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  • Writer's pictureЗәуре Батаева

The Riddle of Abai: Kazakhstan's Greatest Unknown Poet

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]

1. Introduction

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?

2. Unknown and 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, [11] 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. 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.

3. Who Was Abai?

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.

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.

5. Early Russian sources

As the Kazakh-language appendix of the Omsk-based newspaper Akmolinskie Oblastnye Vedomosti, Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí was a place of intercultural negotiation. Alikhan Bukeikhanov and Zhusup Kopeiuly were frequent contributors. However, most of the content was written by Russian specialists in Oriental studies, such as V.V. Grigoriev, V.V. Radlov, N.I. Ilminsky, N.P. Ostroumov, A.V. Vasiliev, and A.E. Alektorov. Their main objective was to promote the Tsar’s Russification policies, with a particular interest in driving a wedge between Kazakhs and their Muslim neighbours. To this end, they wrote article after article, emphasizing the advantages of a Russian education over a Muslim education and warning Kazakhs against the deceitful intentions of Muslim traders and mullahs of Tatar and Sart origins. [79] Some of the Russian Orientalists even went so far as to stir interethnic conflict, by spreading false stories, for example, about Tatars claiming that the Kazakhs (Kirghiz) did not have their own long line of ancestors but were descendants of the Tatars. [80]

Notwithstanding the propaganda efforts by the Russian Orientalists, Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí also became a catalyst for nationhood ideas, as it alerted its Kazakh-speaking readers not only to the anti-Muslim agenda of the Tsarist regime but also to the economic dangers of settling down in villages and cities and losing their ancestors’ lands to Russian settlers. As a reader and contributor (and possibly even editor), Bukeikhanov studied the pages of this newspaper for many years, making it almost certainly the place where his ideas of an independent Alash Orda were born. Being so closely involved in the publication of this newspaper must have helped him develop not only his political ideas, it must also have helped him acquire the narrative propaganda techniques that the Russian Orientalists were using to persuade their readers of their views. A text that must have influenced Bukeikhanov deeply in this regard must have been the obituary of Ibrahim (Ivan Alekseevich) Altynsarin – a text first printed in the Russian newspaper Orenbourgskii Listok and subsequently reprinted and translated in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in August 1889. [81] This obituary used several of the techniques that would return in the first Russian-language text that would identify «Abai» by name: an obituary of Abai, published in 1905 in the newspaper Semipalatinskii Listok, and written by Bukeikhanov. [82]

The Russian authors of Altynsarin's obituary emphasized that Altynsarin owed his distinguished career (as an author and educator) to a few years of elementary Russian-Kazakh schooling and to the influence of a number of Russian men who acted like father figures in his life. Emphasizing the symbolism of his first name, the Russian authors declared Altynsarin to be «the first Apostle among Kirghiz, bringing the light of European civilization and love for Russia to the dark nomads of his tribe». The obituary of Abai was much less anti-Kazakh, but it, too, emphasized the symbolism of the first name, Ibrahim. Moreover, it also emphasized that Abai had received only a few years of education. But most importantly, it, too, presented Abai as a Kazakh who owed his intellectual development mostly to educated Russian men and his artistic development to his constant reading of Russian literature. According to Bukeikhanov, Abai had received his diminutive name from his mother Bukeikhanov at a young age, had become an oral folk poet as a young man, but had grown into a writer of poems only later in life, after years of having immersed himself in Russian literature.

The appearance of this obituary of Abai in 1905 was unexpected. By this time, Russian ethnographers had been scouring Central Asia for decades, compiling reports about the region’s geography, economy and culture. However, contrary to Bukeikhanov’s claim that Abai had been a well-known poet within his own Tobyqty tribe, no Russian ethnographer had ever mentioned his name. In the most comprehensive bibliography of its kind (about 1,000 pages long), published in 1900, the editor Aleksandr Alektorov listed the articles by Zhusup Kopeiuly, but he did not mention any poets by the name of «Abai», «Ibrahim Qunanbayev» or «Ybyrai Qunanbai». [83] In 1895, Alektorov had already published an article about the poet-singer Qurmanbai, who was famous beyond the borders of his native region, Qostanai uezd. Here, too, Alektorov did not make any reference to Abai. [84] To be sure, the absence of Abai from Alektorov’s bibliography is not sufficient proof that Abai did not exist. But it is a strong indication, evidence even. If a pro-Russian poet such as Abai would have existed, even if he was only known within his own tribe, Russian ethnographers would have flocked to him to copy or record his poems.

