The Frunze Museum

January 21st, 2016 Sections: Bishkek, Museums
Frunze Museum

Frunze Museum

When I first came here back in the mid 1990’s there were a number of sights that were considered a ‘must’ for any visitor to the country.  One of those was the Frunze Museum … on Frunze Street, … in the city that had, (from 1926 until 1991), been called Frunze.

In fact, some people still rate it as one … especially those who have an interest in Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet past.

OK … Frunze, Frunze, Frunze … there’s obviously something very special about this Frunze … or Mikhail Vasiliyevich Frunze, to be precise …

Statue of the Great man opposite Bishkek's main railway station

Statue of the Great man opposite Bishkek’s main railway station

… a General in the newly formed Red Army following the , (“the greatest Bolshevik general ever”, according to some), a student revolutionary who led the Bolshevik Red Guards that stormed the Kremlin in Moscow as part of the Great Socialist Revolution in October 1917,  “who defeated The White admiral Kolchak in the east, the last White Army of General Wrangel in the Crimea … who delivered Central Asia out of the dark ages, including taking the medievally cruel desert kingdom of Bukhara …”, who had the city renamed in his honour “after his death in 1926 at the impossibly young age of 40 (his doctor accidentally killed him with a chloroform overdose) … ” and also the main Soviet Military Academy just outside Moscow … to mention just a few of salient facts.

In fact, today happens to his birthday of  – he was born in 1885 – and although I have written postcards about him and his family in the past, it occurred to me that I had never actually written one about this “must see” sight.

Time to put that right!

The building itself was erected in 1967 … at the intersection of Frunze and Razzakova (which used to be called Vasilievka – named after the great general’s father) … and  although the facade is not white marble, unlike so many of the official buildings erected in the 1980s to project the power and achievements of the Soviet Union, it is still remarkably striking.  The main feature, seen best from across the intersection, being the bas relief of revolutionary soldiers from the Civil War period.

In many ways, it serves as a bridge between the classical style of architecture common in the Stalinist period and those marble clad structures that followed.  It is a modern, contemporary – for the time, utilitarian, functional design – rectangular in shape … with large plate glass street level windows … almost as if it is a shop front straight out of a town planners design for a city center that could be almost any where in the world – except, perhaps, for that bas relief.

The 2000 square meter museum houses over 6000 – some sources say 8000 – exhibits dedicated to the man, his life and times, his achievements Soviet Union that he helped to create, and shape – including the contribution of the Kyrgyz in the Great Patriotic War – the Second World War – and to the development of the city of Bishkek.  And, that’s not to mention some temporary specialist exhibitions that are staged from time to time.

Many of the exhibits used to belong to the man himself:  there are photographs, (about 1500 of them in all), paintings, documents – diplomas, , books – including his personal library and some of his school textbooks, military paraphernalia – such as uniforms, regimental colours, weapons and medals; furniture  – including a spinning wheel, rocking horse and high chair; and household items such as dishes.

The prize exhibit, however, is a thatched, adobe house in which it is said he was born back in 1885.

There are, however, some doubts about this claim.  There are some some suggestions that Mikhail was actually born in the village of Belevodsk – just outside Bishkek.  There are also those who suggest that old maps and other documents suggest that, although his family lived in such a house in this neighbourhood … this wasn’t it … but may have been one lived in by neighbours or possibly relatives … or even a ‘summer outhouse’ rather than family home that his father built in 1879.  There are stories told about how the museum was built around it, and others that it was dismantled and then reconstructed … and, horror of horrors, that it might even be a reconstruction rather than the ‘real thing’.

Personally, I am not sure that matters all that much … although, I admit, it might make a difference to one of the Communist faithful making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of one of his heroes … because it is typical of the houses of that particular period and gives a feel of what life must have been like for the middle classes in this far flung outpost of the Tsarist Empire at the turn of the century.  It is the sort of building that used to be common in the city but that has since disappeared from the city center …

According to one review, it alone was worth the entrance fee … which is still fairly modest compared to similar museums elsewhere … and even cheaper for those Kyrgyz citizens who can produce their passport to prove it.

The house is on the ground floor – at street level – where there is also a small exhibition dedicated to the author Chinghiz Aitmatov.  Visitors are advised to start their tour of the museum on the third floor … and work their way down … ending their tour with this, the highlight.

The main exhibition – a large collection of late 19th and early 20th century pieces related to war or Frunze’s personal life – in a long rectangular room, with a massive stature of Frunze with binoculars and a long military jacket.

The second floor (first floor, English style) houses the temporary exhibition space and exhibits reflecting things that have been named after Frunze.

 

It’s a wonderful example of Soviet hero worship – if not  Hagiography – and despite its reputation as one of the Big Three museums – The Historical Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts … and the Frunze Museum – a “must see” location in Bishkek, relatively few people ever seem to go there – unless it is for a special event or one of the temporary exhibitions.  I have met several people who have commented that, when they visited it, they were the only people in the place apart from the curators … mostly women of a certain age who either model themselves on Soviet style scowling or who bend over backwards to be welcoming and eager to exchange a few words, so grateful that someone is interested in learning something about “little Misha”.

This might be one of the factors behind the big drawback with the museum, commented on by virtually everyone, is the fact that there are no information, no notices or virtually anything else in English once you get past the “The Museum is Open” notice on the front door.  There being so few visitors there is little call for explanatory material in English … and, as a result everything is in Russian … or Kyrgyz.  Which, in turn, means that, in order to get the most out of a visit, you either need to take a guide or someone who knows enough Russian to translate for you … otherwise, as one tourist said, it’s a useless experience.

A pity, because it has so much to offer!

 

 

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