From 1925 to 1932, a thousand Europeans took the monthlong train ride to Soviet Kyrgyzstan, as new members of the Interhelpo workers’ co-op. Their story tells of the utopian hopes placed in the Soviet project — and how they were crushed.

Kyrgyz walk in the steppe during a traditional folk festival held at Son-Kul lake, about 430 kilometers from Bishkek, on July 21, 2011. (Vyacheslav Oseledko / AFP via Getty Images)

Looking out of the plane window at night, one can see the dark Kyzylkum desert, with occasional lights recognized by the satellite navigation as Komektaev, Lenino, and Kyzylorda. From up here, the journey from Central Europe to Central Asian Kyrgyzstan seems long and desolate.

At that point in my journey, I wasn’t yet aware that a hundred years ago a group of idealistic Central Europeans, including the parents of future Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubček, came to Kyrgyzstan in the hope of building their idea of a socialist paradise.

I first came into contact with the name “Interhelpo” upon landing in Bishkek. “The tenacious Czechoslovak volunteers of the Interhelpo co-operative celebrate victory; in 1934 their factories produced 20 percent of the industrial output of Soviet Kyrgyzstan,” the English guidebook reads. At that moment I am reminded of the lights in the Kyzyl desert, the distance between Central Europe and Central Asia, and ask: Why would anyone do this?

As I soon found out, I was not the first visiting Czechoslovak to be surprised by this remarkable Central European footprint in Kyrgyzstan. Among others, the editor of the Slovak daily newspaper SME, Lukáš Onderčanin, noticed the story during his travels across the country. He was so intrigued that he wrote a book on the topic, Utopia in Lenin’s Garden.

Available in Czech and Slovak, his book tells the story of a thousand idealistic Central Europeans who, between 1925 and 1932, sold all their possessions, invested their earnings in a co-operative, and traveled by train for thirty days to the southern border of the Soviet Union. They stopped in the middle of nowhere, on the steppe next to what was then Pishpek (later Frunze, now Bishkek), where a handful of brick houses stood. By the time the co-operative began to prosper in the 1930s, all children of the Interhelpo members under the age of three had died of malaria and typhus.

A thousand idealistic Central Europeans sold all their possessions, invested their earnings in a co-operative, and traveled by train for thirty days to the southern border of the Soviet Union.

Despite its grim beginnings, the co-operative managed to build a textile factory, a furniture factory, a brewery, and a factory for agricultural machinery; helped construct the headquarters of the Kyrgyz government and one of the local hospitals; and founded a cultural club, a school, and a football team, which went on to play in Tashkent.

For the workers of the Bishkek railway, the people involved in Interhelpo built an unusually circular-shaped “Workers’ Town” that still attracts attention on maps today. They were the first to turn on the lights in Bishkek.

From Pishpek to Bishkek

In the hundred years since then, Bishkek has grown into a metropolis of a million inhabitants. Rather than a village, today it has the unkempt appearance of a city that had its heyday several decades ago — during Soviet domination — and to this day, it still uses and repairs the infrastructure it had built during that period.

The city is crisscrossed by rectangular streets and decorated with Soviet monuments and mosaics. The most beautiful one, with the inscription “Our work is for you, fatherland,” hangs on the front of a shabby textile factory that, surprisingly, is still running. Spacious parks and rows of trees barely manage to absorb the omnipresent car fumes and the 100-degree heat that prevails here in July.

The heat, smog, and noise also plague the area around Bishkek’s Osh market, where, along with spices for laghman noodles and delicious dried apricots, you can buy heaps of cheap electronics, shoes, and clothes, including men’s shorts labeled Keleman Klein. Local vendors are among the capital’s poor, dependent on daily market sales and still not fully recovered from the anti-COVID measures that saw Osh Bazaar partially shut down.

At the end of the day, many vendors go to sleep in squalid homes surrounding the nearby street bearing the name of the Czechoslovak co-operative, written as “Intergelpo.” Unbeknownst to the locals, the houses on their street were built a hundred years ago by poor people just like them: Czechoslovak, Polish, Hungarian, and German co-op members.

“They don’t know the history of Interhelpo. This is not a good address, and many people only live here temporarily,” our guide Altynai explains. She adds that the spaces around Intergelpo Street inhabited today were often designed by the co-operatives for purposes other than individualized housing: for example, as storage for work tools, or as a hostel for female employees of a textile factory.

The dormitory rooms and shared areas have been converted into mini-apartments, connected by an unlit corridor and a staircase with rickety planks. Locals cannot agree on the management of common spaces.

It was here that the future leader of the Prague Spring, Alexander Dubček, encountered the Soviet Union trampling on the socialist ideals espoused by his parents.

The cultural center built by the Interhelpo members is reminiscent of Czech sokolovny (halls that are home to dances, artistic events, sports, and the like). The center hosts a photographic exhibition under the title The Human Face of Politics, portraying the co-operative’s most famous inhabitant. The leader of the Prague Spring, the reform Communist Alexander Dubček, is pictured here near the end of his life, with his grandchildren at his wife’s grave, a few months before he died in a car crash in 1992.

Dubček spent his early years in Interhelpo, where he was brought up by his idealist parents. As Czech journalist Jaromír Marek put it in his book about the co-operative, this experience is said to have influenced Dubček’s political views: it was there that he encountered the Soviet Union trampling on the ideals of socialism espoused by his parents.

