• Зәуре Батаева

The Riddle of Abai: Kazakhstan's Greatest Unknown Poet

Reach deep into your heart, I’m a riddle – think of that. Abai [1]
The man who wrote this, You learn his words, not his name. Abai [2]

1. Introduction

The poet and philosopher Abai has long been seen as a founding figure of modern Kazakh culture. As the writer Aslan Zhaqsylykov once stated, of all the leading cultural figures who emerged in the 19th century, including Shoqan Walikhanov and Ybyrai Altynsarin, Abai has had the biggest impact on the formation of a Kazakh national identity. [3] Abai’s impact has undoubtedly been profound, but not necessarily in the way that Zhaqsylykov and other writers of his generation would like to recognize. Kazakh society today is divided by language and culture, and while it may be difficult to determine to what extent Abai has contributed to creating the divide, it is clear that his writings contain elements that appeal to people on both sides.

Whether we look at the many academic studies devoted to Abai or at the thousands of non-academic websites dispensing information about Abai, everywhere the divide comes into view. Russian-speaking Kazakhs admire Abai for being the first advocate of Russian language and culture and a conduit to Russian-Kazakh friendship. Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs admire Abai for being a lyrical poet of great originality and for being a religious thinker of great integrity. However, the divide has generated not only admiration but also a series of negative attitudes and judgments. The younger generations of Kazakhs are especially angered by what they consider the poisonous negativity of Abai’s prose writings, which in 1933 were first presented under the title Qara Sözder «Gaqlia» (which means prose writings “Gaqlia”) and which in 1945 were translated into Russian as Slova Nazidania (which means words of edification). In the 45 numbered texts that make up the Qara Sözder, Kazakhs are frequently called «lazy», «ignorant», «jealous of each other» and even «enemies of each other». In the critics’ view, the emphasis that Kazakh schools have placed for many decades on the anti-Kazakh content of Abai’s prose writings has already poisoned the self-esteem of several generations of Kazakhs and established stereotypes about Kazakhs among other ethnic communities, deepening the divide in Kazakh society.

Underlying the critics’ anger is also a sense that Abai is not only responsible for the lack of respect and self-respect that exists in Kazakh society today but also for the lack of respect that is felt for Kazakhs’ nomadic ancestry. To be sure, the message conveyed by the figure of Abai a Kazakh nomad who privileges Russian culture and education over his own nomadic traditions is very ambiguous. However, what today’s critics of Abai seem to be unaware of is that both the life-story and the writings of Abai were crafted overtime, and that much of the anti-nomadic, pro-Russian sentiment in Abai’s writings was added later, in the Soviet period.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that Kazakh schoolbooks today focus only on Abai’s didacticism. For example, the pupils in the 3rd grade of Kazakh state schools today have to study the following texts by Abai: two didactic poems (titled «Don’t boast before becoming knowledgeable» and «Listening to beautiful music») and, especially, a 60-word excerpt from Word 38. This small excerpt (taken from the most difficult text in Abai’s oeuvre) contains 9 negative words, some of which are repeated twice: ignorance, laziness, cunning, illiteracy, shamelessness, mediocrity, weak, enemy. With additional tasks that are also focused on negative words (such as ignorant, untalented, lazy, greedy, liar and rude), the study of Abai’s prose in the 3rd grade of the Kazakh state school system amounts to a study of 17 negative words, all of them referring to Kazakhs. Which conclusions are 9-year-old children supposed to draw from such an overdose of negativity? And which conclusions are the pupils in the 6th grade supposed to draw from their obligatory study of Word 7, which ends with the most pessimistic assessment of Kazakhs in the whole of Abai’s oeuvre: «No light in the eyes, no hope in the soul. How are we better than animals that see only with their eyes? These days we are worse than animals… We know nothing, but when we argue with our ignorance against knowledge, we fight to the death.»?

As a result, some young parents have been calling for Abai’s prose writings to be taken out of the school curriculum. On social-media platforms, much criticism has been levelled at Abai, to the dismay or disbelief of those Kazakhs who take the view that Abai’s critical words about his own people should not be interpreted as a kind of self-hatred but as a kind of tough love, challenging them to become a better people by overcoming the innate human tendencies to jealousy and laziness.

In order to celebrate Abai as an advocate of Russian culture, Russian speakers ignore Abai’s most important contribution to Kazakh culture, his lyrical poetry, and focus instead on Abai’s translations of 19th-century Russian poets (Lermontov, Pushkin, Krylov), on the pro-Russian parts of his prose writings, and on articles written by scholars and propagandists during the Soviet period. It could be argued that Russian speakers have no choice but to ignore Abai’s lyrical poetry. Usually they do not know the Kazakh language well enough to read Abai’s verses in the original.

Moreover, they cannot rely on Russian translations to offer them a window onto the rich ideas and the musical sophistication of Abai’s verses, as these translations have always been of poor quality. The view expressed by Gulzia Qambarbayeva in 1964, is still shared by many scholars today, namely, that the best translations available are the ones translated by Vsevolod Rozhdestvensky, Semyon Lipkin and Maria Petrovykh in the period 1936-1954. [4] However, even these translations have inaccuracies, which should not be surprising, as the mentioned translators did not even meet the most basic requirement – knowing the source language. Can anyone translate poetry without being able to read the original version? To this day, Russian translators, probably due to their limited knowledge of the source language, have failed to convey Abai’s metaphorical phrases in a poetic Russian that remains faithful to Abai’s original intentions.

In fact, what has happened to Abai is no less than a tragedy. Abai’s poetry is among the most beautiful and most sophisticated that was ever written in the Kazakh language. Yet only people who are highly proficient in the language have been able to appreciate these qualities. People who have read Abai’s poems in other languages (most notably, Russian) have been given inferior versions that do not convey Abai’s genius. The poetry of Abai could have united the Kazakh nation – it could have made everyone proud to be Kazakh. Yet in the post-Soviet period, Abai has become a divisive figure, a symbol of the cultural and linguistic divide running through Kazakh society.

At the center of this tragedy are the political manipulations to which Abai’s poems have been subjected in the 20th century. Abai has never been allowed to be just a poet. He has always been used as a political tool. Moreover, when these political manipulations are investigated more closely, the scale of the tragedy becomes even bigger. Much of what Kazakhs today believe they know about Abai and his writings was invented in the early 20th century and reinvented in the Soviet era – about forty years after Abai’s first two poems were printed in the Russian-Kazakh newspaper Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí.

In 1940, Mukhtar Auezov, who had been involved in the Soviet propaganda campaign surrounding Abai in the 1930s, had already tried to warn his readers about the problems that were accumulating around the writings of Abai. [5] On the one hand, there were there too many «collectors» of Abai’s poetry that were discovering new poems and too many «imitators» of Abai’s poetry that were producing new poems, Auezov wrote. On the other hand, there was a lack of scientifically trained scholars who, through a collaborative process of peer review, would be able to investigate the authenticity of these new poems. This concerned Auezov, because it would likely lead «future researchers» into wrong directions. To help future researchers move to a better understanding of Abai’s poetry, Auezov continued, much more scientific research should be done now on the historical circumstances in which 19th-century nomads such as Abai lived. Why this emphasis on future researchers? Why this emphasis on historical context?


What was Auezov trying to say? In 1940 it was impossible for Auezov, the only associate of the Kazakh-nationalist Alash Orda movement to survive Stalin’s purges, to openly express his thoughts about any subject. By emphasizing the need for more historical research and by placing his hopes in future researchers, it seems likely that Auezov was trying to convey to his readers a hidden but risky message: that it was not possible for a 19th-century nomad such as Abai to espouse the pro-Russian, pro-Communist, anti-Kazakh and anti-nomad beliefs that in the present day, 1940, had been attributed to him, and that, therefore Abai’s poems were no longer what they had originally been.

For researchers currently looking into the evidence of how Abai’s writings and Abai’s biography were transformed over time, the question then becomes: will it ever be possible to uncover the «golden nuggets» – to use the famous phrase by Auezov’s former mentor, Alikhan Bukeikhanov [6] that are hiding inside of Abai’s poetry?

To merit the designation of «world literature», Abai’s poetry should be held to the same standards of verification as all other texts of world literature. Texts that are admired all over the world, such as the Analects of Confucius and the theatre plays of William Shakespeare, have been investigated for centuries in order to determine their authenticity. [7] As a result, we know much more, and with greater certainty, about the origins of these texts: when and where they were written, and by whom. The same level of verification should be applied to Abai’s poems, not out of paranoia, but out of respect. If it is worth restoring old texts, paintings and monuments to their original state, why should it not be worth restoring Abai’s poetry in the same way?

Scholars have quietly admitted to having doubts about the authorship of Abai and the authenticity of his writings for a long time. Already in 1932 the scholar and poet Ilyas Zhansugirov remarked that «Abai’s biography had not been written scientifically», that it was either «exaggerated» (daqpyrt) or based on «rumours» (alyp-qashpa)). [8] One of the prominent researchers of Abai’s work in the Soviet period, Zaki Akhmetov, frequently used hypothetical language («possibly», «probably») in his analyses of Abai’s life and writings. [9] In 2008, the literary critic Nikolai Anastasiev admitted that, given the lack of written records or any other kinds of physical evidence, it was impossible to write a «biography» of Abai: «a portrait or even a silhouette» was all that could be offered. [10]

Doubts have also been expressed on social-media platforms. In 2017, for example, a blogger suggested that Abai’s Qara Sözder might have been created by a group of Soviet propagandists in the 1930’s. Moreover, the blogger questioned whether the person Abai had ever existed at all. The ensuing arguments, insults and threats confirmed that the linguistic and cultural divide running through Kazakh society had also overtaken social-media platforms. However, it also became clear that almost no-one participating in the debate was willing to address the more fundamental questions the blogger had raised: Who was the man that we now refer to as Abai? And did this man write everything that we attribute to him today?

It is to be expected that the reaction to this article will be contentious, as the questions that will be asked in this article have not been asked before. Apart from the Soviet culture of silence that is still pervasive today, there are several other obstacles that have impeded Abai scholars from raising these questions. To study how Abai’s life-story and writings were crafted over time, scholars have to develop various areas of expertise: a thorough knowledge of 19th-century Kazakh and the Arabic script in which it was written, but also a thorough knowledge of the history of Kazakh nomadism from the time when Abai is said to have been born (1845) until the time when Kazakh nomadism, as a common way of life, had been crushed and Abai had been elevated to the status of national poet (1933). Of all the obstacles facing Abai scholars, the last one may be the least obvious: why would it be so difficult to attain a better understanding of the history of Kazakh nomadism?


2. Unknown and forbidden histories


It is remarkable how little we know about the predominantly nomadic culture in which Abai lived and how this culture came to an end in the 20th century as the result of Soviet collectivization. The research by the historian Radik Temirgaliyev, whose aim is to shed light on so-called «white spots» in the history of 19th-century steppe nomads in the Stepnoi krai, [11] provides an overview of the administrative reforms that the Tsarist regime gradually introduced throughout the century with a view of depriving the nomadic tribes of their traditional customs and livelihoods. This little-known history is relevant in itself, but it also offers an important context for understanding the motivation behind Abai’s earliest poems and prose texts (a point to which we will return later).

One aspect of 19th-century nomadic culture about which we still don’t know very much is education: which opportunities for education existed for Kazakh nomads at the time? Not much research has been added since the Soviet academic Tolegen Tazhibayev wrote in 1962 that in Semipalatinsk Oblast the education system was very poor («on the lowest step») throughout the second half of the 19th century [12] – in other words, during the time that Abai and his nomadic family were living in this region. It is not necessary to believe Soviet academics on this point. It suffices to listen to nineteenth-century debates between the educated Kazakh intellectuals – people such as Alikhan Bukeikhanov and Zhusup Kopeiuly – to know that the vast majority of nomads were illiterate and that their illiteracy put them at great risk of being manipulated by Tatar mullahs, Sart traders and Russian administrators. [13]

The official biographers of Abai’s life have been trying to dismiss the prevalence of nomadic illiteracy in the 19th century by stating that Abai received three years of religious education at a madrasa and three months of Russian education at a Church school and that afterwards, thanks to his own exceptional ability, Abai was able to teach himself not only Russian but also Persian, Arabic, statistical science and Eastern and Western philosophy. Even if we accept the fact that the poet we now call «Abai» was a man of genius, it is impossible that Abai would have acquired all this knowledge by himself, while living the challenging life of a steppe nomad. We know, for example, that second language acquisition requires a complete immersion in the new language or a lengthy period of training. Even someone like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who by any standard can be considered a genius, was able to learn Latin, Greek, French, English and Italian, only because he received extensive tutoring by native speakers from a young age. Moreover, Muslim teaching in mid-19th-century Central Asia focused on the passive, oral repetition of a small number of texts, not on productive language skills, such as the reading and writing of new texts. [14]

So little do Kazakhs know about the literacy and cultural practices of their nomadic ancestors that no-one has called into question the implausibility of Abai’s official biography. No-one has ever tried to explain why Abai, a 19th-century nomad fully integrated into his own culture, who never travelled further than Semipalatinsk, who never lived in an urban environment, decided to depart from the cultural practices of his own community.

Recently there have been attempts to present Abai as a Jadid who opened a new-method school in his own aul. The attempt to connect Abai to Jadidism is another example of how little we know about the Kazakh history that preceded the October revolution. In fact, Jadidism is a «white spot» in the collective memory of all Central Asian Turks. According to recent historical research, Jadidism, a cultural movement urging the urban Muslims of Turkestan to reform Muslim education, did not result in the openening of new-method schools in the Steppe until the 1900s. [15]

The nomadic culture in which Abai lived and how this culture came to an end in the 1930’s were considered taboo subjects in the Soviet era. Any Soviet writer who tried to refer to them suffered censorship or even more severe punishment. Consider the fate of the writer Mukhtar Auezov, who was constantly subjected to censorship in the 1940’s while writing and publishing a multi-volume novel titled Abai’s Path (Abai Zholy), even though Auezov explicitly presented Abai’s Path as a work of fiction and even included state-approved messages about Kazakh-Russian friendship and cooperation. [16] Or consider the more severe fate of the historian Ermukhan Bekmakhanov, who was accused of nationalism and sent to the Gulag in 1952, only because he had written a monograph titled Kazakhstan in the 20-40s of the 19th century.

Even during the less oppressive 1970’s, the subjects were still taboo. Consider the fate of the poet Olzhas Suleimenov, who, having become a prominent Soviet poet and Party member after the publication of his 1961 poem dedicated to Yuri Gagarin, was attacked by the censor in 1975 for promoting nationalism and defending nomadic feudalism, because he had written an allusive work of linguistic anthropology, titled AZ i IA, which sought to uncover the Turkic origins of a Russian medieval epic, and whose preface contained several statements that were unapproved. First, Suleimenov had stated, «A fact, taken out of its historical context turns into a dead toy of academics. Because a fact is a core of an epoch, it lives, like the Earth in the envelope of the atmosphere, in the cosmos of the circumstance of its time. Separating them is impossible without harming the Knowledge». This statement was followed by even more dangerous declarations – that Suleimenov thought he had a «right to be mistaken» and that he had a right to «express his judgment on taboo problems». [17] It required interventions by other Party members to rescue Suleimenov from further punishment.

The Soviet authorities’ crackdown on any attempts by Kazakh intellectuals to remember the Turkic and nomadic origins of Kazakh culture served a clear strategy: to erase these origins from Kazakhs’ collective memory. In the sphere of cultural production, the Soviet authorities adopted two tactics to erase Kazakhs’ collective memory: suppression and substitution. The second tactic is of particular interest here because it was heavily used in another area of history that was unknown or deliberately ignored for a long time: the large-scale translation and publishing projects focused on folk tales and songs that were carried out as part of Stalin’s nationalities policies in the 1930’s. These projects, too, are an important historical context that should be remembered and reconstructed if we want to attain a better understanding of the life and work of Abai, as we shall see below.

