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  • Writer's pictureЗәуре Батаева

The Riddle of Abai: Kazakhstan's Greatest Unknown Poet (2)

6. Alash Orda

Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí constituted a significant event in the history of Abai’s writings, as ideas and even poems that are now attributed to Abai first appeared in the pages of this newspaper. The main reason was the presence of Alikhan Bukeikhanov, who – together with Zhusip Köpei-uly and perhaps also Bukeikhanov’s relative, Shahin-Gerei Bökei-uly – created many ideas and writings that in the 20th century would be attributed to Abai. Until 1905, Bukeikhanov’s poetry had been anonymous and largely unknown. In 1905, Bukeikhanov introduced «Abai» for the first time to the world – an unknown, unpublished Kazakh poet whose work would soon be made public. Bukeikhanov did not see the new persona so much as a vehicle for publishing his own, growing collection of poems under a pseudonym. Rather, he intended «Abai» to become the avatar of a political movement.

The political context of 1905 is a fundamental aspect of the creation of the avatar «Abai». Why did Bukeikhanov publish Abai’s obituary only in November 1905? Why did he wait so long? After all, according to Bukeikhanov’s biography, «Abai» had already passed away in June 1904. The answers can be found in the political context of 1905. Following the massive uprisings against the Tsar’s authoritarian rule throughout the Russian Empire in the first months of 1905, Kazakh leaders had come together to organize a large-scale petition in June 1905, demanding that the land rights and religious rights of Kazakhs be better protected. While the petition was a popular success and confirmed that there now existed a greater freedom of expression in the Stepnoi Krai, it also revealed to Bukeikhanov that Russian-educated Westernizers (zapadniki) like himself would find it difficult to convince the majority of Kazakhs of their ideas.

We know with certainty that this was Bukeikhanov’s thought process in 1905, as he confirmed it himself in an article that he published under his own name in 1910. This article, which can be considered Bukeikhanov’s political manifesto, returned to the period leading up to the petition of June 1905, when he and other Kazakh intellectuals had several secret meetings to decide on the contents of the petition, revealing a split between Islam-oriented Turcophiles on the one hand and Westernizers like himself on the other. During these meetings Bukeikhanov came to understand that the majority of Kazakhs were interested in «issues of religion and land» but not in «issues of political freedom» and that, because the Empire’s «Russification policy» had had a negative impact on their land and religious rights, the majority looked at «Western education and culture with suspicion». [92] The popular success of the Turcophile-led petition of 1905 was a turning point in Bukeikhanov’s career, as it made him realize that he would never be chosen by his fellow Kazakhs to become their political leader and that therefore he would have to pursue his political objectives by different means. Though he did not say it explicitly in his manifesto of 1910, the summer months of 1905 were probably the time when he began to create the persona of «Abai».

To the poems he had been writing since the 1880s, Bukeikhanov now added a name and a biography. Ibrahim «Abai» Qunanbai: a nomad who had not abandoned his traditional way of life, who was wealthy but not corrupted, who was Muslim but not fanatical, who was Western-educated but not Russified. Moreover, a man with the symbolically charged first name Ibrahim: the messenger who, according to surah 14 of the Quran, will lead his people out of darkness into light. That this name could not have been the real name of a 19th-century Kazakh nomad may have been missed by the Russian readers of the obituary of 1905, but it is unlikely to have been missed by the Kazakh readers who would be introduced to the life and work «Abai» in later years. If «Abai» had been a real person, his first name would have been Ybyrai, not Ibrahim.

Given that Bukeikhanov also decided to make «Abai» an accomplished poet, who mastered the techniques not only of Kazakh oral poetry but of Russian written poetry, it is possible that, to Bukeikhanov personally, «Abai» represented the ideal Kazakh man. Perhaps Bukeikhanov chose the nickname «Abai» not only because it meant «careful» in Kazakh but also because it mimicked the initials of his own name. Perhaps this is also the reason why Bukeikhanov signed many of his articles in the period 1905-1906 under the pseudonym «A.B.»? [93] As none of Bukeikhanov’s diaries or other personal papers survive, we will never know for certain.

