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Abai’s Riddle: 7. Soviet Union

In 1933, the Soviet authorities launched a large-scale campaign, across different news media, to promote Abai as a pro-Russian thinker. At the center of this campaign was a book titled Abai Qunanbai-uly: Complete Collection of Writings, of which 6000 copies had been printed by the newly established state publisher Kazakhstan Baspasy. As the publisher’s representative, Tair Zharokov, stated, this book project was unprecedented in the short history of Kazakh written literature: «never before in the history of Kazakh literature, not to mention Kazakh book publishing, did any poet or writer publish such a complete collection. The reason is well known to us: before the October Revolution, under the Russian Tsar’s colonisation, Kazakhs were not an independent nation, and with their backward economy and culture, they did not have a chance to develop the language of their literature, music and art.» [1]

Would a reader who did not know the biography of the poet Abai be able to infer from the publisher’s statement that Abai was, in fact, not a Soviet writer but a 19th-century Kazakh nomad? Most likely not. The statement was representative of how Soviet propagandists wanted to present «Abai»: as a prototypical Soviet writer, who spoke about eternal, transhistorical truths, and therefore did not have to be connected to any specific historical context. Soviet publishers were supported in their work by a massive propaganda state that, through its news media and through its education system, succeeded in indoctrinating the peoples of the Soviet Union with many impossible ideas. The effectiveness of Soviet propaganda can still be seen today. Even in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, the majority of people still believe the impossible: that «Abai», a 19th-century nomad who never abandoned his traditional way of life and attended a Russian Church school for only three months, was able to develop a new kind of written Kazakh poetry whose forms and ideas were indebted to Russian literature.

As can also be seen in Zharokov’s statement, the Soviet authorities went even further. Not did only they present «Abai» as the first writer of Kazakh literature, they presented him as the only one who had ever existed. This meant that the people who, in the first decades of the 20th century, had played a vital role in creating an independent Kazakh literature, including the literature by a poet and thinker called «Abai», had to be eliminated – a process that was already underway in 1933.

Having done away with the people who could tell a different history about Kazakh literature, the Soviet authorities presented in 1933 an entirely new version of the writings of «Abai». This new version included not only the poems and prose texts that were first published in the newspapers Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí and Qazaq, in the magazine Abai, and in earlier books (the first version of which was printed in 1909 or 1913-1914 and the last version of which was published in Tashkent in 1922).

The edition of 1933 also included poems that had never been seen or published before: several new lyrical poems and two new narrative poems, titled «Azim» and «Vadim». It also included a historical note titled «Some Words About the Origins of Kazakhs», which only in 1939-40, in a new edition of Abai’s collected writings, would be announced as having been «handwritten by Abai himself». [2] Most importantly, the book of 1933 also featured 43 prose texts, which together were presented under the title Qara Sözder. Of these 43 texts, 7 had first been published in the magazine Abai in 1918, under various names and rubrics. 36 prose texts were completely new, but the Soviet publishers did not bother to explain their history or to justify their sudden appearance.

The texts known to us today as Word 1 and Word 45 were not included in the book project of 1933. The series began with Word 2 and ended with Word 44. The number 44 suggests that the anonymous Soviet editors of the Qara Sözder wanted to present Abai’s Words as the equivalent of the forty-four chapters of the Qabus Nama, an 11th-century Persian text that offered readers advice regarding education, manners and ethical conduct.

By 1945, the number of Abai’s Words had been expanded to 45. In the edition of 1939-40, Word 1 was added. [3] (Researchers have claimed that Word 1 was already published in Orenburg in 1916 as a preface to a book containing Abai’s selected poems. However, this book is not available in any library in the world, and thus it is not certain that this book ever existed.) In 1945, in yet another edition of Abai’s collected writings, Word 37 was split into two parts, with the second part becoming what is now known as Word 45. [4]

The edition of 1939-40 also included the music scales of twelve songs, newly discovered and attributed to «Abai», but recorded by two Soviet composers, «comrade Latif Khamidi and comrade B.G. Erzakovich.» [5] How is it possible that Soviet editors were allowed to add and change so many texts, not only in the edition of 1933 but also in subsequent editions? There is only one plausible explanation. Soviet editors could make so many changes because they themselves, or one of their colleagues, were the actual authors of these texts.