In recent years, Russian and Western scholars have begun to research the large-scale translation and publishing projects of the 1930’s. The conclusions that have come out of this research should worry the readers and scholars who care about the authenticity of Abai’s writings, as this was the same period when Abai was elevated to the status of national poet. Most notably, scholars have documented two cases of large-scale falsification of Kazakh folk poems and folk tales that publishers, newspapers and radio stations were promoting in this period.

The first case concerns Jambyl Jabaiev, a talented folk poet (aqyn) who was almost ninety years old when he was recruited in 1936 to present Kazakh folk poetry (narodnoe tvorchestvo) during the Ten Days of Kazakh Literature and Art in Moscow. In subsequent years, Jambyl’s talent for improvisational poetry (aitys) was exploited by a group of Soviet folklorists and translators who recorded and rewrote Jambyl’s improvisations on a series of given topics to create eulogies for the Soviet State and Stalin, which were then published in all the central newspapers and translated into all the languages of the Soviet Union, thus elevating Jambyl to the status of national poet. The falsification of Jambyl’s poems was already revealed in the post-Stalin period and Kazakh scholars like Esmagambet Ismailov could openly say that in Jambyl’s book of poems titled Travels to the Caucasus, first published in 1938, many poems did not contain a single line created by Jambyl himself. [18] In recent years, other scholars have taken the research further, not only analyzing the extent to which Jambyl’s poems (such as «Native Country», first published in Pravda in 1936) were falsified, but also documenting the large network of actors that were involved in promoting Jambyl through various media channels. [19]

Jambyl’s case should worry researchers of Abai’s case, because there are several important similarities. First, Jambyl and Abai were both oral poets, heirs of the rich Kazakh culture of oral poetry – a vulnerable genre whose verses could easily be appropriated and transformed into written texts carrying a different message. Second, Jambyl and Abai were selected to represent Kazakh folk poetry around the same time and under the same circumstances – in the 1930’s, as a consequence of Stalin’s nationalities policies. And third, Jambyl and Abai were both elevated to the status of national poets, around whom a cult of personality was developed. In Jambyl’s case, the personality cult faded quickly in the post-Stalin period, whereas in Abai’s case it has been sustained until today. Why has Abai’s image remained unscathed all this time? Is it because Abai and his writings have never been subjected to falsification? Or is it because we have always known so much less about the person Abai and about the history of his writings? We shall return to these questions later.

The second case concerns an anthology of folk poems and short prose narratives published in 1937, under the direction of the newspaper Pravda, titled Works of the Peoples of the Soviet Union (Tvorchestvo narodov SSSR). This prestigious anthology had a double aim – to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the October revolution and to celebrate the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the republics of the Soviet Union. However, when the philologist Elena Zemskova investigated the administrative files of this large-scale project, stored in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts (RGALI), she discovered that all the translations had subsequently been rewritten by a group of Russian poets who did not know the source languages. Moreover, the files for the Kazakh section of the anthology did not contain any transcripts or source texts. [20] In other words, it is possible that the Kazakh section was entirely made up by Russian poets and editors. By contrast, poems translated from languages that had a strong tradition of written literature, such as Uzbek, were falsified to a lesser degree.

This case confirms that Kazakh folk poets were especially vulnerable to falsification because they were oral poets, whose recitations and improvisations could easily be manipulated by Soviet propagandists when transposed into writing. It should therefore also be of concern to researchers of Abai’s case. Even if Abai was not a folk poet, his verses were just as vulnerable as that of any oral poet, given that no written or printed versions existed that carried Abai’s own handwriting or authorization.

There is another reason for concern. When the Complete Collection of Abai’s Writings was published for the first time in Kazakh in 1933 and for the first time in Russian translation in 1940, they were the result of a large-scale state-supported effort. The books were published in prestigious volumes, with the assistance of a large group of editors and translators, and they were heavily promoted. In other words, they received the same level of state support as the books bearing Jambyl’s name and as the anthology directed by Pravda.

Perhaps even more importantly, the 1940 translation was carried into print by some of the same editors and translators that were also involved in the other two projects. The literary critic Leonid Sobolev, a close ally of Stalin, not only wrote the preface to the 1940 translation (an influential essay titled «Poet-thinker»), he was also involved in the promotion of Jambyl’s poetry. [21] The poets Maria Petrovykh and Vsevolod Rozhdestvensky were not only involved in the 1940 translations of Abai’s poems, they were also named as the translators of Armenian, Bulgarian, Georgian and Serbian poems in the 1937 anthology directed by Pravda. The poet Mark Tarlovski, who was also involved in the 1940 translations, became Jambyl’s personal secretary at the beginning of the Second World War and translated all of Jambyl’s verses about the War.

That these translators had no command of the Kazakh language (or any of the other languages from which they were supposedly translating) was not considered important, because, as Zemskova has shown, in all large-scale translation projects in this period at least two different groups of translators were working together. The first group consisted of translators who knew the source language well enough to provide word-by-word translations, so-called interlinear trots (podstrochnik). These translators were destined to remain anonymous, even in the projects’ administrative records. The second group consisted of established Russian poets, who had no knowledge of the source language, but who could be trusted to insert idealized images of Soviet life into the interlinear trots they had received from the anonymous translators. These poet-translators were usually identified by name in the books they had helped translate. [22]

Further evidence of this little-known Soviet practice can be found in a surprising place: the unpublished poetry of Osip Mandelstam. Probably thanks to his close friendship with Maria Petrovykh, Mandelstam was well informed about the absurdity of Stalin’s cultural translation projects, which he conveyed in the following (untitled and unpublished) poem from the period 1932-1935:

Tatars, Uzbeks and Nenets, And all people of Ukraine, And even the Volga Germans, Wait for translators at home
And maybe at this very moment, Perhaps even some Japanese, Translates me into Turkish, And looks right into my soul. [23]

That Petrovykh and other translator-ideologues were involved in the Russian translation of Abai’s poems should worry anyone interested in the authenticity of Abai’s poems. If these translator-ideologues were involved in large-scale falsification projects elsewhere, why would they have approached Abai’s poems differently? Only a textual comparison of the 1940 translations with all previous Kazakh-language versions (going back to the earliest versions in Arabic script) could ascertain whether the 1940 translations of Abai’s poems were to any extent falsified or not.

The similarities between the three cases above cannot be considered evidence. However, they are significant enough to be considered warning signs and, as a result, they should make readers and scholars of Abai cautious about the authenticity of all the writings that were published under Abai’s name in this period. Until the administrative records of the large-scale publishing projects of the 1930's and 1940’s are investigated, and until textual analyses have been done of all the earliest Kazakh-language versions and their Russian translations, the possibility that Abai’s writings were falsified in this period cannot be excluded.

Unfortunately, the history of falsification did not end in this period. If we look at the secondary literature published on Abai, we can see indications that falsification projects have continued until recently, perhaps until today. It is not clear who stands to benefit from falsifying documents and changing the names of persons. However, whoever has designed these falsifications, they will achieve the opposite effect: it will make readers and scholars who care about the poetic achievements of Abai even more suspicious. The question is, what are they trying to cover up?

The answer may also be found in the 1930’s – the period when Abai was elevated to the status of national poet for the first time in history. Abai had been an unknown poet until the Kazakh-nationalist writers of Alash Orda began promoting his name at the beginning of the 20th century, resulting in a few small-scale publications. Only in 1933, thanks to a state-sponsored publishing project, did Abai become a famous writer. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Kazakh nomads were dying in the steppe as the result of a 3-year famine, a catastrophic event that would forever destroy steppe nomadism as a common way of life. [24] Tragically, by killing 40% of the entire population, the Kazakh Famine of 1930-1933 not only became the most traumatic event in Kazakh history (and thus the most tabooed subject of them all), but also a catalyst for speeding up the erasure of Kazakhs’ collective memory.

Was it the Kazakh Famine that led the propagandists in charge of Stalin’s cultural translation projects to devote extra resources to the promotion of a nineteenth-century Kazakh nomad and writer who held prophetic pro-Soviet views? The coincidence seems to be too strong to be merely accidental. However, much research will be needed to answer this question, and answers will not easily be found, as many archives are likely to remain closed to researchers interested in investigating the connection.


3. Who was Abai?

Abai’s biography was established only in the twentieth century. For a man who lived as recently as the nineteenth century and who is now considered to be the founder of Kazakh written literature, this is a strange situation. Even about William Shakespeare, who was born almost three hundred years before Abai, more verifiable information has been found. If we separate fact from fiction and real from fake, we have to recognize that we know very little about the person we now call «Abai». The critic Ilyas Zhansugurov had already warned about this problem in 1933, in his introduction to the first Kazakh-language edition of the complete collection of Abai’s writings. «Abai has not been researched … Everything about Abai is exaggerated or based on rumours», Zhansugurov wrote on the first page of his introduction. To which he added: «No factual biographical material has been provided, not much material has been gathered about the people who knew him. Information about the poet’s domestic life, information about his personality – his good and bad habits – is missing.». [25]

What do we know about Abai? According to the official biography, Abai’s full name was Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbai. However, as a 19th-century Kazakh nomad, his real name would have been «Ybyrai», not «Ibrahim», as Kazakh phonetics would make it impossible to call him «Ibrahim». Moreover, if his name had been that of a real person, it would not have carried so much symbolical meaning. First of all, Ibrahim is the name of a prophet who, in surah 14, leads his people out of darkness into the light. The nickname «Abai» (meaning «careful» or «attentive» in Kazakh) adds another symbolical layer: according to the official biography, it was a nickname given by the poet’s mother/grandmother who had already recognized the poet’s exceptional abilities when he was still a toddler. In fact, the nickname «Abai» need not carry any symbolical meaning, it could simply have derived from a mispronunciation of the poet’s name by his younger siblings, calling him «Ybai» instead of «Ybyrai». The undue emphasis that has been placed on the symbolical meanings of the name of Kazakhstan’s most famous poet raises the possibility that this name was not the poet’s real name.

Publicly, no critic or historian has ever raised any questions about the symbolical events in Abai’s biography. That the first-ever biography of Abai, the founder of Kazakh written literature, was an obituary published in October 1905, more than a year after his death, but only a few weeks after Kazakhs had for the first time shown some political unity against the Russian Empire, has never been pointed out as surprisingly symbolical. That this biography, written by the political activist and literary connoisseur Alikhan Bukeikhanov, put Abai’s death at a highly symbolical date, namely, «40 days» after the death of Abai’s second son, Magauia, has never been remarked upon either. [26] However, it is unlikely that this symbolism was missed by the Soviet propagandists, who, in 1933, added another son, Aqylbai. [27] This son had not been mentioned in Bukeikhanov’s biography, but, according to the Soviet propagandists, had died «40 days» after his father. This kind of symbolism is the stuff of legend, not of real life. Why did no-one ever publicly remark upon this?

Until the 1990s, Abai’s exact birthday had not been specified. It is not clear on the basis of which evidence it was suddenly discovered to be 10 August 1845. However, nomads, who did not have any written records of any kind, remembered birthdays only approximately, by linking them to certain circumstances (for example, «born in summer pasture, in the year of the hen»). This tradition remained in use until Soviet collectivization destroyed most nomadic traditions. If Abai was truly a 19th-century nomad, how did he acquire not only a symbolical name but also an exact birthday?

According to the official biography, which was already taking shape when Zhansugurov issued his warning, Abai was the founder of Kazakh written literature – a prolific poet, translator, composer and thinker who authored two volumes of written works. Also according to the official biography, Abai was a wealthy and self-learned man, who, despite living the traditional life of a steppe nomad, helped exiles and refugees, made important donations to individuals and museums, taught himself Russian, Persian and Arabic, became a member of a statistical committee, and discussed Eastern and Western philosophy with the Narodniki that were in political exile in Semipalatinsk. How could anyone believe this to be a real biography of a real man?

Moreover, there are no physical traces of this writer’s life – no printed works authorized by Abai himself and no notes or manuscripts written in Abai’s own hand. Abai is said to have written many letters in his lifetime, but no letters have survived. Moreover, in the letters of Russian exiles such as Severin Gross and Yevgeny Mikhaelis, with which Abai is said to have corresponded, not a single reference to Abai has been found. Already in 1935, in the first full-length monograph on Abai, the critic Gabbas Togzhanov had remarked on the absence of these references. After having first criticized the counter-revolutionary Kazakh nationalists of Alash Orda (Alikhan Bukeikhanov, Ahmet Baitursynov, Mirzhaqyp Dulatov) for «praising Abai like ignorant aul Kazakhs», [28] Togzhanov also questioned the story that the official biographers had begun to propagate. According to Togzhanov, the influence of Russian thinkers such as Leo Tolstoy and Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin had been exaggerated, as their ideas, apart from superficial references to their names in the poem «At the boarding school, the offspring of many Kazakhs study», were not reflected in Abai’s writings. [29] Togzhanov also questioned whether Abai had ever interacted with the Russian political exiles Dolgopolov, Gross and Mikhaelis. In his research, Togzhanov stated, he had not found a single fact that could confirm that Abai had met or spoken with the Russian exiles. Most importantly, he had not found a single reference to Abai in the exiles’ articles and letters. [30]

The absence of any written evidence referring to Abai is strange because Abai, despite being described in his official biography as a steppe nomad, was certainly not a folk poet (aqyn). Already in 1913, in the first critical appraisal of Abai’s work, the critic and editor Akhmet Baitursynov had pointed out that Abai’s was a new kind of Kazakh poetry, very different from the instant oral improvisations of the aqyndyq tradition: «His words are so different from other aqyns that at the beginning, they seem alien and strange to you for some time. Few words, but with deep meaning.». [31] Abai’s poetry was not oral but written, composed around beautiful images and deep thoughts, exact wording and perfect rhyme – an aesthetic that was probably inspired by the nineteenth-century Russian poems of which Abai translated so many. How is it possible, then, that of a person, who is said to have written seventy lyrical poems, three to four epic poems, thirty to forty poetry translations and forty-five prose texts, not a single piece of handwritten paper survives that can be attributed to him?

From the period 1845-1904, which is officially considered to be Abai’s lifetime, only two printed works survive: two poems, published in 1889, in the bilingual (Kazakh-Russian) newspaper Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí. However, the name «Abai» was added to these poems only in the twentieth century – under circumstances that we will discuss later. To explain the absence of any other nineteenth-century evidence relating to the writings of Abai, some biographers have claimed that all of Abai’s personal belongings were lost during the chaos of the 1930’s. Even if true, this does not explain why in none of the archives or belongings of any of the educated persons that Abai spoke or corresponded with during his lifetime any written evidence has been found that refers to the man we now call Abai.

Fifty years later, in the Soviet era, the transcripts of Abai’s poems and prose texts by Murseit Biki-uly, Abai’s secretary, began to be cited as proof that Abai had existed and that he had written all the poems and prose texts attributed to him. However, there are many unanswered questions that surround Murseit Biki-uly and his transcripts. First of all, did Murseit have access to his master’s manuscripts at the time of his master’s death in 1904, or not? If he did not have access, how did he manage to transcribe more than 200 pages of poems and prose texts from memory? If he did have access, why did he find it necessary to replace his master’s handwriting with his own handwriting? Furthermore, why did he transcribe his master’s writings not once but three times – in 1905, 1907 and 1910?

Currently these questions cannot be answered because we know even less about Murseit than about Abai. Why did, in the period 1913-1917, the editors and writers of the nationalist Qazaq newspaper, who were the first to start promoting Abai’s poetry, never refer to Murseit or his transcripts? Why did, in the period 1930-1945, the Soviet critics and editors who were the first to start promoting Abai’s prose texts, never refer to Murseit or his transcripts either?

