On a recent morning a small group of pensioners gathered round a monument to Communist leader Vladimir Lenin in a far-flung corner of the bygone empire he helped found.
The system he established disappeared from Kyrgyzstan in central Asia when the Soviet Union collapsed some 25 years ago but the Russian leader still draws a crowd of die-hards in the capital Bishkek each year to mark the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.
“The USSR was an opportunity to be part of a great power,” historian Emil Jumabayev told AFP in a separate interview.
“Nowadays Lenin is a feature of the city like any building, a road or a bridge. He doesn’t really bother people.”
Across the former USSR the fate of Lenin monuments has become a symbol of a region still struggling to define itself — and its relations with former imperial master Russia.
The phenomenon is most striking in crisis-stricken Ukraine, where more than 500 statues of the bearded revolutionary have been torn down over the past year, after Kiev turned westwards and Moscow responded by seizing Crimea and backing separatist rebels.
– Different paths –
Around Central Asia the process may have been less dramatic but the fate of Lenin has often echoed the paths the different nations have taken since becoming independent — with leaders seeking to impose their own personalities or emphasise a historic identity.
In isolated Turkmenistan, the monuments to the man behind the dictatorship of the proletariat were replaced by golden monuments of post-Soviet leaders who have established their own authoritarian systems.
Meanwhile in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Lenin has respectively been edged out by brutal 14th century Mongol conqueror Tamerlane and medieval Persian-speaking emperor Ismoil Somoni.
The debate has often been nuanced and in Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished nation that borders China but remains close to Moscow, Lenin lingers on.
Kyrgyzstan’s main Lenin statue, once positioned on the main square in front of the national history museum, now occupies a slightly less prominent space behind it.
When thousands in the majority-Muslim country use the space for public prayers on the Islamic holidays they face Mecca in the West, but Lenin gestures towards the north and Russia, where up to a million Kyrgyz work as labour migrants.
“While the statue is insignificant in people’s everyday lives, it can easily be turned into a point of geopolitical contention,” Erica Marat, a regional expert at the National Defense University in Washington, said.
History still occasionally complicates relations between Kyrgyzstan, part of the Russian empire before it became a Soviet republic, and its allies in the Kremlin.
Earlier this year, strongly pro-Russian President Almazbek Atambayev signed a decree to mark in 2016 the centennial of a historic event some Kyrgyz politicians liken to a genocide, when Tsarist Russian authorities brutally crushed a revolt rippling across Central Asia.
In the decree Atambayev was careful to draw a distinction between Tsarist Russia and the Russians that still make up a tenth of Kyrgyzstan’s population, while noting the October revolution “cardinally changed the Kyrgyz people’s situation.”
“In contrast to the tsarist autocracy Soviet authorities succeeded in providing prospects for the national development of the Kyrgyz,” Atambayev’s decree reads.
– No yearning for Communism –
Kyrgyzstan is one of the few ex-Soviet territories that still has an official public holiday to mark the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.
Lenin and the Soviet Union still dominate the history museum once named after him, despite periodic demands by nationalists to strip away signs of the communist past in favour of nods to an earlier nomadic history.
“It would be wrong to get rid of the busts of Lenin and other Soviet items. These are a part of our history too,” culture ministry spokesman Baktygul Noruzbaeva told AFP.
But the economic and political system Lenin’s Bolsheviks created dissolved quickly in Kyrgyzstan, where privatisation was rapid and the region’s largest bazaar grew up on the back of booming trade with China.
Last month neither of the country’s two Communist parties bothered even standing in parliamentary elections.
“Sadly there is no Communist movement in Kyrgyzstan any longer,” Marxist thinker Georgy Mamedov, 31, told AFP at the recent meeting near the Lenin statue.
But even this leftist admitted that the monument was a “dead symbol” of a country that ceased to exist when he was still a child.
“It has fulfilled its evolutionary function,” Mamedov conceded.