education etc.

*** Ido (Esper. Ido - descendant) - an international language adopted in 1907 as the reformed version of Esperanto.




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