However, what is certain, when the political context of 1905 is taken into account, is that Bukeikhanov intended his exemplary persona to convey multiple political messages to multiple audiences. To the Russian intellectuals, who were Bukeikhanov’s first audience, «Abai» was intended to convey the message that it was possible to bring the Kazakhs of the Stepnoi Krai into the political union of the Russian Empire without depriving them of their land, language, religion, and traditional way of life. To the Kazakh intellectuals, on whom Bukeikhanov would focus in the years after 1905, «Abai» was intended to convey the message that it was possible for Kazakhs to receive a Russian education and still retain their religious identity and traditional way of life.

Perhaps Bukeikhanov’s project was not political in the strictest sense, but it was certainly a project that believed in the political power of symbolism. Bukeikhanov believed that his poetry, once it had received a symbolically charged name and biography, would have the power to show his Kazakh readers how their lives would be enriched by learning the Russian language and culture. It was with this belief in mind that Bukeikhanov would join forces with two other Russian-educated Kazakhs, Akhmet Baitursynov and Mirjaqip Dulatov, and expand his work on the poetry of «Abai» in the years that followed. Together, they would continuously promote the poems and prose texts of «Abai» – in all the publications to which they would contribute, but especially in the publications which they would edit themselves, namely, the newspaper Qazaq (from 1913 to 1917) and the magazine Abai (in 1918). Already in his very first article about Abai, dated 2 April 1913, Baitursynov announced their ambitious project as follows: «Abai’s words must reach all Kazakhs.» [94] By this time, the newspaper was already selling Abai’s book of poems, which, significantly, had been given the title Various Propaganda Lyrics. [95] In the hands of Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov, «Abai» would become the avatar of a discreetly and informally organized Alash Orda movement that laid the cultural groundwork for a political organization that would eventually be established (if only for a brief period of time, from 1917 to 1920).

That Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov were the first promotors of «Abai» as the foremost Kazakh poet of the 19th century is a fact that can be measured. After Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí was shut down in 1902, Kazakhs did not have any newspapers or magazines left. After the Revolution of 1905, the greater freedom of expression that was granted to the peoples of the Russian Empire enabled Kazakh writers to publish their books at Tatar publishing houses in Qazan and Orenburg. However, writers of articles and opinion pieces had to wait until 1911, when the magazine Aiqap was launched. This magazine, edited by Mukhamedjan Seralin, discussed and even published poetry, but not Abai’s. In Aiqap the name and work of Abai were mentioned only twice. First, there was a brief citation from one of Abai’s poems. [96] Second, there was a brief announcement about a literary event, organized by the Geographical Society, commemorating the 10th anniversary of Abai’s death. [97] Moreover, Aiqap regularly informed its readers about Kazakh books that had been published and were available for readers to purchase and read. The authors of the books that were mentioned included Akhmet Baitursynov, Mirjaqyp Dulatov, Sabit Donentayev, Spandiyar Kobeev, Gumar Qarashev and Mukhamedjan Seralin. Ibrahim «Abai» Qunanbai was never mentioned in the pages of Aiqap as the author of a book of poems. [98]

At this time, Abai’s work and reputation were promoted almost exclusively in the newspaper Qazaq, which was edited by Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov. This was confirmed, ten years later, by the Soviet scholars Ilyas Zhansugirov and Gabbas Togzhanov. Zhansugirov wrote in 1933: «It was the newspaper Qazaq that introduced Abai to the public. » [99] Togzhanov wrote in 1935: «Before the revolution, on the subject of Abai, the Kazakh-nationalist leaders Alikhan Bukeikhan-uly, Akhmet Baitursyn-uly and Mirjaqip Dulat-uly wrote articles in the Russian and Kazakh languages. After the revolution, the journal ‘Abai’ appeared in Semei. There, Zhusipbek and someone under the name ‘Ekeu’ wrote about Abai…» [100]

