Defenders of the Fatherland Day: Holidays in Bishkek, Soviet-style

Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Bishkek Kyrgyzstan
Posted by on February 23, 2015

Defenders of the Fatherland Day:
Holidays in Bishkek, Soviet-style

(This article originally posted on Defenders of the Fatherland Day in 2014. To follow updates from 2015’s holiday in Bishkek, follow my Facebook Page and Instagram feed.)

Once ‘Red Army Day’, then ‘Soviet Army and Navy Day’, and now finally ‘Defenders of the Fatherland Day’. With piles of snow, high-stepping soldiers, and big furry hats it epitomizes a number of popular stereotypes that Westerners hold about Kyrgyzstan.

defenders of the fatherland holiday in bishkek

Though I know February 23rd is a holiday in Kyrgyzstan (as well as many of the other former states of the Soviet Union), I was under the impression celebrations happened mostly in the form of private gifts to males and especially to those who have served in the armed forces. What a surprise, then, to see a parade of soldiers and be-kalpakked youth headed down Chuy this morning!

soldiers marching down chuy on defenders of the fatherland day

As seems only fitting, they finally gathered at Victory Square. Dedicated in 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Victory in World War II, this park does seem like the obvious place to celebrate a holiday dedicated to the country’s defenders. An eternal flame burns underneath the stylized silhouette of a traditional yurt while, just behind, a weeping mother pines for the sons and husbands who will never return.

Defenders of the Fatherland Day Bishkek

As most of the soldiers march through town, a select few prepare near the Kyrgyz monument to World War II while citizens (and not a few photographers) look on and wait for the ceremony to start. Finally, once the parade has arrived and the solders are arrayed in formation, and the military band is posted to keep the time for high-stepping soldiers and mournful celebrants, it begins.

Originally celebrating the first draft of soldiers in the Russian Civil War and the establishment of the Red Army, the day is now seen as a way of showing appreciation for soldiers in general. The ceremony itself actually feels fairly familiar to me as an American, a patriotic celebration of country and flag (though with a touch more high-stepping than I’m accustomed to). A military band plays, some guys make some speeches, and the soldiers all march past again. It’s all very patriotic and solemn.

military band on defenders of te fatherland day

It feels somehow less like the Bishkek I live in, the one with a constantly growing list of American-style cafes and Turkish restaurants and Indian cooking demonstrations. Rather, the whole Defenders of the Fatherland Day celebration strikes me as an anachronistic look back to the Bishkek (then-Frunze) of the Soviet period – the Bishkek that I can still occasionally see out of the corners of my eyes in an old mosaic on the walls of an ancient apartment block or the odd statue of Lenin. The Bishkek that, though it may not be the one I live in on a day to day basis, is one I find endlessly fascinating and an unexpected source of delight when I do stumble across it.

eternal flame in bishkek

There are places you can visit in Bishkek where this feeling has been memorialized – the fantastic top floor of the Historical Museum, with a depiction of a skeletal US President wearing a cowboy hat and riding a nuclear missile being of particular note, but also the mural of Soviet peoples directly across from the Old Airport where would have once welcomed visitors to the Kirghiz S.S.R.

None of these places are alive, though. None of them march down the streets chanting in unison with the clacking of boots that could just as easily be at home in Red Square or Ala-Too. That, really, is why Defenders of the Fatherland Day appeals to me so much – because for one morning it suddenly transports me to an era of Central Asia that I’ll never experience, and turns those half glimpsed specters into living memories.

ceremony at victory park for defenders of the fatherland day

Want more? Here’s a short video from the ceremony that’ll really get your boots steppin!


If you’re in Bishkek as a tourist, the Hostel Inn on Chuy is probably the most central cheap accommodation. If you’re looking upmarket, the Hyatt is a bit further on Sovietskaya. Also be sure to check out my Bishkek Travel Guide for thoughts on other things to do in town while you’re not chasing squads of marching soldiers through the streets!

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18 Responses to Defenders of the Fatherland Day: Holidays in Bishkek, Soviet-style

  1. Mike

    Really nice set Stephen ! We feel the ambiance there thanks to your shots.

    • Stephen

      Thanks Mike! I was sort of worried at first that the snow and clouds would make everything feel blown out, but in the end I was pretty happy with most of the shots and just cropped the sky out of the rest.

  2. Nan

    Thanks for sharing. Sure looks cold. I like the high stepping.

  3. Milosz Zak

    Definitely still a Soviet-era celebration – it’s interesting that those republics have fallen back on that past, despite how painful it had been.

    • Stephen

      Interestingly, for a lot of the older generation they don’t look back upon it as a painful time. It was, rather, the ‘good old days’. Pensions were more generous and social services more readily available. Not everybody feels that way, to be sure, but it’s a conversation I’ve had and heard several times.

      • Elena

        Same in my home country. Communism wasn´t necessarily a bad thing..I think people were nicer to each other and didn´t demand that much..When you don´t know that something exist, you don´t want it…And the more you have, the more you want..Pretty different situation now..

        • Stephen

          I had a conversation today that touched on this with an academic from Kyrgyzstan who has studied and lived in Europe and the US as well. Her reasoning was that because the Central Asian states never had Europe to turn to during Communist times (and to an extent this is still true today) compared to the Eastern European S.S.R. states, they (the Central Asian states) saw the Soviet Union as a preferable alternative to China and were happy with the situation. You’re right, though, it’s a different era and mindset now that there’s access to information about all the possibilities of the world – so the heavy handed treatment of outside agents sits a little less comfortably when you’ve had the chance to experience other options.

  4. Ale

    So interesting!! Never been there and i felt like being there with your pictures and video!!

  5. Corinne

    Central Asia is so high on my list. I have friends all over the region, and need to get there. I love your parade in the snow photos!

    • Stephen

      Thanks, Corinne. You should definitely come visit – it’s an incredible region for travelers and having friends in the area only makes it better. If you pass through Bishkek or need any help planning your way through Kyrgyzstan, feel free to get in touch for tips!

  6. Roaming Renegades

    This is awesome, I love all things like this and would love to experience something like this. What a great things to see. Central Asia is just so fascinating in its mixture of cultures.

  7. Emma Hart

    Thank you for sharing. What lovely pictures and they really capture the emotion that must have been felt by a lot of people.

    • Stephen

      The whole holiday is an interesting look into notions of national pride that transcends two very different historical eras for Kyrgyzstan – I was lucky to stumble upon it last year and sad that celebrations weren’t on the same scale this time.

  8. Melody Pittman

    OMG those photos are just the best! Very interesting read and those snowy military pictures are just stunning. Thanks so much for sharing such an emotional event.

  9. Bruno B

    This is stunning. Very interesting read and as an european this all seems so remote!
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Stephen

      It’s almost on your doorstep, Bruno! Check out flights on Pegasus Airlines, they offer good deals to Kyrgyzstan every once in a while and might make it easy for you to get over and check the area out.

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