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6. ‘New History’ as a Translocal Field

Svetlana Jacquesson

© Svetlana Jacquesson, CC BY 4.0


My first field trips to Kyrgyzstan date back to the late 1990s. Much of the fieldwork I carried out at first followed well-established anthropological methods: participant observation, discussions, eavesdropping, interviews. Though I could interact quite freely with my interlocutors in the field, since I had clumsy but efficient Kyrgyz language skills and nearly fluent Russian, I was never fully satisfied with my field data alone. I was curious about what Kyrgyz people wrote, read, or discussed when they were not interacting with an outsider. I believed that publications in Kyrgyz could allow me at least a partial access to a ‘cultural intimacy’1 I could never attain otherwise, no matter how much time I spent in the field. I remember visiting every single bookshop and avidly buying any publication in Kyrgyz available at the time. In the late 1990s this was still possible: publications in Kyrgyz — booklets or treatises on animal diseases included — were not that numerous. The situation, however, evolved quickly: some fifteen years later, it is no longer possible to buy ‘all’ that is published in Kyrgyz, for the very simple reason that such publications abound.

In some ways, the growth of publishing in Kyrgyz satisfied my desire to access this ‘cultural intimacy’: I have discussed elsewhere (Jacquesson 2010) the proliferation of local genealogies and local histories and, though most of the people and places discussed in these publications were completely unknown to me, I still leaf through the books and enjoy a story here and there or learn something new about the country and its people. However, a substantial portion of the local writings on history engaged in intricate reconstructions of a deeper past. These reconstructions were about places and peoples I knew, but these places and peoples were connected to the Kyrgyz and their past in ways quite unfamiliar to me. To give but a taste of such unexpected connections, whereas I had an idea of ‘who’ Aryans or Indo-Europeans were, I had never heard or thought of the Kyrgyz as Aryans; neither had I read about Atilla or Genghis Khan being Kyrgyz. While I was vaguely aware that, in the very distant past, humans must have crossed the Bering Strait and settled in North America, I had never thought of these humans as being closely related to the Kyrgyz, and as for Germans and Kyrgyz sharing common ancestors, this was a stretch too far for me. Though it is difficult to evaluate the exact volume of such historical writings, they appear frequently in the pages of various news media outlets or on social media forums.

This brand of history — which I will refer to as ‘new history’2 — is produced not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in Russia and in the other post-Soviet Central Asian countries. Local academic circles — or at least some of them — refer to it as the ‘mythologization of history’ and reject it outright (Masanov et al. 2007, Galiev 2010, Grozin 2010, Omurbekov 2012.) As an anthropologist I am less inclined to do so, though I do not espouse the claims of new history. In this chapter I experiment with translocality in an attempt to suggest an analytical approach to ‘new history’ — or at least part of it — that is not limited to its outright rejection.3 I investigate what new history is about, who its producers are, and how they work. I use ‘investigate’ on purpose because I do not have any relationships with the authors of new history, and I have not received any revelations from them. Instead, I have been working with the ‘evidence’ they leave, i.e., their texts, and I reconstruct their ‘crimes’ based on their methods and claims. I argue that this peculiar brand of history is the outcome of knowledge transfers and interactions that transgress a variety of borders — social, professional, national, and geopolitical — and that its claims as well as its social and political significance can be made analytically meaningful by adopting a translocal research perspective (Freitag and von Oppen 2010). When approached as a ‘translocal field’, new history provides a telling example of the ways in which new connections between histories, concepts, and actors that were formerly separated in time and space may yield unexpected and controversial results that go against widely assumed ideas about globalization and its effects. As such, new history is an alternative to mainstream global or world history, and demonstrates that the activity at the ‘periphery’ of globalization may bring about novel agencies and outcomes.

I will start by providing some samples of new history from Kyrgyzstan. I will then analyze its methods, content, and claims, as well as the social background of its authors. In each of the analytical sections I will foreground those aspects of new history that are best captured by adopting a translocal perspective, or the translocal processes and practices that are at the core of new history. In conclusion I will advance some ideas on the epistemological value of new history, and on the insights it provides for a fuller and deeper understanding of globalization and its variations.


In an otherwise outrageously critical interview from 2013, Anuar Galiev — a senior researcher at the Kazakh State University of Law, whose Ph.D. explores the mythologization of history in Central Asia — acknowledges that new history owes its success to the writing skills of its authors and that new history is much more enjoyable to read than most of the existing history schoolbooks. I am a little bit more sceptical about the literary qualities of the Kyrgyz new history I have explored: some of the pieces are well-written and read smoothly; others are excessively wordy and convoluted, larded with manifestations of erudition, and so overtly rhetorical that the stories they try to convey are difficult to follow, and even to understand. What I provide here are snapshots that explore some of the claims of new history and how these claims are substantiated.

