Last weekend I went on a guided tour organized by Bishkek Walks. The topic of the tour was to explore the industrial roots of Bishkek and how the city developed into the economic and industrial hub of Kyrgyzstan.
This walking tour told the story of how industrialization began in fully agrarian Kyrgyzstan and how Central Europeans came to Soviet Kyrgyzstan in the mid-1920s.
The History of Interhelpo
“Interhelpo” was formed as a cooperative in Czechoslovakia in 1923 with the aim of helping Kyrgyzstan to build socialist economy. This initiative united highly competent industry workers and farmers who were ready to leave home and make use of their skills in an unknown eastern land. It was founded in 1923 in Žilina, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). Trains from railway stations in the cities of Žilina and Brno transported 1078 people (including mainly Czechs and Slovaks, but also Hungarians, Ruthenians and other nationalities, and including both direct members and their families) to Kyrgyzstan.
More than one thousand workers including their family members arrived in Kyrgyzstan, pure land “free from capitalism”, where they could build a new, equal socialist society. This group helped bring the first industrial technology and farm machinery to Kyrgyzstan, and with their arrival, also came the advent of electricity.
In just a few years, Interhelpo made massive strides for development in Kyrgyzstan. The cooperative’s most notable projects include:
- in 1925: an electric power station
- in 1927: a textile factory
- in 1928: a melting-house, a furniture factory, railroads, hospitals and the main government buildings in the capital of Kyrgyzstan
- Interhelpo established a melting house, which performed functions such as minting and melting of metals among others. The project was essential because of the availability of metallic resources in the country. Furthermore, the union constructed a furniture factory which produced items such as chairs and tables. Woods from forests aided the establishment of the plant.
- In 1925, the Interhelpo was declared the best cooperative in the Soviet Union.
- In 1934 it made 20 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s industrial products.
Challenges and Setbacks:
Interhelpo was one of the most successful cooperatives in the Soviet Union. However, the union’s activities were hindered by many factors, which finally resulted in its collapse and liquidation in the year 1943. The fact that socialism advocates for communal ownership of property is a big setback to an immature economy. Interhelpo’s efforts would have been enhanced if individual ownership had been granted because members were demoralized leading to the weakening of the cooperative.
In addition, the political situation during the 1920s and 1930s was not conducive to smooth business operation. There had been cases of rivalry within the political divide in the Soviet Union leading to tensions and future uncertainties. Moreover, the union operated on a wide geographical area making coordination of members difficult. Members used to travel by train from Czechoslovakia to Soviet Kyrgyzstan hence resulting in exhaustion of the workers.
In spite of their efforts, members of Interhelpo were later persecuted by Stalinism at its liquidation in 1943.
- A Czech woman from a family wealthy enough for her to be considered royalty was courted and ultimately married Interhelpo’s founder. This was a very high risk move for her considering the quality of life she was accustomed to and that he had intentions of selling his property and belongings and moving to Kyrgyzstan on an idealistic and high-risk mission like this.
- She followed him regardless, however, he eventually fell in love and left her for another woman.
- Understandably, she didn’t take kindly to this turn of events. Less understandably though, ended up attacking the founder’s new wife in the face with acid, disfiguring her.
- She faced criminal charges for this assault and spent time in jail as a result, and her children grew up calling the new wife their mother. Truly tragic.
- The founder was arrested by local Czech authorities prior to Interhelpo’s first trip to Kyrgyzstan, and was detained while everyone went ahead.
- Surprisingly, they didn’t bring doctors with them and around 30 children perished during the train ride and the harsh winter.
- The locals helped them as best as they could with home remedies for the sick children but the absence of a doctor was sorely felt.
- His absence, the poor planning and high death toll caused people to question his leadership and eventually he was voted out of his own initiative by the other members.
- However, he stayed back and continued to help in his own capacity. He planned and helped build the canal system.
- They also didn’t bring architects with them so each building looked unique, they had different window styles and different structures. There was no central planning or aesthetic that was followed for symmetry and order.