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  • Зәуре Батаева

The riddle of Abai - 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.

[139] Zabytyi. The Story Kazakhs Cannot Forget. In Sibirskii Vestnik, issue 60, 1892. Umytylgan. The Story Kazakhs Cannot Forget. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issues 29, 31-32, 34-40, 1892.

[140] Mukhtar Magauin. Unknown Story of Abai. In, July 11, 2015.

[141] Talasbek Asemqulov. Abai’s Book (2004) and Abai’s Greatest Riddle (2005). In Talasbek Asemqulov: Writings. Almaty, 2016, pp. 178-184.

[142] 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.

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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