Nonetheless, in the authoritative edition of Abai’s collected works, published in 2005 with contributions by Zaki Akhmetov, Kayum Muhamedhanov and Mekemtas Myrzahmetov, the editor Esenbai Duisenbai-uli emphasizes that all the texts in the edition were verified not only against the earliest printed works (from 1909, 1922, 1933 and 1945) but also against Murseit’s transcripts. [32] Given the absence of Abai’s own manuscripts, it may be logical that scholars treat Murseit’s transcripts as important reference texts. However, on what basis can it be argued that Abai, rather than Murseit, is the author of these texts? How can anyone be certain that Murseit did not create the texts himself?

Murseit’s transcripts from 1905 and 1910 contain about 200 pages, while Murseit’s transcript from 1907 contains 232 pages, including a prose text now titled “Some words about the origins of the Kazakh people”. If Murseit was not the author, why did he add this text to the 1907 transcript and forget to add it again to the 1910 transcript? We don’t know. What happened to Murseit’s transcripts after these dates? We also don’t know. All we know for certain is that Murseit’s transcripts were presented to the public only in the 1950’s. [33] We also know that the 1905 and 1910 transcripts are now in the collection of the Central Scientific Library in Almaty. [34] According to the editors of the authoritative edition of Abai’s collected works, the 1907 transcript was in the private possession of Mukhtar Auezov until the 1950’s and is now housed in the museum dedicated to Auezov. [35]

To resolve all the questions surrounding Murseit and his transcripts, assistance by a diverse group of experts, consisting of linguists as well as forensic scientists, would be required. Linguists with a thorough knowledge of the Arabic script that Kazakhs used at the beginning of the twentieth century would be able to determine which poems and prose texts were already included in Murseit's transcripts and whether, in comparison with the authoritative edition of 2005, these poems and prose texts were already finalized or still at an earlier stage of development. Meanwhile, forensic scientists with special expertise in the analysis of handwriting and the dating of paper and ink would be able to determine other important properties of Murseit’s transcripts, namely, their dates and origins and perhaps even the identity of the writer.

Officially the canon of Abai’s writings is based on four sources: Murseit’s three transcripts and the first edition of Abai’s poetry, said to have been published in Saint Petersburg in 1909. The date and authenticity of a text cannot be determined on the basis of an electronic copy. However, the two electronic copies of the book of 1909 that were put online by the Central Scientific Library have already raised many questions.

First, why are the pages of these two copies in such a bad condition (pasted together)? This is unusual for a book that was published only a little more than a hundred years ago. Most other surviving copies of Kazakh books that were printed in this period are in much better condition. Second, why do these two copies not have a colophon, showing the date and place of their official publication, while other Kazakh books of the period do have a colophon? According to the official biography, the book was published by Boraganskii & K. in Saint Petersburg, but this piece of information cannot be confirmed, as the colophons are missing. What makes the lack of colophons even more problematic is that all other Kazakh books of this period were published not in Saint Petersburg but in Kazan and Orenburg.

Third, why does one of the copies contain a table of contents with a year in the Latin script written next to the title or the first line of each poem? The layout of the table of contents is not what is expected from a Kazakh book published in 1909. Instead, the table of contents looks more like the inventories in the typed drafts of the Russian translations that were published in 1940. [36] And lastly, why does one of the copies display a photo of Abai, even though Mukhtar Auezov already remarked in 1940 that no photos of Abai existed? [37]

Much of what Kazakhs today believe they know about Abai’s life derives from one source – Mukhtar Auezov’s novel Abai’s Path (Abai Zholy), published between 1942 and 1952. However, even though Auezov’s ancestors lived in the same region as Abai, a novel should not be mistaken for a factual biography. Novels and biographies are fundamentally different genres because fiction writers, unlike biographers, can take great liberties in using all sorts of events, including autobiographical events, to tell their stories. From the novel’s first publication onwards, however, critics have contributed to the reading public’s confusion, praising Auezov’s novel for being an outstanding example of the Soviet genre of the «epic novel» (epopee) and going so far as to suggest that Auezov’s novel may be not only ideologically true but even factually true.

Until the 2000s, the Kazakh reading public did not know that it was Alikhan Bukeikhanov who wrote, in 1905, the first and most influential biography of «Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbai» [38] and that Auezov, whose career as promoter of the life and work of Abai began only in 1933, did not change Bukeikhanov’s narrative but added more details about Abai’s ancestors, in particular, Abai’s father. When we read Auezov’s fictional account of Abai’s father, we cannot help but notice that one of Auezov’s main sources of inspiration must have been the diaries of an exiled Polish poet by the name of «Adolf Januszkiewicz», who in 1846 had joined a census expedition to the Kirgiz Steppe. In his diaries, Januszkiewicz described at length a shrewd uezd administrator by the name of «Qunanbai Öskenbai-uly», who secretly betrayed his own tribesmen by disclosing to the Tsarist officials the real numbers of horses his fellow tribesmen owned. Januszkiewicz, while astonished by the nomad’s cruelty, admired his eloquence and his impeccable knowledge of both Russian law and Islamic law (Sharia). Ever since the diaries of Januszkiewicz were translated into Russian and published by an unidentified publisher in Alma-Ata in 1966, they have been cited as evidence that Abai’s father, Qunanbai, existed and thus that Abai existed. However, these diaries provide no such proof, as the name of the administrator’s son is nowhere mentioned.

Another, lesser known source from which our common knowledge about Abai derives is a book by the American journalist and adventurer George Kennan, titled Siberia and the Exile System, officially published in English in 1891, but already known by that time to Russian-speaking exiles and revolutionaries thanks to the underground circulation of the book’s Russian translation. [39] One passage in this book has served as the basis for establishing several elements of Abai’s biography. However, when this passage is read carefully, we can see that it tells very little about the man we now refer to as Abai.

The first point that should be noted is that Kennan never met or saw Abai in person. Kennan visited Semipalatinsk in 1885 because he wanted to meet the Russian political exiles living in that city. After having visited a new Russian public library in the city, where he was «surprised to find the works of the Western thinkers Spencer, Buckle, Lewes, Mill, Taine, Lubbock, Tylor, Huxley, Darwin, Lyell, Tyndall, Alfred Russel Wallace, Mackenzie Wallace, and Sir Henry Maine», Kennan met a 25-year-old exile named Alexander Leontiev, who, while describing the intellectual stimulus provided by the new library, also mentions a «learned old Kirghis» named «Ibrahim Konobai», who «reads such authors as Buckle, Mill and Draper». [40]

In 1913, in the first Kazakh-language biography of Abai, the poet and philologist Akhmet Baitursynov declared that Abai’s real name was «Ibrahim Qunanbai». Baitursynov also confirmed the other elements from Kennan’s report: «In translation», Baitursynov wrote, «Abai read Europe’s deep thinkers such as Spencer, Lewes, Draper». [41] In 1940, in his Russian-language biography, Mukhtar Auezov went even further and wrote: «According to his exiled friends such as Leontiev and others, Abai systematically studied western philosophy – Spencer, Spinoza, he was interested in Darwin’s theory». [42] In his biography of 2008, Nikolai Anastasiev admitted that there was, in fact, «no evidence» that Abai had ever met Russian political exiles (such as Leontiev, Dolgopolov, Gross or Mikhaelis) in Semipalatinsk. [43] Where did Baitursynov and Auezov find their inspiration, then? The most likely source is Kennan’s book.

The validity of Kennan’s report in relation to Abai should not be overstated, as there are several problematic elements in the report. First, Leontiev refers to «Ibrahim Konobai» as an «old» man. According to the official biography, Abai was born in 1845, so when Kennan interviewed Leontiev, Abai must have been about forty years old – not an old man, not even by nineteenth-century standards. Second, Leontiev does not describe «Ibrahim Konobai» as a poet. And yet, according to Baitursynov and Auezov, the poet Abai was highly regarded by his contemporaries, famous even. If «Ibrahim Konobai» and «Abai» were the same person, why would Leontiev have forgotten to mention Abai’s status as a famous poet?

Moreover, even though biographers have repeated after Kennan’s witness that «Ibrahim Qunanbai» was interested in certain European philosophers, this interest is not reflected in the writings that were published under the name «Abai» in the twentieth century. The writer we now refer to as «Abai» was indeed a poet and a philosopher, but his philosophical inspirations came from Islam, Jadidism and ancient nomadic wisdom – not from the authors mentioned in Kennan’s book. In short, Kennan’s report from 1885 does not provide any evidence that «Ibrahim Qunanbai» was the same man as the poet we now call «Abai».

In fact, that «Abai» and «Ibrahim Qunanbai» were not the same person had already been confirmed in 1889, in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, a bilingual (Kazakh-Russian) newspaper based in Omsk that published not only reports and open letters but also legends and poems, written by different contributors. In February and March 1889, two untitled poems had appeared. Today these poems are titled «Summer» and «Here, I became a bolys» and are both considered to be part of the canon of Abai’s poems. The two untitled poems published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1889 are the first evidence that at least some of Abai’s poems were written in the nineteenth century.

However, in 1889 these two poems were not yet associated with the name «Abai». The author of the first poem called himself Kökpai Janatai-uly, a man about whom no verifiable information has been found to this date. The author of the second poem was anonymous. The name «Ibrahim Qunanbai» did appear in relation to the first poem, but only as the subject of the poem – a wealthy steppe nomad setting up his aul in the Kopbeit pasture near the Baqanas river, in the region of Semipalatinsk. In other words, the claims first introduced by Akhmet Baitursynov in 1913, and later repeated by Soviet scholars and propagandists, are factually incorrect. First, «Ibrahim Qunanbai» was not a poet. Second, the poet we now call «Abai» was not known under this pen name at the time.


4. Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí


From 1888 until 1902, the newspaper Akmolinskie Oblastnye Vedomosti, edited from the office of the governor-general of Stepnoi krai, had a special bilingual appendix that in Kazakh was named Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí and in Russian was named Osoboe Pribavlenie k AOV (and from 1894 was renamed Kirgizskaya Stepnaya Gazeta). [44] The appendix had an official and an unofficial part: in the official part, Kazakh readers were informed of the latest administrative orders and decrees; in the unofficial part, designated correspondents as well as ordinary readers were given the opportunity to report and comment on the «domestic and public life of the Kirghiz». [45]


The editorial staff encouraged the newspaper’s readers to contribute, offering three kopeks per printed line to each contributor. Whether it was the financial incentive or simply a thirst for public debate, but from the beginning Kazakh readers contributed actively, sending in articles, letters, legends, proverbs and poems. Some contributors wrote under their own names, some wrote under pseudonyms. Despite the oversight by Russian editors, the pages of Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí provided a platform that was unusually accommodating of the views held by Kazakh speakers. Already in 1889, Zhusip Köpei-uly, a staunch defender of a progressive Islam and of the rights of Kazakh nomads, complimented the newspaper on allowing him to publish his letters and poems «without changes, without distorting the meaning and without losing thoughts». [46]


The newspaper’s willingness to provide a platform to Kazakh-speaking intellectuals worried some of the Russian Orientalists. Nikolai Ostroumov, the editor of another newspaper, Turkestan Walayatïnïng Gazetí, complained that Kazakhs were allowed to express their grievances so openly in the pages of Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí. [47] Nikolai Ilminsky, a turkologist and Christian missionary, complained that Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí not only conveyed Kazakh views but that these views were allowed to be printed in the Arabic script and therefore could not be monitored by Russian speakers. [48] It may not be surprising that this newspaper was based in Omsk – a city that hosted a high concentration of political exiles (narodniki), who were likely to be opposed to any Tsarist policy and therefore were likely to be more sympathetic to the discrimination suffered by Kazakh nomads and Kazakh speakers in general. However, who allowed Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí to steer its independent course during the 14 years of its existence is not clear at this point and will require further research. What is clear, however, is that the writings published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí constitute a significant event in Kazakh history.


On some problems, such as the mistreatment of women and especially the selling of young girls in return for livestock (qalym), many of the newspaper’s contributors agreed. There was also consensus on the fact that the illiteracy of Kazakh nomads made them vulnerable to deceit at the hands of Tatar mullahs, Sart traders and Russian administrators. However, on the subject of what constituted a «good education» for illiterate nomads, opinions differed – some favoured madrasas, while others advocated for Russian schools. Also on the new phenomenon of the jataq – impoverished nomads that had lost their livestock and now made a living by doing wage labour – opinions differed. Some regular contributors defended the official position of the Tsarist government: nomads should settle down, learn agriculture and, if necessary, become Jataq. Others, such as the writer and mullah Zhusip Köpei-uly, argued that Kazakhs should not abandon their nomadic way of life. Influenced by Turkestani Jadidist philosophy, Köpei-uly argued that Kazakh nomads should invest in education, make their animal husbandry more professional, and help those in their community that were in financial need. Köpei-uly was against nomads becoming jataq as he thought it would condemn them to a life of poverty. [49]


One of the most active contributors was a man who may have written under multiple pseudonyms: Qyr Balasy, A.N., Gabdrahim Alashbayev, Köshpeli Qazaqbayev, and perhaps, A. Kurmanbayev. Only by using the quantitative-analysis methods of stylometry would it be possible to determine whether all these authors were in fact the same person. However, even a careful reading of the various articles by these authors shows that they had a common vocabulary and common interests. First, they all defended the principle of meritocracy: leaders, administrators and judges should be chosen on the basis of their wisdom, integrity and education. They also warned Kazakhs against abandoning the traditional values of decency and honesty and giving themselves over to vanity and boasting. These principles will be familiar to readers of Abai, who, both in poetry and in his prose, defended these principles in much the same way.


The aforementioned contributors shared many other views as well. All expressed concern about the consequences of the administrative reforms that the Tsarist regime had imposed on the Kazakh nomadic tribes in the 1860’s. One such consequence had been the disempowerment of the biys, the Kazakh tribal judges who had managed to resolve conflict and issue punishment for centuries. By abolishing the nomadic courts and replacing them with courts conducted according to Russian law and in the Russian language, the Tsarist reforms had put Kazakh-speaking nomads at a great disadvantage. The contributors also expressed concern about the political consequences. By depriving the Genghisids of their traditional leadership role, the Tsarist reforms had created an unprecedented rivalry between clan leaders. Moreover, the reforms had brought to power people who had reached their position by bribing voters and Russian officials. This situation was further exacerbated by the role of some unscrupulous translators, who abused their knowledge of the Russian language for their own benefit, instead of serving the common good.


Finally, the aforementioned contributors also shared the same views on education. All of them emphasized the positive influence of Ybyrai Altynsarin. And all of them advocated for preserving the purity of the Kazakh language (keeping it free from Tatar and Sart influences) and for resisting the Tsarist regime’s Russification (Obrusitelnaya) policy. On the other hand, they also advocated for learning Russian (rather than Persian or Arabic) as a way of helping Kazakhs to acquire useful knowledge and scientific terminology. Given the many resemblances between the points of view expressed by these contributors, it is likely that they were the pseudonyms of one and the same person.


Among them, Qyr Balasy («Son of the Steppe») was one of the most active. The first letter that Qyr Balasy sent to the newspaper, in 1889, would become his most famous contribution in the decades and even centuries that followed. The main subject of the letter was to lament the absence of those whose contributions to the newspaper would have been most beneficial. Elderly nomads, who knew and guarded Kazakh customs and traditions, could have contributed much, but because of their illiteracy they were not even able to read what was being written. Young educated Kazakhs possessed useful knowledge that they could share, but too many had chosen to be «robbers of the caravan ... rather than contributing to the public interest». [50] Kazakh aqyns, too, could contribute much, but the most famous among them, such as Shortanbai, Shözhe, Orymbai, Naiman-bala, Sherniaz and Kulembai, were wasting their talent on praising powerful men – a mistake which the new generation of aqyns seemed bent on repeating. «But who doubts the power of their words? Remember that Sherniaz’s fate was decided thanks to his words and that Shözhe managed to take gifts from stingy Qarymbai [Gogol’s Plushkin].»


