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  • Crossing Boundaries, Breaking Rules:Continuity and Social Transformation in Trickster Tales from Central Asia1
  • Ildikó Bellér-Hann (bio) and Raushan Sharshenova (bio)


The Arguments

Although oral literature has conventionally been considered a field of study for folklorists, anthropologists started taking an interest in the subject very early on, conceptualizing such materials as socially embedded communicative strategies.2 The present paper investigates a body of texts that emerged in the Kyrgyz3 speech community in what is today northern Kyrgyzstan over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In an effort to implement Soviet nationality policies, Soviet folklorists in the 1960s identified and collected a sizeable body of Kuyruchuk stories and published them in Russian (Bektenov 1964).4 Since Kyrgyzstan's declaration of independence in 1991, two new books have been published, one containing some of the figure's adventures and the other summarizing and analyzing stories about him, this time in Kyrgyz (Öskönalï uulu 1997, Kenchiev and Abdïrazakov 2002). The stories are generally simple and evoke the style of folktales; under socialism a number of such stories were published in journals aimed at a young readership (e.g. Zhash Leninchi, Kirgizskie pioneri), and Kuyruchuk is also mentioned in shorter publications (e.g. Bektenov 1959, 1978, 1981; Toygonbaeva 1987; Naymanbay 1990).

The paper is organized along two axes. First, it identifies a classic "Trickster" figure set in modern Kyrgyz history, ranging from the period of the last decades of Russian rule to early Soviet times. It will be shown how in the wake of major social upheavals, Central Asian oral tradition mobilizes the figure of the Trickster to demonstrate the ambiguities of everyday life at times of rapid political and social transformation. Second, the materials presented illuminate more general processes of cultural production and entextualization in socialist and postsocialist Central Asia. It will be argued that the Soviet and the Kyrgyz states at times deploy very similar strategies to pursue overlapping goals of identity-building. Shifting strategies aimed at supporting different state projects can be recognized in the meta-folklore of a text corpus taken from Kyrgyz oral tradition. Since the text corpus is available as printed materials, we see it as being situated at the interface of oral and written realms (Goody 1993).

The stories in question were published in Russian and Kyrgyz during the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, and we have no detailed reliable information concerning performative and receptive aspects, yet they are clearly rooted within the established genre of Central Asian oral tradition. Given the lack of extratextual evidence, the lines of argument mentioned above will be elaborated on the basis of evidence provided by the stories themselves.5

In view of these two central concerns, the classification of the stories poses a dilemma. Several possibilities presented themselves. Of these we considered two in particular: one was to follow the historical setting of the stories, starting with Kuyruchuk's adventures in the Russian Empire and continuing with those set in the young Soviet Union. The other was to concentrate on the major historical periods in which the stories were published: the Soviet Union in the early 1960s and the early years of independence in the mid-1990s. These two competing organizational possibilities underline the complex nature of the concept of "context," ranging from the geographical/spatial to the broader social and historical.6

The latter option initially seemed more attractive, since it offered a suitable structure to elaborate on shifts in ideological strategies concerning important themes such as the unequal distribution of resources, the need for social justice, attitudes toward religion, the force of local tradition in constituting ethnic identity, inter-ethnic relations, and the like in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. After seriously considering this possibility, we have decided not to follow this path for several reasons.7 It must be emphasized that at no time has a systematic analysis of all the stories included in these volumes been carried out, and the same holds true for those stories that have been published separately in various journals over the course of the socialist and postsocialist decades. A full comparison of the stories published in Soviet and post...

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