- Gender and National Identity in Memories of the Late 20th-Century Soviet Theater in Kyrgyzstan
Jamal Seidakhmatova, a well-known actress, a veteran of Kyrgyz theater and cinema who is still working in her late 70s, said proudly: “They call me ‘The last of the Mohicans.’ I am a movie and theater actress. This March it is going to be 60 years since I worked on my first role in cinema. I am turning 80 this year, but I will not celebrate it. I will celebrate 60 years of my professional life.”1
Undoubtedly, she modeled herself after the legendary acting couple Sabira Kümüshalieva and Muratbek Ryskulov, although it was clear that her idol was Kümüshalieva. She continued: “First, I lived in Darkul’s home [Darkul Kuiukova (1919–97), another well-respected actress], one of the ‘daughters of Tököldösh.’ She was my teacher. Later, I lived with Sabira Kümüshalieva [1917–2007]) and her husband, Muratbek Ryskulov. They brought me up. Kümüshalieva’s and Ryskulov’s attitude toward the arts was completely different [from that of everyone else]. They worked with this”—she pointed to her heart—“They would get into a meditation; they would sink all their sorrows, all the emotions of their characters into their hearts, so they would act sincerely.”2
Seidakhmatova spoke with me for more than two hours, intently and admiringly conveying her memories of Kuiukova and Kümüshalieva, two of a group of four remarkable Kyrgyz female actors and performers whom she called “daughters of Tököldösh,” referring to their birthplace, the Kyrgyz village (ail) of Tököldösh near the capital city, Frunze (currently Bishkek), in northern Chui Oblast of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic, now Kyrgyzstan. (The two other women in the cohort were Saira Kiyizbaeva [1917–88] and [End Page 291] Baken Kydykeeva [1923–93]). All four performed in Kyrgyz film, theater, and opera throughout the second half of the Soviet period and into the beginning of the post-Soviet era as well, until the last one, Kümüshalieva, passed away in 2007. I have discussed these four trailblazing women performers elsewhere. Survivors of dekulakization, collectivization, the Stalinist purges, and the Great Patriotic War (1941–45), they belonged to a second generation of theater professionals that followed a handful of first-generation Kyrgyz mentors who either came from Moscow or Leningrad or had been sent to study theater in those cities. Kümüshalieva, Kuiukova, and Kydykeeva went on to have long stage and film careers, while Kiyizbaeva became the leading opera singer and teacher of Soviet Kirgizia.3
This article examines the oral history interviews I conducted in Kyrgyzstan between 2006 and 2017 with a range of theater professionals—actors, directors, producers—as well as family members connected to these four women, all of whom I call narrators, as part of the research I am doing for a collective biography of the group.4 These four talented individuals represented strength, defiance, conformity, and maternal mentorship simultaneously and sporadically, depending on a particular moment in their histories.5 I argue that the remembrances of these women expose the instability of memories, which tend to mutate because the narrators present the past, not only as facts but also as feelings and nostalgia. My goal here is to explore the ways in which people remember and convey the past, especially when they talk about individuals they held in great esteem. It quickly became apparent during the interviews that the respect for these women was not just personal but also official: that is, they were not just remembered by their everyday admirers but were upheld as models by the Soviet and post-Soviet state. The narrators I interviewed were able to construct identities for the “daughters of Tököldösh” and other people they admired, offering both “facts” about their lives and their own emotions to the presentation of those “facts.” Indeed, one of the distinctive characteristics of the interviews was their intertwining of fact and emotion. These interviews reflected the [End Page 292] narrators’ memories of certain people and events, as well as their...