In November 2011, Kyrgyzstan gained an unexpected new notoriety on the Russian-language internet (RuNet), after a video of a bizarre press conference in Bishkek went viral. Soon the video was lampooned on the popular Russian-language internet show, This is Horosho, a kind of Russian Tosh.0. The video featured Arstanbek Abdyldaev—a wealthy gas station magnate, obscure former presidential candidate, and self-proclaimed seer—and members of his religio-political organization, the People’s Academy of Spirituality, making several unusual claims about Kyrgyzstan and the greater world in ungrammatical Russian. According to them, the world was on the verge of a new era and a golden age that would begin in 2012 with the Kyrgyz people. This was only fitting because the Kyrgyz were, by their measurement, the oldest nation in the world and Kyrgyzstan was the energy center of the Earth. In addition, Abdyldaev concluded that not only did all life on Earth begin with the Kyrgyz, but the Biblical Adam actually had Kyrgyz blood. How did he come to these conclusions? He said he received this information through “ayan,” a Kyrgyz cosmic energy force.
Then—even more amazing—Abdyldaev uttered the ungrammatical words that would electrify RuNet and make him famous: “Zima ne budet!” [“There will be no winter!”], and an internet phenomenon was born.
Zima ne budet didn’t stop there. In January 2012, Abdyldaev and his associates reappeared in another press conference with bold new claims: the world was controlled by shadowy figures standing behind the official leaders, and Russian prime minister (now president) Vladimir Putin was a “complex bio-robot.” Once again, the video was featured on This is Horosho, and internet users snatched up the raw material of this phenomenon—video clips, quotes, and images—and generated new content based on the viral video. At the present moment, there are approximate 10 videos considered to be part of Zima ne budet (although after the third or fourth one, it appears Abdyldaev and his associates realized the PR value of the “internet meme” and tried to exploit it), several remixes and “autotunes,” countless user-created images, and even video parodies. Though there are few statistics on the subject, it is safe to say that Zima ne budet is the largest viral video or internet meme to ever come out of Kyrgyzstan.
This could easily have become a story about Russian-speaking internet users laughing at a Kyrgyz politician who they perceive as backwards. But the phenomenon did not remain outside of its country of origin. Rather, after becoming popular abroad, Zima ne budet quickly returned to Kyrgyzstan and gained popularity there among internet users. On Blive.kg (a popular Kyrgyzstan Youtube substitute), users took turns laughing at, mocking, insulting, and at times denouncing Abdyldaev and his associates in the comments of the Zima ne budet videos. Meanwhile, on the popular online Diesel forum (diesel.elcat.kg), such comical mocking also gave way to more serious discussions of the pre-Islamic Tengrist religion that forms the background of the People’s Academy’s beliefs. Unsurprisingly, social media users also set their statuses to Zima ne budet, and the phrase appeared as a hashtag on Twitter.
By now, some seven months later, Zima ne budet has more or less run its course. At the peak of this meme’s popularity, it received significant coverage in the Kyrgyzstani media, and even some coverage in the English-language press. Journalists remarked on its popularity, its humor, and the Tengrist beliefs of the People’s Academy of Spirituality. But few ever asked a critical question that really ought to be asked: what does Zima ne budet’s popularity in Kyrgyzstan tell us about Kyrgyzstan?
The answer may lie in the complex class relations expressed by the meme’s popularity.
You might be thinking, “But it’s just a funny video? What could be political about that?” To a degree, you’re right. Laughter need not have a political message, and much of Zima ne budet’s humor is derived from the unusual nature of Abdyldaev’s claims. But when you consider who’s laughing at whom and what they’re laughing about, you get a different perspective.
