The earliest recorded residents of what is now Kyrgyzstan were Saka warrior clans (aka Scythians). Rich bronze and gold relics have been recovered from Scythian burial mounds dating between the 6th century BC and the 5th century AD. Thereafter the region came under the control of various Turkic alliances with a sizeable population living on the shores of Lake Issyk-Köl. The Talas Valley was the scene of a pivotal battle in 751, when the Turks, along with their Arab and Tibetan allies, drove a large Tang Chinese army out of Central Asia.
The cultured Turkic Karakhanids ruled from the 9th to 11th centuries, instilling Islam as a generalised creed from multiple city-centres including Balasagun (the site of the now-lonely Burana Tower) and Uzgen (Özgön), at the edge of the Fergana Valley.
Ancestors of today’s Kyrgyz people probably lived in Siberia’s upper Yenisey Basin until at least the 10th century, when, under the influence of Mongol incursions, they began migrating south into the Tian Shan – more urgently following the rise of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan in the 13th century. Present-day Kyrgyzstan was part of the inheritance of Chinggis’ second son, Chaghatai.
In 1685 the arrival of the ruthless Mongol Oyrats of the Zhungarian (Dzungarian) empire drove vast numbers of Kyrgyz south into the Fergana and Pamir Alay regions, and on into present-day Tajikistan. The Manchu (Qing) defeat of the Oyrats in 1758 left the Kyrgyz as de facto subjects of the Chinese, who mainly left the locals to their nomadic ways.
The Russian Occupation
As the Russians moved closer during the 19th century, various Kyrgyz clan leaders made their own peace with either Russia or the neighbouring khanate of Kokand. Bishkek – then comprising only the Pishpek fort – fell in 1862 to a combined Russian–Kyrgyz force. The Kyrgyz were gradually eased into the tsar’s provinces of Fergana and Semireche while Russian settlers arrived steadily over subsequent decades. In 1916 the Russian Imperial army attempted to 'requisition' Kyrgyz men for noncombatant labour battalions as part of WWI mobilisation. The result was a revolt that was put down so brutally that over 120,000 died – nearly a sixth of all Kyrgyz in the empire.
A similar number fled to China in what became known as the Great Urkun (exodus). Played down by Russian authorities through the fall of the USSR, the events have never been fully acknowledged by Russian authorities. This is even despite a 2016 visit by President Vladimir Putin to Kyrgyzstan's Ata-Beyit Memorial Complex to present wreaths marking the 100th anniversary of the exodus.
After the Russian revolutions, Kyrgyz lands became part of the Turkestan ASSR (within the Russian Federation, 1918), a separate Kara-Kyrgyz Autonomous province (oblast) in 1924, then a Kyrgyz ASSR from February 1926, which became a full Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in December 1936, when the region was known as Soviet Kirghizia.
Many nomads were settled in the course of land reforms in the 1920s, and more were forcibly settled during the cruel collectivisation campaign during the 1930s, giving rise to a reinvigorated rebellion by the basmachi, Muslim guerrilla fighters. Vast swaths of the new Kyrgyz elite died in the course of Stalin’s purges.
Remote Kyrgyzstan was a perfect place for secret Soviet uranium mining (at Mayluu-Suu above the Fergana Valley, Ming-Kush in the interior and Kadji-Sai at Lake Issyk-Köl) and naval weapons development (at the eastern end of Issyk-Köl). Kyrgyzstan is still dealing with the environmental problems created during this time.
The town of Chon-Tash, 10km from Kashka-Suu village, holds a dark secret. On one night in 1937, the entire Soviet Kyrgyz government – nearly 140 people in all – were rounded up, brought here and shot dead; their bodies dumped in a disused brick kiln on the site. By the 1980s almost no one alive knew of this, by which time the site had been converted to a ski resort. But a watchman at the time of the murders, sworn to secrecy, told his daughter on his deathbed, and she waited until perestroika to tell police.
In 1991 the bodies were moved to a mass grave across the road at what is now known as the Ata-Beyit Memorial Complex, with a simple memorial, apparently paid for by the Kyrgyz author Chinghiz Aitmatov (whose father may have been one of the victims). The remains of the kiln are inside a fence nearby.
