What do street names tell about Bishkek city?

December 18, 2023
названия улиц Бишкека

What do street names tell about Bishkek city?

December 18, 2023
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Макаланы кыргыз тилинде бул жерден окусаңыз болот

Ontario — is it just a province in Canada? No. It's also a street in Bishkek, named after a bath and health complex in Jal microdistrict. How do you like the idea of living in "Dark Alley"? Well, you don't need to worry about that, as there's no such alley anymore — it's now called "Cheerful Alley".

The history of street names in the capital is varied and spans over a hundred years. There are more than 1600* streets and alleys in total in the capital. Some are named in honor of great composers and artists, while others carry the names of lesser-known politicians. Some are associated with happiness and joy, while others evoke war and revolutions. Some may remind us of the Soviet past, while others celebrate the independence of Kyrgyzstan.
*According to data provided by the 2GIS cartographic service. However, the number of streets may be higher due to the addition of residential areas around the city that are either annexed or in disputed status.
We analyzed the names of all the streets in Bishkek to create a portrait of our city through the prism of toponyms.

The Imprint of the Soviet Past and the "Big Brother"

From Ussuriysk to Tiraspol, from Chukotka to the Caucasus — such is the extensive geography of the places after which streets in Bishkek are named. And this is not surprising — every fourth* street or alley in the city is named after geographical objects, such as cities, villages, mountains, rivers, islands, etc.
Almost all of them are somehow connected with the Soviet Union and the "socialist camp" — now about 40% of the geographical objects referenced by street names are located in Kyrgyzstan, while the rest are in the territory of other post-Soviet countries or in Eastern Europe.

Cities are the most popular geographical objects for toponym naming. About half of the "geographical" streets and alleys refer to them.
Every second city that has lent its name to the streets of Bishkek is located in Russia. Often, these are not large and well-known municipalities, but small, lesser-known towns.

For example, Bodaybinsky Lane is named after Bodaybo, a gold mining town with only about 10,000 inhabitants. Valdaysky Street and Lane bear the name of the city of Valday — the homeland of the "Russian sheepskins," with a population of about 14,000 people. Notably, during the Soviet era, Joseph Stalin's dacha was located nearby, and now the residence of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is situated there.

Ukrainian cities are second — nearly every seventh city is located there. For instance, Drohobych Lane and Uzhgorod Lane are named after cities in western Ukraine, while Simferopolsky Lane and Sevastopol Street are named after cities in Crimea.

Kyrgyzstan ranks third in the number of cities that have given names to Bishkek's toponyms. Among them are industrial cities like Sulukta and Kyzyl-Kia, as well as the regional center cities of the republic. Overall, one can visit Karakol or Naryn without leaving Bishkek, simply by traveling to Naryn Street.

"He who pays the piper calls the tune"

Every fifth street in Bishkek is named after famous personalities. Half of them are Kyrgyzstanis who have contributed to the culture and development of the country. For example, the writer Zhunai Mavlyanov, the Manas narrator (manaschi) Shapak Irysmenti uulu, and the politician Jusup Abdrahmanov.

However, even in these "named" streets, traces of the Russian Empire and Soviet past are evident.
Among the Russians, there are many who have never set foot on Kyrgyz soil. For example, Prince Pyotr Bagration, the commander-in-chief of the Russian army who fought against Napoleon, or the poet Kondraty Ryleev, executed after the Decembrist uprising.

We studied what the people whose names are borne by toponyms are known for. It turns out that nearly every fifth one was involved in politics or was a civil servant.
In second place are writers, with Kyrgyz authors only a few percentage points more than Russian ones. The rest are writers from Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and other countries.

Scientists and military personnel go hand in hand. In Bishkek, 45 streets are named after scientists and academics. Meanwhile, 51 streets are named in honor of military figures — more than half of them bear the names of Russian commanders and generals.
It's hard not to notice that almost all the street and alley names in the city are male. There are only 13 streets celebrating famous women, which is just 4% of the total number of toponyms named after eminent people.

