In the Walnut Forest of Arslanbob, Soviet Nostalgia Lingers9 min read
“Is that your car?” Khusnidin asked, pointing to the UAZ Hunter my friend and I had rented in Bishkek. “I have a Soviet car as well, a white Lada Niva” he said proudly, as my friend plowed the Hunter over the top of a steep hill in front of Khusnidin’s house. We had arrived in Arslanbob, a sprawling village nestled on the southern slopes of the Babash-Ata mountain range in western Kyrgyzstan.
The town is home to the largest and one of the oldest walnut groves in the world, attracting thousands of visitors annually, but their existence is under threat. The walnut forest of Arslanbob tells a story of economic recession, failed privatization, ethnic tension, and post-Soviet disillusionment. Thirty years after its collapse, nostalgia for the USSR seems to be at an all-time high in this far-flung corner of Central Asia.
The road to Arslanbob led along a shallow and muddy river that meandered through a wide valley. The grassy hills on both sides of the river formed a gradual transition between the fertile Ferghana Valley further downstream and the alpine terrain that Kyrgyzstan is so famous for. Eventually, the asphalt turned north and the road became steeper. Unexpectedly, the green hills gave way to densely forested slopes as we climbed higher.
There are several myths about the forest’s origins. A popular story is that the trees were a gift from Prophet Mohammed. In search of a heavenly place on earth, one of his disciples, Arslanbob, found an idyllic mountain oasis. Unfortunately, it lacked vegetation, so Arslanbob turned to Mohammed, who sent him walnuts. Another myth claims that Alexander the Great planted the first walnut trees with seeds he brought from Persia. Although it is unlikely Alexander ever set foot in Arslanbob, tales like these fill local villagers with pride about their ancient forest.
That evening, while enjoying homemade walnut wine, our host Khusnidin spoke passionately about the history of his village and the nearby woods. But when asked whether life in the USSR was better than it is now, pride made way for sorrow. He reminisced of a time when everyone had work. Back in the day, Khusnidin was a forest ranger, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was out of a job, as were many of his fellow villagers. As in many former constituent republics of the socialist realm, the newly elected Kyrgyz government began the painful transition towards a market economy, causing deep recession throughout the 1990s. Owing to the subsequent privatization, the beloved walnut forest is only a shadow of its once glorious former self.
A fenced forest
The forest lies directly to the east of Arslanbob, only a short ride by four-wheel drive. Our UAZ Hunter was hardly a luxury choice on the potholed and unpaved roads that led up to the tree line. Every year during harvest season, in the autumn months, the predominantly Uzbek families from the village make this trip to camp in the woods. They stay for over a month to collect nuts, returning to Arslanbob only to restock provisions. This tradition goes back centuries, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the walnut forest is no longer the same.
Large parts of the forest are now sectioned off with rickety wooden fences. Small Daewoo trucks drive back and forth, transporting large stacks of material to reinforce those barriers, as if locals are expecting a siege. To get closer to the famous walnut trees, I decided to jump one of the fences. Just as I was about to do so, an Uzbek farmer whistled at me from a distance, violently gesturing to leave his property.
As I told Khusnidin of my little escapade that afternoon, he frustratedly explained that large parts of the walnut forest, the town’s main source of income, have been leased to the highest bidder. Khusnidin spoke of a German company that currently rents a significant portion of the forest. With some of these companies subleasing small patches of land to local farmers and their families, capitalism seems to be in full swing. The many fences that divide the woods are testament to this development. Many farmers also have to pay additional fees on their walnut harvest to the forestry department. It is easy to see that the forest’s riches do not benefit the people of Arslanbob like they did in the past.
The ecological cost of failed privatization
Privatization has also resulted in a more existential threat to the forest. Due to a lack of governmental oversight, farmers let their cattle graze in the woods, causing soil degradation. Even though this practice was prohibited in Soviet times, many locals have resorted to raising livestock after the economic downturn. This is considered to be a more stable source of income, especially since crop yields have been less consistent over the past years due to climate change.
Walking through the forest, the problem becomes visible immediately: the wooden fences I mentioned earlier, not only keep out nosy tourists like myself, but also aggravate overgrazing by keeping cattle in. This vicious cycle of climate change and overgrazing is gradually worsening the ecological situation in the long term, but many people are too desperate to consider more sustainable living.
During our late evening conversation, Khusnidin explained that he owns some cattle as well. As an ex-ranger, he knows about the harm it does to the forest, but his livestock helps him make ends meet. Khusnidin also receives remittances from his sons working in Russia, who regularly fly back to help their father. Under normal circumstances, he also earns some extra money from the guest house he and his wife are running as part of a local community-based tourism initiative.