The rise of the paranoid dictator Joseph Stalin, who rejected the internationalism of his predecessor Vladimir Lenin and worked to dismantle all nonstate enterprises, was a death blow to the co-operative. Many Interhelpo members were sent to labor camps by the regime as suspicious foreigners, and twenty of them, along with Kyrgyz intellectuals, became victims of Stalin’s purges as a result of mutual denunciations.

Several dozen co-operative members joined the Red Army and participated in the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Nazi occupation in 1945. The enterprises built by the co-operative were gradually nationalized by 1943.

Altynai reveals to us what is left of the co-operative’s activity in Bishkek today. We walk past the former Frunze agricultural machinery factory, one of the co-operative’s greatest achievements. Through the broken windows, we peer into the now-defunct factory, which did not survive the collapse of the Soviet Union. The factory is surrounded by a sports complex: an out-of-order swimming pool, football and basketball courts, and a shooting range.

“In the heyday of the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was a great workplace. Workers got many things for free that young people today cannot afford and have to fight for,” Altynai says.

Civilizers or Victims of Disinformation?

As I gradually discover, the incredible mission of the Czechoslovak laborers, who spent all their savings to move to the eastern border of the Soviet Union, can be described from different perspectives, depending on the ideology of the day: as a civilizing and colonizing mission, an example of naivety and manipulation, or as an incomprehensible effort to manifest a utopia.

The “civilizational” view sees the Interhelpo members, like the entire Soviet Union, as bringing progress to “backward” Kyrgyzstan. It was supported, for example, by the interwar communist journalist Julius Fučík, who visited the co-operative in the 1930s. This was how he outlined his vision of Kyrgyzstan’s development: “In the beautiful valleys of the Tien Shan mountains, modern towns will appear; where today the paths of chamois and mountain sheep wind, sanatoriums, schools, clubs and theatres will be built; today’s nomads will become engineers, doctors, professors. . . .”

Fučík’s civilizational interpretation of the Interhelpo also intrigued Czechoslovak researchers at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism. However, it glossed over the problematic aspects of the co-operative: its hardships and deaths in its early days, internal strife, poor working conditions, Stalinist purges, and the colonialist superiority of the co-operative over the indigenous population.

In the postcommunist Czech Republic and Slovakia, the co-op is widely perceived as a product of the naivety of ill-informed Czechoslovak laborers who fell victim to manipulation — or, as we would say today, disinformation.

“Rivers from glaciers that irrigate meadows and fields, dense forests, fruit gardens, tasty peaches, sweet grapes, and trees full of apples” — this is an example of disinformation about the situation in Kyrgyzstan from the explorer and “father of Interhelpo” Rudolf Mareček. He was supposed to have made this speech during an agitprop event in the Czech city of Zlín in the 1920s.

In the postcommunist Czech Republic and Slovakia, the co-op is widely perceived as a product of the naivety of ill-informed Czechoslovak laborers who fell victim to manipulation.

Mareček also secured a reputation as a charlatan in the eyes of modern authors. Although he produced the idea of establishing a co-operative in Kyrgyzstan, he himself did not come to the country until six years after the first migration, thus avoiding the worst difficulties.

Onderčanin, the author of Utopia in Lenin’s Garden, portrays Interhelpo partly as a product of disinformation. According to him, the co-operative can act as a kind of deterrent: “There are many parallels that can be applied today. Even a hundred years ago, people were deceived by ideology and fabrications; they believed in utopia,” he said in an interview for the Slovak ORF podcast.

A Bishkek Utopia

However, listening to Onderčanin on the way from Lake Issyk-Kul to Bishkek, I wonder whether the “fabrications” people listened to a hundred years ago and the ones they listen to today are not somewhat different. If agitators in 1920 could persuade people to work to build a better society in far-flung corners of the world, today all they can do is stir up resentment against people who are even worse off, pitting the Roma against the Ukrainians, Czechs against Roma, and so on.

The inability to imagine a better world and the fear of utopias is not a sign of the wisdom gained over the last century, but a simple trap we have fallen into.

“The capacity for imagination, which was possible and actually quite common in the 1920s, now seems completely exotic,” Georgy Mamedov, a lecturer at the American University of Central Asia and a leftist LGBTQ activist, later tells me passionately in a Bishkek indie bar.

As the author of the Utopian Bishkek project, he has a soft spot for utopias and unequivocally rejects the portrayal of the Interhelpo members as passive victims of disinformation. At the same time, he tames my enthusiasm about the “Czech footprint in Kyrgyzstan,” which led me, like other Czechoslovaks, to become interested in Interhelpo.

“The fact that they identified mainly as communists, atheists, and internationalists is ignored, and instead their ethnic, European origins are constantly emphasized,” he complains.

As proof of the internationalism of the Interhelpo members, Mamedov points to the name of the co-operative itself: the word “interhelpo” comes from the Ido language, a reformed version of Esperanto, and means “mutual aid.” The goal of artificial languages like Ido was to overcome language barriers and allow seamless communication between people, regardless of their nationality.

In his book, Onderčanin also emphasized that poverty, unemployment, and poor working conditions in interwar Czechoslovakia were crucial motivators for the foundation of the Interhelpo. “The illegal employment of young workers is at the expense of older workers and testifies to the greed of the factory administration, which employs young people only to push wages down to the lowest possible level,” reads a century-old article about conditions in the Trenčín textile factory, which he quotes in his book. The article is strikingly reminiscent of texts published today about factory conditions in the contemporary Czech Republic.

“The imagination of the Interhelpo workers and their ability to step out of their national and religious identities should inspire people today,” Mamedov said. The inability to imagine a better world and the fear of utopias, he says, is not a sign of the wisdom gained over the last century, but a simple trap we have fallen into.

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