The resemblance with some of Abai’s poems is striking. In the poem titled «The poem is the king of words», Abai wrote that the aqyns of his time «sang dithyrambs for gifts» and thus «diminished the meaning of words». In the poem titled «Man in mourning, heart in pain», Abai targeted the aqyns Shortanbai and Dulat for creating «patchworks» and in the poem titled «To Kulembai», Abai mocked the aqyn Kulembai for becoming a useless administrator (bolys). In the history of Kazakh literature, there are only two writers who criticized the 19th-century aqyns in these terms: Abai and Qyr Balasy. Could it be that they were one and the same person?


This possibility had already been proposed in 1947 by Mikhail Silchenko, a Soviet scholar who wrote several articles and books about Abai and even translated his verses. According to Silchenko, the content and tone of Qyr Balasy’s letter were «identical» to the way in which Abai «judged» the 19th-century aqyns for «distorting historical reality». [51] Therefore, he concluded, the author of the letter had to be the famous poet Abai. Silchenko’s analysis was denied by other Soviet scholars, first by Hairzhan Bekhozhin in 1949 and later by Mikhail Fetisov in 1961, who both claimed that the real author of the letter had been the «bourgeois-nationalist Alikhan Bukeikhanov». [52]


However, could it be that, despite their apparent disagreement, all these Soviet scholars were right? That these scholars revealed, intentionally or unwittingly, what should have been kept a secret? Namely, that Abai, Qyr Balasy and Alikhan Bukeikhanov were one and the same person? This hypothesis is plausible, as this article will explain.


First of all, Bukeikhanov was almost certainly the author behind the pseudonym Qyr Balasy and probably many other pseudonyms in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí. Years later, in 1910, in the article «Kirgisy», [53] Bukeikhanov, now writing under his own name, presented the same cultural and political views that had first been introduced into public discourse by Qyr Balasy and the other contributors to Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí. The grandson of a khan, and therefore a Genghisid himself, Bukeikhanov expressed great concern about the illiteracy of Kazakh nomads and about the consequences of the Tsarist reforms that had been imposed on the nomads many years earlier. Bukeikhanov denounced not only the administrative disorder but also the violation of Kazakhs’ rights in all aspects of life – their pastures taken away, their language and religion discriminated against. However, even though he was concerned about the continuing Russification policy, Bukeikhanov implored Kazakhs to direct their children towards a bilingual education.


It is also easy to see why Bukeikhanov could have been such a regular contributor to the Omsk-based newspaper: in the 1880’s and 1890’s, he lived for long periods of time in Omsk, first as a student and later as a teacher. Russian cultural life was flourishing in Omsk in this period: there were several universities, a technical college, a gymnasium for girls, and public libraries. Bukeikhanov immersed himself in the Russian language and culture and even married a daughter of an exiled narodnik, Elena Sevostyanova, while living in Omsk. In 1895-1901, together with many political exiles in the region, he participated in the scientific expeditions of the Russian statistician Fyodor Scherbina. If there was a Kazakh whose thinking was influenced by exiled narodniki and Russian intellectuals at the time, it was Bukeikhanov.


Moreover, there is evidence that Bukeikhanov studied and translated many works of Russian literature. In 1894, in issue 32 of Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, one of the fables by Ivan Krylov was translated by someone named Asylqozha Kurmanbayev. Decades later, Soviet scholars presented Kurmanbayev as a real person: a pupil of Ybyrai Altynsarin, who later became a school principal in Lepsi, and in 1912, in issue 3 of the magazine Aiqap, published an edited translation of the same fable but this time under the pseudonym Ombylyq (meaning, Omsk citizen). If Kurmanbayev was a real person, why did he not publish other translations in his lifetime? The most plausible explanation is that Kurmanbayev was not a real person but a pseudonym, though not as obvious a pen name as Ombylyq. And the most likely person hiding behind both pseudonyms was, once again, Bukeikhanov – the only person who was an active contributor to Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1894 and to Aiqap in 1912. Curiously, the Soviet scholar Üshköltai Subhanberdina misidentified Asylqozha Kurmanbayev as A. Qunanbayev – another example in a long line of scholars conflating (intentionally or not) the identities of Bukeikhanov and Abai. [54]


The evidence regarding Bukeikhanov’s interest in translating Russian literature reaches further. In 1900, in issues 11 and 12 of Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, Bukeikhanov translated Leo Tolstoy’s The Coffee-House of Surat. In 1987, the Soviet scholar Aben Satybaldiev praised the quality of the translation, [55] but he could not name the translator, Bukeikhanov, whose work had become a taboo subject in the post-War Soviet period. In 1924, under his old pseudonym Qyr Balasy, Bukeikhanov published a translation of Tolstoy’s Khaji-Murat. [56] And from 1922 to 1927, Bukeikhanov worked in the Kazakh section of the Central Publishing House of the Peoples of the USSR (Tsentroizdat) and translated many other books under pseudonyms or under the names of other people. For example, three books published by Tsentroizdat in 1926-1927 were probably translated by Bukeikhanov not by the books’ official translator, Turagul Abai-uly, as the latter, Turagul Ibragimov, according to archival documents, was still living as a steppe nomad in Chinghis uezd at the time of publication. [57] Already in 1914, Bukeikhanov, this time under the pseudonym N. Ramazanov, had submitted Russian translations of three of Abai’s lyrical poems to a book published by the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages. (Even though biographers have tried to turn Nuh Ramazanov into a real person, his biography is so thin and his death in 1914 so coincidental, that this was most likely another of Bukeikhanov’s many pseudonyms.)


In the period 1888-1902, Alikhan Bukeikhanov was perhaps the only Kazakh in the Stepnoi krai who combined an active interest in Russian literature with a willingness to engage in public debate about policy issues affecting the lives of steppe nomads. Therefore, it was most likely Bukeikhanov who was the author behind many of the pseudonyms contributing to Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí.


Apart from the letter by Qyr Balasy cited above, there are other similarities between the writings of Bukeikhanov’s various pseudonyms and the writings of the poet and philosopher we now call «Abai». For example, consider the satirical articles written by A.N. and his related pseudonym S.M.Ch. In his article on a corrupted administrator (bolys), who thinks his official duty consists of «endlessly drinking kumis and eating lamb five times a day», A.N. introduces a character named M.Ch., who also tried to run for office, albeit unsuccessfully, and now follows around his corrupted friend. [58] A.N., like Bukeikhanov’s other pseudonyms, writes from the perspective of someone who knows Kazakh culture but looks at it from the outside. At times, as in this article by A.N., this view from outside is even filtered through the lens of Russian literature, especially the social satire of Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin.


A few issues later, Bukeikhanov handed over the authorship to M.Ch. Now writing under the pseudonym S.M.Ch., Bukeikhanov raised the issue of the disappearance of the ancient judicial system of biys: «In old times, if any Kazakh wanted to be a biy or a public figure, they would join the service of a competent khan or biy and spend a lot of time learning from their wisdom, studying Kazakh customs (Esim-khan’s old way, Qasym-khan’s new way).» To counter the disappearance of this ancient system, S.M.Ch. posited the benefits of a Russian education : «It would be much more reasonable to establish two-three stipends at the newly opened Omsk university where young Kazakhs that graduated from the Omsk classical gymnasium could apply. Their good education would serve the government and the people.». [59]


We find a more compact version of the article by S.M.Ch. in one of Abai’s prose texts – Word 3, in which Abai argues for the importance of having competent, uncorrupted administrators. Though stylistically different from the newspaper article, Word 3 contains the same ideas and even some of the same phrases: «The people’s candidates for bolys should be well-respected Russian-educated men… Not all of our elected Kazakhs are able to handle this kind of power. For this, one should know the ancient Esim-khan’s old way, Qasym-khan’s new way.».


What happened here? Did the poet and philosopher we now call «Abai» copy ideas and phrases from Bukeikhanov, or are they, in fact, one and the same person? The answer to this question is complicated – as this article will explain.


Suffice it to say, for now, that the name «Abai» was never mentioned in the pages of Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí. All that we have are articles and letters that were written by various pseudonyms, all of them most likely created by Bukeikhanov. Nonetheless, scholars have been referring to Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí as the cradle of Abai’s writings at least since the Soviet period (with Hairzhan Bekhozhin probably being the first scholar who did so). And even though Abai’s name is never mentioned in this newspaper, it is true that early versions of two poems that are now considered to be part of Abai’s canon were first published in its pages – «Summer» and «Here, I became a bolys». Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí was one of the most important sites where the nineteenth-century transition from oral, improvisational poetry (aqyndyq) to written poetry took place. Abai’s two poems were part of this historical movement. The early versions of these two poems were published in February and March 1889, without a title, and in one case, without an author. [60] The author of the first poem called himself Kökpai Janatai-uly. The author of the second poem was anonymous.


Both poems already display the qualities that led Baitursynov to call «Abai» the first great innovator of Kazakh poetry. Both poems still use the irregular rhyme patterns of improvisational poetry, but their purpose is different. If the first poem had been composed by a traditional aqyn, it would have been a complimentary portrait of a wealthy nomad. Instead it is a lyrical evocation of the natural beauty of a summer pasture and of a community of nomads living together in harmony. Similarly, the second poem could have been a complimentary portrait as well, but instead it is a sarcastic description of a corrupted administrator who is running back and forth between constituents and giving false or evasive answers to all of them.


Regarding both poems, literary critics may want to argue that the poet’s innovative presentation of his subjects was influenced by his reading of Russian literature. While this may be true, it is equally important to emphasize that this quality runs through all the writings we now attribute to «Abai»: an intimate knowledge of the subject, but viewed from the perspective of an outsider. In his biography from 2008, Nikolai Anastasiev agreed that this was a distinctive quality of Abai’s writings and proposed that this quality could not be developed only by reading literature but that it required a more fundamental shift in one’s living conditions, such as travel or relocation. [61]


Put differently, literature can sometimes provide its own internal evidence. Even though no external records are currently available that could confirm the identity of the man we now call «Abai», the two poems published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí show that the author was someone who had travelled and had seen other realities, other parts of the world. The poet we now call «Abai» must have been a Kazakh who lived in a town or city and travelled to the steppe only sporadically. The internal evidence of these two poems contradicts the official biography, which has always stated that Abai did not travel at all. If «Abai» had always lived in the steppe, he would probably not have noticed its natural beauty and would certainly not have felt the need to write a lyrical poem about it.


Who fit the profile of this anonymous poet any better than Bukeikhanov? Bukeikhanov, who already as an adolescent had left the nomadic life to receive a Russian education at a boarding school and who spent the rest of his career defending and celebrating the Kazakh language and Kazakhs’ nomadic way of life, all the while travelling extensively in Russia and Turkestan.


In the Soviet period, the two poems published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí were declared to be falsifications, distortions of historical reality, which had suppressed depictions of the harsh life of nomads. [62] From a purely ideological point of view, the Soviet scholars were right. The two poems published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí had been written by a nineteenth-century Kazakh who was not a Marxist. However, from a literary-historical point of view, the Soviet scholars’ assertion could not be further from the truth. The poems’ subjects were not controversial in 1889, at least not in the context of this newspaper, as Alikhan Bukeikhanov had already contributed articles on the same subjects (the dignity of steppe nomads, the corruption of district administrators).


Therefore, questions should be asked about the heavily edited versions of Abai’s poems that would appear in the 20th century. When and by whom were Abai’s nineteenth-century poems edited? Once again, the poems themselves provide some clues. For example, the 1933 poem which by then had received the title «Summer» was no longer just a lyrical evocation of a beautiful landscape and the community of nomads living in it. Instead it contained newly added elements of social criticism. Whereas the 1889 poem presented the aul as a community living in harmony, the 1933 version 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). In other words, the 1933 poem contains evidence not only of how it was changed but also of why it was changed. It is likely, that the changes were made in the Soviet period, by Soviet poets, to suit the Soviet view that nomadic communities had a feudal structure that had led to gross inequalities.


Even though the two poems published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1889 are no longer considered the canonical versions, they are the authentic versions. In chronological terms, they constitute the first evidence that at least some of Abai’s poems were written in the 19th century. Significantly, however, in 1889 neither of these poems were attributed to the poet we now call «Abai». Nor were they attributed to «Ibrahim Qunanbai». The latter did appear in relation to the first poem, albeit under the more plausible Kazakh name of «Ybyrai Qunanbai-uly». Moreover, he appeared not as the author but as the subject – a wealthy steppe nomad setting up his aul in the Kopbeit pasture near the Baqanas river. Whether the name Ybyrai Qunanbai referred to a real person was already a matter of debate in 1889: several months after the poem’s publication, Zhusip Köpei-uly sent an open letter to the newspaper in which he called into question, only half-jokingly, the existence of a nomad by the name of Ybyrai Qunanbai. [63] Whether the poem’s subject was real or invented, we may never know. But the physical evidence, forever inscribed in the pages of this newspaper, is clear: Ybyrai Qunanbai was not the poem’s author, nor did any of the newspaper’s readers ever refer to Ybyrai Qunanbai as the author of this poem or any other poems.


The evidence presented by the poems and the articles in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí has always been a problem for scholars and biographers, leading many to avoid the subject altogether. Those who did confront the evidence had to find creative ways to reconcile the evidence with Abai’s official biography. In the family memoirs compiled by Mukhtar Auezov for the 1933 edition of Abai’s collected works, Abai’s son, Turagul, stated that his father did not take poetry seriously in the beginning and handed out his poems on pieces of paper, signing them as «Kökpai», the name of Abai’s best friend. [64] This statement shows an awareness of the fact that one of the two poems published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1889 was signed by a man who called himself «Kökpai Janatai-uly». However, no other poem has ever been found that was signed by «Kökpai». In other words, Turagul’s statement (though it has entered the official biography) remains highly problematic to this day. The Soviet scholars who followed in the footsteps of Auezov and studied the pages of Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, such as Bekhozhin and Fetisov, tried a different approach: while they acknowledged that Bukeikhanov had contributed to the newspaper under at least one pseudonym, they also suggested that Abai had been a popular and influential «publicist» in the same newspaper. [65] However, there is no evidence that could support the statements by Bekhozhin and Fetisov: the name «Abai» is nowhere to be found in the pages of this newspaper.


1889 was a very significant year in the history of Abai’s writings. Not only was it the year that Abai’s first two poems were published, it was also the year when prototypes of other writings that we now attribute to Abai appeared in print for the first time. Apart from the letter that Bukeikhanov wrote under his pseudonym Qyr Balasy, there were at least two more poems, once again published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, whose ideas and words return in Abai’s canonical writings.


One was a poem titled «Spring», published in April 1889 and signed by someone named S.G. [66] This poem is clearly the prototype for Abai’s poem that in the 20th century was published under the title «Winter’s cold remains in early spring». Both poems share an even earlier prototype in Kazakh written literature: a poem by Ybyrai Altynsarin titled «Summer» (published in 1879), which had already presented similar images of the awakening natural world. [67] Rather than using the patterns of oral tolgau, as many written poems did at the time, the poems by S.G. and by Altynsarin introduced a poetic form that was common in Russian and Persian poetry but that was new to Kazakh poetry: the 4-line rubayat. Aside from the aesthetic innovation, there is another characteristic that establishes the poem by S.G. as the direct prototype of Abai’s canonical poem: the almost identical images of the sun, of seasonal birds, of cattle, of dogs and of running children.