In 2010, Anarbek Usupbaev — former head of Kyrgyzstan’s communist party and current leader of the country’s Tengrist movement4 — published the history of his own clan under the title The True History of the Kytai Clan from the Left Wing of the Kyrgyz, or the Backbone of Their Genealogy.5 This ‘backbone’, which supports all of Usupbaev’s claims, is a statement by a renowned local biologist6 according to whom the high frequency of two haplotypes among Kyrgyz — called ‘Paleo-European’ (R1a1) and ‘East-Asian’ (C3) respectively — can be explained by the fact that the ancient Europoid populations of the Sayan-Altay region, the Dinlin, are among the ancestors of the Kyrgyz of the Left Wing, while the Kyrgyz of the Right Wing have as their ancestors populations of East-Asian origin. In his True History, Usupbaev relates this genetic data to local genealogical narratives (sanjyra) and concludes that the descendants of the Dinlin are referred to as Ak uul or Left Wing by Kyrgyz genealogies while the descendants of the Huns are called Kuu uul or Right Wing.7 In making this argument, he substitutes the well-known Huns for the unnamed East-Asian populations and defends this substitution by claiming that Hun is the same as Kün, ‘East, Orient’ in Kyrgyz. As for the backbone of the genealogy of the Kytai clan, it takes the following shape:

Now, let me provide some more information from historical sources. In his book Kyzyl Kyrgyz Tarihi (The Red History of the Kyrgyz), volume 1, page 23, the renowned Kyrgyz historian and writer Belek Soltonoev8 mentions that the Kyrgyz descend from forty women. He refers on this occasion to the works of Radlov9 and to the annals of the Yuan clan [sic] of the Moghuls [sic]. These annals mention the Kyrgyz, i.e., the Kyrk Usun. The Usun are the same as the Kyrgyz Saruu clan, they descend from the Dinlin. Kyrk Usun married forty girls from the Kytai. Here Kytai does not stand for Chinese, but for the Kyrgyz Kytai clan which is the same as the Huns. The union of the Kyrk Usun and the Kytai gave birth to the Kyrgyz. Kyrk Usun is the same as kyrk ösö and this is where the name Kyrgyz comes from. Such a conclusion was also reached by Aristov,10 see page 45 in his work. […] In one word, isn’t it clear that the Kyrgyz have come into being through the association of the Kytai clan, which is of Hun origin, with the Saruu clan, which is of Usun-Dinlin origin, and that this has happened at least 8,000 years ago.

The Kytai then descend from the Huns. Next, Usupbaev brings in further evidence from Belek Soltonoev as well as from the Manas epic itself and claims that the epic’s eponymous hero belongs to the Kytai clan.11 The might and glory of Manas are proved by a long list of places in the world whose names, allegedly, are based on the name of Manas and, thus, demonstrate the worldwide span of Manas’ as well as the Kytai clan’s fame.12 Usupbaev explains this worldwide span by arguing that all Kyrgyz clans had to struggle for their existence and that in the course of these struggles they found themselves dispersed between the four corners of the world. Thus, factions of the Kytai clan settled in Mongolia, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Moldavia, and Romania. Serbians and Macedonians, too, descend from the Kytai and, as far as the Russians are concerned, their ancestor Ilya is none other than Yelu Dashi — a Kidan or Khitan khan — and, thus, a Kytai, i.e., Kyrgyz. Usupbaev delights in mentioning that somewhere in North or South Dakota in the United States there is a place inhabited by 56,000 people who claim to be Kytai (Cathay) and not Chinese. Finally, Usupbaev turns to Tacitus. He asserts that in his Germania Tacitus indicates that the Germans have come from the East, that they ride horses, drink their milk as well as fermented millet, and that they worship Germanus. After explaining that Germanus is derived from Herr and Manus, and declaring that Herr Manus is a distortion of the Kyrgyz Er Manas, ‘Manas the Brave’, Usupbaev concludes that the Germans have also been exposed to the civilizing influence of Manas. As proof of this statement, he invites any Kyrgyz who visits Berlin to have a closer look at the quadriga adorning the Brandenburg Gate: this quadriga, Usupbaev emphasizes, is exactly the same as the carts that the ancestors of the Kyrgyz used to ride, and the woman on the quadriga holds not an iron cross but the top (toono) of a Kyrgyz yurt (which is also the symbol of Tengri, the master of the universe in the Tengrist tradition).

One year after Usupbaev’s True History, Amangeldy Bekbalaev — professor of philology and dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the Kyrgyz Russian Slavic University in Bishkek13—claimed that the Huns were Kyrgyz as was their leader Atilla, and that Kyrgyz and Germans — or their ancestors, the Huns and the Goths — share a common linguistic and cultural heritage (Bekbalaev 2011). The disappearance of the ethnonym Kyrgyz from Eastern written sources from the 2nd to the 4th centuries BC, according to Bekbalaev, could not be explained except by the Kyrgyz — also called Hunno-Kyrgyz or proto-Kyrgyz — leaving Central Asia to rule in Europe and then, at the death of Atilla, returning to the Tian Shan, i.e., to the territory of present day Kyrgyzstan. Bebalaev’s work, as published on the web portal Novaia literatura Kyrgyzstana (New Literature of Kyrgyzstan), spans more than seventy pages. His method, as he himself explains it, consists in ‘bringing facts (evidence) from various sciences to support my claim’. These various sciences include history, archaeology, comparative linguistics, folklore, musicology, and genetics. Bekbalaev’s work therefore abounds in references to European,14 Russian,15 and Kyrgyzstani scholarly works.16 The compilation of evidence is made reader-friendly by long excerpts from Germanic, Nordic and Kyrgyz legends about Atilla and the Huns, long quotes from historical novels on the same topics,17 and the reproduction of multiple paintings reconstructing Hunnic lifestyle and warfare as well as some photos from contemporary Kyrgyzstan demonstrating the similarities in lifestyle between modern Kyrgyz and ancient Huns.

