Corona crisis

Kyrgyzstan-Memes reflecting the “talk of the day” during Coronavirus-Lockup

By Florian Coppenrath, 21 April 2020

In times of lockup, humour is an important part of collective strategies in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Memes with their strong intertextuality allow building “interpretative communities” of people going through the same experience and sharing the same cultural points of reference, even more so as a great part of public life has shifted online (also including cultural events, such as life-streamed concerts or films made accessible for free on the internet).

In Kyrgyzstan’s online sphere, the social media page “omks” (standing for “One Million Kyrgyz Stories”) is particularly outstanding. It was founded at the end of 2014 on the social media platform VKontakte as an anonymous account publishing short stories and anecdotes sent in by the users. In an interview in October 2015, the founder called it “a reflection of youth and of the Kyrgyz people as a whole”, a “place uniting all our co-citizens in one whole” and even a “state in the state”, since it reflects “the true thoughts of youth in a sincere form”. Starting from several dozen thousand followers at that time, the platform has grown up to 840 thousand followers as of today on Instagram, which is also the most important social media in Kyrgyzstan.

Besides short anecdotes and remarks in Russian and Kyrgyz (or in a mixture of both), the page also features advertisement, thereby working as a so-called public-page (pablika) partly monetising its audience. There are several posts a day, which regularly gather more than 20.000 “likes” and several hundred comments. And starting from 11th March 2020, most of the posts on the page deal with the Coronavirus-Crisis and the lockdown imposed in Kyrgyzstan after the appearance of the first cases in the country, on 18th March.

The site’s administrators have also slightly changed the logotype of the page, reminding people of the pandemic: Starting from 19th March, the smiling man with a Kyrgyz “ak-kalpak” hat is wearing a facemask. After that, the posts are a mixture of injunctions, jokes and references to global or local social media trends, giving a good reflection of the perception of the crisis among Kyrgyzstani youth.

To begin with, after the pandemic also reached Kyrgyzstan, several posts call for the audience to stay at home, respect hygiene rules and generally to prevent the spread of the virus. Some of them have a creative local touch, such as a reference to a quote by Soviet Kyrgyz politician Iskhak Razzakov often printed in public places throughout Kyrgyzstan. The young girl with her appeal, in her turn, is a variation of the “I stay at work for you, you stay at home for us”, which can be found in many countries:

Another post also refers to the situation in Italy: “Guys, let’s not repeat the mistakes of Italy. There as well, like here, people first didn’t believe in the seriousness of the situation”. A bit later, after the authorities declared a state of emergency, whereby the inhabitants of affected areas are only allowed to leave the house to buy food or for medical reasons, most of the posts on omks reflect different realities of self-confinement, including satirical comments on the lack of communication within families:

On the other hand, certain posts also contain more political content, sometimes reflecting scandals that appeared in the press in the time of the quarantine. Others satirically comment on the lack of public services and corruption, imagining the whole self-isolation as a positive “surprise” by those in power. Such hierarchies are also reflected in another widespread joke: As on 9th April the inhabitants of Bishkek (and most of Central Asia) were surprised by intense snowfall, certain memes represented the weather as a new means of the President to incentivise people to stay at home.

Coronavirus-related death case in Kyrgyzstan (3rd April) or the prolongation of the emergency situation until the end of April (14th April). Regarding the situation within the country, there are particularly many memes and jokes about the region of Talas, in the North-West of the country, which is the only region that hasn’t yet registered any case of Coronavirus infection. Talas is known to be the region of origin of several important figures in Kyrgyzstan’s history, such as Manas, the hero of the “national epos” of Kyrgyzstan, and the writer Chyngyz Aytmatov. According to a widespread stereotype, inhabitants of Talas are considered as arrogant, for which there is the Kyrgyz expression “Öpkösü Zhok” (“They don’t have lungs”). Such regional prejudice offers the material for a practical joke while Talas remains a “virus-free” zone:

Finally, certain posts contain intertextual references to worldwide memes, such as videos and photos highlighting the beneficial effects of the crisis onto nature. Following a viral video of dolphins and swans that presumably came back into the channels of Venice, similar “fake animal news” became widespread and are also parodied by omks. Other posts also make references to worldwide social media trends such as the #pillowchallenge or the dancing coffin.

Omks is not the only page of its kind and only one part of the online life in Kyrgyzstan in the times of the Coronavirus-crisis. But it is an interesting reflection of the “talk of the day”, as most of the references and jokes that it features can also be found in other channels and life conversations.


Florian Coppenrath is PhD student at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and an associated research fellow at ZMO. His is working on Hip-Hop in Kyrgyzstan's cities and Cultural Globalization.

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