Who was the poem’s author, S.G.? Some scholars have stated that the initials S.G. referred to Sultan Gazin, officially the newspaper’s junior translator and one of its Kazakh editors. But who was Sultan Gazin? Clearly, Sultan Gazin was another pseudonym: «Sultan» is an honorific title, not a person’s first name. Moreover, except for many unconfirmed assumptions, very little written biographical information is available about Sultan Gazin. There are only two authentic sources from the period that identify Sultan Gazin. In 1890, the newspaper announced that Dinmukhamed Sultan Gazin had left his position at the newspaper because he had been admitted to Imperial Tomsk University. In 1895, the author of the second source, the Russian ethnographer Grigory Potanin, stated that on his expedition to Kokshetau uezd, he had been joined by Sultan Gazin, a student of Saint Petersburg University. [68]


In other words, the only two historical sources that refer to Gazin contain conflicting information about Gazin’s place of study. Moreover, Potanin, in his description of Gazin, claimed that Gazin had been born in Qarqaraly uezd, near the river Toqyrau – the same region where Alikhan Bukeikhanov had been born. This last piece of information seems to have led many biographers to attribute to Sultan Gazin second-degree kinship to Bukeikhanov. However, apart from the two aforementioned sources, the name «Sultan Gazin» never appears again in any other historical sources. Given that Bukeikhanov studied in Saint Petersburg between 1890 and 1894 and had returned to Omsk by 1895, it is likely that «Sultan Gazin» was yet another pseudonym of Bukeikhanov and that, in other words, Bukeikhanov himself was one of the editors and translators of the newspaper. Whether this hypothesis is valid can only be determined by extensive research in the archives of the newspaper and in Bukeikhanov’s personal papers – if such papers still exist.


In November 1889, Zhusip Köpei-uly published a long, untitled tolgau that would serve as a model for yet another of Abai’s poems. In this poem, Köpei-uly, a Jadidist mullah educated in Turkestan, called on Kazakhs to rise up against the main problems affecting their communities: idle youth, impoverished jataq, and a general lack of interest in trade and agriculture. [69] Köpei-uly was not a lyricist: he wanted to use written poetry to introduce important social issues to a wide audience. Abai’s most didactic poem, which in the 20th century would become known under the title «Eight Feet», took all its ideas from Köpei-uly ’s poem. However, Abai’s poem, as it appeared in the 20th century, underwent many changes: it used innovative 8-line stanzas rather than Köpei-uly ’s traditional tolgau, and just as importantly, adopted a tone that was harsher than Köpei-uly’s. The question is: who revised Köpei-uly ’s poem in this way and then attributed it to a poet named Abai?


In 1994, the Soviet scholar Ushkoltai Subhanberdina published a survey of the prose and poetry published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí between 1888 and 1902, but excluded from the section about the year 1889 all texts written by Bukeikhanov and by Köpei-uly. [70] These exclusions may well be the best proof that some scholars have long known the truth: under Stalin’s reign, Soviet poets and propagandists were instructed to erase Bukeikhanov and Köpei-uly from Kazakh history and to reattribute the ideas and writings of Bukeikhanov and Köpei-uly to a poet and thinker called Abai.


Suhbanberdina, like several of her Soviet-era colleagues, including Hairzhan Bekhozhin, Mikhail Fetisov and Zaki Akhmetov, issued signals about the mysterious circumstances in which Abai’s writing first appeared in the 19th century. In 1964 and again in 1996, Suhbanberdina pointed out the striking similarities between Abai’s canonical poem «Eskendir» and the story «Arrogant Warlord», published by an anonymous author in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in January 1895, leading Suhbanberdina to speculate openly whether the story might have been written by Abai himself. [71] This was a surprising suggestion. First, Suhbanberdina’s colleagues, perhaps worried about the similarities between Abai’s poem and the anonymous story in Walayatïnïng Gazetí, had come up with opposing theories. Many espoused the idea that Abai’s poem had been inspired by the epic poem «Eskandar-Nameh», written by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami – even though Abai took the opposite view of the poem’s hero, condemning him for his greed and wastefulness. Moreover, by making this suggestion, Suhbanberdina opened up the possibility that Abai was not only a poet but also a writer of stories in prose. What led Suhbanberdina, one of the Soviet era’s most respected scholars, to speculate in this way? What it shows, at the very least, is that Suhbanberdina wanted to complicate Abai’s official biography and her readers’ understanding of this biography.


The story «Arrogant Warlord» appeared in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1895. This is not a coincidence. The year 1895 of this newspaper is another significant year in the history Abai’s writing. In the course of this year, more writings and ideas for writings appeared that in the 20th century would be attributed to Abai. Also in 1895, for example, someone writing under the pseudonym Sh.Kh. sent in an open letter that contained not only ideas but almost exact phrases that would return in two of Abai’s poems. In the letter, after having criticized some Kazakh contributors for writing with no other purpose than to flatter high officials, Sh.Kh. remarked: «Even if we write, why sign with our real names? For the same purpose of empty boasting.». [72] The same idea would inform Abai’s famous statement, many years later, about the importance of anonymity: «The man who wrote this – you learn his words, not his name.». [73]


Subsequently, Sh.Kh. criticized the editorial staff of the newspaper for publishing fairy-tale stories that did not serve any social purpose: «This newspaper is published so readers can take example from each other, educate each other. Not for entertaining.». Almost the same exact wording would return in Abai’s famous declaration of intent: «I don’t write poems for entertaining, for collecting trifles, fairy-tales… I write, so that youths can take example… ». [74] During the Soviet period, scholars, worried about the close resemblance between parts of the letter by Sh.Kh. and some of Abai’s most famous poetic lines, speculated that the letter by Sh.Kh. was written by «Shakarim Qudaiberdiev» and that this letter by young Shakarim had later been improved by his uncle Abai. [75]


Given that misspellings occurred quite often in the newspaper, the initials S.G. and Sh.Kh. may have referred to another person: Sultan Shahin-Gerei Bökei-uly. About Bökei-uly little is known, other than that he received a higher education in Omsk, had excellent language skills in both Kazakh and Russian, and was an older relative of Bukeikhanov’s. According to at least one source, Bökei-uly was a collector of Kazakh folk poetry and, just like Ybyrai Altynsarin, compiled a Kazakh chrestomathy. [76] Whether Bökei-uly, too, worked as a newspaper editor and contributor is not known – only further archival research could reveal more about the professional activities of this highly educated descendant of Kazakh khans.


Why did Bukeikhanov use so many pseudonyms at this time? There could be many different reasons. Given his interest in Russian literature, it is easy to see why he used certain pseudonyms – most notably, A.N. and Perepelka (which he used in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí) and V. (which he adopted in various Russian newspapers in the period 1896-97 and again in the period 1908-09). [77] These pseudonyms resemble closely some of the pseudonyms that Nikolay Nekrasov, the poet and influential editor of the Russian literary magazine Sovremennik, used for his own contributions to Sovremennik and other publications: N.N., Perepelskii and V. It is possible that Bukeikhanov wanted his readers to understand the reference as follows: that Bukeikhanov, too, was an editor contributing to his own publication.


That Bukeikhanov was inspired by Nekrasov’s frequent use of pseudonyms seems clear. Like Nekrasov, Bukeikhanov may have been motivated by a desire to create an active public sphere, where the important issues of the day were debated openly and by a large number of different contributors. However, there may also have been other reasons. It is possible that Bukeikhanov, as a Chingisid, did not want his name to be associated with poetry or any other kind of artistry. Bukeikhanov hinted at this possibility in an article in 1905, in which he introduced the name «Abai» for the first time, and in which he explained Abai’s refusal from seeking personal fame as a poet as follows: «Perhaps he did not want to shame himself with the title of a poet, which was despised by the Steppe aristocracy. Kirghiz sultans were proud of not producing any single shaman or poet.». [78] These sentences are strange, contradictory: shortly after, Bukeikhanov describes Abai as the descendant of judges (biys), not of sultans. Most likely, then, the sentences about Abai’s refusal from seeking personal fame were a commentary on Bukeikhanov’s own situation. The social superiority felt by his Töre tribe may have been the main reason that stopped Bukeikhanov from printing his own name under the poems in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí.


Whatever the reason, Bukeikhanov clearly wanted to separate his political career from his journalistic and literary output. Until his death (by execution) in 1937, he continued to put out literary translations, literary criticism and poetry under various pseudonyms, while signing the articles and speeches related to his role as the leader of Alash Orda under his own name. After the Bolshevik Revolution, however, Bukeikhanov’s tactic backfired. The words he had written down years before, under various pseudonyms, became vulnerable to appropriation and sabotage, especially by Soviet propagandists, who had been instructed to treat Bukeikhanov as an enemy of the people.


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 and Zhusup Kopeiuly 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. [79] 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. [80]

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. [81] 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. [82]

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 Zhusup Kopeiuly, but he did not mention any poets by the name of «Abai», «Ibrahim Qunanbayev» or «Ybyrai Qunanbai». [83] 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. [84] 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. [85] 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. [86] 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. [87] 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. [88] 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». [89] 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. [90] 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. [91] 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».


6. Alash Orda


Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí constituted a significant event in the history of Abai’s writings, as ideas and even poems that are now attributed to Abai first appeared in the pages of this newspaper. The main reason was the presence of Alikhan Bukeikhanov, who – together with Zhusip Köpei-uly and perhaps also Bukeikhanov’s relative, Shahin-Gerei Bökei-uly – created many ideas and writings that in the 20th century would be attributed to Abai. Until 1905, Bukeikhanov’s poetry had been anonymous and largely unknown. In 1905, Bukeikhanov introduced «Abai» for the first time to the world – an unknown, unpublished Kazakh poet whose work would soon be made public. Bukeikhanov did not see the new persona so much as a vehicle for publishing his own, growing collection of poems under a pseudonym. Rather, he intended «Abai» to become the avatar of a political movement.


The political context of 1905 is a fundamental aspect of the creation of the avatar «Abai». Why did Bukeikhanov publish Abai’s obituary only in November 1905? Why did he wait so long? After all, according to Bukeikhanov’s biography, «Abai» had already passed away in June 1904. The answers can be found in the political context of 1905. Following the massive uprisings against the Tsar’s authoritarian rule throughout the Russian Empire in the first months of 1905, Kazakh leaders had come together to organize a large-scale petition in June 1905, demanding that the land rights and religious rights of Kazakhs be better protected. While the petition was a popular success and confirmed that there now existed a greater freedom of expression in the Stepnoi Krai, it also revealed to Bukeikhanov that Russian-educated Westernizers (zapadniki) like himself would find it difficult to convince the majority of Kazakhs of their ideas.


We know with certainty that this was Bukeikhanov’s thought process in 1905, as he confirmed it himself in an article that he published under his own name in 1910. This article, which can be considered Bukeikhanov’s political manifesto, returned to the period leading up to the petition of June 1905, when he and other Kazakh intellectuals had several secret meetings to decide on the contents of the petition, revealing a split between Islam-oriented Turcophiles on the one hand and Westernizers like himself on the other. During these meetings Bukeikhanov came to understand that the majority of Kazakhs were interested in «issues of religion and land» but not in «issues of political freedom» and that, because the Empire’s «Russification policy» had had a negative impact on their land and religious rights, the majority looked at «Western education and culture with suspicion». [92] The popular success of the Turcophile-led petition of 1905 was a turning point in Bukeikhanov’s career, as it made him realize that he would never be chosen by his fellow Kazakhs to become their political leader and that therefore he would have to pursue his political objectives by different means. Though he did not say it explicitly in his manifesto of 1910, the summer months of 1905 were probably the time when he began to create the persona of «Abai».


To the poems he had been writing since the 1880s, Bukeikhanov now added a name and a biography. Ibrahim «Abai» Qunanbai: a nomad who had not abandoned his traditional way of life, who was wealthy but not corrupted, who was Muslim but not fanatical, who was Western-educated but not Russified. Moreover, a man with the symbolically charged first name Ibrahim: the messenger who, according to surah 14 of the Quran, will lead his people out of darkness into light. That this name could not have been the real name of a 19th-century Kazakh nomad may have been missed by the Russian readers of the obituary of 1905, but it is unlikely to have been missed by the Kazakh readers who would be introduced to the life and work «Abai» in later years. If «Abai» had been a real person, his first name would have been Ybyrai, not Ibrahim.


Given that Bukeikhanov also decided to make «Abai» an accomplished poet, who mastered the techniques not only of Kazakh oral poetry but of Russian written poetry, it is possible that, to Bukeikhanov personally, «Abai» represented the ideal Kazakh man. Perhaps Bukeikhanov chose the nickname «Abai» not only because it meant «careful» in Kazakh but also because it mimicked the initials of his own name. Perhaps this is also the reason why Bukeikhanov signed many of his articles in the period 1905-1906 under the pseudonym «A.B.»? [93] As none of Bukeikhanov’s diaries or other personal papers survive, we will never know for certain.


However, what is certain, when the political context of 1905 is taken into account, is that Bukeikhanov intended his exemplary persona to convey multiple political messages to multiple audiences. To the Russian intellectuals, who were Bukeikhanov’s first audience, «Abai» was intended to convey the message that it was possible to bring the Kazakhs of the Stepnoi Krai into the political union of the Russian Empire without depriving them of their land, language, religion, and traditional way of life. To the Kazakh intellectuals, on whom Bukeikhanov would focus in the years after 1905, «Abai» was intended to convey the message that it was possible for Kazakhs to receive a Russian education and still retain their religious identity and traditional way of life.


Perhaps Bukeikhanov’s project was not political in the strictest sense, but it was certainly a project that believed in the political power of symbolism. Bukeikhanov believed that his poetry, once it had received a symbolically charged name and biography, would have the power to show his Kazakh readers how their lives would be enriched by learning the Russian language and culture. It was with this belief in mind that Bukeikhanov would join forces with two other Russian-educated Kazakhs, Akhmet Baitursynov and Mirjaqip Dulatov, and expand his work on the poetry of «Abai» in the years that followed. Together, they would continuously promote the poems and prose texts of «Abai» – in all the publications to which they would contribute, but especially in the publications which they would edit themselves, namely, the newspaper Qazaq (from 1913 to 1917) and the magazine Abai (in 1918). Already in his very first article about Abai, dated 2 April 1913, Baitursynov announced their ambitious project as follows: «Abai’s words must reach all Kazakhs.» [94] By this time, the newspaper was already selling Abai’s book of poems, which, significantly, had been given the title Various Propaganda Lyrics. [95] In the hands of Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov, «Abai» would become the avatar of a discreetly and informally organized Alash Orda movement that laid the cultural groundwork for a political organization that would eventually be established (if only for a brief period of time, from 1917 to 1920).


That Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov were the first promotors of «Abai» as the foremost Kazakh poet of the 19th century is a fact that can be measured. After Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí was shut down in 1902, Kazakhs did not have any newspapers or magazines left. After the Revolution of 1905, the greater freedom of expression that was granted to the peoples of the Russian Empire enabled Kazakh writers to publish their books at Tatar publishing houses in Qazan and Orenburg. However, writers of articles and opinion pieces had to wait until 1911, when the magazine Aiqap was launched. This magazine, edited by Mukhamedjan Seralin, discussed and even published poetry, but not Abai’s. In Aiqap the name and work of Abai were mentioned only twice. First, there was a brief citation from one of Abai’s poems. [96] Second, there was a brief announcement about a literary event, organized by the Geographical Society, commemorating the 10th anniversary of Abai’s death. [97] Moreover, Aiqap regularly informed its readers about Kazakh books that had been published and were available for readers to purchase and read. The authors of the books that were mentioned included Akhmet Baitursynov, Mirjaqyp Dulatov, Sabit Donentayev, Spandiyar Kobeev, Gumar Qarashev and Mukhamedjan Seralin. Ibrahim «Abai» Qunanbai was never mentioned in the pages of Aiqap as the author of a book of poems. [98]


At this time, Abai’s work and reputation were promoted almost exclusively in the newspaper Qazaq, which was edited by Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov. This was confirmed, ten years later, by the Soviet scholars Ilyas Zhansugirov and Gabbas Togzhanov. Zhansugirov wrote in 1933: «It was the newspaper Qazaq that introduced Abai to the public. » [99] Togzhanov wrote in 1935: «Before the revolution, on the subject of Abai, the Kazakh-nationalist leaders Alikhan Bukeikhan-uly, Akhmet Baitursyn-uly and Mirjaqip Dulat-uly wrote articles in the Russian and Kazakh languages. After the revolution, the journal ‘Abai’ appeared in Semei. There, Zhusipbek and someone under the name ‘Ekeu’ wrote about Abai…» [100]


Even the promotional efforts that were undertaken for Russian audiences at this time, such as the ones written by the newspaper editor, ethnographer and member of the Russian Geographical Society Grigorii Potanin, were probably initiated by Bukeikhanov, who was Potanin’s friend and expedition guide. Although Potanin had been organizing expeditions to the Stepnoi Krai since the 1880s, he never mentioned the poet Ibrahim «Abai» Qunanbai in his articles and reports to the Geographical Society. However, in 1914, in his report about the Qarqaraly expedition of 1913, Potanin all of a sudden introduced the names of three poets: «The poet-intellectual Ibrai Qunanbai, who wrote poems and composed his own songs, is famous in Semipalatinsk, the poet and composer Akhmet Baitursynov, the editor of the newspaper Qazaq, is popular among youths and then there is a romantic poet who provides refuge to horse thieves, who does not write down his poems, does not compose songs and cannot be heard like Baitursynov.» [101] The unnamed poet was, in fact, Dulatov, who had been imprisoned for his political activities, which included the publication of a book of poetry titled Wake Up, Kazakh!, a book first published in 1909 under the pseudonym Azamat («citizen»). 1909 was also the year when Baitursynov had published his first book of poetry, titled 40 Fables, under the pseudonym Masa («mosquito»), and when Bukeikhanov had first published Abai’s book of poetry. For his characterization of the state of Kazakh poetry in 1914, Potanin, who was not a scholar of poetry but an ethnographer, relied entirely on the information provided by his friend Bukeikhanov – a fact that Potanin openly acknowledged in his report.


During the five-year existence of the newspaper Qazaq, its three editors published about forty articles in which they discussed or cited the writings of Abai. Baitursynov and Dulatov signed all their contributions under their own names or recognizable pseudonyms. As always, Bukeikhanov signed only the articles that were political in purpose under his own name, while signing the articles that were literary or philosophical under one of his many pseudonyms – including pseudonyms such as Uaq and Qyr Balasy, which Bukeikhanov had been using for many years, in a variety of different publications. There were also many anonymous reports and announcements about literary events, where Abai’s name was just briefly mentioned (one of these announcements was reprinted a few weeks later, as the announcement in Aiqap that was mentioned above).


In purely quantitative terms, the promotion undertaken by the three editors of Qazaq may not seem impressive: in less than 20% of the total number of articles published over the course of the newspaper’s five-year existence, Abai was discussed or cited. In qualitative terms, however, the effort was without precedent. Not only did the editors introduce «Abai» to Kazakh readers for the first time, they immediately introduced him as a voice of great authority and wisdom – a thinker and a visionary. The technique they used for this purpose was citation: they cited lines of Abai’s poems at length, as a means of offering advice or insight. For example, when Dulatov wanted to advise his fellow Kazakhs to stop their legal battles about livestock theft, he established Abai as the decisive moral authority, citing two lines from his poetry: «If you don’t see a friend in each other, Kazakhs / everything you do is in vain.» [102] When Dulatov wanted to discuss the origins of the misbehaviour of two Kazakh adolescents, he cited Abai to show that Abai was a visionary thinker, who had already understood twenty or thirty years before that Kazakh children lacked a literary education and were therefore deceitful and excessively competitive. [103]


Despite their energy and enthusiasm, the editors of Qazaq worked in stressful conditions, pressured by the Russian authorities and by financial limitations. These stressful conditions were probably exacerbated when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914. Little is known about the financial support of Qazaq, other than that it was funded by an organization called Azamat, but it is clear from the advertisements that the editors were also selling books, including Abai’s book of poems, entitled Various Propaganda Lyrics by Ibrahim Qunanbai-uly. However, in March 1915, the editors announced that no more copies of the book were available. [104] On the one hand, this announcement shows that the editors’ promotion of Abai had worked: the readers of Qazaq had been buying Abai’s book of poems. On the other hand, it also shows how limited the means were with which the editors of Qazaq had to conduct their publishing activities. Scholars have claimed that the book sold by the editors of Qazaq was identical to the book published in Saint Petersburg in 1909. However, this claim cannot be verified, as no copies of the book sold by Qazaq seem to have survived the 25 years of devastation that would follow.


During the years of the Kazakh Famine (1929-1933), when about 40% of the Kazakh population died, Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov were living in Russia: Bukeikhanov under house arrest in Moscow, Baitursynov and Dulatov in separate labour camps in Northern Russia. By the end of the Great Terror, all three men had been terminated, their personal papers destroyed, their families silenced. Throughout the era of the Soviet Union, until the time of Glasnost, their names were erased from Kazakh history. As a result, we do not know much about the private lives of these three men – the goals, dreams and disappointments they had. However, many of their published writings still exist. These writings provide us with enough evidence to help us speculate about the real history behind the genesis of the poet and thinker we now call «Abai».


Based on the internal evidence provided by their own writings, the three men were already discussing Abai’s poetry as early as 1903. In his first extensive article about Abai, published in November 1913 in Qazaq, Baitursynov recalled: «In 1903 a notebook with Abai’s writings fell into my hands … According to Alikhan Bukeikhanov, Abai read books of European thinkers in translation … Among poets, he liked the Russian poet called Lermontov.» [105] A year later, in the same newspaper, Dulatov confirmed that there had already been a close collaboration between Bukeikhanov and Baitursynov at the time: «I saw Abai’s writings for the first time at Baitursynov’s, when I went to Omsk in June 1904.» [106] In 1904, only nineteen years old, Dulatov had become a student at the Teacher’s College in Omsk and had been introduced to Bukeikhanov by Baitursynov (whom Dulatov knew, possibly because Baitursynov may have been Dulatov’s teacher at a secondary school in Torgai).


The recollections by Baitursynov and Dulatov are important because they contradict Bukeikhanov’s own version of the history of Abai’s writings, which he made public in Qazaq shortly afterwards, in the obituary he wrote in 1915 for Abai’s nephew, «Käkitai Ysqaq-uly», a person which he had already introduced in his obituary for Abai in 1905. In the obituary of 1915, Bukeikhanov claimed that he had seen the manuscript of Abai’s writings for the first time only in April 1905, when «Käkitai» had brought it to Omsk and had spent several days at Bukeikhanov’s home, talking about the life and writings of his uncle. [107] The history recalled in the obituary of 1915 fit the history that Bukeikhanov had begun in the obituary of 1905, where he had claimed that all the biographical information about Abai had been provided by «Käkitai».


But was it a true history? Most certainly not. Bukeikhanov had been involved with Abai’s poems since they were first published in 1889, in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí. Given his profile, and given his preference for using pseudonyms, Bukeikhanov was most likely not just the newspaper’s translator of the poems, but the actual author of these poems. When Baitursynov and Dulatov wrote in their own articles in Qazaq that Bukeikhanov had been the one who had shown them Abai’s handwritten poems long before they had been published in a book in 1909, Bukeikhanov had probably started receiving inquiries from readers about his personal ties to Abai. After all, there was a question that Bukeikhanov had never answered up this point: why had he, Bukeikhanov, who did not have any family ties to Ibrahim «Abai» Qunanbai, been chosen to promote and publish Abai’s work? To stop the question from becoming a problem, Bukeikhanov used the same technique in the obituary of 1915 that he had already used in the obituary of 1905. By declaring that the subject of his article had passed away, Bukeikhanov believed that he would be able to stop all further inquiries that might come from interested third parties – journalists, publishers, ethnographers.


Should Bukeikhanov therefore be accused of being a liar? Bukeikhanov was no more of a liar than the Soviet propagandists who, more than a decade later, would steal Bukeikhanov’s work and add pro-Soviet messages wherever they wanted. From an ideological perspective, both Bukeikhanov and the Soviet propagandists felt justified in what they did: they wanted to present «Abai» as an ideal man, who showed that it was beneficial for Kazakhs to learn from Russian culture. That the Soviet propagandists decided to launch their large-scale presentation of the collected works of «Abai» in 1933, near the end of the Kazakh Famine, may have horrified Bukeikhanov, however.


The great difference between Bukeikhanov and the Soviet propagandists was that Bukeikhanov had created everything himself. While it is possible to read Bukeikhanov’s obituary of «Käkitai Ysqaq-uly» as a factual account, it is also possible to read it differently and to laugh at the inventiveness of Bukeikhanov’s story, his clever way of shutting down any further inquiries about his acquaintance with Abai’s relatives. The playfulness Bukeikhanov displayed in the obituary of 1915 would be even further accentuated in the jokes some of his younger colleagues would start making about Abai’s biography in a new newspaper called Sary Arqa, during the revolutionary year of 1917.


The jokes were similar to the ones that the Russian duo «Ilf and Petrov» would play in their satirical novel of 1931, The Little Golden Calf. For example, in issue 2 of Sary Arqa, there was an announcement that «ten or so children of Abai, 14-15 youths», including Abai’s Russian son, Mikhail Qunanbaev, had started a charitable organisation, which had made a play out of Shakh-Karim’s poem Enlik-Kebek and had performed it, with an introduction by the «seminarist Mukhtar Auezov», at the wedding party of the daughter of Abai’s Kazakh son, Turagul Qunanbai. [108] In issues 11 and 57, there were brief announcements that brought «Abai Qunanbai» back to life, as the donor of, respectively, 50 tenge and 20 tenge to two charitable organisations. [109]


Who wrote these anonymous announcements in 1917 is not known, but the newspaper’s contributors included all of Bukeikhanov’s younger colleagues, including Baitursynov and Dulatov as well as Mukhtar Auezov, Zhusipbek Aimautov, Beimbet Mailin and others. Whether Bukeikhanov, who lived in exile in Samara until 21 October 1917, [110] approved of the jokes is not known. However, given the playful manner in which he handled the obituary of 1915, it is possible that he would not have disapproved.


It is unfortunate, therefore, that readers and scholars in the post-Soviet era continue on the same path as their Soviet predecessors and insist on reading the mythology that Bukeikhanov created around «Abai» and even the jokes that Bukeikhanov’s younger colleagues made about this mythology as the elements of a factual biography. There are too many signs to the contrary.


No letters or diaries survive that could reveal what Baitursynov and Dulatov thought about the mythology Bukeikhanov had created. However, it is clear that already in 1913, Baitursynov knew the identity of the author hiding behind the name «Abai». In his article dated 30 November 1913, Baitursynov stated that Abai’s poems were «good» and «complete» but that they had «one flaw: the metrical feet were not edited». This irregular metre, Baitursynov explained, was unmusical and gave him the same experience as riding a horse that suddenly changed its ambling gait. [111] Would anyone criticize a genius this way? Clearly, Baitursynov, a talented poet himself, did not consider Abai’s talents exceptional. Baitursynov went even further, proposing to correct the metrical problems himself: «This flaw can be corrected. If the 3-syllable feet and 4-syllable feet that have been swapped are put in their own places, it will be corrected.» [112]


Baitursynov was not only a talented poet and musician, he was also a scholar of literature. In his book on the aesthetics of Kazakh literature (first published in Tashkent in 1926), he would again discuss the metrical patterns of Abai’s poetry at great length. [113] However, his proposal in the article of 1913 should strike anyone as unusual. Why would Baitursynov propose to make stylistic changes to the work of an older, respected poet who had passed away? The only plausible answer to this question is that Baitursynov made this proposal because he knew that the real author of these poems was his colleague, Bukeikhanov, with whom he had been in conversation about Abai’s poems ever since Bukeikhanov showed him the manuscript in 1903.


Admittedly, Bukeikhanov’s manuscript does not exist any longer. Nor do we have any written records in Baitursynov’s handwriting from the period 1903-1913 that could show whether Baitursynov revised any of the handwritten poems in Bukeikhanov’s manuscript. However, there are other historical records that can help us reconstruct what may have happened: first, the book advertisements in the newspaper Qazaq; second, the poems that were published anonymously in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1889.


According to the official genealogy of Abai’s writings, which was also adopted by the editors of the authoritative edition of 2005, [114] the book of Abai’s poems that was published in 1909 contained all the definitive versions, and therefore, the book that was sold by the editors of Qazaq could only be a reprint of the book of 1909. The advertisements in the newspaper Qazaq suggest a different history. Early in 1913, in issues 8, 13 and 20, a book entitled Various Propaganda Lyrics, by the «famous Kazakh poet Ibrahim Qunanbai-uly», had begun to be advertised as a «newly published book». Inquiries could be made at the shop of «Kopbai Baisov» in Semipalatinsk. After these early announcements, the editors of Qazaq continued to promote Abai’s writings in their articles, but no other advertisements regarding Abai’s book were published in 1913. The reason for this long silence is not known: did the available copies sell out quickly, or was the advertised book never available at Baisov’s shop?


Only on 23 January 1914 (in issue 47), almost two months after Baitursynov offered to revise the irregular metres in Abai’s poems, did a new advertisement appear, with the message: «Abai’s verses have arrived». This new book, for sale at the editorial office of Qazaq for the price of 75 cents, would be advertised four more times in the summer of 1914 (in issues 72, 74, 76 and 77). On 5 March 1915 (in issue 109), it was announced that no more copies of the book were available. There was no mention that the book might be reprinted. Was the edition of Abai’s poems that arrived in the newspaper’s editorial office in January 1914 identical to the edition that was published in 1909 and that, perhaps, was still available for sale in 1913? This question cannot be answered, given that no copies of the edition of 1914 survive, and given that the copies currently representing the edition of 1909 raise so many questions regarding their authenticity that it is impossible to consider them reliable sources of information.


However, it is likely that between November 1913 and January 1914, Baitursynov managed to persuade Bukeikhanov to revise the irregular metres in some of Abai’s poems and publish them in the new edition of 1914. The evidence can be found in the other historical source that has survived: the poems that were published, anonymously, in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1889 and whose revised versions were published under the name «Abai» in the first decades of the 20th century.


One of these poems, today known under the title «Here, I became a bolys», shows clearly that the version of 1889, by the time it was published again in the 20th century, had undergone the stylistic changes that Baitursynov, in his article of 1913, declared he would like to implement in Abai’s poems. The version of 1889 had followed an irregular metrical pattern of constantly changing feet. [115] The revised version, which was cited by Bukeikhanov on 31 January 1914 (one week after the arrival of the 1914 edition of Abai’s poems), [116] had a very regular metrical pattern: most lines of the poem consisted of a four-syllable foot followed by a three-syllable foot, just like Baitursynov had wanted. To attain this regular pattern, the revised version also changed the original third-person perspective into a first-person perspective, thus making most of the lines shorter and easier to adapt to a regular rhythm. Moreover, it displayed a much more polished rhyme scheme. Whether Baitursynov implemented the stylistic changes himself or whether he advised Bukeikhanov on revising the poem cannot be determined. Any evidence regarding the collaboration between Baitursynov and Bukeikhanov disappeared long ago. What is clear, however, is that Baitursynov’s aesthetic theory exerted its influence over how the poem «Here, I became a bolys» was revised and published in 1914.