A substantial portion of Bekbalaev’s work is dedicated to the description of the might and glory of the Huns. The Kyrgyz can lay claim to this glorious past and its heritage because to this day they share a range of linguistic and cultural features with the Germans, or with their ancestors the Goths. By comparing the German and Kyrgyz words for people, objects, and animals as depicted in a 1976 reconstruction of a Hunnic camp by Hermann Schreiber, Bekbalaev claims that Germans and Kyrgyz have the same words for ‘camp’ (aul/ayil), ‘woman’ or ‘spouse’ (gattin/katyn), ‘father’ (atta/ata), ‘man’ or ‘warrior’ (herr/er), ‘camel’ (kamel/kaymal), ‘saddlecloth’ (schabrake/chüpürök), ‘cattle’ (ockse/ögüz), etc., and that they have inherited this shared vocabulary from their common ancestors. He also emphasizes that beyond this common vocabulary there exist approximately five hundred corresponding words between Hun/Kyrgyz and Gothic/German, which can be found in the trilogy about the Huns by Ammian von Bek.18 In the final section of his work, Bekbalaev shames the Kyrgyz for not being proud of their Hun ancestors and showcases the Kazakhs who — though incorrectly — ‘tell their children wonderful stories about their ancestors the Huns’. He finds the ‘shyness’ or ‘irresolution’ of Kyrgyzstani historians regrettable. Germans themselves, according to Bekbalaev, believe that the Huns are the ancestors of the Kyrgyz, as shown by a photo from present-day Kyrgyzstan that illustrates a catalogue of an exhibition on Attila and the Huns held in Stuttgart in 2007 and bearing the caption: ‘The nomadic lifestyle of contemporary Kyrgyz dates back to their ancestors the Huns’.19

Zamir Osorov is a journalist who until recently was working for MSN, one of the most influential Russian language newspaper in Kyrgyzstan. He is also a prolific writer and a poet, and his works — mostly in Russian, with some curious pieces in ‘Google-Translate English’ are available online.20 The two pieces that I will discuss here are taken from a collection of 230 works. The first, entitled Kyrgyzy i Indeitsy (Kyrgyz and Native Americans, 2012),21 elaborates on the work of Frederick Louis Otto Roehrig (1819–1908), a German-born philologist fascinated by the study of North American languages. In the late nineteenth century, Roehrig foregrounded the similarities between the Dakota Indian languages and Turkish.22 Osorov, who discovered Roehrig’s work via the Tatar linguist Abrar Karimullin,23 claims to be well acquainted with the works of several other Western scholars24 who have engaged in the comparative study of Turkic and North American languages, as well as with all the Soviet scholarship on American Indians25 and Thomas Maine Reid’s and James Fenimore Cooper’s novels. An important portion of Osorov’s text is dedicated to the description of his sources and the life of the Indians they refer to, with a strong emphasis on the injustices and suffering inflicted on the latter by white settlers or Spanish conquistadors, and the splendor of the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan empires. Another important portion of his text contains lists of lexical correspondences between various Native American and Turkic languages and descriptions of lexical similarities. In his conclusion, he deals with the importance of this ‘genetic relationship’ and why it continues to be ignored to this day.

As far as lexical correspondences are concerned, the Turkic language most often referred to is Tatar — which seems to indicate that these correspondences are mostly borrowed from the work of Karimullin — though, in his comments, Osorov repeatedly insists that the Kyrgyz words are closer to Native American than the Tatar ones, because Kyrgyz is the oldest and purest of the Turkic languages. Osorov’s own contribution consists in applying Turkic etymologies to as many place names in California and Yucatan as possible as well as in emphasizing that Ishi26 and Kon-Tiki27 have perfect correspondences in Kyrgyz: ishi is phonetically and semantically the same as the Kyrgyz kishi ‘man, person’ while Kon-Tiki as ‘God of Sun’ corresponds to the Kyrgyz Kün-Teke where kün means ‘sun’ and teke ‘billy-goat’ but also ‘leader’.

Osorov’s ultimate concern is that if the unity of the Indo-European languages is uncontested (though, in his opinion, the evidence is overstretched) the unity of Native-American-Turkic languages remains unrecognized or downplayed. He asserts that the simple existence of five or six lexical correspondences between Native American and Turkic languages should have been ‘a thunder from a clear sky’ for Western scholars (Osorov 2012a), and slams the latter for disregarding the hundreds of lexical correspondences already established. Osorov insists that these correspondences cannot be haphazard, that they can only be explained by a ‘genetic relationship’ (ibid.) and reinforces this argument by emphasizing that Russians and Tatars have been living side by side for centuries, but that there is not a single similarity between the two languages.