Even the promotional efforts that were undertaken for Russian audiences at this time, such as the ones written by the newspaper editor, ethnographer and member of the Russian Geographical Society Grigorii Potanin, were probably initiated by Bukeikhanov, who was Potanin’s friend and expedition guide. Although Potanin had been organizing expeditions to the Stepnoi Krai since the 1880s, he never mentioned the poet Ibrahim «Abai» Qunanbai in his articles and reports to the Geographical Society. However, in 1914, in his report about the Qarqaraly expedition of 1913, Potanin all of a sudden introduced the names of three poets: «The poet-intellectual Ibrai Qunanbai, who wrote poems and composed his own songs, is famous in Semipalatinsk, the poet and composer Akhmet Baitursynov, the editor of the newspaper Qazaq, is popular among youths and then there is a romantic poet who provides refuge to horse thieves, who does not write down his poems, does not compose songs and cannot be heard like Baitursynov.» [101] The unnamed poet was, in fact, Dulatov, who had been imprisoned for his political activities, which included the publication of a book of poetry titled Wake Up, Kazakh!, a book first published in 1909 under the pseudonym Azamat («citizen»). 1909 was also the year when Baitursynov had published his first book of poetry, titled 40 Fables, under the pseudonym Masa («mosquito»), and when Bukeikhanov had first published Abai’s book of poetry. For his characterization of the state of Kazakh poetry in 1914, Potanin, who was not a scholar of poetry but an ethnographer, relied entirely on the information provided by his friend Bukeikhanov – a fact that Potanin openly acknowledged in his report.

During the five-year existence of the newspaper Qazaq, its three editors published about forty articles in which they discussed or cited the writings of Abai. Baitursynov and Dulatov signed all their contributions under their own names or recognizable pseudonyms. As always, Bukeikhanov signed only the articles that were political in purpose under his own name, while signing the articles that were literary or philosophical under one of his many pseudonyms – including pseudonyms such as Uaq and Qyr Balasy, which Bukeikhanov had been using for many years, in a variety of different publications. There were also many anonymous reports and announcements about literary events, where Abai’s name was just briefly mentioned (one of these announcements was reprinted a few weeks later, as the announcement in Aiqap that was mentioned above).

In purely quantitative terms, the promotion undertaken by the three editors of Qazaq may not seem impressive: in less than 20% of the total number of articles published over the course of the newspaper’s five-year existence, Abai was discussed or cited. In qualitative terms, however, the effort was without precedent. Not only did the editors introduce «Abai» to Kazakh readers for the first time, they immediately introduced him as a voice of great authority and wisdom – a thinker and a visionary. The technique they used for this purpose was citation: they cited lines of Abai’s poems at length, as a means of offering advice or insight. For example, when Dulatov wanted to advise his fellow Kazakhs to stop their legal battles about livestock theft, he established Abai as the decisive moral authority, citing two lines from his poetry: «If you don’t see a friend in each other, Kazakhs / everything you do is in vain.» [102] When Dulatov wanted to discuss the origins of the misbehaviour of two Kazakh adolescents, he cited Abai to show that Abai was a visionary thinker, who had already understood twenty or thirty years before that Kazakh children lacked a literary education and were therefore deceitful and excessively competitive. [103]

Despite their energy and enthusiasm, the editors of Qazaq worked in stressful conditions, pressured by the Russian authorities and by financial limitations. These stressful conditions were probably exacerbated when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914. Little is known about the financial support of Qazaq, other than that it was funded by an organization called Azamat, but it is clear from the advertisements that the editors were also selling books, including Abai’s book of poems, entitled Various Propaganda Lyrics by Ibrahim Qunanbai-uly. However, in March 1915, the editors announced that no more copies of the book were available. [104] On the one hand, this announcement shows that the editors’ promotion of Abai had worked: the readers of Qazaq had been buying Abai’s book of poems. On the other hand, it also shows how limited the means were with which the editors of Qazaq had to conduct their publishing activities. Scholars have claimed that the book sold by the editors of Qazaq was identical to the book published in Saint Petersburg in 1909. However, this claim cannot be verified, as no copies of the book sold by Qazaq seem to have survived the 25 years of devastation that would follow.