This scenario goes counter to the official history that was established by Soviet scholars and propagandists. In this scenario, Abai’s poems underwent further changes in the first decades of the 20th century as a result of the intense collaboration that occurred between Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov – a collaboration that had begun as early as 1903 but that had intensified when they joined forces as editors of the newspaper Qazaq. Given that as little is known about the contents of the edition of Abai’s poems of 1909 as there is about the contents of the edition of Abai’s poems of 1914, it cannot be determined which changes were made at which time. However, there are two facts that can be stated with certainty about the version of the poem «Here, I became a bolys» that was published in the edition of 1914. First, this version of the poem was stylistically very different from the original version that was published in 1889. And second, this version showed that Baitursynov’s ideas on the importance of maintaining a regular metre had been a decisive influence.


It is possible that the collaboration on Abai’s poems also included Dulatov, the youngest of the three editors of Qazaq. For example, there are indications that the poem titled «At boarding school many Kazakh children study», which today is considered one of Abai’s canonical poems, may have been authored by Dulatov. Even though it was briefly cited in an article in Aiqap in 1912, [117] Dulatov was the first who first drew attention to the poem by citing it in full in an article about an admissions scandal at a Russian-Kazakh gymnasium in Omsk. [118] A stylistic analysis of this poem quickly establishes that it is much angrier in tone than any other poem in Abai’s canon. The calm and prophetic tone characteristic of Abai’s poems is absent here. Dulatov was notorious for his argumentative, sometimes angry voice – a fact for which he was criticized by older readers. [119] A stylistic analysis of this poem also establishes that it uses an unusually high number of Russian words and phrases – a stylistic trait that is characteristic of 20th-century Kazakh not of 19th-century Kazakh. Most of Abai’s poems were probably written in the 19th century, probably by Bukeikhanov, who, like Baitursynov, used few Russian words in his writing. The most likely author of «At boarding school many Kazakh children study» is therefore not Bukeikhanov but someone younger, someone like Dulatov.


The picture that thus emerges is complicated: while it is clear who created the persona «Abai» and who promoted it in the first decades of the 20th century, the poetry canon of «Abai» probably contains poems that were written not only by Bukeikhanov but also by other authors, whose identity may never be known with certainty.


Other aspects of the genesis of «Abai» in the 20th century are also clear. One such aspect is that the three editors of Qazaq are the most likely candidates for having authored the many translations and rewritings of classical Russian poetry that today are still part of Abai’s canon. In today’s canon there are about fifteen fables in verse that can be considered free translations or rewritings of fables by Ivan Krylov, eight poems that that can be considered free translations or rewritings of extracts of Aleksandr Pushkin’s novel in verse Yevgeny Onegin, and about thirty lyrical poems that that can be considered free translations or rewritings of poems by Mikhail Lermontov. In 1951, the scholar Zaki Akhmetov, who researched Abai’s poems more deeply than any of his colleagues, proposed that there were even more poems in Abai’s canon that were inspired by poems by Lermontov. [120] Who was the author of all these translations and rewritings? How could anyone believe that they were produced by a 19th-century Kazakh nomad whose entire Russian education, according to the official biography (already established by Bukeikhanov in 1905), consisted of three months of lessons at an Orthodox Church school?


The only people capable of producing such sophisticated work at the time were highly educated people such as Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov. The three editors of Qazaq shared a passion for Russian literature and were actively engaged in producing translations of verses by Krylov and Lermontov in books and newspapers. Already in 1894, Bukeikhanov, who was seven years older than Baitursynov and nineteen years older than Dulatov, had published his translations of one of the fables by Krylov and a novella by Leo Tolstoy. [121] Probably under Bukeikhanov’s mentorship, his younger colleagues went on to produce their own translations of Russian literature. In 1909, Baitursynov published a book titled Forty Fables, which contained translations of fables by Krylov. In 1913-1914, Dulatov published his translation of Lermontov’s poems in Aiqap and Qazaq. [122] Moreover, given that Bukeikhanov already possessed a notebook with Abai’s handwritten poems in 1903, and given that Bukeikhanov and (to a lesser degree) his two younger colleagues spent several decades promoting the work and reputation of Abai, Bukeikhanov and (to a lesser degree) his two younger colleagues were the most likely authors of the many rewritings of Russian poetry that entered Abai’s canon.


The influence of Russian culture on Abai’s artistic work extended even further, affecting also the songs attributed to Abai. In his research published in 1951, Akhmetov established that at least two of Abai’s poems were based on popular Russian songs: Anton Rubinstein’s romance «Broken Heart» and Mikhail Glinka’s folk song «Not a Common Autumn Rain». [123] The influence of Russian romances had already been noted in 1925 by the Russian musicologist Aleksandr Zatayevich, who recorded three songs, which, according to his sources, had been composed by Abai: «Tatyana’s Song», «My Soul is Hapless» and one untitled song. Zatayevich, who admired the freshness and originality of Kazakh folk songs, was not impressed by Abai’s songs, which he evaluated as imitations of dilletante Russian songs of low quality. [124]


Whether or not Zatayevich’s personal appreciation of Abai’s music can be considered fair is another matter. However, his professional assessment that the musical structure of Abai’s songs was based on Russian songs should be taken seriously, as it shows that the person who composed these songs was not a nomad but a Russified urban Kazakh – in other words, someone like Bukeikhanov (rather than someone like Baitursynov, who was immersed in Kazakh music, not Russian music). Bukeikhanov, having lived for many years in Omsk and having married into a Russian family, was an appreciative concertgoer, who had thought deeply about Western music – a fact that he confirmed by writing (under the pseudonym Arys-uly) an extensive article on music, titled «Song, Music and its Instruments», in Qazaq in 1914. [125] Furthermore, Bukeikhanov’s article on music provides further proof that Bukeikhanov was not only the most likely composer of Abai’s songs but also the most likely creator of Abai’s poems. For example, the image «A newly born child greets the world with his crying song. A dying man sings a song in his last breath», which he uses in his article to describe the life-long importance of music, is very similar to an image in one of Abai’s poems, titled «Man in Mourning, Heart in Pain»: «When you are born, a song opens the door of the world, / Your body enters earth with a song.» Was Bukeikhanov so inspired by his reading of Abai’s poetry that he unconsciously repeated the same image? Given what we know about Bukeikhanov’s close involvement with Abai’s poetry since it was first published in 1889, it was probably the reverse: in his article on music, Bukeikhanov repeated (consciously or unconsciously) an image that he had created in one of his own poems, many years before.


One final aspect of the genesis of the persona «Abai» is also clear. After the newspaper Qazaq was shut down in 1917, the promotion of Abai’s work and reputation entered a new phase with the founding of the magazine Abai in 1918. This magazine, during the brief period that it was allowed to exist, openly supported Alash Orda, from which it received in return financial support through the organization Uaq. It was edited by a collective of five or six writers, among whom Zhusipbek Aimautov had been appointed as the official editor.


In this new phase in the genesis of «Abai», the focus shifted from Abai’s poems to Abai’s prose texts. In their articles and promotional activities, Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov had presented Abai as a visionary poet and a deep thinker, but never as writer of prose texts. Therefore, the idea to add a new genre to Abai’s repertoire probably did not come from the former editors of Qazaq but from someone else: most likely, Aimautov.


The idea that Abai was also a prolific writer of prose texts had been invented a few months before the launch of Abai, in the newspaper Sary Arqa. On 14 September 1917, an anonymous prose text was published in Sary Arqa, under the title «Abai’s Word». [126] This text reflected on the importance of unity among all Kazakhs and on the importance of honest, hard work. In 1933, it would officially enter Abai’s canon as the «Sixth Word», when the Soviet authorities published not only Abai’s poems but also an extensive series of prose texts, titled Qara Sözder (Black Words).


The idea introduced in Sary Arqa in 1917 proved influential, as in the next year, the magazine Abai would publish five more prose texts under the same title. In 1933, all five texts would be entered almost literally into Abai’s canon in 1933. The prose text titled «Joy and Consolation» (subtitled «Abai’s Word»), published in issue 1, would become the «Twenty-third Word». The prose text titled «Abai’s Word», published in issue 5, would become the «Fortieth Word». The prose text titled « About Proverbs» (subtitled «Abai’s Word»), published in issue 7, would become two texts in Abai’s canon: the «Nineteenth Word» and the «Twenty-ninth Word». The prose text titled «Wisdom, Will and Heart» (subtitled «Abai’s Word»), published in issue 11, would become the «Seventeenth Word». And finally, the prose text titled «The Difference Between the Wise and the Foolish» (subtitled «Abai’s Word»), published in issue 12, would become the «Fifteenth Word».


If any of these texts had been written by Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov or Dulatov, they would have cited, discussed or published them much earlier. The most likely author, therefore, was one of the talented younger essayists that were part of the magazine’s editorial staff: either Aimautov or Mukhtar Auezov. The latter wrote about many subjects in the magazine but not about Abai. In fact, despite having been mentioned in a satirical piece about Abai’s children in Sary Arqa in 1917, Auezov would not write about Abai until he emerged as one of the leading editors of the Soviet book project in 1933. Aimautov, on the other hand, openly expressed his great admiration for Abai as a thinker and an enlightener in the first pages of the first issue of the magazine. Moreover, in the same issue, Aimautov also published under his own name another prose text, titled «Wealth and Poverty», a critique of Kazakh hypocrisy and laziness, which probably formed the basis for the text that in 1933 would enter Abai’s canon as the «Twenty-eighth Word». Given the many stylistic and philosophical resemblances to the other texts in the series, Aimautov probably also published the text titled «About Strength» in issue 10, which in 1933 would enter Abai’s canon as the «Fourteenth Word».


While Aimautov’s prose texts were critical of some of the social and ethical foundations of Kazakh culture at the time, they were not anti-Muslim, anti-bai or anti-nomadic. In this regard, they can still be distinguished from the dozens of new prose texts that would be added to Abai’s canon in 1933, when the Soviet authorities would launch a large-scale campaign to promote «Abai» as a pro-Soviet thinker.


Many of the magazine’s contributors used pseudonyms – and for the same purposes for which their intellectual and political mentor, Bukeikhanov, had used them. Bukeikhanov had used pseudonyms during his entire career, sometimes to protect his identity, but sometimes also, for example when he used pseudonyms such as Uaq or Qyr Balasy, to convey a specific message. The most significant pseudonyms that were used in the magazine Abai in this regard were probably «Aqylbai Abai-uly» and «Magauia Abai Balasy» – the authors of two long narrative poems published in issues 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10.


Since the Soviet era, these two pseudonyms have often been misinterpreted as the real names of actual people – namely, the sons of Ibrahim «Abai» Qunanbai, one of them, according to Bukeikhanov’s obituary of 1905, died forty days before his father, in May 1904. It is unlikely that a man, who had not been identified by his biographer (Bukeikhanov) as a poet, would have a long and sophisticated poem published, fourteen years after his death. In fact, any Kazakh reader of the magazine Abai would have understood the names «Aqylbai Abai-uly» and «Magauia Abai Balasy» differently: as symbolical names that were meant to send a specific message. Regardless of who wrote the poems (possibly Magzhan Zhumabayev, who published another poem under his own name, «Magzhan», in issue 11), the names were meant to announce that Abai’s legacy would be carried on by a new generation of writers, Abai’s intellectual children.


During the brief existence of the magazine Abai, the language and the style of Kazakh prose writing improved greatly. This increased quality was the culmination of a cultural movement, initiated decades before by writers such as Bukeikhanov and Zhusip Köpei-uly, which had created out of the sophisticated oral culture of Kazakhs an equally sophisticated written culture. A new generation of poets and prose writers had stood up: Baitursynov, Dulatov, Zhumabayev, Aimautov and Auezov. These men were the real heirs of «Abai», the real students of «Abai’s school», whose work would go on to shine like the Pleiades of Kazakh literature.


The events that would take place in the years and decades ahead were unexpected. Neither Bukeikhanov nor Aimautov nor any of the other contributors could have anticipated what would happen to the poems and prose texts that they had created under the avatar «Abai», as part of their fight to maintain Kazakh autonomy in the face of an increasingly oppressive Russian ruler.


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.» [127]

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». [128] 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. [129] (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. [130]

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.» [131] 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. [132]

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.» [133]

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. [134] 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). [135]

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. [136] 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». [137] 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.» [138]

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.


8. Conclusion


This article has uncovered many facts that go counter to the official history that has been spun around the life and work of «Abai» for the last one hundred years. In the process, this article has amassed a great amount of evidence pointing to Alikhan Bukeikhanov as the most likely author of many of Abai’s writings. If historical events had taken a different turn in the 20th century, would Bukeikhanov, the creator of the most influential heteronym in the history of Turkic literature, be considered as one of greatest writers of the Central Asia? Would his «Abai», his heteronym, his poetic alter ago, be considered a genius invention?

As this article has suggested several times, scholars of Abai’s work have been aware of the true identity of «Abai» for a long time. Influential Soviet scholars such as Hairzhan Bekhozhin, Mikhail Fetisov and Ushköltai Suhbanberdina frequently substituted the name «Abai» for that of Bukeikhanov. Countless other scholars and propagandists have followed suit, taking elements from Bukeikhanov’s personal life and attributing them to «Abai». When readers of this article reread Abai’s official biography or hear about a new discovery regarding Abai’s personal history, they should do well to remind themselves that the real subject of this personal history may be Bukeikhanov.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that Abai’s personal history is a copy of Bukeikhanov’s. Abai’s official biography (or one of the different versions thereof) probably contains many fictional elements. Moreover, Bukeikhanov’s personal history contains many elements about which very little is known: the time and location of his birth, his living conditions during his childhood years, and last but not least, his professional activities while living under house arrest in Moscow until his execution in 1937.

Nonetheless, the facts that this article has uncovered about Bukeikhanov’s writings could be the beginning of a new biography. No matter how many personal papers were destroyed under Stalin’s reign and no matter how many archival documents disappeared in the post-Soviet period, enough records remain to document at least some moments in the life of Bukeikhanov. It would be worth the effort, as Bukeikhanov is one of the important figures in Kazakh history. As a political leader, he was courageous and charismatic, inspiring others to rise up with him and defend the rights of Kazakh nomads and Kazakh speakers in general. As a journalist, he was eloquent and productive, contributing to numerous newspapers and magazines and editing two of the most important Kazakh newspapers in history. As a poet, he was secretive but brilliant, creating some of the most sophisticated and best-loved poems in the Kazakh language. A new biography could also reveal to what extent Bukeikhanov modelled the life of «Abai» after his own and to what extent the writers, scholars and propagandists who followed in his footsteps modelled the life of «Abai» after the facts of Bukeikhanov’s life.

Much more research is needed, but the facts that this article has already uncovered show that the identities of Abai and Bukeikhanov cannot be exchanged. Neither their personal lives nor their writings match completely. Even though Bukeikhanov wrote many of the poems and prose texts that are now attributed to «Abai», he did not write all of them. Other writers contributed. Important early influences included Zhusip Köpei-uly and Shahin-Gerei Bökei-uly. His main Alash collaborators, Akhmet Baitursynov and Mirzhaqyp Dulatov, contributed to poems and, a few years later, another Alash collaborator, Zhusipbek Aimautov, added a series of prose texts. And finally, a group of anonymous Soviet poets and propagandists took control of the writings gathered by Alash Orda to produce a collection of poems and prose texts that is still regarded as definitive and canonical today.

However, rather than treating the Soviet version as the canonical version, Abai’s poems and prose texts should be restored to their original state – that is to say, to the intentions of their original authors. If this restoration principle is applied to all other important works of art in the world, why should it not be applied to the writings of Abai? Abai’s writings will always be an most important part of the cultural patrimony of Kazakhstan, even if it is shown that Abai’s collected writings are a composite work, to which many authors contributed.