Elections for the Kyrgyz Supreme Soviet (legislature) were held in traditional Soviet rubber-stamp style in February 1990, with the Kyrgyz Communist Party (KCP) walking away with nearly all of the seats. After multiple ballots a compromise candidate, Askar Akaev, a physicist and president of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, was elected as leader. On 31 August 1991, the Kyrgyz Supreme Soviet reluctantly voted to declare Kyrgyzstan’s independence, the first Central Asian republic to do so. Six weeks later Akaev was re-elected as president, running unopposed.
Land and housing were at the root of Central Asia’s most infamous ‘ethnic’ violence, during which at least 300 people were killed in 1990, when violence broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks around Osh and Uzgen, a majority-Uzbek area stuck onto Kyrgyzstan in the 1930s.
Akaev initially established himself as a persistent reformer, restructuring the executive apparatus to suit his liberal political and economic attitudes, and instituting reforms considered to be the most radical in the Central Asian republics.
In the late 1990s the country faced a new threat – Islamic radicals and terrorism. In 1999 and 2000, militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU; based in Tajikistan) staged a series of brazen kidnappings of foreign workers and climbers in the province of Batken. Kyrgyz security forces largely contained the threat, while IMU leadership fell to US bombs in Afghanistan.
The Tulip Revolution
By the early 2000s, Kyrgyzstan’s democratic credentials were once again backsliding in the face of growing corruption, nepotism and civil unrest. The 2005 parliamentary elections were plagued by accusations of harassment and government censure. Demonstrators stormed government buildings in Jalal-Abad and civil unrest soon spread to Osh and Bishkek. On 24 March the relatively peaceful Tulip Revolution effectively overthrew the government amid bouts of looting and vandalism. President Akaev fled by helicopter to Kazakhstan and on to Moscow – subsequently resigning and becoming a university lecturer. New presidential elections were held in July 2005; the opposition leader and former prime minister, Kurmanbek Bakiev, swept to victory.
The Bakiev Era
Bakiev’s first term in office was hardly a bed of tulips. The one-time opposition leader soon faced the same criticisms levelled at his predecessor – corruption and abuse of power. Wide-scale street demonstrations in 2006 and 2007 forced him into concessions that curbed his presidential power. Bakiev’s promises of peace and security were also derailed by a spate of high-profile political assassinations – three members of parliament were murdered in the late 2000s.
Bakiev was re-elected in July 2009 amid widespread accusations of ballot rigging and media censure. Voters, unable to unseat Bakiev with the ballot, reverted to a tried and true method of overthrowing Kyrgyz leaders – revolution. On 6 and 7 April 2010, opposition crowds massed in Talas and Bishkek. What was intended to be a demonstration against the government turned into a riot in both cities. Security forces were overwhelmed and the protestors stormed the halls of government. By the end of the day some 88 people had been killed and more than 500 injured in the fighting.
Bakiev fled, first to southern Kyrgyzstan, then to Kazakhstan and finally to Belarus. The Kyrgyz opposition set up an interim government with Roza Otombayeva as its new leader. While many in Bishkek saw Bakiev's overthrow as positive in the fight against corruption, his removal caused serious ripples in southern Kyrgyzstan, where local politicians saw the changes as an attempt to weaken their position. When a 'power grab' by Bakiev loyalists in Jalal-Abad was countered by a local militia consisting partly of ethnic Uzbeks, the result was an explosion of politicised riots that culminated in the June 2010 Osh riots. While the exact circumstances remain highly controversial, the result was over 400 deaths (74% of these Uzbeks) and more than 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks fleeing, at least temporarily, to Uzbekistan.
The term Kyrgyz derives from kyrk (40) for the 40 Kyrgyz tribes of the Manas epic, each of which is represented by a 'flame' on the sun-circle of the national flag. Confusingly, Russians colonising the region originally used the term Kyrgyz more generally for both Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, the former being initially specified as 'Kara-Kyrgyz’ (Black Kyrgyz).