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The riddle of Abai - 3. Who was Abai Qunanbai?

Abai’s biography was established only in the twentieth century. For a man who lived as recently as the nineteenth century and who is now considered to be the founder of Kazakh written literature, this is a strange situation. Even about William Shakespeare, who was born almost three hundred years before Abai, more verifiable information has been found. If we separate fact from fiction and real from fake, we have to recognize that we know very little about the person we now call «Abai». The critic Ilyas Zhansugurov had already warned about this problem in 1933, in his introduction to the first Kazakh-language edition of the complete collection of Abai’s writings. «Abai has not been researched … Everything about Abai is exaggerated or based on rumours», Zhansugurov wrote on the first page of his introduction. To which he added: «No factual biographical material has been provided, not much material has been gathered about the people who knew him. Information about the poet’s domestic life, information about his personality – his good and bad habits – is missing.». [25]

What do we know about Abai? According to the official biography, Abai’s full name was Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbai. However, as a 19th-century Kazakh nomad, his real name would have been «Ybyrai», not «Ibrahim», as Kazakh phonetics would make it impossible to call him «Ibrahim». Moreover, if his name had been that of a real person, it would not have carried so much symbolical meaning. First of all, Ibrahim is the name of a prophet who, in surah 14, leads his people out of darkness into the light. The nickname «Abai» (meaning «careful» or «attentive» in Kazakh) adds another symbolical layer: according to the official biography, it was a nickname given by the poet’s mother/grandmother who had already recognized the poet’s exceptional abilities when he was still a toddler. In fact, the nickname «Abai» need not carry any symbolical meaning, it could simply have derived from a mispronunciation of the poet’s name by his younger siblings, calling him «Ybai» instead of «Ybyrai». The undue emphasis that has been placed on the symbolical meanings of the name of Kazakhstan’s most famous poet raises the possibility that this name was not the poet’s real name.

Publicly, no critic or historian has ever raised any questions about the symbolical events in Abai’s biography. That the first-ever biography of Abai, the founder of Kazakh written literature, was an obituary published in October 1905, more than a year after his death, but only a few weeks after Kazakhs had for the first time shown some political unity against the Russian Empire, has never been pointed out as surprisingly symbolical. That this biography, written by the political activist and literary connoisseur Alikhan Bukeikhanov, put Abai’s death at a highly symbolical date, namely, «40 days» after the death of Abai’s second son, Magauia, has never been remarked upon either. [26] However, it is unlikely that this symbolism was missed by the Soviet propagandists, who, in 1933, added another son, Aqylbai. [27] This son had not been mentioned in Bukeikhanov’s biography, but, according to the Soviet propagandists, had died «40 days» after his father. This kind of symbolism is the stuff of legend, not of real life. Why did no-one ever publicly remark upon this?

Until the 1990s, Abai’s exact birthday had not been specified. It is not clear on the basis of which evidence it was suddenly discovered to be 10 August 1845. However, nomads, who did not have any written records of any kind, remembered birthdays only approximately, by linking them to certain circumstances (for example, «born in summer pasture, in the year of the hen»). This tradition remained in use until Soviet collectivization destroyed most nomadic traditions. If Abai was truly a 19th-century nomad, how did he acquire not only a symbolical name but also an exact birthday?

According to the official biography, which was already taking shape when Zhansugurov issued his warning, Abai was the founder of Kazakh written literature – a prolific poet, translator, composer and thinker who authored two volumes of written works. Also according to the official biography, Abai was a wealthy and self-learned man, who, despite living the traditional life of a steppe nomad, helped exiles and refugees, made important donations to individuals and museums, taught himself Russian, Persian and Arabic, became a member of a statistical committee, and discussed Eastern and Western philosophy with the Narodniki that were in political exile in Semipalatinsk. How could anyone believe this to be a real biography of a real man?

