Terror, War, And Joy: An Illustrator Captures Kyrgyzstan’s Zeitgeist

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ALMATY, Kazakhstan — A towering representative of the police state, faceless, but empowered by epaulets as he wields the scales of justice, looms over a diminutive man standing in a pocket of light.

At the edges of the bleak picture, other figures identifiable only by their military and police attire creep through a thick fog. Streaks of red hint at an ever-present danger.

The inspiration for this graphic illustrated by Bishkek artist Tatiana Zelenskaya isn’t difficult to guess.

On November 23, a Bishkek court stripped Kyrgyzstan-born investigative journalist Bolot Temirov of his citizenship after finding him guilty of illegally obtaining a passport and ordered his deportation to Russia, where he spent his childhood.

Temirov’s supporters have argued that the case against him was concocted as punishment for his team’s investigation targeting the business activities of powerful national security chief Kamchibek Tashiev’s family.

The verdict has been condemned by rights activists in Kyrgyzstan and abroad, a UN rights envoy, and Western governments amid a widening crackdown in Central Asia’s most democratic country.

But for illustrator Zelenskaya, Temirov’s battle with authority is the latest subject for her distinctive brand of digital art that has captured imaginations during a turbulent few years in Kyrgyzstan.

Amid the gloom, Temirov “looks ahead without fear, the only person in the picture who has a face, a vision,” Zelenskaya told RFE/RL in an interview about her artwork.

“The other figures have only forms and postures, representing their roles and positions in the police-gangster hierarchy,” the illustrator said.

Pain And Loss On The Border

One of Zelenskaya’s most famous images to date is among her most tragic.

When in April 2021 border violence on an unprecedented scale broke out between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, 12-year-old Madina Rakhmatzhanova’s death amid shelling provoked an outpouring of anger and grief on Kyrgyz social media.

Zelenskaya’s tribute to the young girl (below) personified Rakhmatzhanova as the rare aigul flower that is indigenous to Batken, the Kyrgyz region devastated by the clashes that left scores of dead in both countries.

The moving image of the crying child rooted to a land under projectile fire was still being used in social media avatars when a second major conflict at the border began in September, leading to even more casualties than last year’s fighting.

“I consciously tried to avoid depicting some kind of enemy. I wanted instead to emphasize how fragile our world is and call for an immediate end to the violence,” Zelenskaya said.

In the wake of the fighting in September, Zelenskaya chose to highlight solidarity instead of grief, paying tribute to a group of Batken schoolchildren who mobilized to offer shelter to people fleeing the conflict zone.

Demonic Corruption

Zelenskaya prefers to portray by inference, but there were few doubts about the identity of the demonic villain that she set against a backdrop of belching smokestacks — a nod to the filthy air that settles in Bishkek every winter when the heating season starts — in 2019.

media investigation by RFE/RL, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and Kyrgyz media outlet Kloop had implicated former customs official Raimbek Matraimov in schemes that sent hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan — findings that brought protesters onto the streets to demand the powerbroker’s arrest.

Then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov responded to the uproar by demanding “facts” to justify action against a man widely viewed as his ally.

Zelenskaya said she was surprised by how deeply what she called her “emotional reaction” to events in the country resonated online.

Months after Jeenbekov was overthrown in 2020, Matraimov was placed under investigation and convicted on embezzlement charges.

But his punishment was settled with a fine and repayments to the state rather than jail time, adding to the sense that the U.S.-sanctioned businessman enjoys impunity in his homeland.

Gender-Based Violence

In 2017, Zelenskaya and her animator husband Egor Tankov published a series of animations on “ala-kachuu” — the crime of bride-kidnapping that is deeply ingrained in many parts of Kyrgyzstan.

The animations — One Day They Stole Me — reflected the real-life stories of victims and were covered by local and international media.

Gender-based violence remains a systematic problem across the country, with rights campaigners often portraying the state as disinterested in prosecuting abusers.

This view was encapsulated in a 2021 Zelenskaya illustration used to publicize a protest after one young woman, Aizada Kanatbekova, was brutally murdered by her bride-kidnapper.

The illustration once more shows law enforcement as a shadowy presence, watching impassively as a young woman is driven away by her abductors in a car cast in the red and gold colors of Kyrgyzstan’s flag.

Yet another haunting Zelenskaya image from 2020 featured a woman standing bowed on a mountain with two car tires suspended from a rope tied around her neck.

On this occasion, the illustration was no metaphor — a video had just gone viral showing a woman suffering exactly the same torture at the hands of her abusing husband — who also beat her and doused her with cold water.

Zelenskaya intended her surrealist take on the harrowing footage to be “a monument to all women in Kyrgyzstan who are subjected to violence.”

Amid broad condemnation of the abuse, the woman’s husband was arrested before being let off with a two-year probationary sentence by a local court.

Something To Celebrate

Zelenskaya is often reprimanded for focusing her work on the darker side of public life in Kyrgyzstan.

Exhibit A in the artist’s defense is her impression of three female athletes who helped Kyrgyzstan to its most successful-ever Olympics by scooping a silver and two bronze medals at the games in Tokyo.

Zelenskaya’s graphic showing wrestlers Aisuluu Tynybekova, Meerim Zhumanazarova, and Aiperi Medet-kyzy basking in the bright glow of their achievements proved to be a hit on social media.

So, too, did her portrayal of Begimai Turusbekova, a housewife who became an overnight star this summer after videos emerged of her performing karaoke one evening in a Bishkek park.

Zelenskaya’s artwork recalled Turusbekova during one of the nights that followed, performing in the same park, but now in front of hundreds of new smartphone-wielding fans.

The village-born vocalist sent the crowd into raptures as she belted out numbers such as Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, better known as the theme from the international blockbuster film Titanic.

Since then, Turusbekova has showcased her range at Kyrgyz government events and on Russian television for presenter Andrey Malakhov’s show Hello, Andrey.

“I was touched by her simplicity — her pink dress and her head scarf,” Zelenskaya told RFE/RL of the footage from the park that helped catapult Turusbekova to fame. “The whole scene had a poster-like quality to it that made it impossible to ignore.”

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.