My feeling is that Zima ne budet’s success on the Kyrgyzstani internet is really a reflection of the urban/rural divide in the country. Here’s why:
According to a 2010 report by Neil Melvin and Tolkun Umaraliev, though only one-sixth of Kyrgyzstan’s population lives in Bishkek, the capital is home to 77 percent of all the country’s internet users. These users tend to be young, with people ages 10-20 making up 40 percent of them, 20- to -30-year-olds making up 35 percent, and 30- to 40-year-olds accounting for only 16 percent. Thus, the people in Kyrgyzstan viewing Zima ne budet and all its associated content are, by the standards of Kyrgyzstan, generally urban, Russian-speaking, and frequently better-off than their rural counterparts. They also largely grew up in the post-Soviet period, making them less familiar with communist ideology. And their responses to the videos reveal a significant degree of hostility towards the perceived “backwardness” of Abdyldaev’s views and a strong feeling that he is shaming their nation. Below are a few of the comments (translated into English) from the first two Zima Ne Budet videos that illustrate this point (I have tried to preserve the form of the original comments in my translations):
“God why out of 5 million people [i.e. the population of Kyrgyzstan] did you poorly make these two?”
“I AM UNDER THE TABLE, BAHAHAHAHAHA, SHAMEFUL FREAKS, THEY ARE DISCREDITING THE NATION, FROM WHERE DID THEY GET ADAM’S GENE, I’M CURIOUS WHAT HE [i.e. Abdyldaev] SMOKED”
“…they are further shaming Kyrgyzstan”
Of course, interpreting these comments is complicated by their humorous nature, and it is important to note that not all comments made such clear-cut judgments about Abdyldaev and his associates. Many comments, in fact, simply quoted Abdyldaev and other members of the People’s Academy and indicated laughter through emoticons, words, and symbols. But, these quotations are also revealing: a large portion of their humor is derived from Abdyldaev’s ungrammatical and mispronounced Russian.
In contrast to the majority of users participating in the Zima ne budet meme, Arstanbek Abdyldaev is originally from a rural area, a village outside of Naryn (in central Kyrgyzstan). Some of the other members of his organization, judging by their accents or limited Russian-language abilities, also seem to be from rural areas. This was clearly not lost on internet users. A few commented and openly referred to Abdyldaev as “myrk,” a derogatory term describing a person who has moved from a rural area to Bishkek. Such so-called myrks often inhabit the novostroiki (new suburbs) on the edge of Bishkek. Unlike many Bishkek residents, they generally speak Kyrgyz as a first language and their Russian is often perceived as not up to par. Though comments using the word “myrk” were not widespread, several internet savvy contacts in Kyrgyzstan have suggested to me that Abdyldaev has come to be associated with the image of the stereotypical myrk. The comments that employed this word generally connected it with the perception of stupidity. As one user wrote, “For this I love myrks, you can always laugh at them.” However, nothing may reveal this urban/rural consciousness better than the fact that Zima ne budet also spawned a new word: “Ototo.” Derived from Abdyldaev’s mispronunciation and overuse of the phrase “vot eto” [“that’s it” or “there it is” in Russian], Ototo has come to mean “stupid.” Award-winning blogger Elena Skochilo also suggested to me that the word can be used to describe a person who is supposedly a myrk.
In examining this internet phenomenon, it is also important to consider where the power is located. On one side of the divide, we have young, urban individuals who speak Russian, use the internet, and, in this way, are more able to engage with the world outside Kyrgyzstan. The role of the internet here is critical. In participating in this meme by commenting and creating or spreading content, they are making use of forms of internet humor that have become popular worldwide—viral videos, photoshopped images, musical remixes, etc. By taking part in this very “21st Century” internet phenomenon, they are staking a claim in an urban, youth-imagined modernity, a claim that is buttressed by their rejection of what they see as Abdyldaev’s clownish ruralism.
On the other side, we have rural residents. They tend to be poorer and have less access to the internet and the world outside of Kyrgyzstan. The fact that many of them speak Kyrgyz as their first and possibly only language (a 2009 census cited in a recent EurasiaNet article suggests only 9 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population over the age of 18 speaks Russian as a first language and 50 percent describe it as a second language) is itself a barrier to accessing the internet, which suffers from a dearth of Kyrgyz-language content. For this reason, a recent project to get Kyrgyz language added to Google Translate has at times been framed as an effort give Kyrgyz-speakers access to the internet. In this internet meme, rural people have no voice. They are absent. In their place is Arstanbek Abdyldaev and the People’s Academy of Spirituality, who serve as a stand-in for the real rural population. It’s far from fair, but it reflects the current realities of the internet in Kyrgyzstan.