Identifying the authors who wrote the thirty-six prose texts that were added to Abai’s canon in 1933 will be especially difficult, as it will require researchers to delve into the secretive world of Soviet propaganda, in which writings passed through the hands of multiple editors and translators before they were validated by a supervising editor. Moreover, there are prose texts in Abai’s canon that were written by authors whose identity cannot even be guessed. For example, who wrote Word 38? Given its tone and content, it is likely that Word 38 was written by a mullah. But who was it? Was it a mullah associated with Alash Orda, whose writings and belongings had been confiscated by the Soviet authorities? If so, this would strengthen the point that most of the poems and prose texts that are now attributed to «Abai» were in fact created by members or supporters of Alash Orda. Moreover, if Word 38 were found, it would cast new light on the ways in which Soviet editors manipulated the contents of the 1933 edition of Abai’s collected writings.

Writing a new history of the genesis of «Abai» would not just be a cultural history, it would also be a history of the life and work of one man. If, one day, after a full scientific review, it is finally recognized that Bukeikhanov was the author of most of Abai’s poems and, possibly, some of his prose texts, a whole new area of scholarship will open up. Throughout his career, but especially in the nineteenth century, Bukeikhanov was a prolific writer. If all of Bukeikhanov’s prose texts were collected in a bilingual, authoritative edition, they would provide a monument to one the most formidable intellectuals in Kazakh history, whose name and work has been suppressed for too long. An authoritative edition of Bukeikhanov’s collected writings would also have the added benefit of deepening our understanding of the writings in Abai’s canon.

One such example would be an article titled «The Story Kazakhs Cannot Forget», which was first published in the Russian newspaper Sibirskii Vestnik in 1892, and republished, with a Kazakh translation, in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí later in the year. [139] This article, which consisted of a retelling of the legend «Enlik and Kebek» and a geographical history of the region of the Qarqaraly, was rediscovered in the 1980s (during Glasnost) and attributed to a man by the name of «Shahkarim Qudaiberdiev», supposedly a nephew of Abai.

The writer and critic Mukhtar Magauin disagreed. Having noticed stylistic resemblances between this article and Abai’s canonical prose texts, and reasoning on the belief that Abai was the only Kazakh at the time who had the scientific knowledge necessary to write this article, Magauin declared that the author was none other than Abai himself. Moreover, Magauin was so impressed by the retelling of the legend that he wanted to go further and name Abai the first Kazakh fiction writer in history. [140] However, Magauin probably did not look at the original text in the Russian newspaper Sibirskii Vestnik and therefore failed to notice that its retelling of the legend, the story of two lovers who are punished for breaking with the tradition of the arranged marriage, was dedicated to a Russian woman, named by her initials, «M.P.B.». If Magauin had looked at the original in Sibirskii Vestnik, he would have understood the impossibility of his attribution: a pious and prosperous Kazakh nomad such as Abai, married with three wives, would never declare his love for a Slavic woman in a Russian newspaper, not even under cover of a pseudonym.

The only Kazakh who could possibly have written this text in 1892 was Bukeikhanov. Not only was Bukeikhanov born in the region of Qarqaraly, he was probably the only Kazakh in the Stepnoi Krai at the time who combined an active interest in literature with an active interest in science. In fact, in 1892 Bukeikhanov was studying forestry science (in either Tomsk or St. Petersburg), which would also explain why he paid attention in the article to the deforestation of the region. Moreover, if the article’s author was identified as Bukeikhanov, also the article’s dedication to an anonymous Russian woman could be more easily understood. While no personal papers survive that could attest to Bukeikhanov’s romantic attachments in this period, his passion for at least one Slavic woman can be established by a historical fact: in 1901 Bukeikhanov married Elena Sevostyanova, the daughter of a Narodnik – a marriage that would last until her death, in 1918.

If the text from 1892 was given its proper place in Bukeikhanov’s canon and then read side by side with two poems from Abai’s canon, namely «My Dark Soul Will Never Light Up Again» and «What Have You Done to Me», many readers would find it illuminating. The relationship in these two poems – between the male poet, supposedly a Kazakh nomad, and the white-skinned woman who has forsaken him – has always puzzled readers. The writer and critic Talasbek Asemqulov, for example, wrestled with several explanations, each of them improbable. [141] If Asemqulov had read Bukeikhanov’s text from 1892 and had known that its author also wrote Abai’s two poems, he would have understood. Such is the power of comparative reading: much can be revealed by putting texts side by side.

Unfortunately, contemporary scholarship in Kazakhstan is following a different approach. All too often, the focus is not on analysis but on discovery: the discovery of a new person who was supposedly related to Abai or the discovery of a new material object that supposedly belonged to Abai. All too often, these discoveries are announced by official news media, without having gone through a scientific review process.

The problem of non-scientific discovery, so characteristic of the field of Abai studies, is not new. Already in 1940, Mukhtar Auezov warned that the process of assigning writings, life events and personal objects to Abai should be done in a scientifically responsible way. [142] The problem is further exacerbated by the country’s linguistic divide: Russian-speaking scholars, due to their lack of knowledge of the country’s official language, have no idea what kind of research is being done by their Kazakh-speaking colleagues.

Despite the detrimental effect that Soviet ideology has had on the current state of scholarship in Kazakhstan, there is always room for hope. This article was written in hopes of reaching a new generation of literary critics, who could pool together their expertise in the traditional methods of Arabic, Kazakh and Russian philology and the new quantitative methods of stylometric analysis in order to investigate the similarities between the writings of the many members of Alash Orda and the writings of «Abai». With the help of foreign experts in forensic science, these critics could even begin to decipher the origins of handwritten notes and notebooks hiding in various archives.

This article was also written in hopes of reaching a new generation of historians, who would be willing to abandon the Soviet habit of presenting human subjects as flawless stone idols and instead investigate the tangled lives of the talented but flawed human beings who created the avatar «Abai» for political reasons but were defeated by historical circumstances they could neither predict nor control. At least, this new history of the life and work of «Abai» would have the potential of being a true history – not a fake, idealized narrative created by Soviet ideologists. Moreover, at the heart of this history could stand a transcendent work of art, restored to its original, pre-Soviet state: Abai’s poetry.

«Abai»: the most famous unknown writer of Kazakhstan. Once Kazakhs accept this, perhaps they will also be ready to learn more about their shared history, about which so little is known today.


[1] Abai. When I Die, My Place Shall Be in the Damp Earth. In Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of his Works. Volume 2. Almaty, 2005, p. 22.

[2] Abai. Don’t Boast without Finding Knowledge. In Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of his Works. Volume 1. Almaty, 2005, p. 60.

[3] Aslan Zhaksylykov. Poetics and Aesthetics of Abay. Almaty, 2012.

[4] Gulzia Qambarbayeva. Abay’s Lyrics in Russian Translation. Alma-Ata, 1964 (republished in 2014).

[5] Mukhtar Auezov. To the Researchers of Abai. In Fifty-Volume Complete Collection of Writings. Volume 15. Articles, Research and Plays. 1937-1940. Almaty, 2004, pp. 30-33.

[6] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Abay (Ibrahim) Kunanbaev (obituary). In Semipalatinskii Listok, issue 250, 1905.

[7] Donald Ostrowski. Who Wrote That? Authorship Controversies from Moses to Sholokhov. Ithaca and London, 2020.

[8] Ilyash Zhansugirov, Introduction. In Complete collection of Abai’s writings. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, p. 5.

[9] Zaki Akhmetov. New Information about Abai’s Translations of Lermontov. In Turkological Collection, issue 1, 1951, pp. 31-42. Zaki Akhmetov. Mature Poet, Wise Thinker. In Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of his Works. Volume 1. Almaty, 2005, pp. 6-33.

[10] Nikolai Anastasiev. Abai. Moscow, 2008, p. 7.

[11] Radik Temirgaliyev. Kazakhs and Russia. Moscow, 2013.

[12] Tolegen Tazhibayev. Enlightenment and the Schools of Kazakhstan in the Second Half of the 19th Century. Alma-Ata, 1962, p. 270.

[13] Zhusup Kopeiuly. Teaching Literacy in the Steppe. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 38, 1889. A.N. Mullahs in uezd K. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 19, 1889.

[14] Adeeb Khalid. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley, 1998, pp. 21-22.

[15] Adeeb Khalid. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform. Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley, 1998.

[16] Vyacheslav Ogryzko. What We Don’t Know about Abai and his Great Singer (part 1): Demythologizing the Great Epic Novel by Mukhtar Auezov. In Literaturnaya Rossia, issue 27, 2018.

[17] Olzhas Suleimenov. AZ i IA. Alma-Ata, 1975.

[18] Esmagambet Ismailov. Poets. Alma-Ata, 1957, pp. 188-189.

[19] Konstantin Bogdanov, Riccardo Nicolosi and Iurii Murashov (eds.). Dzhambul Dzhabaev. The Adventures of a Kazakh Aqyn in the Land of the Soviets. Articles and Materials. Moscow, 2013.

[20] Elena Zemskova. Soviet «Folklore» as a Translation Project: The Case of Tvorchestvo narodov SSSR. In Translation in Russian Contexts: Culture, Politics, Identity. London, 2017.

[21] Leonid Sobolev. Poet-thinker. In Kunanbayev. A. Lyrics and poems. Moscow, 1940.

[22] Alena Tarasova. Commissioned Songs: How Soviet Poet-translators became Authors of Pseudo-Folklore. In IQ.HSE, 29 May 2018.

[23] Osip Mandelstam. Oeuvres Complètes. Paris, 2018, p. 431.

[24] Sarah Cameron. The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan. Ithaca, 2018. Robert Kindler, Stalin’s Nomads: Power and Famine in Kazakhstan. Pittsburgh, 2018.

[25] Ilyash Zhansugirov. Introduction. In Complete Collection of Abai’s Writings. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, pp. 5-6.

[26] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbayev (obituary). In Semipalatiskii Listok, issue 250, 1905.

[27] Mukhtar Auezov. Abai’s birth and life. In Abai Qunanbai-uly: The complete collection. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, p.374.

[28] Gabbas Togzhanov. Abai. Qazan, 1935, pp. 9-12.

[29] Gabbas Togzhanov. Abai. Qazan, 1935, pp. 103-110.

[30] Gabbas Togzhanov. Abai. Qazan, 1935, pp. 103-110.

[31] Akhmet Baitursynov. The Major Poet of Kazakhs. In Qazaq, issue 39, 1913.

[32] From the Editors. In Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of his Works. Volume 1. Almaty, 2005, pp. 3-4.

[33] Gulnazia Abuova. Abai’s First Book. In Parasat, issue 5, p. 17.

[34] See http://www.library.kz.

[35] From the Editors. In Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of his Works. Volume 1. Almaty, 2005, pp. 3-4.

[36] See file 598, titled Abai Qunanbaev’s Manuscript, archived at the Central Scientific Library in Almaty. See http://www.library.kz.

[37] 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.

[38] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbayev (Obituary). In Semipalatiskii Listok, issue 250, 1905.

[39] George Kennan. Siberia and the Exile System. Vol. 1. New York, 1891, p. 184.

[40] Ibidem. p. 184.

[41] Akhmet Baitursynov. The Major Poet of Kazakhs. In Qazaq, issue 43, 1913.

[42] Mukhtar Auezov. Abai Ibrahim Kunanbayev: Life and Work. In A.Kunanbayev. Lyrics and Poems. Moscow, 1940, pp. 27-28.

[43] Nikolai Anastasiev. Abai. Moscow, 2008, p. 203.

[44] The library of Tomsk State University has made many issues of Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí available online, thus opening up a window on an important but understudied part of Kazakh history.

[45] From the Editors. Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 1, 1889.

[46] Zhusip Köpei-uly. From Bayan-aul. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 48, 1889.

[47] Nikolai Ostroumov. Sarts. Ethnographic materials. Tashkent, 1896, p. 171.

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

[49] Zhusip Köpei-uly. Livestock is Beneficial for Qazaqs. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issues 45-46, 1889.

[50] Qyr Balasy. A Letter to the Newspaper. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 24, 1889.

[51] Mikhail Silchenko. Abai and Russian Democrats. In Bolshevik Kazakhstana, issue 10, 1947.

[52] Mikhail Fetisov. Birth of the Kazakh Press. Alma-Ata, 1961, p. 322. Fetisov cites the dissertation by Hairzhan Bekhozhin, published in 1949.

[53] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. The Kirghiz People. In Forms of National Movement in Modern States. Saint Petersburg, 1910, pp. 593-594.

[54] Ushköltai Subhanberdina. Aiqap. Almaty, 1995, pp. 16-17.

[55] Aben Satybaldiev. Spiritual Heritage. Almaty, 1987.

[56] Leo Tolstoy. Khaji-Murat. Moscow, 1924.

[57] Tragedy of the Kazakh Aul, 1928-1934.

[58] A.N. Busy Administrator. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 45, 1889.

[59] S.M.Ch. From Bayan-Aul. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 3, 1890.

[60] Kökpai Janatai-uly. Untitled Poem. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 7, 1889. Anonymous. Untitled Poem. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 12, 1889.

[61] Nikolai Anastasiev. Abai. Moscow, 2008, p. 196.

[62] Mikhail Fetisov. Birth of the Kazakh Press. Alma-Ata, 1961, p. 322. Ushköltai Suhbanberdina. Abai’s Works Published in his Lifetime. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, 1888-1902. Almaty, 1996, p. 20.

[63] Zhusip Köpei-uly. From Bayan-aul. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 48, 1889.

[64] Mukhtar Auezov. Memoirs of Kökpai and Turagul. In Complete Collection of Abai’s Writings. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, pp. 385-386.

[65] Hairzhan Bekhozhin. Development of the Kazakh Press (1860-1930). Alma-Ata, 1964, p. 50. Mikhail Fetisov. Birth of the Kazakh Press. Alma-Ata, 1961, p. 53.

[66] S.G. Spring. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 17, 1889.

[67] Ybyrai Altynsarin. Kirghiz Chrestomathy. Orenburg, 1906 (first published in 1879), p. 85.

[68] Grigory Potanin. Kazak-Kyrgyz and Altai Folk-tales, Legends and Fairy-tales. In Zhivaya Starina, issue 3, 1916, p. 189.

[69] Zhusip Köpei-uly. Untitled Poem. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issues 45 and 46, 1889.

[70] Ushköltai Subhanberdina. Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí: 1888-1902. Almaty, 1994.

[71] Ushköltai Subhanberdina. Was Abai the Story’s Author? In Qazaq Adebieti, November 20, 1964. Ushköltai Subhanberdina. Abai’s Works Published in his Lifetime. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí: 1888-1902. Almaty, 1996, pp. 21-22.

[72] Sh.Kh. Letter to the Editor. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 49, 1895.

[73] Abai. When I Die, My Place Shall Be in the Damp Earth. In Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of his Works. Volume 2. Almaty, 2005, p. 22.

[74] Abai. I don’t Write Poems for Entertainment. In Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of his Works. Volume 1. Almaty, 2005, p. 94.

[75] Ushköltai Subhanberdina. Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí: 1888-1902. Almaty, 1994, p. 799. Commentaries. In Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of his Works. Volume 1. Almaty, 2005, p. 217.

[76] Alexandre Bennigsen and Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay. La Presse et le Mouvement National chez les Musulmans de Russie avant 1920. Paris, 1962.

[77] Zhusip Sultankhan Aquly-uly (ed.). Alikhan Bukeikhanov: Complete Collection of Works in the Russian and Kazakh Languages. Vol. I. Astana, 2009, pp. 539-540.

[78] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbayev (obituary). In Semipalatiskii Listok, issue 250, 1905.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[89] 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.

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

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

[92] Bukeikhanov. Kirgizy, p. 597.

[93] Zhusip Sultankhan Aquly-uly (ed.). Alikhan Bukeikhanov: Complete Collection of Works in the Russian and Kazakh Languages. Vol. I. Astana, 2009, pp. 534-536.

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