Ideology or science: an interview about solving the questions surrounding Abai's identity
By conducting this interview, I am not acting as a defender for Zaure Batayeva, but as an interested reader. I would like to ask her a few questions and, perhaps, neutralize the intensity of the insults directed at her. Indeed, in the current situation (everyone is talking about democracy, tolerance, etc.), it would be better to initiate a dialogue than a dispute.
Vera Savelyeva: Your article "Abai's Riddle: The Greatest Unknown Poet of Kazakhstan" is important not only for Kazakh readers but also for foreign readers. The history of world literature includes many cases of hoaxes and falsifications, pseudonyms and heteronyms.
It seems very unproductive that any discussion about the textology of the writings that have been attributed to "Abai" is overshadowed by personal insults.
In Russian we sometimes use the expression "kvass patriotism". Looking at Kazakh culture today, we can say there is also a kind of "kumis patriotism". How strong is it in the Kazakh humanities today? Why do you think, as you write in your blog, “acquaintances stopped communicating with me"? Did you disrupt the mythological order?
Zaure Batayeva: I was not surprised by the attacks on my person. This is how Soviet propagandists, and sadly, Soviet-educated people in general, have always operated. If the message is too difficult to handle, attack the messenger. However, it is unfortunate that, in the year 2020, people who call themselves "intelligentsia" are still using the same old Soviet tactics.
Luckily, I have also received many positive reactions to my article, especially from the younger generations of Kazakhs. For them, "Abai" is not a stone idol. These young people fill me with hope. Kazakhstan will not remain a Soviet republic forever.
I have also received many positive reactions from scholars. Not only from Western and Russian scholars, but also from Kazakh scholars. The reactions of this last group matter the most to me. Those who falsely accuse of me being part of a Western conspiracy forget that, outside of Kazakhstan, almost no-one is interested in "Abai".
To be sure, the very small group of Western scholars that are interested in the history of "Abai" will further investigate the questions that I raise in my article. However, our own Kazakh historians and philologists represent the real future of Abai studies. They will decide whether the field of Abai studies will continue to go down the path of Soviet fantasy and indoctrination, or whether it will change direction and adopt more scientific methods.
As I state in my article, doing more scientific types of research on the life and writings of "Abai" would not diminish Abai's greatness. On the contrary, it would show the complexity and richness of Kazakh history and Kazakh literature. Kazakh history does not begin in 1933. Regardless of the identity of the author or authors who wrote Abai’s poems, these poems will always remain among the greatest achievements of Kazakh literature.
The beauty of Abai’s poetry will be difficult to appreciate for those who cannot read the Kazakh language. Poetic language is always difficult to translate, and Abai’s poetry has been translated badly for decades. Perhaps on purpose? State authorities have always wanted to foreground Abai’s prose writings, and thereby his role as a pro-Russian, anti-nomadic philosopher. I won’t say any more about this, because I know you want to ask me a question about Abai’s prose writings.
Vera Savelyeva: Hot question. Should we separate the prose from the poetry? Or has the moment come to distinguish between two different Abais? I wonder how you perceive the language of Abai's prose writings, the Qara Sözder. Were they written by the same person who wrote the poetry? Are there any texts that are especially interesting to you?
Zaure Batayeva: In the article I discuss the 45 Words in much greater detail than I could do here. I would say to readers of this interview to first pick up a copy of the 45 Words and read the Words with their own eyes before reading my analysis.
Here is what I will say in summary. Given that the 45 prose texts were published for the first time only in 1933 and that 38 words of the 45 appeared from nowhere, we should not be so naïve as to assume that it was a coincidence that the anti-Kazakh subject matter of these new prose texts matched the Soviet collectivisation project that was taking place at the same time.
Even without access to Soviet archives, we can conclude that 80% of the 45 words were written or rewritten by Soviet propagandists. One good example is Word 3, which is clearly based on a letter that Alikhan Bukeikhanov published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1890. Readers can find many issues of Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí online. Luckily, this newspaper was published in a bilingual format, so if you cannot read the Kazakh original in the Arabic script, you can still turn to the Russian transcript in Cyrillic.
