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The riddle of Abai - 2. Forbidden histories

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

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

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

So little do Kazakhs know about the literacy and cultural practices of their nomadic ancestors that no-one has called into question the implausibility of Abai’s official biography. No-one has ever tried to explain why Abai, a 19th-century nomad fully integrated into his own culture, who never travelled further than Semipalatinsk, who never lived in an urban environment, decided to depart from the cultural practices of his own community. Recently there have been attempts to present Abai as a Jadid who opened a new-method school in his own aul. The attempt to connect Abai to Jadidism is another example of how little we know about the Kazakh history that preceded the October revolution. In fact, Jadidism is a «white spot» in the collective memory of all Central Asian Turks. According to recent historical research, Jadidism, a cultural movement urging the urban Muslims of Turkestan to reform Muslim education, did not result in the openening of new-method schools in the Steppe until the 1900s. [15]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[15] Ibidem, pp. 162-167.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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