Anticipating that his readers might want to ask him questions about a poet whose name no-one had heard before, Bukeikhanov constructed a narrative in the obituary that would account for the absence of any written traces of Abai’s poetry. As a young man, Bukeikhanov wrote, Abai had written poems on scraps of paper and handed them out to the people of his tribe. Later in life, Abai had been writing poems in his spare time, mostly for himself, without collecting them in a book. In other words, Bukeikhanov suggested, if readers had not heard the names «Abai» or «Ibrahim Qunanbayev» before, it was because Abai’s poems had never appeared in print. Soon, however, Bukeikhanov announced at the end of the obituary, a book of Abai’s poetry would be published by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, under the editorship of Bukeikhanov himself. This announcement did not come true, however. Only in 1909 was a book of Abai’s poetry published, possibly by Boraganskii & K. in Saint Petersburg – even though it should be noted, as was discussed in a previous part of this article, that there are still many questions regarding the authenticity of this book from 1909.

Why did Bukeikhanov publish the obituary of Abai in 1905? One possibility is that, after the initial success of the two poems published in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1889, Bukeikhanov had been writing more poems, that he now wanted to publish them as a book (thanks to his connections at the Geographical Society), and that he wanted to publish them under the name of a persona who had had a rich and intriguing life but who was now no longer among the living and thus could not be asked any questions. The anonymity that Bukeikhanov had always strived to keep in his literary projects (poems, translations, criticism) would thus be preserved.

In 1954 (not long after the death of Stalin), the scholar Alkei Margulan discovered a manuscript in Leningrad, in the archives of the Geographical Society. The manuscript contained 12 poems that by this time had been attributed to Abai. That this manuscript had been signed by a pseudonym, «A.K.», did not seem to bother the Soviet scholars who touted this discovery as proof that Abai had existed. [85] Given the location of the discovery, the use of a pseudonym, and the socially aware content of the poems (titled «About the Situation of Modern Kirgiz People»), the author was most likely Bukeikhanov himself. The Soviet scholars who attributed the poems to Abai would not have dared to mention this possibility, as in 1954 and in the years that followed, Bukeikhanov had become a taboo subject – erased from history.

However, Margulan and the other Soviet scholars provided a hint to this possibility, by noting that the poems had been written down in 1897 by a Russian journalist by the name of Vladimir Kudashev, who had recorded the poems from an unknown Kazakh oral poet and translated into Russian himself. 1897 was also the year when Bukeikhanov, under the pseudonym «V.», published a report about an expedition to the Stepnoi Krai that had been organized by the Geographical Society, in which he had participated and during which time he had met Count Kudashev personally. [86] If it is assumed that Bukeikhanov was the unknown Kazakh poet on whom Kudashev relied, all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. It would explain why the manuscript ended up in the archives of the Geographical Society. It would also explain why the poems were signed under the pseudonym «A.K.», as they can easily be read as the abbreviation of one of Bukeikhanov’s most-often used pseudonyms – A. Kurmanbayev or Asylqozha Kurmanbayev. Most importantly, it would also explain why the manuscript was bilingual. Count Kudashev certainly did not have the required proficiency to translate sophisticated Kazakh poetry into competent Russian, and at the time, Bukeikhanov was probably the only Kazakh in the Stepnoi Krai who had an active interest in producing written literature in both Kazakh and Russian. Therefore, it is likely that Bukeikhanov not only wrote the Kazakh poems in the manuscript but also translated them himself.

In the decade leading up to 1905, Bukeikhanov had probably been writing poems in much the same way as he described Abai writing poetry: in his spare time, mostly for himself, without trying to print or publish anything. In the meantime, he had probably also been thinking not just about a pseudonym but about the whole persona of the poet. He probably had also been giving hints about this new persona to some of his Russian colleagues.

For example, Nikolai Konshin, a member of the Geographical Society and the editor of Semipalatinskii Listok at the time when Bukeikhanov published his obituary there, had published a scientific article in 1900 in which a Kazakh from the Tobyqty tribe, who was famous in Semipalatinsk but did not want to be known by outsiders, had provided a genealogy of all the tribes of the Middle Juz. [87] The unknown Kazakh in this case was probably, once again, Bukeikhanov, who had had an opportunity to record the histories of the Middle Juz while participating in the scientific expeditions of the Russian statistician Fyodor Scherbina in the period 1895-1901. This did not stop the Soviet scholar Mikhail Fetisov, many years later, from making the influential claim that the unknown Kazakh source of Konshin’s scientific article had been none other than Abai, thus establishing Abai as not only a poet but as a historian and a scientist. [88] On the basis of which evidence Fetisov made this claim is not clear. Even Bukeikhanov did not portray Abai as a historian or scientist in his obituary of 1905.