The publication of the 1933 edition of Abai’s collected writings is still considered the most important event in the history of Kazakh literature. According to many researchers today, the book of 1933 was the first edition to be published in Abai’s own country, Kazakhstan. This may be true, but only within the realm of Soviet-era Kazakhstan. These researchers ignore the fact that the nomads of the Russian Empire, unlike their Soviet descendants, were not confined by national borders: nomads were moving freely across Eurasia until 1928, when Stalin’s collectivization campaign resulted in stricter border controls. The division of the Soviet Union into republics was completed only in 1936. Even though the historical context in which the edition of 1933 appeared is never discussed by scholars, it may be, in fact, one of the most important reasons for its sudden publication that year.

In 1933, the former Kirgiz Steppe was in agony. Stalin’s collectivization plan of 1928-1937 had taken a catastrophic turn in the Steppe. In addition to forced collectivization, the people of the Steppe were subjected to other brutal measures: the anti-bai campaign, with which Stalin intended to eliminate all the wealthy and influential leaders of the nomadic tribes, and the 5-year atheist plan, which ran from 1932 to 1937, and with which Stalin intended to eliminate all religious expression in the Soviet Union. As a result, 40% of all Kazakh nomads starved to death between 1929 and 1933. Moreover, those Kazakhs who stood in the way of Soviet «modernisation», such as tribal leaders, religious clerks and independent intellectuals (including writers), were terminated by other means. The shocking events that occurred were hidden by the state media, but the Russian intellectuals who were working inside the Soviet propaganda machine were very well aware of what was happening. In November 1933, in a private notebook, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who worked at the time for the newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets, wrote down the following eight lines:

Our saintly youth,

Have nice songs in their blood:

That resemble lullabies,

And they declare a war on bais.

I caught even myself

Singing something similar,

I cradle a kolkhoz bai,

And sing about a kulak’s pai. [6]

Osip Mandelstam was 4000 km away from Central Asia, but he was aware, perhaps even directly involved, in the anti-bai, anti-kulak and anti-Muslim propaganda that was carried out by the Soviet press. Later, his wife Nadezhda Mandelstam recollected: «This suffocating time demanded that he expressed his attitude to it … These eight lines, perhaps, contained more bitterness than others.» [7]

This was the historical context in which the 1933 edition was published. While state officials were struggling to deal with the unplanned consequences of the Kazakh Famine – large streams of refugees and unmanageable numbers of abandoned dead bodies – the Soviet propaganda machine was working at full capacity, preparing the surviving 60% of the Kazakh population for life under Soviet rule. The publication of Abai’s collected writings in 1933 was part of this propaganda campaign. The persona and writings of «Abai», which had been introduced by Kazakh nationalists in the first decades of the century, would now be used to convey a different political message. This was already announced in the title of the book: Abai Qunanbai-uly: Complete Collection of Writings. The first name «Ibrahim», now considered too Muslim, was completely eliminated from the Soviet editions of 1933, 1934 and 1936.