While in Kyrgyz and Native Americans Osorov remains inconclusive in his claims and goals, and even in the story he wants to tell, in his second piece entitled Supersimetriia istiny (The Super Symmetry of Truth) and published also in 2012, he declares that the Kyrgyz language is the equivalent of the Mandeleev periodic table, and that in the same way as the Mandeleev periodic table derives and predicts the relationships between the properties of chemical elements, the Kyrgyz language can derive and predict relationships between linguistic or cultural elements. After providing a list of the 170 ‘key’ Kyrgyz words that ‘encode the world’, he offers some demonstrations by supplying Kyrgyz etymologies for Achilles (akyl ‘mind’ and es ‘master’ and thus meaning ‘master of minds’), Heracles (derived from er ‘man’ and akyl ‘mind’ and meaning ‘wise man’) and Zeus/Atheus (the same as the Kyrgyz atabyz ‘our father’). He also claims that the meaning of the name Jehovah as understood by Jehovah’s Witnesses — ‘Helping to Become’ — is the same as the meaning of the name of the supreme god of the ancient Turks: Tengir, ‘Great but Equal’. Osorov concludes that without the knowledge of the Kyrgyz language it is impossible to discover the meaning of human civilization's oldest words and concepts.



Let me start with some observations on the methods of new history. In the first place, etymologization and lexical similarities or correspondences are crucial to new historians. Although etymologization and lexical similarities can be problematic methodologies, they are also scholarly tools that have been widely used for a long time now, for instance in establishing the unity of the Indo-European language family. Their validity is accepted only after systematic and critical consideration of sound-correspondences over time, but this is not without problems: as Osorov himself points out, some of the lexical correspondences within the big Indo-European family are incomprehensible to a non-linguist. However, the language correspondences established by new historians are mostly ‘transparent’ to lay readers, and new historians do not rely entirely on these lexical correspondences to make their case.

Another observation that strikes the reader — as can be seen by the time I have taken to lay out the sources on which these claims are based — is that new history is not properly described as ‘mythology’. Whether we think of ‘myth’ as opposed to ‘logos’, following the ancient Greeks, or of ‘myth’ as ‘a charter for the present’, or ‘an exploration and obliteration of social contradiction’, or ‘an explanation of origins’ in the way anthropologists have done (Herzfeld 2001:85), new history possesses hardly any of the features of myth. Insofar as new historians show a real concern for ‘sources’ and cite them systematically, new history is not invented, it is, or at least claims to be, based on other ‘sources’, ‘histories’, or ‘stories’. James Wertsch (2000) conceptualizes such a way of writing history based on textual signifying relations, and distinguishes it from history based on object signifying relations. In the first case, historical narratives are produced in response to other narratives, by reproduction, praise, contestation, mockery, or distortion. In the second case, historical narratives are produced when new evidence or new sources are discovered. Suffice it to mention here that historical narratives based on textual signifying relations are not produced only by amateur historians, and that much nationalist history is written in this style.28

As for the sources used by new historians, they are diverse in several ways.29 First, not all of them are ‘historical’ in the conventional sense: not only philology, linguistics, genetics,30 but also literature and folklore provide the material on which new historians exercise their skills. These texts belong not only to different scholarly traditions — the most recognizable ones being Western and Soviet — but also to very different periods, starting from medieval Chinese annals and ending with recently-defended Ph.D. thesis. These historians also have a noticeable predilection for Western sources as opposed to Soviet or local ones, and for older ones, as opposed to recent ones. Most of the sources they use are also ‘legitimate’ scholarship because they belong to well-established academic disciplines and can often be associated with well-known scholars.


New history is nourished by ethnic nationalism. Yet, I suggest that there is something qualitatively new in the kind of ethnic nationalism it promotes, at least in the case of Kyrgyzstan. Nationalism in Central Asia shares some common features with classic or European nationalism — the ‘blood and soil’ variety (Verdery 1993) — in the sense that it seeks to fix historically documented peoples and cultures onto the ‘soil’ of a present state and is most comfortably endorsed by those who were born on this ‘soil’. This ‘blood and soil’ nationalism has been reinforced and legitimized by the Soviet concept of ethnogenesis, or the unbroken continuity between contemporary ethnic groups and their remote ancestors inhabiting the same territory.31 The first outburst of new history, and the first divorce with supposedly neatly and solidly established Soviet linguistic, ethnic, and national identities, happened in the last years of the Soviet regime and in the very first years of Kyrgyzstan's independence. At that time, new history was mostly preoccupied with the Aryan myth.32 Yet this wave of new history was still shaped by classic nationalism because a ‘competition for Aryan ancestors’ was waged among Central Asian historians who sought to appropriate, or to incorporate, the earliest Indo-European inhabitants of the region into separate national histories. This kind of nationalism, I would suggest, relies on a ‘transtemporal imagination’ because it implies the capacity to relate to ancestors distant in time of whom few or no material traces have remained.33