Apart from these, there are streets named after women's names, such as Kanykey and Barchyn. But they are also few in number.
Женские улицы в Бишкеке

In total, out of 35 "female" streets, 22 bear female names or are named after characters from literary works.
The negligible number of streets in Bishkek named after women is a consequence of officials turning a blind eye to their contributions to societal development, as well as the predominance of men in leadership positions in the city hall and among the deputies of the city council.

Female names have started appearing recently, following the renaming of old streets and the emergence of new ones. For example, an unnamed street in the Arch-Beshik residential area was named after the actress Darkul Kuyukova, and a section of Almatinskaya Street was renamed in honor of Kurmanjan Datka, the ruler of the Alai Kyrgyz.
The map of "female" and "male" streets is compiled based on data from 2GIS and OSM. The names of some streets may have differed, and certain "female" streets were present only in one of the services.

Why Not Rename?

The "boom" in renaming city streets in Bishkek, as in other post-Soviet cities, occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s. At that time, the process began to reflect the country's independence and the development of national identity.

Thus, the capital's streets began to bear the names of Kyrgyz figures more often. For example, the street named 50 Years of October was renamed in honor of Isa Akhunbaev, a renowned Kyrgyz doctor, and the former Dushanbe Street was named after the Minister of Finance, Aliaskar Toktonaliev.

Of course, the names of Kyrgyzstanis were also given to streets during Soviet times. For example, in the 1940s, Upper Street was named after Zhoomart Bokonbaev, a Kyrgyz poet and playwright. And in the 1970s, streets appeared named after cultural figures Atay Ogonbaev and Muratbek Ryskulov.

But is there any pattern to this process? We studied and mapped all the renamed streets of Bishkek to find out.

The map shows that renamed streets* are concentrated in the city center — it's this part of the city that was actively developed in the 19th-20th centuries and formed the old toponyms.
* Among the renamed streets, there are those that changed their names during Soviet times but have retained them to this day. For example, the current Frunze Street was once called Sudeyskaya, and Kievskaya was Dunganskaya. Due to the lack of data on the dates of renaming for most streets, we were unable to divide them into temporal categories.
According to our analysis, the overwhelming majority of changed names refer to famous personalities.
The outskirts of Bishkek, including residential areas, are saturated with new streets, the names of which were assigned in the years of independence. New toponyms continue to appear there to this day. However, there should be no renamed streets in the next ten years — a moratorium has been introduced.

In 2013, deputies of the Bishkek City Council justified this by the "need to comprehend and test over time the existing historical names of the city of Bishkek" and "preserving the historical and cultural heritage of the city." In October 2023, the deputies extended the moratorium* until 2033.
* The moratorium on renaming does not apply to streets with ordinal numbers, such as Kaly-Ordo 1st, 2nd, etc. Where do such toponyms come from? It turns out that they appear before elections to ensure city residents have a clear address of residence and registration for voting.
Currently, new names can only be given to newly formed or unnamed streets and lanes. One of the conditions for naming is the consent of more than half of the residents living there.

It is noteworthy that the regulation on this procedure only mentions assigning streets the names of famous personalities or benefactors (for example, those who will repair the road surface).

Meanwhile, the commission on toponymy at BishkekGlavArhitektura says that other categories of names, such as those related to nature, musical instruments, or connected with national self-awareness, are not prohibited. The latter, by the way, are popular — in Bishkek, there are streets like Azattyk ('Freedom'), Birimdik ('Unity'), and Erkin-El ('Free People').
Authors: Alexey Juravlev, Altynai Nogoibaeva, Aigerim Ryskulbekova
Data editor: Savia Hasanona
Text editing: Savia Hasanona, Rada Valentina kyzy
Illustration: DALL-E, Peshcom
Authors: Alexey Juravlev, Altynai Nogoibaeva, Aigerim Ryskulbekova
Data editor: Savia Hasanona
Text editing: Savia Hasanona, Rada Valentina kyzy
Illustration: DALL-E, Peshcom
The article was created by fellows of the data journalism program of the Media-K Internews project in Kyrgyzstan, implemented with the support of USAID in the Kyrgyz Republic. The mentor of the program is Savia Hasanova. The opinions and conclusions in the material do not necessarily reflect the views of Internews and its partners.