Moreover, there are no physical traces of this writer’s life – no printed works authorized by Abai himself and no notes or manuscripts written in Abai’s own hand. Abai is said to have written many letters in his lifetime, but no letters have survived. Moreover, in the letters of Russian exiles such as Severin Gross and Yevgeny Mikhaelis, with which Abai is said to have corresponded, not a single reference to Abai has been found. Already in 1935, in the first full-length monograph on Abai, the critic Gabbas Togzhanov had remarked on the absence of these references. After having first criticized the counter-revolutionary Kazakh nationalists of Alash Orda (Alikhan Bukeikhanov, Ahmet Baitursynov, Mirzhaqyp Dulatov) for «praising Abai like ignorant aul Kazakhs», [28] Togzhanov also questioned the story that the official biographers had begun to propagate. According to Togzhanov, the influence of Russian thinkers such as Leo Tolstoy and Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin had been exaggerated, as their ideas, apart from superficial references to their names in the poem «At the boarding school, the offspring of many Kazakhs study», were not reflected in Abai’s writings. [29] Togzhanov also questioned whether Abai had ever interacted with the Russian political exiles Dolgopolov, Gross and Mikhaelis. In his research, Togzhanov stated, he had not found a single fact that could confirm that Abai had met or spoken with the Russian exiles. Most importantly, he had not found a single reference to Abai in the exiles’ articles and letters. [30]

The absence of any written evidence referring to Abai is strange because Abai, despite being described in his official biography as a steppe nomad, was certainly not a folk poet (aqyn). Already in 1913, in the first critical appraisal of Abai’s work, the critic and editor Akhmet Baitursynov had pointed out that Abai’s was a new kind of Kazakh poetry, very different from the instant oral improvisations of the aqyndyq tradition: «His words are so different from other aqyns that at the beginning, they seem alien and strange to you for some time. Few words, but with deep meaning.». [31] Abai’s poetry was not oral but written, composed around beautiful images and deep thoughts, exact wording and perfect rhyme – an aesthetic that was probably inspired by the nineteenth-century Russian poems of which Abai translated so many. How is it possible, then, that of a person, who is said to have written seventy lyrical poems, three to four epic poems, thirty to forty poetry translations and forty-five prose texts, not a single piece of handwritten paper survives that can be attributed to him?

From the period 1845-1904, which is officially considered to be Abai’s lifetime, only two printed works survive: two poems, published in 1889, in the bilingual (Kazakh-Russian) newspaper Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí. However, the name «Abai» was added to these poems only in the twentieth century – under circumstances that we will discuss later. To explain the absence of any other nineteenth-century evidence relating to the writings of Abai, some biographers have claimed that all of Abai’s personal belongings were lost during the chaos of the 1930’s. Even if true, this does not explain why in none of the archives or belongings of any of the educated persons that Abai spoke or corresponded with during his lifetime any written evidence has been found that refers to the man we now call Abai.

Fifty years later, in the Soviet era, the transcripts of Abai’s poems and prose texts by Murseit Biki-uly, Abai’s secretary, began to be cited as proof that Abai had existed and that he had written all the poems and prose texts attributed to him. However, there are many unanswered questions that surround Murseit Biki-uly and his transcripts. First of all, did Murseit have access to his master’s manuscripts at the time of his master’s death in 1904, or not? If he did not have access, how did he manage to transcribe more than 200 pages of poems and prose texts from memory? If he did have access, why did he find it necessary to replace his master’s handwriting with his own handwriting? Furthermore, why did he transcribe his master’s writings not once but three times – in 1905, 1907 and 1910?

Currently these questions cannot be answered because we know even less about Murseit than about Abai. Why did, in the period 1913-1917, the editors and writers of the nationalist Qazaq newspaper, who were the first to start promoting Abai’s poetry, never refer to Murseit or his transcripts? Why did, in the period 1930-1945, the Soviet critics and editors who were the first to start promoting Abai’s prose texts, never refer to Murseit or his transcripts either?