The kind of imagination required by new historians more recently is significantly translocal. This translocal imagination operates at two levels: firstly, by referring to places and people outside of Kyrgyzstan; secondly, by inviting readers to embrace the connections to ancient and faraway civilizations and empires, world-renowned cultural monuments, or the past of contemporary powerful states that the historians describe. China, no matter whether admired or feared, represents an ancient empire and an ancient civilization, and even ordinary Kyrgyzstanis know something about China’s history. There is glory in both ancient history and ancient civilization, and the idea that part of China’s ancient history and civilization were created under the rule of a Kyrgyz clan is, to say the least, exciting. So is the claim that Huns, and, perhaps most importantly, Germans, share common ancestors with the Kyrgyz. While lexical correspondences may be important, what seems decisive is a Kyrgyzized Brandenburg Gate in Berlin because if the correspondences between German and Kyrgyz words may prove too demanding for some readers, the idea that Kyrgyz ancestors are connected to one of the world’s best-known monuments34 is extremely appealing. So is the kind of ‘visual comparison’ offered by Bekbalaev between contemporary Kyrgyz camps and ancient Hunnic camps in the heart of Europe. Or the idea that the gods of ancient Greece — the cradle of European democracy and civilization —  ‘carry Kyrgyz names’. Similarly, there is an obvious appeal to the suggestion that Native Americans and Kyrgyz (or Turks) belong to the same linguistic family and that, though remote, there is a certain Kyrgyz or Turkic essence in the Incan, Mayan, or Aztec civilizations and their heritage. This type of nationalist imagination requires the capacity to connect places and peoples that are separated by national and geopolitical borders. This is why I call new history a ‘translocal’ discipline. This belief also entails the idea that the sources of national pride can be found elsewhere, outside the territory of Kyrgyzstan proper. Yet, though distant in space, most of the civilizations and monuments to which translocal imagination lays claim are publicized and advertized by the global news media and are therefore perceived as familiar.

Last but not least, this ‘translocal imagination’ also has a geopolitical dimension: Europe (with Germany as its epitome), the US (as the master of the Americas), and China (which stands only for itself) are major players in the present social, economic and political destiny of Kyrgyzstan in particular, and of Central Asia in general. These players are not always loved, though they are admired or envied for their political and economic might. And if Kyrgyzstan cannot compete with them in the present, new history, at least, suggests that power relations might have been different in the past. The last great power in the region, Russia, is less frequently the object of such ‘translocal imagination’, perhaps because Russia and Central Asia share some history and this history is too well-known to allow exciting re-emplotments.

Actors and networks

In this section I will focus on the translocal dimensions of the networks produced by new history. To start with, it is worth noticing that the actors who succumb to the temptation to write new history have quite diverse social identities: they can be well-established academics, as the case of Bekbalaev demonstrates; they can be writers, poets or journalists like Osorov; they can also be newcomers to the intellectual field like Usupbaev who has a degree in engineering and who, for most of his life, worked at a construction company. One observation, though, seems to be valid for all new historians known to me: none of them is a professional historian, or a historian holding a position in an official research institution.35 Even those who are academics — like Bekbalaev — belong to a different discipline, philology in his case. As I have already emphasized while discussing its methods, new history involves the transgression of conventional professional or disciplinary borders and its style and content are, in part at least, shaped by these transgressions.

New history producers and their sources, or the authors whose works they mine for data, form another kind of network. It has both transtemporal and translocal dimensions. As I have already emphasized when discussing their methods, new history writers have a clearly discernible predilection for foreign sources. These foreign sources are appealing, first, because they have long remained inaccessible, or difficult to access.36 Second, they are appealing because they are believed to be more objective or more truthful than Soviet or local scholarship based on the dictates of Marxist-Leninism. In the last ten or twenty years a lot of these foreign sources have become accessible in various online formats and editions, in Russian translations or in the original. It would not be an exaggeration to state that the movement of knowledge between the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’ has never been as dynamic — or at least as unchecked — as it is now, and new history producers benefit from this 'free flow'. Therefore, new historians interact — even if virtually — with a significant number of scholars whose works and ideas have been shaped in distant and different contexts. Moreover, new history’s sources, both foreign and local, are often old: some of them are as ancient as the Chinese or Mongol annals so beloved by Usupbaev; others are simply outdated, such as the dictionaries of American Indian languages used by Osorov to substantiate his claim about the unity of Native American and Turkic languages. Old and foreign sources offer the additional advantage that their authors cannot speak for themselves any longer. Both the transfer of knowledge and the re-emplotments of information that new history undertakes become thus relatively secure, or at least protected from the most legitimate of critiques, those of the scholars who have first collected and analyzed the material.

New historians seem to have strong networks within Kyrgyzstan, but also across Central Asia. The interactions within this network take various shapes. The work of other new historians is openly praised, if not directly cited as Osorov and Usupbaev do when referring to the works of Bekbalaev and Sarygulov respectively. They borrow from each other’s ‘data’ whether they acknowledge it or not. For this reason it is not always easy to establish who was the first one to discover ‘new data’ or formulate a new claim, as the same ‘data’ and similar claims are found in the works of different new history authors. A striking example of this kind of cooperation is provided by Osorov and Usupbaev, who joined forces after several years as independent authors to produce a common narrative in English on the glory of Kyrgyz’ ancestors. The book, under the title The Origin of Ancient Kyrgyz Tribes, was published in July 2015 in Singapore and although it is being sold by a number of online retailers — Amazon included — I have been able to read only excerpts, which are however revealing about the goals and claims of this joint enterprise:37

Technically, all the modern world originated in some way or another from the ancient Kyrgyz tribes, which were in close relation with ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians, ancient Egypt, Israel, Greece, Rome, China, Kushan, the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Aztecs and Incas. Eventually, the Kyrgyz tribes will be able to unite the world again and achieve the long awaited peace between East and West, Israel and Arabs, Russia and Ukraine, China and the U.S., Shiites and Sunnites, Hindi and Urdu, and so on in our currently so divided and unhappy reality.38