The question of when and by whom it was decided to elevate Abai to the status of «national poet» of Kazakhstan is a question that will require further research. According to publicly available information, Abai’s lyrics were included in a list of literature books and manuals that would be published by the Narkompros of the Kazakh ASSR in the period 1927-28. [8] Why, in the end, Abai’s lyrics were not published in this period is also a matter of further research, but the answer may lie in the fact that both Akhmet Baitursynov and Mirjaqip Dulatov had worked in the academic center of Narkompros of Kazakhstan in the years before and had been continuing their efforts to make Abai the most prominent Kazakh poet. However, by 1928-29, both Baitursynov and Dulatov, just like their fellow activist Zhusipbek Aimautov, had been branded enemies of the state and had been arrested. By 1927, Alikhan Bukeikhanov – the creator of the original «Abai» persona and probably the author of many of Abai’s poems – had been forced to retire from his job as editor of the Kirgiz division of the Central Publisher of the Peoples of the USSR and had been placed under house arrest in a small Moscow apartment. In other words, it is unlikely that any of the original promoters of Abai was part of the committee that decided to make Abai the «national poet» of Kazakhstan.

The editorial part of the book project of 1933 was carried out by three writers. A short preface was written by Zharokov, at the time working for Kazakhstan Baspasy, but soon to become the personal secretary of the «national poet» of the entire USSR – Jambyl Zhabaiev. A long introduction was written by Ilyas Zhansugirov, who, at the time was a member of the committee in charge of forming the first Writers Union of the KSSR, of which he would become the first chairman (before he would be executed in 1937). Zhansugirov’s name was printed on the front page of the 1933 edition, but in much smaller letters than the name of the person who was probably the main editor of this edition: Mukhtar Auezov. According to the front page, the edition had merely been «compiled by» Auezov, but it is possible that Auezov’s influence had in fact been much greater. Officially, Auezov did nothing more than organize Abai’s writings, add a biography (which he copied from Bukeikhanov’s obituary of 1905), and add two memoirs (by Abai’s friend «Kökpai» and by Abai’s son «Turagul»), which, he claimed, he had already recorded in 1924.

However, given its unexpectedly voluminous contents, the 1933 edition raises many questions: Who wrote the new lyrical poems, including the six poems devoted to Abai’s son «Abdrakhman»? Who wrote the two long narrative poems «Azim» and «Vadim»? And who wrote the thirty-six new prose texts? Given that Auezov was a talented prose writer, could it be that Auezov was involved in the writing of the 36 prose texts? After all, Auezov knew the Arabic script and therefore had access to all the prose texts that previously been written in the newspapers Qazaq and Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí and in the magazine Abai. Moreover, he had personally known the promoters and probable creators of the writings of Abai at least since 1917 (when he was mentioned in a satirical piece about Abai in the newspaper Sary Arqa). [9]

Could it be that Bukeikhanov, who was probably a gifted poet as well as an energetic prose writer, was involved in the writing of the new poems? Given that Bukeikhanov’s archives have probably been destroyed, and given that Auezov’s archives have been closed to the public, answers to these questions may not be forthcoming. But it cannot be excluded that the search for answers will have to focus on the activities of these two men (who had known each other personally since 1918), in the years leading up to 1933.

Unlike Bukeikhanov, Auezov survived Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. However, Auezov’s actions from 1940 onwards suggest that he may not have been entirely comfortable with the role he played in the creation of the Soviet version of «Abai». In 1940, Auezov published an article in which he urged future researchers to investigate the living conditions in which 19th-century Kazakh nomads lived so as to better understand Abai’s writings. [10] In subsequent years, Auezov started writing Abai’s Path, a novel about Abai’s life, which he explicitly presented as a work of fiction – although this did not stop Soviet propagandists from presenting Auezov’s novel as a factual biography, a misrepresentation that continues until today.

In the book project of 1933, the difficult task of persuading the reader that Abai, despite being a nomad from a feudal culture, was in fact a socialist poet had fallen on Zhansugirov. In his lengthy, 64-page introduction, Zhansugirov stated that if Abai’s writings were analyzed properly, according to a «Marxist-Leninist dialectic», they displayed the contradictions that could be expected from a writer of his feudal culture, but that Abai expressed enough anger and disagreement with nomadism to be considered a socialist writer, who (just like the aristocrat Leo Tolstoy) believed in the necessity of «class struggle». [11] Zhansugirov repeatedly restated the main point that would dominate the Soviet propaganda scheme for the next fifty years: that the most visionary aspect of Abai’s philosophy was that he was a severe critic of his own (feudal, nomadic, Kazakh) culture.

