In mid-2010, when 20-year-old Sultan Temirzhan uulu left Kyrgyzstan to attend university in St. Petersburg, he was unprepared for the big city noise and the White Nights of summer. He was also unprepared for the discrimination.
One day earlier this year, while organizing a student event at his university, Temirzhan uulu, who is from Bishkek, went to collect an auditorium key from a security guard. But the guard initially refused to give it to him.
“You’re not Russian,” the guard snapped. “And you’re completely insolent.”
Temirzhan uulu was confused and hurt. The response was the last thing he expected. But his experience certainly was not unique. Several months ago, Russian skinheads beat up a Kyrgyz acquaintance.
Violent attacks against non-white individuals in Russia have increased in the past decade as hundreds of thousands of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus seek work there. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, St. Petersburg gained a reputation for crime, including racially motivated violence. Last month, a controversy erupted when a local NGO promoting tolerance released a tactless and seemingly demeaning educational handbook for Central Asian labor migrants featuring illustrations that depicted them as hammers, paintbrushes, and brooms.
Despite these incidents, Temirzhan uulu and other Kyrgyz students say they are putting the painful experiences behind them and adapting to life in Russia’s second-largest city. Temirzhan uulu himself has come to adore the dynamism of St. Petersburg, the goal-oriented nature of the young people, and, most of all, living in a “museum under the open sky.”
It helps that he isn’t alone. Temirzhan uulu and other Kyrgyz students have formed a small, well-connected community in Russia’s “cultural capital,” coming together to support each other and promote their national traditions. In Kyrgyzstan they may be from different regions and cities, but in St. Petersburg they are united by a common desire to make the best of their time in Russia.
Nursultan Orunbekov, 21, moved to Russia four years ago to study information technology at St. Petersburg State University. Like so many Kyrgyz, he came in search of better educational opportunities and new experiences. “I’m satisfied with my life here. I have developed good relationships with my teachers and my classmates,” he said. “I have good Kyrgyz and Russian friends. I don’t feel that I’m limited. I have the same opportunities as others.”
Still, he admits that discrimination exists. There are some people, he says, who make racist comments on public transportation, and he stresses that it is important to be cautious on the street at night.
But Orunbekov says he has little time to worry about it. He’s busy with other things: after arriving in St. Petersburg, he founded the local chapter of Jash Tolkun (“New Wave” in Kyrgyz), a youth organization that aims to bring together Kyrgyzstanis. By comparison to the Moscow or Novosibirsk chapters, St. Petersburg’s branch is small, with only 200 members, and remains unregistered. But its goal is the same: connecting the Kyrgyz diaspora, participating in activities that show the community in a positive light, helping students adapt to life in the city, and, of course, having a good time.
The club organizes approximately 10 get-togethers a year, ranging from games to mixers and parties. Most recently, Jash Tolkun held a “mustache party” in a small nightclub on St. Petersburg’s central Nevsky Prospekt. The event attracted more than 50 young people, several wearing stick-on mustaches, to dance and socialize. Kyrgyz made up the majority, but Russians and people of other ethnicities also attended.
Though Orunbekov estimates that 80 percent of Jash Tolkun members are university students, not all of them are recent arrivals. Some grew up in St. Petersburg. Suimonkul Tavaldiev, 19, is one of them. He was born to Kyrgyz parents who met while studying in St. Petersburg. Though Tavaldiev, a talented dancer, admits that he is often too busy with rehearsals to attend Jash Tolkun events, he nonetheless supports the club’s efforts to promote Kyrgyz culture and community abroad. He feels the group can help new arrivals adapt to life in Russia.
“If you were born in Kyrgyzstan and move here, life can be difficult because you may have a different mentality, a different upbringing, and different perspectives,” he said. “This can be a problem, but the diaspora can help.”
If there is one group that isn’t well represented in Jash Tolkun, it’s the Kyrgyz labor migrants who come to Russia to work. Members of the club say they would be happy to include migrants, and feel there is no social divide separating them. They believe that, like students, migrants are simply busy with their own lives and work.
“I have relatives who came here to work. My family did the same, and stayed,” said Beknazar Eminzhanov, 20, a Kyrgyz student whose family moved to Russia in 2003. “In a sense, I’m one of the migrants and relate well to them. But the truth is, if you have acquaintances in the migrant community, then you socialize with them. If not, then you don’t.”
Ultimately what makes the Kyrgyz community prosper in St. Petersburg is its optimism. Most students acknowledge that the “nationality question” in Russia remains very controversial, but they prefer not to dwell on it.
Temirzhan uulu, after being insulted by his school’s security guard, eventually came to feel the experience was a good lesson. “With time I realized that this guard is a very limited and uneducated person,” he said. “I understand that I have to rise above this incident, let it go, and be positive.”
Matthew Kupfer is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.