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Abai’s Riddle: 5. Early Russian sources

As the Kazakh-language appendix of the Omsk-based newspaper Akmolinskie Oblastnye Vedomosti, Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí was a place of intercultural negotiation. Alikhan Bukeikhanov, Zhusip Köpei-uly, and possibly also Bukeikhanov’s relative, Shahin-Gerei Bökei-uly, were frequent contributors. However, most of the content was written by Russian specialists in Oriental studies, such as V.V. Grigoriev, V.V. Radlov, N.I. Ilminsky, N.P. Ostroumov, A.V. Vasiliev, and A.E. Alektorov. Their main objective was to promote the Tsar’s Russification policies, with a particular interest in driving a wedge between Kazakhs and their Muslim neighbours. To this end, they wrote article after article, emphasizing the advantages of a Russian education over a Muslim education and warning Kazakhs against the deceitful intentions of Muslim traders and mullahs of Tatar and Sart origins. [1] Some of the Russian Orientalists even went so far as to stir interethnic conflict, by spreading false stories, for example, about Tatars claiming that the Kazakhs (Kirghiz) did not have their own long line of ancestors but were descendants of the Tatars. [2]

Notwithstanding the propaganda efforts by the Russian Orientalists, Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí also became a catalyst for nationhood ideas, as it alerted its Kazakh-speaking readers not only to the anti-Muslim agenda of the Tsarist regime but also to the economic dangers of settling down in villages and cities and losing their ancestors’ lands to Russian settlers. As a reader and contributor (and possibly even editor), Bukeikhanov studied the pages of this newspaper for many years, making it almost certainly the place where his ideas of an independent Alash Orda were born. Being so closely involved in the publication of this newspaper must have helped him develop not only his political ideas, it must also have helped him acquire the narrative propaganda techniques that the Russian Orientalists were using to persuade their readers of their views. A text that must have influenced Bukeikhanov deeply in this regard must have been the obituary of Ibrahim (Ivan Alekseevich) Altynsarin – a text first printed in the Russian newspaper Orenbourgskii Listok and subsequently reprinted and translated in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in August 1889. [3] This obituary used several of the techniques that would return in the first Russian-language text that would identify «Abai» by name: an obituary of Abai, published in 1905 in the newspaper Semipalatinskii Listok, and written by Bukeikhanov. [4]

The Russian authors of Altynsarin’s obituary emphasized that Altynsarin owed his distinguished career (as an author and educator) to a few years of elementary Russian-Kazakh schooling and to the influence of a number of Russian men who acted like father figures in his life. Emphasizing the symbolism of his first name, the Russian authors declared Altynsarin to be «the first Apostle among Kirghiz, bringing the light of European civilization and love for Russia to the dark nomads of his tribe». The obituary of Abai was much less anti-Kazakh, but it, too, emphasized the symbolism of the first name, Ibrahim. Moreover, it also emphasized that Abai had received only a few years of education. But most importantly, it, too, presented Abai as a Kazakh who owed his intellectual development mostly to educated Russian men and his artistic development to his constant reading of Russian literature. According to Bukeikhanov, Abai had received his diminutive name from his mother Bukeikhanov at a young age, had become an oral folk poet as a young man, but had grown into a writer of poems only later in life, after years of having immersed himself in Russian literature.

The appearance of this obituary of Abai in 1905 was unexpected. By this time, Russian ethnographers had been scouring Central Asia for decades, compiling reports about the region’s geography, economy and culture. However, contrary to Bukeikhanov’s claim that Abai had been a well-known poet within his own Tobyqty tribe, no Russian ethnographer had ever mentioned his name. In the most comprehensive bibliography of its kind (about 1,000 pages long), published in 1900, the editor Aleksandr Alektorov listed the articles by Zhusip Köpei-uly, but he did not mention any poets by the name of «Abai», «Ibrahim Qunanbayev» or «Ybyrai Qunanbai». [5] In 1895, Alektorov had already published an article about the poet-singer Qurmanbai, who was famous beyond the borders of his native region, Qostanai uezd. Here, too, Alektorov did not make any reference to Abai. [6] To be sure, the absence of Abai from Alektorov’s bibliography is not sufficient proof that Abai did not exist. But it is a strong indication, evidence even. If a pro-Russian poet such as Abai would have existed, even if he was only known within his own tribe, Russian ethnographers would have flocked to him to copy or record his poems.

Anticipating that his readers might want to ask him questions about a poet whose name no-one had heard before, Bukeikhanov constructed a narrative in the obituary that would account for the absence of any written traces of Abai’s poetry. As a young man, Bukeikhanov wrote, Abai had written poems on scraps of paper and handed them out to the people of his tribe. Later in life, Abai had been writing poems in his spare time, mostly for himself, without collecting them in a book. In other words, Bukeikhanov suggested, if readers had not heard the names «Abai» or «Ibrahim Qunanbayev» before, it was because Abai’s poems had never appeared in print. Soon, however, Bukeikhanov announced at the end of the obituary, a book of Abai’s poetry would be published by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, under the editorship of Bukeikhanov himself. This announcement did not come true, however. Only in 1909 was a book of Abai’s poetry published, possibly by Boraganskii & K. in Saint Petersburg – even though it should be noted, as was discussed in a previous part of this article, that there are still many questions regarding the authenticity of this book from 1909.

