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The riddle of Abai - 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 In 1905, Bukeikhanov introduced «Abai» for the first time to the world – an unknown, unpublished Kazakh poet whose work would soon be made public.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.

[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.

[94] Akhmet Baitursynov. The Main Poet of Kazakhs. In Qazaq, issue 39, 1913.

[95] Advertisement. In Qazaq, issue 8, 1913.

[96] Moldagali Zholdybaev. A reply to respected Sh. Alznanov. In Aiqap, issue 4, 1912.

[97] M.M. From Semipalat. In Aiqap, issue 4, 1914.

[98] Ushköltai Suhbanberdina. Annotated Bibliographical Index of Articles and Announcements Published in Aiqap. Almaty, 1995, pp. 303-364.

[99] Ilyas Zhansugirov. Introduction. In Abai Qunanbai-uly: The complete collection. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, p. 44.

[100] Gabbas Togzhanov. Abai. Qazan, 1935, p. 5.

[101] Grigorii Potanin. At the River Toqyrau. In Sibirskaya Zhizn, issue 86, 1914.

[102] Mirjaqip Dulatov. Exile. In Qazaq, issue 9, 1913.

[103] Mirjaqip Dulatov. Children Have Also Been Contaminated. In Qazaq, issue 28, 1913.

[104] Announcement. In Qazaq, issue 109, 1915.

[105] Akhmet Baitursynov. The Main Poet of Kazakhs. In Qazaq, issue 39, 1913.

[106] Mirjaqip Dulatov. Abai. In Qazaq, issue 67, 1914.

[107] Galikhan. Kakitai. In Qazaq, issue 105, 1905.

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

[109] Anonymous. Those who Joined the Tendik Partnership. In Sary Arqa, issue 11, 1917. Anonymous. Charity for Hungry-Naked Kazakh-Kirgiz. In Sary Arqa, issue 57, 1917.

[110] Anonymous. Alikhan’s Arrival in Semipalatinsk. In Sary Arga, 1917, issue 17 from October 30.

[111] Akhmet Baitursynov. The Main Poet of Kazakhs. In Qazaq, issue 39, 1913.

[112] Baitursynov. The Main Poet of Kazakhs. In Qazaq, issue 40, 1913.

[113] Baitursynov. Introduction to Literature. Tashkent, 1926.

[114] Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of Works. Volume 1. Almaty, 2005.

[115] Untitled poem. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 12, 1889.

[116] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Judge and Judgement. In Qazaq, issue 48, 1914.

[117] Moldagali Zholdybaev. A reply to Respected Sh. Alznanov. In Aiqap, issue 4, 1912.

[118] Mirjaqip Dulatov. Children Have Also Been Contaminated. In Qazaq, issue 28, 1913.

[119] Sabyrzhan Gabbasov. Open Letter. In Aiqap, issue 7, 1914.

[120] Zaki Akhmetov. New Information about Abai’s Translations of Lermontov. In Turkological Collection, issue 1, 1951.

[121] Asylqozha Kurmanbayev (Alikhan Bukeikhanov). Ant and Grasshopper. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 32, 1894.

[122] Mirjaqip Dulatov. Aitys (from Lermontov). In Qazaq, issue 6, 1913. Mirjaqip Dulatov. Aitys (from Lermontov). In Aiqap, issues 3-4, 1913. Mirjaqip Dulatov. Three Palm Trees (from Lermontov). In Aiqap, issue 17, 1914.

[123] Zaki Akhmetov. New Information about Abai’s Translations of Lermontov. In Turkological Collection, issue 1, 1951.

[124] Aleksandr Zatayevich. 1000 Kirghiz Songs. Orenburg, 1925, p. 331.

[125] Arys-uly. Song, Music and its Instruments. In Qazaq, issue 67, 1914.

[126] Anonymous. Abai’s Word. In Sary Arqa, issue 13, 1917.

1. Introduction (link)   2. Forbidden histories (link)   3. Who was Abai Qunanbai? (link)   4. Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí (link)   5. Early Russian sources (link)   6. Alash Orda (link)   7. Soviet Union (link)  8. Conclusion (link) 


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