Finally, new history authors in their turn are used as authorities or sources of inspiration by those who follow them. Osorov’s reconstruction of the Native-American-Turkic linguistic community builds upon the work of Abrar Karimullin whose writings enjoyed some recognition in Tatarstan, Russia and beyond since he was an honorary fellow of Harvard University, although his work was not uncontested. The works and ideas of Lev Gumilyov appear as another source of frequent inspiration among new historians.39 Last but not least, whether they acknowledge it or not, the works of current new history writers read quite often as more or less successful variations on Olzhas Suleimenov’s AZ i IA.40 In the context of the late Soviet period Suleimenov’s AZ i IA was a provocative cultural manifesto blurring the borders between poetry, historiography and linguistics in an attempt to rethink or rediscover — or as some would have it, ‘imagine’ or ‘reinvent’ — the place of the Turks in Soviet Eurasia and beyond. Suleimenov's views are encapsulated by his 1962 statement that ‘many obscure aspects of the history of literate peoples cannot be explained without some knowledge of the history of the Turks’ and that ‘at some point there will appear a genuine, realistic book, “the True History”, and that we [i.e., the Turks] too will take part in its birth’.41 These intellectual networks, or intellectual genealogies, can be extended further back into the past since Gumilyov and Suleimenov were borrowing information and ideas from their predecessors. Therefore, some of the methods, writing styles, facts and even the claims of ‘new history’ are not as novel as they might appear at a first glance.


At the beginning of this chapter I argued that branding new history as ‘historical mythologization’ does justice neither to its practices and actors, nor to its significance as a social and political phenomenon. I suggested that a translocal research perspective might provide a better analytical grasp on its actors and practices, and on new history as an intellectual endeavour.

Neither medieval annals, nor Mayan nor Aztec civilizations, nor even the strained or fake language similarities and etymologies are ‘myths’, according to both the common meaning of the word or from an anthropological perspective. All national(ist) histories are in some ways ‘mythistories’ (McNeil 1986). But even so, as McNeil himself emphasizes, the myth is more in the plot than in the facts; in other words, nationalist histories, or mythistories, rely on different emplotments of historical facts rather than on the pure invention of such facts, or on their outright distortion. If we accept that history is to a great extent about the re-emplotment of the past, it is particularly important for an anthropologist to investigate these re-emplotments and not to dismiss them as ‘myths’, or ‘fake history’. In this chapter, I have attempted to do exactly this — to demonstrate that new history does not work with myths but with facts, whether they are borrowed from other historical sources as in the case of Usupbaev, or from other sciences as in the cases of Bekbalaev and Osorov.

I have suggested that new history — at least the way it is practiced in Kyrgyzstan today — greatly resembles Suleimenov’s endeavour in AZ i IA, though it lacks Suleimenov’s erudition and writing skills. I would like to add here that, as distinct from Suleimenov, who wreaked havoc on the Soviet knowledge system, new historians have had a similar effect on European or Western knowledge systems. In a way, while Suleimenov revolted against history as designed by the Soviet state, new historians attempt to claim agency in a world history that is still largely Eurocentric, or that foregrounds some historical perspectives while ignoring or denying others. In this sense, new history is not only an attempt to emplot the past differently, but also an attempt to imagine the present and the future differently, as Usupbaev’s and Osorov’s proclamation quoted above demonstrates. New history as an intellectual endeavour then sheds light on the different experiences of globalization and on the novel agencies it generates among those who strive to not lag behind.

New history, to put it bluntly, is a non-scholarly body of writings based on scholarly methods and sources. Its practitioners transfer ‘facts’ from one academic discipline to another, and from Western to Soviet or post-Soviet epistemologies, and in doing so, they emulate conventional scholarly methods. Approaching new history as a translocal and transtemporal field and analyzing the processes and practices that are involved in its production allows a better understanding of its epistemological status and its political stance.

The study of new history leads to a reflexive engagement with sources, methods, and different types of knowledge. New history, therefore, offers a favorable ground for the exercise of sociocultural reflexivity (Herzfeld 2001:45–52). After all, it fulfills the expectations of certain audiences since it is published, serialized, or disseminated on social media forums. It cannot therefore be ignored in the ongoing discussions about hierarchies of knowledge, or the nature of history, and how it should be narrated.


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1 By using ‘cultural intimacy’ here, I stretch the concept as it was coined by Michael Herzfeld (1997). Herzfeld conceptualizes ‘cultural intimacy’ as insiders’ recognition of aspects of cultural identity that are both a source of embarrassment and of common sociality (Herzfeld 1997:3). I also use ‘cultural intimacy’ to refer to aspects of cultural identity, in my case, insiders’ discussions, ideas, imaginations, and stories about their past. These aspects of cultural identity, however, could be a source of embarrassment for both insiders and outsiders, to the extent that outsiders might reject them outright, or contest them. As will become clear below, most of the claims of ‘new history’ may seem paradoxical to outsiders; for insiders, though, they constitute an additional source of pride, and they nourish their nationalist sentiments.