Nonetheless, in the authoritative edition of Abai’s collected works, published in 2005 with contributions by Zaki Akhmetov, Kayum Muhamedhanov and Mekemtas Myrzahmetov, the editor Esenbai Duisenbai-uli emphasizes that all the texts in the edition were verified not only against the earliest printed works (from 1909, 1922, 1933 and 1945) but also against Murseit’s transcripts. [32] Given the absence of Abai’s own manuscripts, it may be logical that scholars treat Murseit’s transcripts as important reference texts. However, on what basis can it be argued that Abai, rather than Murseit, is the author of these texts? How can anyone be certain that Murseit did not create the texts himself?

Murseit’s transcripts from 1905 and 1910 contain about 200 pages, while Murseit’s transcript from 1907 contains 232 pages, including a prose text now titled “Some words about the origins of the Kazakh people”. If Murseit was not the author, why did he add this text to the 1907 transcript and forget to add it again to the 1910 transcript? We don’t know. What happened to Murseit’s transcripts after these dates? We also don’t know. All we know for certain is that Murseit’s transcripts were presented to the public only in the 1950’s. [33] We also know that the 1905 and 1910 transcripts are now in the collection of the Central Scientific Library in Almaty. [34] According to the editors of the authoritative edition of Abai’s collected works, the 1907 transcript was in the private possession of Mukhtar Auezov until the 1950’s and is now housed in the museum dedicated to Auezov. [35]

To resolve all the questions surrounding Murseit and his transcripts, assistance by a diverse group of experts, consisting of linguists as well as forensic scientists, would be required. Linguists with a thorough knowledge of the Arabic script that Kazakhs used at the beginning of the twentieth century would be able to determine which poems and prose texts were already included in Murseit's transcripts and whether, in comparison with the authoritative edition of 2005, these poems and prose texts were already finalized or still at an earlier stage of development. Meanwhile, forensic scientists with special expertise in the analysis of handwriting and the dating of paper and ink would be able to determine other important properties of Murseit’s transcripts, namely, their dates and origins and perhaps even the identity of the writer.

Officially the canon of Abai’s writings is based on four sources: Murseit’s three transcripts and the first edition of Abai’s poetry, said to have been published in Saint Petersburg in 1909. The date and authenticity of a text cannot be determined on the basis of an electronic copy. However, the two electronic copies of the book of 1909 that were put online by the Central Scientific Library have already raised many questions.

First, why are the pages of these two copies in such a bad condition (pasted together)? This is unusual for a book that was published only a little more than a hundred years ago. Most other surviving copies of Kazakh books that were printed in this period are in much better condition. Second, why do these two copies not have a colophon, showing the date and place of their official publication, while other Kazakh books of the period do have a colophon? According to the official biography, the book was published by Boraganskii & K. in Saint Petersburg, but this piece of information cannot be confirmed, as the colophons are missing. What makes the lack of colophons even more problematic is that all other Kazakh books of this period were published not in Saint Petersburg but in Kazan and Orenburg.

Third, why does one of the copies contain a table of contents with a year in the Latin script written next to the title or the first line of each poem? The layout of the table of contents is not what is expected from a Kazakh book published in 1909. Instead, the table of contents looks more like the inventories in the typed drafts of the Russian translations that were published in 1940. [36] And lastly, why does one of the copies display a photo of Abai, even though Mukhtar Auezov already remarked in 1940 that no photos of Abai existed? [37]

Much of what Kazakhs today believe they know about Abai’s life derives from one source: Mukhtar Auezov’s novel Abai’s Path (Abai Zholy), published between 1942 and 1952. However, even though Auezov’s ancestors lived in the same region as Abai, a novel should not be mistaken for a factual biography. Novels and biographies are fundamentally different genres because fiction writers, unlike biographers, can take great liberties in using all sorts of events, including autobiographical events, to tell their stories. From the novel’s first publication onwards, however, critics have contributed to the reading public’s confusion, praising Auezov’s novel for being an outstanding example of the Soviet genre of the «epic novel» (epopee) and going so far as to suggest that Auezov’s novel may be not only ideologically true but even factually true.

