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The riddle of Abai - 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.

[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.

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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