During the years of the Kazakh Famine (1929-1933), when about 40% of the Kazakh population died, Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov were living in Russia: Bukeikhanov under house arrest in Moscow, Baitursynov and Dulatov in separate labour camps in Northern Russia. By the end of the Great Terror, all three men had been terminated, their personal papers destroyed, their families silenced. Throughout the era of the Soviet Union, until the time of Glasnost, their names were erased from Kazakh history. As a result, we do not know much about the private lives of these three men – the goals, dreams and disappointments they had. However, many of their published writings still exist. These writings provide us with enough evidence to help us speculate about the real history behind the genesis of the poet and thinker we now call «Abai».

Based on the internal evidence provided by their own writings, the three men were already discussing Abai’s poetry as early as 1903. In his first extensive article about Abai, published in November 1913 in Qazaq, Baitursynov recalled: «In 1903 a notebook with Abai’s writings fell into my hands … According to Alikhan Bukeikhanov, Abai read books of European thinkers in translation … Among poets, he liked the Russian poet called Lermontov.» [105] A year later, in the same newspaper, Dulatov confirmed that there had already been a close collaboration between Bukeikhanov and Baitursynov at the time: «I saw Abai’s writings for the first time at Baitursynov’s, when I went to Omsk in June 1904.» [106] In 1904, only nineteen years old, Dulatov had become a student at the Teacher’s College in Omsk and had been introduced to Bukeikhanov by Baitursynov (whom Dulatov knew, possibly because Baitursynov may have been Dulatov’s teacher at a secondary school in Torgai).

The recollections by Baitursynov and Dulatov are important because they contradict Bukeikhanov’s own version of the history of Abai’s writings, which he made public in Qazaq shortly afterwards, in the obituary he wrote in 1915 for Abai’s nephew, «Käkitai Ysqaq-uly», a person which he had already introduced in his obituary for Abai in 1905. In the obituary of 1915, Bukeikhanov claimed that he had seen the manuscript of Abai’s writings for the first time only in April 1905, when «Käkitai» had brought it to Omsk and had spent several days at Bukeikhanov’s home, talking about the life and writings of his uncle. [107] The history recalled in the obituary of 1915 fit the history that Bukeikhanov had begun in the obituary of 1905, where he had claimed that all the biographical information about Abai had been provided by «Käkitai».

But was it a true history? Most certainly not. Bukeikhanov had been involved with Abai’s poems since they were first published in 1889, in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí. Given his profile, and given his preference for using pseudonyms, Bukeikhanov was most likely not just the newspaper’s translator of the poems, but the actual author of these poems. When Baitursynov and Dulatov wrote in their own articles in Qazaq that Bukeikhanov had been the one who had shown them Abai’s handwritten poems long before they had been published in a book in 1909, Bukeikhanov had probably started receiving inquiries from readers about his personal ties to Abai. After all, there was a question that Bukeikhanov had never answered up this point: why had he, Bukeikhanov, who did not have any family ties to Ibrahim «Abai» Qunanbai, been chosen to promote and publish Abai’s work? To stop the question from becoming a problem, Bukeikhanov used the same technique in the obituary of 1915 that he had already used in the obituary of 1905. By declaring that the subject of his article had passed away, Bukeikhanov believed that he would be able to stop all further inquiries that might come from interested third parties – journalists, publishers, ethnographers.

Should Bukeikhanov therefore be accused of being a liar? Bukeikhanov was no more of a liar than the Soviet propagandists who, more than a decade later, would steal Bukeikhanov’s work and add pro-Soviet messages wherever they wanted. From an ideological perspective, both Bukeikhanov and the Soviet propagandists felt justified in what they did: they wanted to present «Abai» as an ideal man, who showed that it was beneficial for Kazakhs to learn from Russian culture. That the Soviet propagandists decided to launch their large-scale presentation of the collected works of «Abai» in 1933, near the end of the Kazakh Famine, may have horrified Bukeikhanov, however.