Until the 2000s, the Kazakh reading public did not know that it was Alikhan Bukeikhanov who wrote, in 1905, the first and most influential biography of «Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbai» [38] and that Auezov, whose career as promoter of the life and work of Abai began only in 1933, did not change Bukeikhanov’s narrative but added more details about Abai’s ancestors, in particular, Abai’s father. When we read Auezov’s fictional account of Abai’s father, we cannot help but notice that one of Auezov’s main sources of inspiration must have been the diaries of an exiled Polish poet by the name of «Adolf Januszkiewicz», who in 1846 had joined a census expedition to the Kirgiz Steppe. In his diaries, Januszkiewicz described at length a shrewd uezd administrator by the name of «Qunanbai Öskenbai-uly», who secretly betrayed his own tribesmen by disclosing to the Tsarist officials the real numbers of horses his fellow tribesmen owned. Januszkiewicz, while astonished by the nomad’s cruelty, admired his eloquence and his impeccable knowledge of both Russian law and Islamic law (Sharia). Ever since the diaries of Januszkiewicz were translated into Russian and published by an unidentified publisher in Alma-Ata in 1966, they have been cited as evidence that Abai’s father, Qunanbai, existed and thus that Abai existed. However, these diaries provide no such proof, as the name of the administrator’s son is nowhere mentioned.

Another, lesser known source from which our common knowledge about Abai derives is a book by the American journalist and adventurer George Kennan, titled Siberia and the Exile System, officially published in English in 1891, but already known by that time to Russian-speaking exiles and revolutionaries thanks to the underground circulation of the book’s Russian translation. [39] One passage in this book has served as the basis for establishing several elements of Abai’s biography. However, when this passage is read carefully, we can see that it tells very little about the man we now refer to as Abai.

The first point that should be noted is that Kennan never met or saw Abai in person. Kennan visited Semipalatinsk in 1885 because he wanted to meet the Russian political exiles living in that city. After having visited a new Russian public library in the city, where he was «surprised to find the works of the Western thinkers Spencer, Buckle, Lewes, Mill, Taine, Lubbock, Tylor, Huxley, Darwin, Lyell, Tyndall, Alfred Russel Wallace, Mackenzie Wallace, and Sir Henry Maine», Kennan met a 25-year-old exile named Alexander Leontiev, who, while describing the intellectual stimulus provided by the new library, also mentions a «learned old Kirghis» named «Ibrahim Konobai», who «reads such authors as Buckle, Mill and Draper». [40]

In 1913, in the first Kazakh-language biography of Abai, the poet and philologist Akhmet Baitursynov declared that Abai’s real name was «Ibrahim Qunanbai». Baitursynov also confirmed the other elements from Kennan’s report: «In translation», Baitursynov wrote, «Abai read Europe’s deep thinkers such as Spencer, Lewes, Draper». [41] In 1940, in his Russian-language biography, Mukhtar Auezov went even further and wrote: «According to his exiled friends such as Leontiev and others, Abai systematically studied western philosophy – Spencer, Spinoza, he was interested in Darwin’s theory». [42] In his biography of 2008, Nikolai Anastasiev admitted that there was, in fact, «no evidence» that Abai had ever met Russian political exiles (such as Leontiev, Dolgopolov, Gross or Mikhaelis) in Semipalatinsk. [43] Where did Baitursynov and Auezov find their inspiration, then? The most likely source is Kennan’s book.

The validity of Kennan’s report in relation to Abai should not be overstated, as there are several problematic elements in the report. First, Leontiev refers to «Ibrahim Konobai» as an «old» man. According to the official biography, Abai was born in 1845, so when Kennan interviewed Leontiev, Abai must have been about forty years old – not an old man, not even by nineteenth-century standards. Second, Leontiev does not describe «Ibrahim Konobai» as a poet. And yet, according to Baitursynov and Auezov, the poet Abai was highly regarded by his contemporaries, famous even. If «Ibrahim Konobai» and «Abai» were the same person, why would Leontiev have forgotten to mention Abai’s status as a famous poet?

