I’ve been in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, for 15 minutes. Altynai Nogoibaeva of the civic initiative Peshcom, took me for a walk with her camera. It was thrilling. Admittedly, I haven’t read much about this post-Soviet city or perhaps it hasn’t been covered enough. But the brutal annexation of Russia into Ukraine may draw our attention to the post-Soviet city and precisely look at what Putin was afraid of in Ukraine: the capacity of self-organisation of ordinary people, particularly in cities.
Slowly the centre of gravity of people’s demands in the post-Soviet city has shifted from politics to grassroots initiatives of any kind, such as climate, gender or public space. They embody democratic values and keep the trust in democracy from vanishing, at the doors of the aggressor and despite their fragile democratic governments.
On that beautiful sunny day in Bishkek, Rada Valentina kyzy, the founder of Peshcom, joined us in the video call. I could hear kids playing in the background, and I saw trees planted along the streets in a mixture of Soviet architecture and rushed constructions in the frenzy of the post-Soviet time. Bishkek is not immune to the Western malaise of roads invaded by cars, parked on both sides of the pedestrian zones.
In an attempt to lay the first stone, I explained to Nogoibaeva and Rada why I was so curious about their work in Bishkek, especially at this moment in history. It seemed to me that Peshcom’s initiatives are tiptoeing the two dimensions of public space: firstly improving the public realm for all residents, and secondly, yielding on the benefits of the public commons, a milestone for a free society. Rada categorically replied “I will tell you about our initiatives and then you decide how free we, as a society, are.” I believe it was a fair proposition.
According to the latest Human Rights Watch report, “Throughout the year, Kyrgyzstan’s caretaker parliament adopted several problematic bills including one imposing unnecessary financial reporting requirements on nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), and another overly broad bill penalising “false” information. In February, the government initiated a massive legal review that was rushed and failed to involve a proper consultation process.”
Born in 2019 Peshcom is a non-commercial organisation, and not juridically registered yet. They define themselves as “a civic initiative in favour of pedestrians, cyclists and all those who want to opt for public transport in Bishkek and want to live in an eco-friendly and socially just city.” Rada was a journalist working in public relations when she started to flirt with the idea of recording how women feel and use the city and the challenges they meet daily. Given her professional experience, initially she wanted to write some articles and make videos about the problem, when she met with Nogoibaeva, part of the team of Urban.kg. This non-profit organisation was researching and teaching applied knowledge in the field of urbanism and urban development.
Both Rada and Nogoibaeva, bursted with original ideas and enthusiasm to constructively show some of the problems of Bishkek to the public and city’s government alike. “Sometimes our interventions are just a simple way of solving things,” but I wonder, how does it conform with the city government or political environment in post-Soviet Bishkek?
Peshcom’s interventions are apolitical and bold, but grounded. Perhaps that is the secret. Their defiance to the current state of the public sphere has drawn a citywide wave of support, crossing class and ethnic lines. And a young generation, that has only known life in the city after the Soviet rule and grown up in the internet age, has shown a steely determination to support them. Peshcom has over 10,000 followers on Instagram and is funded only through grants and crowdfunding; what seems to be a real change in Bishkek “because people usually crowdfund for disease, but not for community projects or the commons,” explains Rada.
We do all these interventions without the city authorities’ permission.
They put the money to good use. The last initiative has been a festival in the city’s Alamedin river attended by over a thousand people to bring life to its abandoned embankments. Unfortunately the municipality seems not to care much about it, explained Rada, but she continued affirming that the potential is huge. “We were very excited to show people how we can change an abandoned place.” Armed with drills and wooden planks, they painted chest boards and installed them between the concrete benches along the canal to offer alternatives for gathering.
On another day they occupied a parking spot with a couple of sofas and side tables. By the time the parking guard asked them to leave, they had already drawn a lot of attention from passers-by. Drivers used to park in that space, leaving a very narrow passage for pedestrians. But Peshcom found out, after intensive research, that that piece of land wasn’t a legal parking plot. After the intervention, Rada followed the case with a city patrol and forwarded the request to the city council. The space is now free of cars.
This would be an odd pursuit for most people in Bishkek but it is just another day for Peshcom’s team. But sometimes their way to solve things doesn’t bode well with the administration. One district once filed a complaint because Peshcom drew with bright paint a straight line on the sidewalk to differentiate it from the bike lane. There were no signs, and no information and a pedestrian was badly injured by a cyclist on that spot before. The district based its complaints on the damage of municipal assets with paint, instead of recognizing that Peshcom was basically making the bike lane as visible as possible to pedestrians; something that resonated with supporters in social media arguing that the city government is supposed to do.
So what do we do? We teach people to be brave.
After many attempts by Rada to speak to the head of the district, he finally agreed to go cycling with her around Bishkek. “Cyclists have repeatedly stated that the bike lanes need to be improved, but the city hall does nothing,” says Rada. That cycling experience changed the councillor’s view. Charges were dropped by the police and he began to do several improvements on bike lanes.
The streets of Bishkek can feel reckless at times. Manholes on the sidewalks of Bishkek are a strange thing – sometimes there is no asphalt around them. As a result, pedestrians jump over the pits. Also, the diameter of the soil left for trees is too small for normal root respiration – so the roots will rot over time, and the trees will fall down with a strong gust of wind. Peshcom also claims that when there are no accessible public toilets, people look for “bushes”. “Erkindik Boulevard is one of the most popular places in the city for walking, it has only one public toilet, which is open until 21:30 pm. And then what?”
Fearlessly, Peshcom has intervened in the public space to raise awareness about all these issues. Empathy messages hanging on trees persuaded residents to hug them and posted photos on social media. “It was crazy. People shared photos and videos tagging the city council and municipal institutions,” explains Rada. And the intervention “Toilet behind the bush” was not a call to action behind the bush, but an ironic message for the city administration. A QR code on a big banner leads to a mini-comic about the toilet infrastructure of the capital. How did passers-by react? More than 400 people participated and entered using the QR code in three days.
As I wonder about the bravery and originality of their actions, they say, “we, Peshcom, don’t do all the interventions ourselves. We do workshops with volunteers on how to activate the public space” on what they call the School of Urban Change and find like-minded allies like the Urban Hub and other organisations. “We do all these interventions without the city authorities’ permission.”
Asking herself, Rada finally said, “So what do we do? We teach people to be brave. The majority of people only criticise the city council when they don’t like something in the city but we show them that people could actually do something about it.”
One could argue that the post-Soviet city of Bishkek went through bigger protests and had many revolutions but that did not lead them to real changes in democracy. However, Peshcom, which translates from Russian “on foot”, takes people to the streets in a constructive way. They nurture the capacity to self-organise offering bottom-up solutions defined by democratic values, and drawing the attention of the city government.
Answering to Rada’s initial question, yes, the civic society of Bishkek could become more free. The city authorities of Bishkek ought to heed the constructive voices of Peshcom, using their unpolitical motivation and creativity in the public space.
If you want to support democracy in far places that also influence our world, civic-initiatives like Peshcom is the place to start