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  • Зәуре Батаева

The riddle of Abai - 1. Introduction

Reach deep into your heart, I’m a riddle – think of that. Abai [1]
The man who wrote this, You learn his words, not his name. Abai [2]

The poet and philosopher Abai has long been seen as a founding figure of modern Kazakh culture. As the writer Aslan Zhaqsylykov once stated, of all the leading cultural figures who emerged in the 19th century, including Shoqan Walikhanov and Ybyrai Altynsarin, Abai has had the biggest impact on the formation of a Kazakh national identity. [3] Abai’s impact has undoubtedly been profound, but not necessarily in the way that Zhaqsylykov and other writers of his generation would like to recognize. Kazakh society today is divided by language and culture, and while it may be difficult to determine to what extent Abai has contributed to creating the divide, it is clear that his writings contain elements that appeal to people on both sides.

Whether we look at the many academic studies devoted to Abai or at the thousands of non-academic websites dispensing information about Abai, everywhere the divide comes into view. Russian-speaking Kazakhs admire Abai for being the first advocate of Russian language and culture and a conduit to Russian-Kazakh friendship. Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs admire Abai for being a lyrical poet of great originality and for being a religious thinker of great integrity. However, the divide has generated not only admiration but also a series of negative attitudes and judgments. The younger generations of Kazakhs are especially angered by what they consider the poisonous negativity of Abai’s prose writings, which in 1933 were first presented under the title Qara Sözder «Gaqlia»(which means prose writings “Gaqlia”) and which in 1945 were translated into Russian as Slova Nazidania (which means words of edification). In the 45 numbered texts that make up the Qara Sözder, Kazakhs are frequently called «lazy», «ignorant», «jealous of each other» and even «enemies of each other». In the critics’ view, the emphasis that Kazakh schools have placed for many decades on the anti-Kazakh content of Abai’s prose writings has already poisoned the self-esteem of several generations of Kazakhs and established stereotypes about Kazakhs among other ethnic communities, deepening the divide in Kazakh society.

Underlying the critics’ anger is also a sense that Abai is not only responsible for the lack of respect and self-respect that exists in Kazakh society today but also for the lack of respect that is felt for Kazakhs’ nomadic ancestry. To be sure, the message conveyed by the figure of Abai – a Kazakh nomad who privileges Russian culture and education over his own nomadic traditions – is very ambiguous. However, what today’s critics of Abai seem to be unaware of is that both the life-story and the writings of Abai were crafted overtime, and that much of the anti-nomadic, pro-Russian sentiment in Abai’s writings was added later, in the Soviet period.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that Kazakh schoolbooks today focus only on Abai’s didacticism. For example, the pupils in the 3rd grade of Kazakh state schools today have to study the following texts by Abai: two didactic poems (titled «Don’t boast before becoming knowledgeable» and «Listening to beautiful music») and, especially, a 60-word excerpt from Word 38. This small excerpt (taken from the most difficult text in Abai’s oeuvre) contains 9 negative words, some of which are repeated twice: ignorance, laziness, cunning, illiteracy, shamelessness, mediocrity, weak, enemy. With additional tasks that are also focused on negative words (such as ignorant, untalented, lazy, greedy, liar and rude), the study of Abai’s prose in the 3rd grade of the Kazakh state school system amounts to a study of 17 negative words, all of them referring to Kazakhs. Which conclusions are 9-year-old children supposed to draw from such an overdose of negativity? And which conclusions are the pupils in the 6th grade supposed to draw from their obligatory study of Word 7, which ends with the most pessimistic assessment of Kazakhs in the whole of Abai’s oeuvre: «No light in the eyes, no hope in the soul. How are we better than animals that see only with their eyes? These days we are worse than animals… We know nothing, but when we argue with our ignorance against knowledge, we fight to the death.»?