Moreover, even though biographers have repeated after Kennan’s witness that «Ibrahim Qunanbai» was interested in certain European philosophers, this interest is not reflected in the writings that were published under the name «Abai» in the twentieth century. The writer we now refer to as «Abai» was indeed a poet and a philosopher, but his philosophical inspirations came from Islam, Jadidism and ancient nomadic wisdom – not from the authors mentioned in Kennan’s book. In short, Kennan’s report from 1885 does not provide any evidence that «Ibrahim Qunanbai» was the same man as the poet we now call «Abai».

In fact, that «Abai» and «Ibrahim Qunanbai» were not the same person had already been confirmed in 1889, in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, a bilingual (Kazakh-Russian) newspaper based in Omsk that published not only reports and open letters but also legends and poems, written by different contributors. In February and March 1889, two untitled poems had appeared. Today these poems are titled «Summer» and «Here, I became a bolys» and are both considered to be part of the canon of Abai’s poems. The two untitled poems published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1889 are the first evidence that at least some of Abai’s poems were written in the nineteenth century.

However, in 1889 these two poems were not yet associated with the name «Abai». The author of the first poem called himself Kökpai Janatai-uly, a man about whom no verifiable information has been found to this date. The author of the second poem was anonymous. The name «Ibrahim Qunanbai» did appear in relation to the first poem, but only as the subject of the poem – a wealthy steppe nomad setting up his aul in the Kopbeit pasture near the Baqanas river, in the region of Semipalatinsk. In other words, the claims first introduced by Akhmet Baitursynov in 1913, and later repeated by Soviet scholars and propagandists, are factually incorrect. First, «Ibrahim Qunanbai» was not a poet. Second, the poet we now call «Abai» was not known under this pen name at the time.

[25] Ilyash Zhansugirov. Introduction. In Complete Collection of Abai’s Writings. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, pp. 5-6.

[26] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbayev (obituary). In Semipalatiskii Listok, issue 250, 1905.

[27] Mukhtar Auezov. Abai’s birth and life. In Abai Qunanbai-uly: The complete collection. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, p.374.

[28] Gabbas Togzhanov. Abai. Qazan, 1935, pp. 9-12.

[29] Gabbas Togzhanov. Abai. Qazan, 1935, pp. 103-110.

[30] Gabbas Togzhanov. Abai. Qazan, 1935, pp. 103-110.

[31] Akhmet Baitursynov. The Major Poet of Kazakhs. In Qazaq, issue 39, 1913.

[32] From the Editors. In Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of his Works. Volume 1. Almaty, 2005, pp. 3-4.

[33] Gulnazia Abuova. Abai’s First Book. In Parasat, issue 5, p. 17.

[34] See

[35] From the Editors. In Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of his Works. Volume 1. Almaty, 2005, pp. 3-4.

[36] See file 598, titled Abai Qunanbaev’s Manuscript, archived at the Central Scientific Library in Almaty. See

[37] Mukhtar Auezov. To the Researchers of Abai. In Fifty-volume Complete Collection of Writings. Volume 15. Articles, Research and Plays. 1937-1940. Almaty, 2004, p. 32.

[38] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbayev (Obituary). In Semipalatiskii Listok, issue 250, 1905.

[39] George Kennan. Siberia and the Exile System. Vol. 1. New York, 1891, p. 184.

[40] Ibidem. p. 184.

[41] Akhmet Baitursynov. The Major Poet of Kazakhs. In Qazaq, issue 43, 1913.

[42] Mukhtar Auezov. Abai Ibrahim Kunanbayev: Life and Work. In A.Kunanbayev. Lyrics and Poems. Moscow, 1940, pp. 27-28.

[43] Nikolai Anastasiev. Abai. Moscow, 2008, p. 203.

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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