2 Laruelle (2012a) examines similar trends in history making in Russia under the category ‘alternate history’. However, alternate history is not only a very dynamic and defined field but also one in which science-fiction tropes (time travel, time splitting, crossing time) predominate. In this regard, the kinds of history making I examine in this chapter differ significantly from alternate history. ‘Alternative history’ might have been a better denomination for the kind of intellectual endeavour I try to analyze, especially in the way it is conceptualized by Pels (1997:168), i.e., as histories ‘that challenge historiographical “hierarchies of credibility” because they derive from street art, spirit possession, oral tradition, rumor, gossip, and other popular or subaltern forms of knowledge production’. But since ‘alternate’ and ‘alternative’ history tend to be used interchangeably, I prefer ‘new history’ as a more neutral denomination.

3 I disagree here with the late Nurbulat Masanov, who maintained that a serious discussion of this kind of history is impossible (2007).

4 The Tengrist movement is a pan-Central-Asian religious and political movement promoting an allegedly native religious system — Tengrism. Based on the harmonious co-existence of mankind and nature, these religious beliefs often conflict with the teachings of Islam. Tengrism took shape after the fall of the Soviet Union and is an example of the various identity-building movements that characterise Central Asia in the post-Soviet period.

5 The True History was first published as a self-published book (samizdat) initially printed in 100 copies. It was then serialized in the pages of Fabula, one of the most popular newspapers in Kyrgyzstan.

6 See Aldashev (2009).

7 Left Wing (Sol Kanat), Right Wing (On Kanat) and Core (Ichkilik) are the major genealogical branches among the Kyrgyz, partially overlapping with the geographical and political north-south divide.

8 Soltonoev Belek Soltonkeldi uulu (1878–1938) is the author of the first ‘modern’ history of the Kyrgyz, called Kyzyl Kyrgyz Tarykhy (History of Red [i.e., Bolshevist] Kyrgyz). Soltonoev’s History is a compilation of oral traditions, European Orientalist writings on the Kyrgyz and the author’s own ethnographic notes.

9 Vasilii Radlov (1837–1918), born Friedrich Wilhelm Radloff, is celebrated in Russia and Central Asia as one of the founders of Turkic studies. He was the first to publish the runic inscriptions of Orkhon and a comparative dictionary of Turkic languages in four volumes. In Kyrgyzstan he is best known for his 1868 recording of the Manas epic.

10 Nikolai Aristov (1847–1903) was a high-level official in the Tsarist administration who dedicated much of his life to completing Carl Ritter’s volume on Asia in Comparative Geography (1816–1832) by collecting data on the history of the western Tian Shan. Aristov was the first to suggest that the Usun are the ancestors of the Kyrgyz in an 1894 article published in Zhivaia Starina, the ethnographic journal of the Russian Imperial Geographical Society. Although Aristov’s hypothesis on the relationship between Usun and Kyrgyz has been criticized ever since it was formulated, in 2001 his works were republished without any annotations by the Soros Foundation in Kyrgyzstan.

11 The evidence is encapsulated in just the following sentence: ‘According to oral traditions, the ancestors of Manas had some relations with Kytai, and the Karakhanid’ (Soltonoev 1993:II,143). It is worth emphasizing that it is not clear whether Soltonoev means China, the Chinese, the Khitan or the Kytai clan among the Kyrgyz since one Kyrgyz word — Kytai — refers to all of them. Much of Usupbaev’s history is based on the assumption that Kytai stands only for the Kytai clan, and that Kytai refers to the same group as Kidan (also known as Khitan) and Karakhanid (known also as Kara Khitai), an assumption that most historians strongly disagree with.

12 This list seems to have been first drawn up by Dastan Sarygulov, the oldest active member of the Tengrist movement and a prolific history writer. Sarygulov’s Origin of the Kyrgyz (Kyrgyz kachan jana kaydan chykkan) published in 2008 — containing the list of ‘Manas’ toponyms — was serialized by the Kyrgyz language biweekly Alibi and this in part explains the popularity of the list. Since some of the places included in Sarygulov’s list are little known to the wider public, the list is both shortened — by the omission of these little-known places — and extended by the efforts of amateur historians who discover better and new correspondences. On amateur historians, see Light (2016).

13 According to local news media, Bekbalaev is also a member of the Russian Academy of Pedagogic and Social Sciences, a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, and honorary professor of International Relations and World Languages at Kazakhstan’s University.

14 Among them: Altheim Franz and Haussig Wilhelm Hans, Die Hunnen in Osteuropa. Ein Forschungsbericht (1958); Wolfram Herwig, Die Goten (1990); Schreiber Hermann, Die Hunnen (1976); Bona Istvan, Das Hunnenreich (1991).

15 E.g. historians Vasiliy Bartol′d (1869–1930) and Aleksandr Bernshtam (1910–1956), and linguists Igor Batmanov (1906–1969), Nikolai Baskakov (1905–1955), and Edkhiam Tenishev (1921–2004). Bekbalaev is a fan of Lev Gumilyov (1912–1992) and refers repeatedly to his Hunny (1960) and Geografiya etnosa v istoricheskii period (1990). He also refers to another well-known Eurasianist, Nikolay Trubetskoy (1890–1938), author of Nasledie Chingizkhana: vzglyad na russkuyu istoriyu ne s Zapada a s Vostoka (1925). On Russian Eurasianism, see Laruelle 2012b.

16 Some of these works are quoted below.

17 Mainly from the Russian translation of John Man’s Atilla the Hun (2005) and from Ammian von Bek’s trilogy Gunny (2009). Ammian von Bek is in fact the literary pseudonym of Bekbalaev himself. The trilogy he refers to is, in his own definition, a ‘historical novel’ (Bekbalaev, aka Ammian von Bek 2009).

