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Nathan Light
Senior Research Fellow (Former Staff)

Nathan Light

Exchange Relations, Kinship Organization and the Cultural Reproduction: Kyrgyz Rituals during and after the Soviet Union

Kyrgyz marriage strategies and rituals involving kudalashuu (marriage by parental arrangement) or ala kachuu (marriage by capture), and payment of kalyng (bride wealth), &are widespread among Kyrgyz in the contemporary Kyrgyz Republic.& Some aspects of such marriage rituals are meant to incur blessings on the family that are similar to what is sought in ziyarat pilgrimages to mazars (tombs and natural sites) and khuday tamak meals. Those holding such events usually endeavor to benefit the community and gather its good will through redistribution of wealth, such as in the famous kök börü (contests over a goat carcass in which victors win prizes).& These were all restricted during the Soviet period, but statistics and ethnographic data show that such practices were widespread in the Kyrgyz SSR and ala kachuu actually increased from the 1920s until 1991.& These practices all reflect underlying concepts about kinship organization and exchange relations.& In continuing them, people had to balance Soviet ideology with commitments to kinship and community beliefs.
In this project, I am collecting detailed data on the historical, cultural and social dynamics of marriage rituals and ziyarat through interviews and participant observation. The goal of the project is to understand how people carried on these practices despite Soviet restrictions, and how they changed and reproduced the practices during the Soviet and post-Soviet periods in varying social, political and economic conditions. These rituals involve personal and family resistance to the imposition of state power, and negotiated power relationships within society and with supernatural forces. Since the end of Soviet rule, aspects of ziyarat and kök börü have become part of state ritual, kalyng ∧ large-scale toi celebrations for life cycle events have become legal and socially expected, while ala kachuu remains illegal but widely practiced.
Preliminary results from this research reveal that exchange relationships around religious and life-cycle events are extremely important in Kyrgyz society, and the social and economic benefits from these exchanges have sustained people’s participation.& Both agnatic and affinal relatives participate in these exchanges but in markedly different ways to reinforce their different roles.& In addition, in the post-socialist period, these rituals have become more elaborate, and new rituals and exchange relations have formed around the bonds within newly important groups of classmates and neighbors.& This detailed investigation of Kyrgyz religion, social organization and kinship relations in villages in the Kara Buura Raion is finding rapid changes and much local diversity in Kyrgyz practices.& Nonetheless, existing ideas about kin relations and the sacralization of community through shared participation in gift circulation and meals are providing the conceptual frames for new social ties and ritual exchanges.

 
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