Even more clearly than in Abai’s poetry, we can hear the voices of multiple authors in the 45 Words. If after reading Word 3, you turn to Word 38, you will hear a very different voice, definitely not Bukeikhanov’s. The voice of Word 38 is calm and forgiving, probably that of a religious man. You will probably think of lines from the Quran or Rumi’s Masnavi.
Seven texts were published earlier, in the period 1917-18, under a pseudonym or anonymously. I repeat: in 1917 and 1918, not in the official lifetime of Abai. If you compare these texts with each other and with the texts that Zhusipbek Aimautov published under his own name, you will probably conclude that Aimautov was the real author of these seven texts that are now attributed to "Abai".
For decades, the 45 Words have been used to teach schoolchildren about Kazakh culture. In fact, the 45 Words are an important but disturbing historical document. In the 1930s, the Soviet authorities needed a vessel to transmit their propaganda, so they created for "Abai" a series of prose texts to which, for the sake of authenticity, they added existing Kazakh prose texts which they had confiscated and whose authors they had probably either exiled or executed.
Recently, I discovered a new historical fact that adds an important context to the Soviet propaganda efforts of the 1920s and 1930s. In 1925, the Soviet authorities passed a law that made it possible for anyone to copy and re-use someone else’s written work without being accused of plagiarism. The wording of the law was sufficiently vague that it allowed the free use of other people’s written works for propaganda purposes.
Vera Savelyeva: As I understand it, for Kazakhs, Abai is "our everything", as for Russians, after A. Grigoriev's phrase, everything has been Pushkin. Pushkin has been used and quoted in many different historical periods and for many different purposes: he was a revolutionary (message "To Siberia"), then a monarchist ("No, I'm not a flatterer when the king"), then a cosmopolitan ("When the peoples, having forgotten strife, will unite in a great family"), and then a national patriot ("Slanderers of Russia").
According to you, in the case of "our everything", Kazakhs acted differently: they attributed texts to him, added and edited, and formed an Abai corpus for all times and occasions. Moreover, at the turn of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th century, a process of collective creativity took place, which, in my opinion, is unique. It seems to me that it was not only the politic al situation that contributed to this process, but also the literary situation, because this was a time when oral literature and written literature existed simultaneously and copyright did not have a legal status.
In your article, you give the highest assessment to Abai's poetic creativity, with which everyone will agree, and then highlight the distortions, the unauthorized editing of poetic texts in the process of their publication. Does this mean that the oral existence of the poetry preceded their publication, their recording in writing? Later, something seems to have happened to the poems when rewriting from one alphabet to another.
Is it possible, in your opinion, to reconstruct the original author’s text? Who does it belong to? If this is not possible, would there be any other way to represent the evolution of Abai's poetry? After all, at present, the Abai corpus has already been canonized.
Zaure Batayeva: As you say, the study of the genesis of the poet-prophet called “Abai” has to look at many different aspects. The study of “Abai” is a good example of just how complex history can be. To explain some of this complexity in my article, I needed almost 30.000 words. To explain the entire history of the genesis of “Abai” in detail, several books would have to be written. In case anyone was wondering, I have no plans to write any of these books myself.
I looked at the historical evidence for almost a year, and, to put it simply, there are three important phases in the genesis of the poet-prophet we now call "Abai".
The first phase lasts until the turn of the century. In this phase, "Abai" was not known by anyone, neither by Kazakh speakers nor by Russian speakers. It is fair to say that for 19th-century readers the poet "Abai" did not exist. Yet the writing that we now attribute to "Abai" was already being created. We know this because there are historical records. The most important historical record in this regard is the Kazakh newspaper Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, where Alikhan Bukeikhanov (writing under various pseudonyms) and Zhusip Köpei-uly (writing under his own name) published some of the poems and prose texts that we now attribute to "Abai".
The authorship of "Abai" entered a second phase early in the twentieth century, when Bukeikhanov joined forces with Akhmet Baitursynov and Mirzhaqyp Dulatov. Together they promoted "Abai" as a poet and as a philosopher to a small circle of Kazakh intellectuals, by citing him in magazine articles and by publishing samizdat books of his poetry. In this phase, "Abai" became a poet with a personal history and a body of published work.