The great difference between Bukeikhanov and the Soviet propagandists was that Bukeikhanov had created everything himself. While it is possible to read Bukeikhanov’s obituary of «Käkitai Ysqaq-uly» as a factual account, it is also possible to read it differently and to laugh at the inventiveness of Bukeikhanov’s story, his clever way of shutting down any further inquiries about his acquaintance with Abai’s relatives. The playfulness Bukeikhanov displayed in the obituary of 1915 would be even further accentuated in the jokes some of his younger colleagues would start making about Abai’s biography in a new newspaper called Sary Arqa, during the revolutionary year of 1917.

The jokes were similar to the ones that the Russian duo «Ilf and Petrov» would play in their satirical novel of 1931, The Little Golden Calf. For example, in issue 2 of Sary Arqa, there was an announcement that «ten or so children of Abai, 14-15 youths», including Abai’s Russian son, Mikhail Qunanbaev, had started a charitable organisation, which had made a play out of Shakh-Karim’s poem Enlik-Kebek and had performed it, with an introduction by the «seminarist Mukhtar Auezov», at the wedding party of the daughter of Abai’s Kazakh son, Turagul Qunanbai. [108] In issues 11 and 57, there were brief announcements that brought «Abai Qunanbai» back to life, as the donor of, respectively, 50 tenge and 20 tenge to two charitable organisations. [109]

Who wrote these anonymous announcements in 1917 is not known, but the newspaper’s contributors included all of Bukeikhanov’s younger colleagues, including Baitursynov and Dulatov as well as Mukhtar Auezov, Zhusipbek Aimautov, Beimbet Mailin and others. Whether Bukeikhanov, who lived in exile in Samara until 21 October 1917, [110] approved of the jokes is not known. However, given the playful manner in which he handled the obituary of 1915, it is possible that he would not have disapproved.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that readers and scholars in the post-Soviet era continue on the same path as their Soviet predecessors and insist on reading the mythology that Bukeikhanov created around «Abai» and even the jokes that Bukeikhanov’s younger colleagues made about this mythology as the elements of a factual biography. There are too many signs to the contrary.

No letters or diaries survive that could reveal what Baitursynov and Dulatov thought about the mythology Bukeikhanov had created. However, it is clear that already in 1913, Baitursynov knew the identity of the author hiding behind the name «Abai». In his article dated 30 November 1913, Baitursynov stated that Abai’s poems were «good» and «complete» but that they had «one flaw: the metrical feet were not edited». This irregular metre, Baitursynov explained, was unmusical and gave him the same experience as riding a horse that suddenly changed its ambling gait. [111] Would anyone criticize a genius this way? Clearly, Baitursynov, a talented poet himself, did not consider Abai’s talents exceptional. Baitursynov went even further, proposing to correct the metrical problems himself: «This flaw can be corrected. If the 3-syllable feet and 4-syllable feet that have been swapped are put in their own places, it will be corrected.» [112]

Baitursynov was not only a talented poet and musician, he was also a scholar of literature. In his book on the aesthetics of Kazakh literature (first published in Tashkent in 1926), he would again discuss the metrical patterns of Abai’s poetry at great length. [113] However, his proposal in the article of 1913 should strike anyone as unusual. Why would Baitursynov propose to make stylistic changes to the work of an older, respected poet who had passed away? The only plausible answer to this question is that Baitursynov made this proposal because he knew that the real author of these poems was his colleague, Bukeikhanov, with whom he had been in conversation about Abai’s poems ever since Bukeikhanov showed him the manuscript in 1903.

Admittedly, Bukeikhanov’s manuscript does not exist any longer. Nor do we have any written records in Baitursynov’s handwriting from the period 1903-1913 that could show whether Baitursynov revised any of the handwritten poems in Bukeikhanov’s manuscript. However, there are other historical records that can help us reconstruct what may have happened: first, the book advertisements in the newspaper Qazaq; second, the poems that were published anonymously in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1889.