As a result, some young parents have been calling for Abai’s prose writings to be taken out of the school curriculum. On social-media platforms, much criticism has been levelled at Abai, to the dismay or disbelief of those Kazakhs who take the view that Abai’s critical words about his own people should not be interpreted as a kind of self-hatred but as a kind of tough love, challenging them to become a better people by overcoming the innate human tendencies to jealousy and laziness.

In order to celebrate Abai as an advocate of Russian culture, Russian speakers ignore Abai’s most important contribution to Kazakh culture, his lyrical poetry, and focus instead on Abai’s translations of 19th-century Russian poets (Lermontov, Pushkin, Krylov), on the pro-Russian parts of his prose writings, and on articles written by scholars and propagandists during the Soviet period. It could be argued that Russian speakers have no choice but to ignore Abai’s lyrical poetry. Usually they do not know the Kazakh language well enough to read Abai’s verses in the original.

Moreover, they cannot rely on Russian translations to offer them a window onto the rich ideas and the musical sophistication of Abai’s verses, as these translations have always been of poor quality. The view expressed by Gulzia Qambarbayeva in 1964, is still shared by many scholars today, namely, that the best translations available are the ones translated by Vsevolod Rozhdestvensky, Semyon Lipkin and Maria Petrovykh in the period 1936-1954. [4] However, even these translations have inaccuracies, which should not be surprising, as the mentioned translators did not even meet the most basic requirement – knowing the source language. Can anyone translate poetry without being able to read the original version? To this day, Russian translators, probably due to their limited knowledge of the source language, have failed to convey Abai’s metaphorical phrases in a poetic Russian that remains faithful to Abai’s original intentions.

In fact, what has happened to Abai is no less than a tragedy. Abai’s poetry is among the most beautiful and most sophisticated that was ever written in the Kazakh language. Yet only people who are highly proficient in the language have been able to appreciate these qualities. People who have read Abai’s poems in other languages (most notably, Russian) have been given inferior versions that do not convey Abai’s genius. The poetry of Abai could have united the Kazakh nation – it could have made everyone proud to be Kazakh. Yet in the post-Soviet period, Abai has become a divisive figure, a symbol of the cultural and linguistic divide running through Kazakh society.

At the center of this tragedy are the political manipulations to which Abai’s poems have been subjected in the 20th century. Abai has never been allowed to be just a poet. He has always been used as a political tool. Moreover, when these political manipulations are investigated more closely, the scale of the tragedy becomes even bigger. Much of what Kazakhs today believe they know about Abai and his writings was invented in the early 20th century and reinvented in the Soviet era – about forty years after Abai’s first two poems were printed in the Russian-Kazakh newspaper Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí.

In 1940, Mukhtar Auezov, who had been involved in the Soviet propaganda campaign surrounding Abai in the 1930s, had already tried to warn his readers about the problems that were accumulating around the writings of Abai. [5] On the one hand, there were there too many «collectors» of Abai’s poetry that were discovering new poems and too many «imitators» of Abai’s poetry that were producing new poems, Auezov wrote. On the other hand, there was a lack of scientifically trained scholars who, through a collaborative process of peer review, would be able to investigate the authenticity of these new poems. This concerned Auezov, because it would likely lead «future researchers» into wrong directions. To help future researchers move to a better understanding of Abai’s poetry, Auezov continued, much more scientific research should be done now on the historical circumstances in which 19th-century nomads such as Abai lived. Why this emphasis on future researchers? Why this emphasis on historical context?

What was Auezov trying to say? In 1940 it was impossible for Auezov, the only associate of the Kazakh-nationalist Alash Orda movement to survive Stalin’s purges, to openly express his thoughts about any subject. By emphasizing the need for more historical research and by placing his hopes in future researchers, it seems likely that Auezov was trying to convey to his readers a hidden but risky message: that it was not possible for a 19th-century nomad such as Abai to espouse the pro-Russian, pro-Communist, anti-Kazakh and anti-nomad beliefs that in the present day, 1940, had been attributed to him, and that, therefore Abai’s poems were no longer what they had originally been.