There are stylistic indications that Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov also collaborated on the writing and revising of poems. Written evidence, confirming the authorship of this or that poem, will be hard to find. In the 1920s, all three men were branded enemies of the state and as a result, of course, their personal papers were confiscated and destroyed.
The third and final phase began when the Soviet authorities decided to turn "Abai" into a Kazakh poet of national stature, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Abai’s personal history was expanded. A number of new poems were discovered. He was given a face, the face of a 19th-century Kazakh nomad. Most importantly, he was made a prose writer and a teacher. And all this new information and all these new texts were assembled and published, together with Abai’s lyrical poetry, in an expensive state-sponsored book. The Abai canon we know today was created in this phase.
Nonetheless, there is also such a thing as internal proof: the thematic and stylistic choices of poems can also provide proof regarding the author. When the most important Soviet scholar of Abai’s work, Zaki Akhmetov, began to examine Abai’s lyrical poems, he found that at least thirty of them were rewritings of poems by Mikhail Lermontov. Who could have written such sophisticated poems in Kazakh, while being inspired by the ideas and rhythms of Lermontov’s Russian poetry? In 19th-century and early-20th-century Kazakhstan, there was only one man who possessed the necessary education and literary interests to write this kind of poetry: Bukeikhanov.
So, overlooking these three phases, I would conclude that, generally speaking, "Abai" was a multi-author construct but also, more specifically, that many of the poems we now attribute to "Abai" were either authored or co-authored by Bukeikhanov.
Regarding the prose writings, as I stated in the previous answer, the history is different, but here, too, multiple authors were involved, including Bukeikhanov, Köpei-uly and Aimautov.
A scientific edition of Abai’s collected works would have to present all the different versions of Abai’s poems and prose writings, each time in their original language (Kazakh or Russian) and in their original script (Arabic, Latin or Cyrillic). Each version of each poem would be attributed to one or more authors, but only if some kind of proof could be provided. If no could no proof can be found, the author would have to remain anonymous. This is what a scientific edition of Abai’s collected works would have to look like. Of course, this would be a book that would be completely different from any Abai book we have today (even though it is clear, if you read the footnotes to the authoritative edition of 2005, that the scholars who prepared this edition would have liked to evolve in that direction).
Given how many changes were made over the course of many decades, it would be impossible to claim that there once was an original manuscript in which all the definitive versions of Abai’s poems and prose texts had been written down. Such a manuscript never existed.
If there is anything approximating an original text, it would be the manuscript of poems that was owned by Bukeikhanov in the period 1902-1906. Both Baitursynov and Dulatov confirmed the existence of this manuscript in their published articles. At the beginning of this century, a new document was found in the archives indicating that in 1906, Bukeikhanov had been arrested by the Russian secret police, with a manuscript of the poems of “Abai” in his bag. What happened to this manuscript? Will we ever find out?
Vera Savelyeva: A friend of mine made me very sad when she said that blaming everything on Stalin is now the same as blaming everything on Russia. Will the deconsolidation of the Abai canon create tension with Russia when its role is revealed? To what extent is Russia today still involved in consolidating the Abai canon?
Zaure Batayeva: No-one should equate Stalin and Russia. The crimes that Stalin committed are atrocious. Those that are nostalgic for the Soviet Union should not make the mistake of denying that Stalin committed any crimes. Stalin is responsible for tens of millions of unnecessary deaths. The facts are undeniable.
The role that Russia plays in advancing current historical research on Abai is very ambiguous. On the one hand, there are the Russian research institutions: some have archives that would greatly advance our understanding of the identity of “Abai” and the history of his writings, but these archives will remain closed indefinitely. The Russian authorities don’t want to undo the propaganda work of their Soviet predecessors. They don’t want the truth to be known.
