(2006) JLP 53-54: 141-176


Revitalisation, invention and continued

existence of the Kyrgyz aksakal courts:

Listening to pluralistic accounts of history


Judith Beyer




This article investigates conceptions of history as perceived and theoretically embodied in terms such as revitalisation, invention, and continued vitality. These terms have been predominantly used for post-colonial and post-socialist societies. The article argues that these terms and the concepts behind them do not explain and elucidate the meaning of history for society and its members, but rather camouflage it. The case of the Kyrgyz courts of elders (Kyrg. aksakaldar sotu) serves as an example of how various local and foreign actors perceive the historical development of this institution and why several versions of its history exist. The aksakal court has so far been presented as being either a customary legal institution which has been revitalized after independence, or as being an invention of the former Kyrgyz president, or as having never ceased to exist, despite the abolition of customary law during the Soviet era. Anthropological fieldwork being carried out in two villages in the northern part of the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, however, has led to a more comprehensive historical understanding of aksakals and aksakal courts. It has turned out that villagers not only named different time periods when being asked about the origin of the aksakal courts, but also made use of more than one historical account, depending on the situation and the questions asked. The article, therefore, argues for a pluralistic conception of history and for investigation of the meaning attached to it rather than its fitting into one of a number of scientific categories.