18 On Ammian von Bek, see note above.

19 Attilа und die Hunnen: Begleitbuch zur Ausstellung (Stuttgart, 2007). This and the previous two quotations are from Bekbalaev, 2011.

22 On Roehrig, see Barreiro 2012.

23 Abrar Karimullin (1925–2000) was a philologist and a bibliographer whose interest in Tatar history, literature, and the diaspora was not always welcome during the Soviet period. He was reprimanded for nationalism or Panturkism on several occasions, and was known to have spent five long years in disgrace before being allowed to defend his Ph.D. thesis on the history of early-twentieth-century Tatar printing in the beginning of the twentieth century. In post-Soviet Tatarstan, Karimullin is revered as the founder of Tatar studies. His essay on ‘Proto-Turks and American Indians’ was first published in Moscow in 1995. The essay, according to the English translation available on the web portal Turkic History (, was ‘the outcome of twenty years of research’. In it, Karimullin claimed that, based on the comparative study of American Indian and Turkic languages, the American Indians and the ancient Turks have a common ‘origin’. Karimullin’s claim was welcome by Lev Gumilyov who, in turn, argued that the Huns and the Dakota Indians were genetically related. For more on Karimullin, see Khaliullin 2005.

24 E.g., John McIntosh, The Origin of the North American Indians (1843); Wikander Oscar Stig, ‘Maya and Altaic: Is the Maya Group of Languages Related to the Altaic Family?’, Ethnos 32 (1967): 141–48; idem, ‘Maya and Altaic II’, Ethnos 35 (1970): 80–88; idem ‘Maya and Altaic III’, Orientalia Suecana 21 (1972): 186–204; Osorov also refers to Georges Dumézil’s articles on the relationship between Quechuan and Turkish (published between 1954 and 1957) but I was unable to identify these.

25 Yurii Knorozov, Sistema pis′ma drevnikh Maya (1955) and Pis′mennost′ indeitsev Maya (1963) as well as all the ethnographic studies of Native Americans published by the (former) Institute of Ethnography at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

26 Ishi is the name of the last member of the Yahi Indians made famous by the works of Alfred Kroeber and his wife Theodora.

27 Kon-Tiki is the name of the Inca God of Sun, and of the 1947 expedition of Thor Heyerdahl to the Polynesian islands.

28 See for instance McNeil (1986:2): ‘Yet the limits of scientific history were far more constricting than its devotees believed. Facts that could be established beyond all reasonable doubt remained trivial in the sense that they did not, in and of themselves, give meaning or intelligibility to the record of the past. A catalogue of undoubted and indubitable information, even if arranged chronologically, remains a catalogue. To become a history, facts have to be put together into a pattern that is understandable and credible […]’. What I refer to as ‘emplotment’ or ‘re-emplotment’ further in this chapter is the same process as the ‘patterning’ of historical facts discussed by McNeil.

29 It would be instructive to compare systematically the sources used by Soviet historians, for instance, and the sources used by new historians. However, a quick look at one of the Soviet histories of Kyrgyzstan discouraged me from taking this on since the bulk of the ‘sources’ comprised the writings of Karl Marx and Lenin, together with different Party resolutions.

30 The ways in which new historians use genetics to support their arguments is a topic worth covering at length. For other unexpected uses of human genetics, see Simpson 2000, Abu El-Haj 2004.

31 On the Soviet concept of ethnogenesis, see Laruelle 2008.

32 On the Aryan myth in Central Asia, see Laruelle 2007 and Shnirelman 2009.

33 The Aryan myth and the claims for Aryan origins are still quite popular in new history, as some of Usupbaev’s writings demonstrate. However, new historians tend to promote the Aryan myth not by anthropological and linguistic comparisons, nor by comparisons with now extinct lifestyles, i.e., sedentary versus nomadic (cf. Shnirelman 2009), but rather by establishing connections to globally famous monuments or places. Thus, as I have shown elsewhere (Jacquesson 2016), in order to demonstrate that the Kyrgyz are Aryans and not Turks, Usupbaev ‘proves’ that the pharaohs were among the ancestors of the Kyrgyz, and that the pyramids were built by them. This is not only a striking claim but a flattering one, because it suggests that one of the best-known monuments in the world is in fact Kyrgyz.

34 The monument is familiar to Kyrgyzstanis because of the former division between Eastern and Western Germany, World War Two, and the fact that quite a few local men did their military service in Eastern Germany.

35 Some professional historians also stray from traditional methodologies, but they veer more towards classic nationalism as discussed above.

36 Few Western works were translated into Russian during the Soviet period and their use was limited for fear of accusations of political incorrectness. Translations into the national languages of Central Asia were next to non-existent.

37 This quote is written in English in the original and is therefore reproduced as published.

38 Osorov and Usupbaev 2015.

39 Mainly Gumilyov’s Hunny (1960) and Geografiya etnosa v istoricheskii period (1990). On Gumilyov, see Shnirelman and Panarin 2000, Laruelle 2000 and 2001, cf. Titov 2005.

40 On Suleimenov’s AZ i IA, see Ram 2001, Baker 2016.

41 As quoted in Ram 2001:293.