On the other hand, there are individual Russian scholars who are responsible for doing research on large-scale falsification projects of folk poems that were conducted by Soviet propagandists in the 1930s. These falsifications constitute an important historical context in the study of the genesis of the poet-prophet “Abai”, because the Soviet-authorized version of “Abai” was launched in the same period, involving some of the same people.
We still would not know the extent to which, for example, the poetry of Jambyl Jabaiev was falsified, if it hadn’t been for the work of individual Russian scholars. Instead of being angry at these scholars, Kazakhs should thank them. The truth does not diminish Jambyl’s talent: Jambyl was a talented oral poet, but he was only one of many. Jambyl happened to be the one that was chosen by the Soviet propaganda machine. The truth is more beautiful and more complex than the Soviet lies we were told in the past.
Vera Savelyeva: The author of the recently article about your research, calling you a "Herostratus", continues the tradition of Soviet slander, but he also pays attention to Bukeikhanov's pseudonyms and, apparently, thanks to your lively and timely article, has found some white spots in Bukeikhanov’s biography that have escaped his attention.
Indeed, when constructing a biography, it is more convenient to allow stretching, to ignore inconsistencies, to bypass facts that do not allow us to straighten and adjust the biography to the current standard.
Zaure Batayeva: Any scientific method begins with the researcher turning off the confirmation bias in his head. A scientist cannot discover the truth if he is constantly looking for signs or evidence that will confirm his initial hypothesis. Whenever possible, scientists use data-processing software to neutralize the confirmation bias in their heads.
Many historians do not use any such software in their research, so the only way they can turn off the confirmation bias in their heads is by respecting the evidence, not changing the evidence, not covering up the gaps in the evidence. That is why a history book that openly discusses the gaps in the evidence is more trustworthy than a history book that presents a seamless story.
Whatever the role of Mukhtar Auezov may have been in creating the Soviet version of "Abai", credit should be given to the fact that Auezov managed to publish his narrative of Abai’s life as a novel, not as a factual biography. His narrative reads like a social-realist novel, full of smooth stories and idealized characters, and Auezov intended it to be understood that way.
The Abai biographies that were published afterwards freely copied the fictional stories and characters that Auezov created but presented them as nonfictional facts. Biographies about Bukeikhanov risk falling into the same trap, presenting fiction as fact.
Like any real person, Bukeikhanov was much complex than any fictional character from a social-realist novel. In fact, Bukeikhanov was a man of many mysteries and contradictions. Was his real name Bukeikhanov or Nurmukhanbetov? Did he belong to the Töre or to the Tobyqty tribe? Why did he learn Russian at a young age? Why did he admire Slavic women so much? Why did he use so many pseudonyms and alter egos in his writings?
Biographies about Bukeikhanov that try to hide these mysteries and contradictions are not to be trusted.
Vera Savelyeva: The last question, which you don’t have answer. Having freely expressed your ideas, do you feel that you have burned bridges and is it dangerous for you to return to your homeland? Personally, I hope that your article about the Borat films will rehabilitate you in the eyes of all those offended.
Zaure Batayeva: Thank you for your sympathy. I’m an independent writer, no-one is paying me. I write about what I read and see. I try to write the truth. But I’m also Kazakh. I was taught by my father not to be ashamed of my Kazakh origins. So when I saw how ethnic Kazakhs were badly ridiculed in Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest film, my blood started boiling and I decided to write this article.
I did not write the article about Borat to rehabilitate myself in the eyes of angry Kazakhs. I wrote it out of the same impulse as the long research article about Abai: out of love for my own, ravaged and endangered culture and out of opposition against those who want to cheat, manipulate and ridicule us.
I don’t have the illusion that my articles have made a big difference. One of my goals has been to make Kazakhs think more carefully about their own cultural heritage. On a small scale, I have succeeded. Several readers have thanked for the love and respect they feel in my writing about Kazakhs. Those have been the best compliments I have received. It’s a good feeling to know that my readers pay attention to what I write.
Will I ever be welcome again in Kazakhstan? We shall see. If Kazakhstan develops into a liberal democracy, everyone will become less angry at the people around them, perhaps also less angry at me. Perhaps one day it will be understood that I have always had good intentions.