In discussing Kyrgyzstan, we often talk about North/South as being the largest political and social divide. The events of 2010 have shown us that this divide is extremely significant. But this is not the only divide. Zima ne budet emphasizes that the urban/rural divide is also critically important to any understanding of Kyrgyzstan.
The urban/rural divide is not unknown. It is frequently discussed in USAID reports and studies of education or healthcare access in Kyrgyzstan. But what is less often discussed is how people in Kyrgyzstan relate to this divide themselves. This is surprising, as the urban/rural divide has had many political implications in Kyrgyzstan’s history. In 1989, during the atrophied last years of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyz migrants to Bishkek organized protests to demand access to better housing. Unable to obtain residency permits, many of these ethnic Kyrgyz were forced to rent substandard housing, and felt the government was favoring Slavs and other “European” ethnic groups for apartments in the capital. In 1990, interethnic rioting broke out in Osh and took several hundred lives after the government allocated land from a collective farm occupied by ethnic Uzbeks to ethnic Kyrgyz migrants from the villages. And, when interethnic conflict broke out again in 2010, one of the striking features of the violence was the mobilization of rural Kyrgyz people from the villages, who flooded into the city, claimed to be defending their relatives, ethnic group, or nation. Since the violence, rural localities such as the Alai region have been seen as hotbeds of Kyrgyz ethno-nationalism. Additionally, in a recent interview, the International Crisis Groups’s Asia Director, Paul Quinn-Judge suggested parts of the countryside in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have ceased to pay attention to the weak central government.
Clearly, what’s happening in rural Kyrgyzstan has a major impact on the future of the country. But the rural side of the divide is often overlooked. For example, on June 16, a delegation from Google visited Kyrgyzstan to discuss how information technology in the spheres of education and culture can help the country develop. Covering the delegation’s meeting with former-President Rosa Otunbaeva and a group of entrepreneurs and IT specialists for Voice of America, Kyrgyzstani journalist Erica Marat quoted the executive chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, as saying that one of the keys to the rapid development of mobile communications systems in Kyrgyzstan is to provide free wireless internet throughout Bishkek.
“It’s very effective,” Schmidt continued. “The internet makes it possible for a small business or an average citizen to connect with the global market.”
That’s sounds great, but the average citizen isn’t in Bishkek and won’t benefit from free wireless internet on Chui Prospect. The average citizen lives in a smaller town or rural area and may not have internet access, wired or wireless, at all.
Kyrgyzstan’s urban/rural divide is not particularly unique. Most, if not all, countries have such divides. It also isn’t simple. But, as Zima ne budet illustrates, this divide is genuinely meaningful to citizens of Kyrgyzstan. And it’s often ignored. It is certainly important to consider how the divide affects healthcare, education, and development, but that’s not enough. Rather, we must strive to also understand the divide for its own sake. This calls for a different kind of scholarship and research. Might I propose an ethnography of the so-called myrks? How about a study of attitudes towards rural-to-urban migrants, or more coverage of the issues faced by these migrants?
Internet memes, web phenomena, viral videos and other forms of online culture are nowhere near as random as we often paint them. Rather, they touch on society’s stereotypes, fixations, questions, and fears. Zima ne budet had resonance in Kyrgyzstan because stereotypes of rural people and “myrks” were very recognizable to urban Kyrgyz.
So why isn’t the importance of understanding the urban/rural divide and the attitudes it creates more recognizable to us? I’m not certain, but it ought to be.
Special thanks to Elena Skochilo and Rahat Zholdoshalieva for their input and advice.
Image from the Diesel Forum (diesel.elcat.kg)