Bishkek Boys

Charlie Rumsby

Philipp Schröder’s ethnography is an intuitive demonstration of how urban change, driven by economic liberalisation and technological development, has impacted societal relations in post-socialist Bishkek.

Urban change and nostalgic boyhood

Situating the study within the metanarrative of a changing political landscape enables a sophisticated connection between the economies of movement and the consequential changes migration has on the negotiation of intimate relationships at a local level. Starting from the analysis of a neighbourhood experiencing gentrification and heterogenization, the book details the lives of an interethnic group of male youth who have lived in and integrated into Shanghai, Bishkek (Iug-2 (South 2)) – a inner city neighbourhood divided into ‘yards’ (clusters of housing organised in grid like form). Positioning the relational dynamics of the group of men into an analysis of masculinities and performativity, Schröder reveals how the symbolic significance a place anchors and informs the preservation of identity narratives which relate to respect, authority, and rootedness.

By telling the story of Shanghai’s boys through an ethnographic vignette that details a fight in the neighbourhood’s basketball court, Schröder explores who participates and how the boundaries of friendship are negotiated and informed by ethnicity and length of stay within a neighbourhood. These questions reveal the local structures that young men once embraced to become someone within their locality. Enrolling into ‘street school’, namely, entering the informal educational pathways, boys learnt how to fight and protect one’s neighbourhood, how to respect and maintain the reciprocal relationships informed by age and ethnicity. This process, once a significant signpost for coming of age, is disrupted by the city’s development. The ethnography details this change, emphasising the impact on social rituals of respect and authority in addition to in-group boundaries and expectations. Internal migration from rural areas to urban Bishkek encourage these boundaries to shift. As young people search for a sense of self ‘on the streets’, new bonds are created between people who may once have lived on enemy lines. The process of bending boundaries to encompass previous enemies reveals the strategies of youth who are struggling to deal with metropolitan change and find a greater commonality in shared histories rather than classical boundary markers. Interestingly, the length of stay in an area takes preference over the ethnic similarity one might have with the city’s newcomers, reifying the category of urban to mean civilised and legitimate.

Despite Schröder’s eloquent recording of the process of reconfiguring group boundaries during societal change, a notable absence which hampered a deep understanding of the aspirations of urban youth was the voices of those who do not initiate into street school. Without their voices, and the input of the those who have left the yard, questions remain about the extent to which yard life, its values and virtues extend to other social spaces. I wanted to know if there are transferrable lessons from street school that are used once street life dissipates (for example, upon getting married). If patron–client relationships in Kyrgyzstan involve political and economic mutuality is street school a preparation for this kind of relationship? Localised forms of reciprocity appeared to be characterised by mild nepotism, and an exchange of money (in some cases) for protection. In a context known for this type of unmerited favour I wondered if street school was an early initiation into this kind of practice? Furthermore, with urban development and diversification lending itself to increasing competition in the job market, what societal and family expectations are placed on young men and women and how did that influence choices to initiate (or not) into the ways of the streets?

Reading the book, it seemed that the leader of the ‘Bishkek Boys’ was holding on to a nostalgic idea of boyhood to validate his own struggle with legitimacy in a changing context. Without moving beyond the front-staging of identities and understanding the aspirations of younger youth or the experience of life for now married men, the ethnography feels rather wedged in a moment in time. This is not a critique as such because this is exactly what Schröder set out to do – provide a snapshot – but the absent voices of others, newcomers or long-term residents who have ‘come of age’, left me wanting more.

Reciprocity, identity and integration

Perhaps the most interesting feature was Schröder’s theorisation of integration. Moving beyond a theorisation of integration as assimilation, Schröder sees integration and identity as connected phenomena. Drawing on Durhkeim’s (1997) notion of ‘positive integration’, integration is conceptualised around exchanges that are situated within and among social actors located in various localised networks. It is within this seemingly simple setup that rich ethnographic vignettes draw out the complex intersections of age, ethnicity and fictive kin, and their role in structuring the interactions and relational exchanges among a collective of young men within a social hierarchy. The merit of a micro-ethnography is the ability to document a rich tapestry of interpersonal exchanges, storytelling and self-presentations that assemble and capture emergent social organisation. This is an engaging insight into how community bonds are fragmented and recreated.