Why did Bukeikhanov publish the obituary of Abai in 1905? One possibility is that, after the initial success of the two poems published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1889, Bukeikhanov had been writing more poems, that he now wanted to publish them as a book (thanks to his connections at the Geographical Society), and that he wanted to publish them under the name of a persona who had had a rich and intriguing life but who was now no longer among the living and thus could not be asked any questions. The anonymity that Bukeikhanov had always strived to keep in his literary projects (poems, translations, criticism) would thus be preserved.

In 1954 (not long after the death of Stalin), the scholar Alkei Margulan discovered a manuscript in Leningrad, in the archives of the Geographical Society. The manuscript contained 12 poems that by this time had been attributed to Abai. That this manuscript had been signed by a pseudonym, «A.K.», did not seem to bother the Soviet scholars who touted this discovery as proof that Abai had existed. [7] Given the location of the discovery, the use of a pseudonym, and the socially aware content of the poems (titled «About the Situation of Modern Kirgiz People»), the author was most likely Bukeikhanov himself. The Soviet scholars who attributed the poems to Abai would not have dared to mention this possibility, as in 1954 and in the years that followed, Bukeikhanov had become a taboo subject – erased from history.

However, Margulan and the other Soviet scholars provided a hint to this possibility, by noting that the poems had been written down in 1897 by a Russian journalist by the name of Vladimir Kudashev, who had recorded the poems from an unknown Kazakh oral poet and translated into Russian himself. 1897 was also the year when Bukeikhanov, under the pseudonym «V.», published a report about an expedition to the Stepnoi Krai that had been organized by the Geographical Society, in which he had participated and during which time he had met Count Kudashev personally. [8] If it is assumed that Bukeikhanov was the unknown Kazakh poet on whom Kudashev relied, all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. It would explain why the manuscript ended up in the archives of the Geographical Society. It would also explain why the poems were signed under the pseudonym «A.K.», as they can easily be read as the abbreviation of one of Bukeikhanov’s most-often used pseudonyms – A. Kurmanbayev or Asylqozha Kurmanbayev. Most importantly, it would also explain why the manuscript was bilingual. Count Kudashev certainly did not have the required proficiency to translate sophisticated Kazakh poetry into competent Russian, and at the time, Bukeikhanov was probably the only Kazakh in the Stepnoi Krai who had an active interest in producing written literature in both Kazakh and Russian. Therefore, it is likely that Bukeikhanov not only wrote the Kazakh poems in the manuscript but also translated them himself.

In the decade leading up to 1905, Bukeikhanov had probably been writing poems in much the same way as he described Abai writing poetry: in his spare time, mostly for himself, without trying to print or publish anything. In the meantime, he had probably also been thinking not just about a pseudonym but about the whole persona of the poet. He probably had also been giving hints about this new persona to some of his Russian colleagues.

For example, Nikolai Konshin, a member of the Geographical Society and the editor of Semipalatinskii Listok at the time when Bukeikhanov published his obituary there, had published a scientific article in 1900 in which a Kazakh from the Tobyqty tribe, who was famous in Semipalatinsk but did not want to be known by outsiders, had provided a genealogy of all the tribes of the Middle Juz. [9] The unknown Kazakh in this case was probably, once again, Bukeikhanov, who had had an opportunity to record the histories of the Middle Juz while participating in the scientific expeditions of the Russian statistician Fyodor Scherbina in the period 1895-1901. This did not stop the Soviet scholar Mikhail Fetisov, many years later, from making the influential claim that the unknown Kazakh source of Konshin’s scientific article had been none other than Abai, thus establishing Abai as not only a poet but as a historian and a scientist. [10] On the basis of which evidence Fetisov made this claim is not clear. Even Bukeikhanov did not portray Abai as a historian or scientist in his obituary of 1905.