Unfortunately for Khusnidin, this source of income ran dry long ago. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my travel companion and I were his first guests in over a year. Multiple times, Khusnidin apologized for his rusty English, having not spoken it for quite some time, but as he poured us more walnut wine, this was hardly noticeable.
An ethnic powder keg
Thirty years after the dissolution of the USSR, economic hardship is bitterly felt in Kyrgyzstan. In the southern part of the country, however, the situation is even worse due to long standing ethnic tension. These tensions are the result of Stalin’s so-called national-territorial delimitation, or NTD. Although the Soviets tried to create ethnically homogeneous entities, this exercise proved particularly difficult in areas that were ethnically mixed – like the Ferghana Valley. In the end, bureaucrats compromised on granting nomadic areas to the Kyrgyz, whereas the Uzbeks were left with much of the arable land. To compensate for the lack of major urban centers, Moscow also added some Uzbek-majority towns to the prospective Kyrgyz republic.
The Uzbeks were very active in the urban economies of southern Kyrgyz cities, operating as intermediaries in business and trade. But their relatively strong economic position stirred grievance among local Kyrgyz. The Soviet authorities sought to compensate for this power differential by increasing Kyrgyz titular control over political office.
The end of Moscow’s rule over Central Asia did not end this ‘nativization’ of power in southern Kyrgyzstan. On the contrary, independence accelerated this process. Instead of mitigating economic grievances, it helped institutionalize such resentment. In both 1990 and 2010, political instability fueled latent anti-Uzbek sentiment among local Kyrgyz, culminating into brutal pogroms against the urban Uzbek population. The violence killed hundreds and triggered a small exodus of Uzbek people from Osh, Uzgen and Jalal-Abad, where shops were looted and neighborhoods ravaged. Although the Uzbek minority remains Kyrgyzstan’s second largest ethnic group, numbering just over one million people, their once important economic position has been strongly diminished.
Anti-Uzbek sentiment is widespread in southern Kyrgyzstan. Many Kyrgyz believe that wealthy Uzbek Kyrgyzstani leaders seek to turn economic power into political clout to obtain official status for the Uzbek language in Kyrgyzstan. In reality, the use of Uzbek has been disappearing. In the aftermath of the 2010 ethnic clashes, Kyrgyz authorities took measures to ban the Uzbek language from public life. All Uzbek TV and radio channels have been shut down and schools forced to switch from Uzbek to Kyrgyz curriculum. Virtually all Uzbek signage has been removed in southern cities like Osh, with many restaurants and cafes now bearing Kyrgyz names. As one can imagine, such steps have exacerbated the societal isolation of the Uzbek minority.
After another refill of wine, I felt brave enough to bring a toast to our host Khusnidin. When I asked him how to say ‘cheers’ in Kyrgyz, he explained that he never learnt the Kyrgyz language, despite having lived in Kyrgyzstan all his life. Admittedly, there is little reason to do so, as nearly everyone in Arslanbob identifies as ethnically Uzbek. However, ethnic tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have affected this village as well. Back in the Soviet Union, a significant portion of the walnut harvest was sold in the bustling bazaars of Andijan and Kokand on the Uzbekistani side of the Ferghana Valley. After the Union’s collapse, inter-republic economic relations were disrupted overnight. New border fences were erected between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, two countries that had never existed as independent entities before, thus severely complicating cross-border trade.
Hostage of the past
For Khusnidin, leaving Kyrgyzstan is not an option, despite his near-constant financial problems. He sees Arslanbob and the nearby walnut forest as his ancestral land, and the autocratic regime in Tashkent does not provide a very appealing alternative. Kyrgyzstan is still considered the most democratic country in Central Asia, despite all its shortcomings. The country holds the record of most presidents since independence, but presidential overturn has largely been the result of a significant number of revolutions and revolts. New rulers tend to appropriate authoritarian methods once in power, which renders effective governance practically impossible.
In many ways, the people of Arslanbob are stuck without any prospect of betterment. Their beloved walnut forest is slowly dying, as it grows less walnuts every year. Comfortingly, their unique earthy flavor still takes Khusnidin back to a time in which there were no fences in the woods, and the walnuts were sold in all corners of the Ferghana Valley – if not all corners of the USSR. In the forest of Arslanbob, nostalgia for this long-lost empire remains tangible. This fenced exclave of ethnic Uzbek farmers is a true microcosm of post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.