Some of the poems reveal this ideological agenda more clearly than others. For example, the poem that appeared in the 1933 edition under the title «Summer», but that first had been published anonymously in the newspaper Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1889, was altered to accommodate the Soviet agenda. It is almost certain that this poem was altered specifically for the Soviet edition of 1933, as the poem had not been included in the edition of Abai’s collected writings that had probably been published by Baitursynov in Tashkent in 1922. The poem of 1933 contained elements of social criticism that were absent from the original version of 1889. Whereas the original version presented the aul as a community of nomads living together in harmony, the version of 1933 presented it as a community marked by class divisions (unwanted shepherds) and by poverty (a hungry child asking for meat, an old man hoping to flatter the bai into giving him some kumis).

The new poems, such as the new narrative poem titled «Vadim», had clearly been inserted for the purpose of serving the Soviet authorities’ ideological agenda. Even though its narrative was based on the 19th-century novel of the same name, written by Mikhail Lermontov, its ideological inspiration was the mythology that had been built by Soviet propagandists around Emelyan Pugachev, who led a rebellion by Russian peasants against their land owners in 1773-75. While the Tsarist regime had previously condemned Pugachev as a criminal and a murderer, Soviet propaganda had elevated him to the status of national hero, celebrating his leadership in books and films from at least 1928 onwards (when Pugachev appeared as the hero in the film The Captain’s Daughter). How could anyone ever have seriously believed that a 19th-century Kazakh nomad had become so interested in the class struggle between 18th-century Russian peasants and their land owners that he went on to write a poem about it?

Nowhere was the ideological agenda of the book project of 1933 stated more clearly than in the Qara Sözder, most of which had not been seen or published before 1933. The main purpose of these forty-three prose texts was to tell Kazakh readers that it would be ill-advised to hold onto the backward culture of their ancestors and thereby resist Soviet collectivization.

To this end, the Soviet authors and editors of the book project of 1933 inserted the word mal – the Kazakh word for livestock, and the main source of health and wealth for nomadic families – as the most frequently recurring negative word in the prose texts. The Soviet edition of Abai’s collected writings of 1933 thus became the first, and immediately also the most influential, book in the Kazakh language to present mal as a problem, a source of trouble. The attack on the traditional Kazakh belief in the importance of breeding mal occurred throughout the entire series of prose texts, but it was at its most aggressive in Word 3, Word 5, Word 6, Word 11, Word 33 and Word 44, where Kazakhs, wanting to keep mal, were scolded for being lazy, greedy and corrupted.

How could anyone believe that a 19th-century Kazakh nomad, who, according to the official biography, always remained faithful to his family and his ancestors’ nomadic way of life, could have voiced such criticism about his own people? Only ideologues, with no knowledge or understanding of the subject they were criticizing, could have voiced such baseless criticism. As the anthropologist Jack Weatherford, who spent many years studying the nomadic way of life, once explained, a nomad could not afford to be lazy: «A child of the steppe is trained for survival and for constantly making vital decisions. Every morning, the herder steps out of the ger, looks around, and chooses today’s path according to the results of last week’s rain, yesterday’s wind, today’s temperature, or where the animals need to be next week. The quest for pasture is the same each day, but the way to find it varies. If the rains do not come, the herder must find them; if the grass does not grow here, the herder must find where it does. The herder cannot remain in one place, be still, and do nothing. The herder is forced to choose a path every day, time and time again.» [12]

In fact, the Soviet editors of the edition of 1933 did not bother to disguise their ideological goals. Already in the first prose text of the series, Word 2, Kazakh nomads were described as inferior to others: «When I look at the Nogai, they take soldiery, poverty and death equally, they are capable of attending the madrasa and keeping their religion. They know how to work and earn a living, luxury and beauty – all belong to them. When I compare us with Russians, I have no words, we are worse than their slaves and servants.» The goal of making the Kazakh readers of the edition of 1933 feel ashamed of their ancestors was clearly part of the propaganda scheme.