For researchers currently looking into the evidence of how Abai’s writings and Abai’s biography were transformed over time, the question then becomes: will it ever be possible to uncover the «golden nuggets» – to use the famous phrase by Auezov’s former mentor, Alikhan Bukeikhanov [6] – that are hiding inside of Abai’s poetry?

To merit the designation of «world literature», Abai’s poetry should be held to the same standards of verification as all other texts of world literature. Texts that are admired all over the world, such as the Analects of Confucius and the theatre plays of William Shakespeare, have been investigated for centuries in order to determine their authenticity. [7] As a result, we know much more, and with greater certainty, about the origins of these texts: when and where they were written, and by whom. The same level of verification should be applied to Abai’s poems, not out of paranoia, but out of respect. If it is worth restoring old texts, paintings and monuments to their original state, why should it not be worth restoring Abai’s poetry in the same way?

Scholars have quietly admitted to having doubts about the authorship of Abai and the authenticity of his writings for a long time. Already in 1932 the scholar and poet Ilyas Zhansugirov remarked that «Abai’s biography had not been written scientifically», that it was either «exaggerated» (daqpyrt) or based on «rumours» (alyp-qashpa)). [8] One of the prominent researchers of Abai’s work in the Soviet period, Zaki Akhmetov, frequently used hypothetical language («possibly», «probably») in his analyses of Abai’s life and writings. [9] In 2008, the literary critic Nikolai Anastasiev admitted that, given the lack of written records or any other kinds of physical evidence, it was impossible to write a «biography» of Abai: «a portrait or even a silhouette» was all that could be offered. [10]

Doubts have also been expressed on social-media platforms. In 2017, for example, a blogger suggested that Abai’s Qara Sözder might have been created by a group of Soviet propagandists in the 1930’s. Moreover, the blogger questioned whether the person Abai had ever existed at all. The ensuing arguments, insults and threats confirmed that the linguistic and cultural divide running through Kazakh society had also overtaken social-media platforms. However, it also became clear that almost no-one participating in the debate was willing to address the more fundamental questions the blogger had raised: Who was the man that we now refer to as Abai? And did this man write everything that we attribute to him today?

It is to be expected that the reaction to this article will be contentious, as the questions that will be asked in this article have not been asked before. Apart from the Soviet culture of silence that is still pervasive today, there are several other obstacles that have impeded Abai scholars from raising these questions. To study how Abai’s life-story and writings were crafted over time, scholars have to develop various areas of expertise: a thorough knowledge of 19th-century Kazakh and the Arabic script in which it was written, but also a thorough knowledge of the history of Kazakh nomadism from the time when Abai is said to have been born (1845) until the time when Kazakh nomadism, as a common way of life, had been crushed and Abai had been elevated to the status of national poet (1933). Of all the obstacles facing Abai scholars, the last one may be the least obvious: why would it be so difficult to attain a better understanding of the history of Kazakh nomadism?

[1] 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.

[2] Abai. Don’t Boast without Finding Knowledge. In Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of his Works. Volume 1. Almaty, 2005, p. 60.

[3] Aslan Zhaksylykov. Poetics and Aesthetics of Abay. Almaty, 2012.

[4] Gulzia Qambarbayeva. Abay’s Lyrics in Russian Translation. Alma-Ata, 1964 (republished in 2014).

[5] 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.

[6] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Abay (Ibrahim) Kunanbaev (obituary). In Semipalatinskii Listok, issue 250, 1905.

[7] Donald Ostrowski. Who Wrote That? Authorship Controversies from Moses to Sholokhov. Ithaca and London, 2020.

[8] Ilyash Zhansugirov, Introduction. In Complete collection of Abai’s writings. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, p. 5.

[9] Zaki Akhmetov. New Information about Abai’s Translations of Lermontov. In Turkological Collection, issue 1, 1951, pp. 31-42. Zaki Akhmetov. Mature Poet, Wise Thinker. In Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of his Works. Volume 1. Almaty, 2005, pp. 6-33.

[10] Nikolai Anastasiev. Abai. Moscow, 2008, p. 7.

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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