A much clearer example of the hints Bukeikhanov had been giving to Russian colleagues can be found in an article from 1903, written by the geographer Aleksandr Sedelnikov. In this article, on the subject of Kirghiz folk poetry (narodnoe tvorchestvo), Sedelnikov mentioned in two sentences a Kirghiz poet named «Knombai», who had translated Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin and Lermontov’s verses and who had written lyrical poems that were «sophisticated in form» and «poetic in content». [11] In recent years, Sedelnikov’s article has been presented as historical evidence that the poet Abai existed and that his real name was Qunanbayev. However, Sedelnikov’s reference to «Knombai» is problematic for two reasons. First, in this period, Kazakh aqyns and biys were known by their first name or by their nickname, not by their father’s name. In other words, Sedelnikov’s reference can only be understood as a reference to a poet whose first name or nickname was «Knombai». Any other interpretation is a misinterpretation, resulting from a lack of understanding of the historical context in which this reference was made. It is likely that Sedelnikov received the reference to «Knombai» from Bukeikhanov. Sedelnikov and Bukeikhanov knew each other well: both lived in Omsk, worked as teachers, participated in research expeditions, and even co-authored a scientific article in the same book in which Sedelnikov made the famous but enigmatic reference to «Knombai».

For scholars looking for evidence that the real name of the poet «Abai» was indeed Qunanbayev, Sedelnikov’s reference is very confusing, as in 1915, in the newspaper Qazaq, Bukeikhanov (under the pseudonym «Galihan») wrote a short obituary of Kakitai Qunanbayev, a nephew of the poet Abai, in which Bukeikhanov remarked that he had already met Kakitai in 1900. [12] If Bukeikhanov already knew the poet’s name in 1900, why did he not pass on to his friend and colleague Sedelnikov the poet’s full name or even his nickname – «Abai» – in 1903? This question is an example of a much larger problem: the historical facts and the official version of Abai’s biography are conflicting to such a degree that anyone looking at Abai’s official biography is confronted with puzzles all the time. The most plausible solution to this particular puzzle is this: in 1903, Bukeikhanov did not yet know what the real name of Abai was, because he still had to invent it.

However, creating the persona of a Kazakh nomad under whose name he could publish a book of poems was probably not the main reason why Bukeikhanov decided to publish the obituary of Abai in 1905. The fact that Bukeikhanov chose to publish the obituary in Russian (not Kazakh) and to sign it with his own name may be the best indications of the real purpose of this obituary. As was already shown in the previous part of the article, Bukeikhanov, until his death in 1937, signed all his writings with a pseudonym, except if they were politically motivated. If Bukeikhanov indeed wrote this obituary, it must be because he intended to make a political statement. Several months before, Bukeikhanov had joined forces with other Kazakh nationalists, including Akhmet Baitursynov and Mirzhaqyp Dulatov, to file a petition, signed by 14,500 persons, that demanded from the Russian government that the religious and land ownership rights of Kazakhs be respected. [13] Bukeikhanov’s obituary, written under his own name, was part of the same political project. With Abai, Bukeikhanov had created the artistic component of his political project: someone he could present with pride to the Russian government, an ideal Kazakh, that is to say, a Kazakh nomad who was able to assimilate fully into Russian culture without having to abandon his nomadic way of life.

Bukeikhanov’s political project had not yet consolidated into a party. This would happen only in 1917, when Alash Orda was founded. In the years between, Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov would work together on many cultural projects, including the promotion of the exemplary life and work of a 19th-century Kazakh nomad, who was also a brilliant poet and thinker, named «Ibrahim (Abai) Qunanbai».


[1] Anatolii Remnev. Tatars in the Kazakh Steppe: Allies and Rivals of the Russian Empire. In Vestnik Evrasii, issue 4, 2006, pp. 24-25.

[2] Anatolii Remnev. Tatars in the Kazakh Steppe: Allies and Rivals of the Russian Empire. In Vestnik Evrasii, issue 4, 2006, p. 24.

[3] Ibrahim Altynsarinovich (Ivan Alekseevich) Altynsarin. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 33, 1889.

[4] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Abai (Ibrahim) Kunanbayev: Necrology. In Semipalatinskii Listok, issue 250, 1905.

[5] Aleksandr Alektorov. The Index of Journal and Newspaper Articles and of Notes about Kirghiz. Kazan, 1900.

[6] Aleksandr Alektorov. Qurmanbai. In Turgaiskaya Gazeta, issue 39, 1895.

[7] Hairzhan Bekhozhin. Development of the Kazakh Press (1860-1930). Alma-Ata, 1964, p. 22.

[8] V. In the Western Siberian Division of the Geographical Society. In Stepnoi Krai, issue 29, 1897.

[9] Nikolai Konshin. Notes about the Origins of the Middle Juz Tribes. In Memorial Book of Semipalatinsk Oblast, issue IV, 1900.

[10] Mikhail Fetisov. Birth of the Kazakh Press. Alma-Ata, 1961, p. 238.

[11] Aleksandr Sedelnikov. Kirgizy. In Russia: Full Geographical Description of our Fatherland, a Table and Travel Book for Russian People. Vol. 8. St. Petersburg, 1903, p. 204.

[12] Galihan. About the Death of Kakitai Ysqaq-uly Qunanbaev. In Qazaq, issue 105, 1915.

[13] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Kirgizy. In Forms of National Movements in Modern States. St. Petersburg, 1910, p. 598.


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