Even when the editors made «Abai» turn his thoughts to something as innocent as traditional sport games (wrestling, eagle hunting, dog hunting), as they did in Word 26, their primary goal was to inflict shame on their Kazakh readers. What these games provided to Kazakh nomads, they made «Abai» say, was not the pleasure afforded by play and leisure, but another opportunity to boast, «with the sole goal of making each other angry and jealous.» If that was not enough, they made «Abai» go even further, criticizing Kazakhs of all time, past and present: «Kazakhs have no other enemies than Kazakhs themselves.»

Not all the prose texts in the Qara Sözder offered criticism in the same harsh voice. For example, Word 38 differs from the other prose texts not only by its religious content and by its much larger size, but also by its tone. In Word 38, «Abai» addresses his readers as «my children» and in the polite form. No signs here of the impatient anger and frustration that is so manifest in other prose texts (for example, Word 2, Word 3 and Word 26). And when «Abai» eventually criticizes a group of people, he does so through gentle mockery (not through angry scolding). Even the target of his mockery is different: the religious clerks who fool the nomads (rather than vice versa). In combination with the more than one hundred footnotes (explaining Islamic concepts), the calm, soothing tone of this text gives the impression that it was written by a mullah.

The different voices that are being made to speak in the Qara Sözder suggest that they are the creations of different authors. For example, it can be stated with certainty that Word 19 and Word 29 were written by Aimautov, as these two prose texts are the exact copies of a lengthy article titled «About Proverbs», a reflection on the social and philosophical aspects of certain Kazakh idioms, including the word mal, which Aimautov published in the magazine Abai in 1918. By contrast, Word 5 and Word 6, even though they were also inspired by the same article, were written by a different author, as their tone was much harsher and their goal was to prove that the word mal occupied an undue importance in Kazakhs’ way of thinking.

This way, «Abai». entered the Stalin’s Socialist Kazakhstan as a harsh critic of nomadic Kazakhs and a promoter of Russian culture. After 1953, in the more relaxed climate of the post-Stalin period, a risk appeared on the horizon that might one day disrupt the propaganda scheme concerning «Abai». Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov, Dulatov and Aimautov – the original promoters and probable creators of the writings of «Abai», who had all been executed by the end of 1937 – had their names erased from history. Zhansugirov and Gabbas Togzhanov, the two Soviet-Kazakh scholars who investigated the genealogy of Abai’s writings and probably knew the truth about the Soviet edition of 1933, had also already been executed by the end of 1937. Yet many of the writings that the aforementioned men had published in various articles and books still existed. These written records had not been erased completely. As a result, there was the risk that, sometime in the future, the truth would be discovered by a new generation of scholars who could read the Arabic script of their Kazakh ancestors and who thus would be able to track down the entire genesis of Abai’s writings, through various Kazakh newspapers and magazines, to its starting point, Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí. One such incident occurred in 1954 (only a few months after Stalin’s death), when Alkei Margulan discovered a bilingual notebook, signed by «A.K.», and containing twelve of Abai’s poems and that had been “translated by Count Kudashev”. Margulan’s claim that he had discovered the notebook in the archives of the Russian Geographical Society, with whom Bukeikhanov maintained good relations throughout his life, was risky: it could have been interpreted by knowledgeable editors and scholars inside the Soviet propaganda machine as an attempt to bring the name of Bukeikhanov back to the surface. While Margulan’s Soviet colleagues hailed his discovery as proof that Russian orientalists such as «Count Kudashev» had attempted to record Abai as early as 1897, it is more likely that, sometime in the future, Margulan’s risky discovery will lead to revelations that contradict the Soviet version.