A much clearer example of the hints Bukeikhanov had been giving to Russian colleagues can be found in an article from 1903, written by the geographer Aleksandr Sedelnikov. In this article, on the subject of Kirghiz folk poetry (narodnoe tvorchestvo), Sedelnikov mentioned in two sentences a Kirghiz poet named «Knombai», who had translated Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin and Lermontov’s verses and who had written lyrical poems that were «sophisticated in form» and «poetic in content». [89] In recent years, Sedelnikov’s article has been presented as historical evidence that the poet Abai existed and that his real name was Qunanbayev. However, Sedelnikov’s reference to «Knombai» is problematic for two reasons. First, in this period, Kazakh aqyns and biys were known by their first name or by their nickname, not by their father’s name. In other words, Sedelnikov’s reference can only be understood as a reference to a poet whose first name or nickname was «Knombai». Any other interpretation is a misinterpretation, resulting from a lack of understanding of the historical context in which this reference was made. It is likely that Sedelnikov received the reference to «Knombai» from Bukeikhanov. Sedelnikov and Bukeikhanov knew each other well: both lived in Omsk, worked as teachers, participated in research expeditions, and even co-authored a scientific article in the same book in which Sedelnikov made the famous but enigmatic reference to «Knombai».

For scholars looking for evidence that the real name of the poet «Abai» was indeed Qunanbayev, Sedelnikov’s reference is very confusing, as in 1915, in the newspaper Qazaq, Bukeikhanov (under the pseudonym «Galihan») wrote a short obituary of Kakitai Qunanbayev, a nephew of the poet Abai, in which Bukeikhanov remarked that he had already met Kakitai in 1900. [90] If Bukeikhanov already knew the poet’s name in 1900, why did he not pass on to his friend and colleague Sedelnikov the poet’s full name or even his nickname – «Abai» – in 1903? This question is an example of a much larger problem: the historical facts and the official version of Abai’s biography are conflicting to such a degree that anyone looking at Abai’s official biography is confronted with puzzles all the time. The most plausible solution to this particular puzzle is this: in 1903, Bukeikhanov did not yet know what the real name of Abai was, because he still had to invent it.

However, creating the persona of a Kazakh nomad under whose name he could publish a book of poems was probably not the main reason why Bukeikhanov decided to publish the obituary of Abai in 1905. The fact that Bukeikhanov chose to publish the obituary in Russian (not Kazakh) and to sign it with his own name may be the best indications of the real purpose of this obituary. As was already shown in the previous part of the article, Bukeikhanov, until his death in 1937, signed all his writings with a pseudonym, except if they were politically motivated. If Bukeikhanov indeed wrote this obituary, it must be because he intended to make a political statement. Several months before, Bukeikhanov had joined forces with other Kazakh nationalists, including Akhmet Baitursynov and Mirzhaqyp Dulatov, to file a petition, signed by 14,500 persons, that demanded from the Russian government that the religious and land ownership rights of Kazakhs be respected. [91] Bukeikhanov’s obituary, written under his own name, was part of the same political project. With Abai, Bukeikhanov had created the artistic component of his political project: someone he could present with pride to the Russian government, an ideal Kazakh, that is to say, a Kazakh nomad who was able to assimilate fully into Russian culture without having to abandon his nomadic way of life.

Bukeikhanov’s political project had not yet consolidated into a party. This would happen only in 1917, when Alash Orda was founded. In the years between, Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov would work together on many cultural projects, including the promotion of the exemplary life and work of a 19th-century Kazakh nomad, who was also a brilliant poet and thinker, named «Ibrahim (Abai) Qunanbai».


[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.

[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] Adeeb Khalid. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform. Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley, 1998.

[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.

[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.

[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. [79] Anatolii Remnev. Tatars in the Kazakh Steppe: Allies and Rivals of the Russian Empire. In Vestnik Evrasii, issue 4, 2006, pp. 24-25.

[80] Anatolii Remnev. Tatars in the Kazakh Steppe: Allies and Rivals of the Russian Empire. In Vestnik Evrasii, issue 4, 2006, p. 24.

[81] Ibrahim Altynsarinovich (Ivan Alekseevich) Altynsarin. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 33, 1889.

[82] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Abai (Ibrahim) Kunanbayev: Necrology. In Semipalatinskii Listok, issue 250, 1905.

[83] Aleksandr Alektorov. The Index of Journal and Newspaper Articles and of Notes about Kirghiz. Kazan, 1900.

[84] Aleksandr Alektorov. Qurmanbai. In Turgaiskaya Gazeta, issue 39, 1895.

[85] Hairzhan Bekhozhin. Development of the Kazakh Press (1860-1930). Alma-Ata, 1964, p. 22.

[86] V. In the Western Siberian Division of the Geographical Society. In Stepnoi Krai, issue 29, 1897.

[87] Nikolai Konshin. Notes about the Origins of the Middle Juz Tribes. In Memorial Book of Semipalatinsk Oblast, issue IV, 1900.

[88] Mikhail Fetisov. Birth of the Kazakh Press. Alma-Ata, 1961, p. 238.

[89] Aleksandr Sedelnikov. Kirgizy. In Russia: Full Geographical Description of our Fatherland, a Table and Travel Book for Russian People. Vol. 8. St. Petersburg, 1903, p. 204.

[90] Galihan. About the Death of Kakitai Ysqaq-uly Qunanbaev. In Qazaq, issue 105, 1915.

[91] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Kirgizy. In Forms of National Movements in Modern States. St. Petersburg, 1910, p. 598.


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