To reduce the risk that similar incidents would occur again, several counter-measures were taken in the following years. First, access to pre-Soviet Kazakh sources was severely limited and controlled. Second, a counter-discovery was made. Shortly after Margulan discovered Count Kudashev’s manuscript, other Soviet scholars discovered the notebooks of a man by the name of Murseit Biki-uly, supposedly Abai’s personal secretary, who had transcribed Abai’s poems, shortly after Abai’s death. That the notebooks had actually been written by Murseit is unlikely: until the 1950s, no book or article had ever mentioned Murseit or the name of any other secretary Abai might have had. Give that the contents of Murseit’s notebooks and the 1933 edition are identical, the notebooks probably served as the handwritten draft version of the 1933 edition. In this case, «Murseit» was probably a Soviet code word, not the name of a real person. Only an international panel of independent forensic experts would be able to uncover the truth and determine the identity of the person who wrote Murseit’s notebooks.

However, with the discovery of Murseit’s notebooks, Soviet propagandists finally possessed confirmation that all the poems and prose texts that had appeared in the various Soviet editions of Abai’s collected writings were authentic. As a result, any further inquiries into the ties between «Abai» and the forbidden history of Kazakh nationalism were shut down for the next fifty years.

In the post-Stalin years, Abai continued to be promoted as a visionary thinker, a philosopher, who expressed his thoughts mostly through prose and only to a lesser degree through poetry. These thoughts were cited everywhere: in schools and universities, in books, magazines and newspapers, on radio and television. In conversations and discussions, Abai’s thoughts were cited as the ultimate source of authority – the ones that could be used to decide an argument. However, some of the thoughts that were among the most frequently cited, at least in schools and in state media, were the ones that were critical, negative, about the culture of Kazakhs – the thoughts that criticized Kazakhs for being slow, lazy and jealous of each other.

The impact that these thoughts have had on the self-esteem of Kazakhs may be difficult to measure, but it is real. To this day, Kazakhs struggle with an inferiority complex that was inculcated in their families and communities during the Soviet era. In part they may be the expression of a trauma that was felt for decades after the devastation caused by the Kazakh Famine, but in part they are probably also the result of a relentless exposure to the harsh criticisms that were put in the mouth of a poet they were taught to admire more than any other Kazakh writer.

[1] Tair Zharokov. On Behalf of the Publishing House Qazaqstan. In Abai Qunanbai-uly: Complete Collection of Writings. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, p. 1.

[2] Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbai-uly. Prose Writings and Translations: Vol. 2. Alma-Ata, 1940, p. 251.

[3] Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbai-uly. Prose Writings and Translations: Vol. 2. Alma-Ata, 1940, p. 165.

[4] Abai Qunanbayev. Complete Collection of writings. Edited by N.T. Sauranbayev. Almaty, 1945.

[5] Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbai-uly. Prose Writings and Translations: Vol. 2. Alma-Ata, 1940, p. 155-164.

[6] Osip Mandelstam. Oeuvres Complètes. Paris, 2018, p. 432.

[7] Nadezhda Mandelstam. Memoirs. Third Book. Moscow-Berlin, 2019, p. 169.

[8] List of Books to be Published by Narkompros in 1927-28. In Zhana Mektep, issues 11-12, 1927.

[9] Anonymous. Good Deed. In Sary Arqa, issue 2, 1917.

[10] Mukhtar Auezov. To the Researchers of Abai. In Fifty-Volume Complete Collection of Writings. Volume 15. Articles, Research and Plays. 1937-1940. Almaty, 2004, p. 32.

[11] Ilyas Zhansugirov. Introduction. In Abai Qunanbai-uly: The complete collection. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, pp. 6-7, 16-17, 67-68.

[12] Jack Weatherford. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire. New York, 2010, p. 161.

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