According to the official genealogy of Abai’s writings, which was also adopted by the editors of the authoritative edition of 2005, [114] the book of Abai’s poems that was published in 1909 contained all the definitive versions, and therefore, the book that was sold by the editors of Qazaq could only be a reprint of the book of 1909. The advertisements in the newspaper Qazaq suggest a different history. Early in 1913, in issues 8, 13 and 20, a book entitled Various Propaganda Lyrics, by the «famous Kazakh poet Ibrahim Qunanbai-uly», had begun to be advertised as a «newly published book». Inquiries could be made at the shop of «Kopbai Baisov» in Semipalatinsk. After these early announcements, the editors of Qazaq continued to promote Abai’s writings in their articles, but no other advertisements regarding Abai’s book were published in 1913. The reason for this long silence is not known: did the available copies sell out quickly, or was the advertised book never available at Baisov’s shop?

Only on 23 January 1914 (in issue 47), almost two months after Baitursynov offered to revise the irregular metres in Abai’s poems, did a new advertisement appear, with the message: «Abai’s verses have arrived». This new book, for sale at the editorial office of Qazaq for the price of 75 cents, would be advertised four more times in the summer of 1914 (in issues 72, 74, 76 and 77). On 5 March 1915 (in issue 109), it was announced that no more copies of the book were available. There was no mention that the book might be reprinted. Was the edition of Abai’s poems that arrived in the newspaper’s editorial office in January 1914 identical to the edition that was published in 1909 and that, perhaps, was still available for sale in 1913? This question cannot be answered, given that no copies of the edition of 1914 survive, and given that the copies currently representing the edition of 1909 raise so many questions regarding their authenticity that it is impossible to consider them reliable sources of information.

However, it is likely that between November 1913 and January 1914, Baitursynov managed to persuade Bukeikhanov to revise the irregular metres in some of Abai’s poems and publish them in the new edition of 1914. The evidence can be found in the other historical source that has survived: the poems that were published, anonymously, in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1889 and whose revised versions were published under the name «Abai» in the first decades of the 20th century.

One of these poems, today known under the title «Here, I became a bolys», shows clearly that the version of 1889, by the time it was published again in the 20th century, had undergone the stylistic changes that Baitursynov, in his article of 1913, declared he would like to implement in Abai’s poems. The version of 1889 had followed an irregular metrical pattern of constantly changing feet. [115] The revised version, which was cited by Bukeikhanov on 31 January 1914 (one week after the arrival of the 1914 edition of Abai’s poems), [116] had a very regular metrical pattern: most lines of the poem consisted of a four-syllable foot followed by a three-syllable foot, just like Baitursynov had wanted. To attain this regular pattern, the revised version also changed the original third-person perspective into a first-person perspective, thus making most of the lines shorter and easier to adapt to a regular rhythm. Moreover, it displayed a much more polished rhyme scheme. Whether Baitursynov implemented the stylistic changes himself or whether he advised Bukeikhanov on revising the poem cannot be determined. Any evidence regarding the collaboration between Baitursynov and Bukeikhanov disappeared long ago. What is clear, however, is that Baitursynov’s aesthetic theory exerted its influence over how the poem «Here, I became a bolys» was revised and published in 1914.

This scenario goes counter to the official history that was established by Soviet scholars and propagandists. In this scenario, Abai’s poems underwent further changes in the first decades of the 20th century as a result of the intense collaboration that occurred between Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov – a collaboration that had begun as early as 1903 but that had intensified when they joined forces as editors of the newspaper Qazaq. Given that as little is known about the contents of the edition of Abai’s poems of 1909 as there is about the contents of the edition of Abai’s poems of 1914, it cannot be determined which changes were made at which time. However, there are two facts that can be stated with certainty about the version of the poem «Here, I became a bolys» that was published in the edition of 1914. First, this version of the poem was stylistically very different from the original version that was published in 1889. And second, this version showed that Baitursynov’s ideas on the importance of maintaining a regular metre had been a decisive influence.

It is possible that the collaboration on Abai’s poems also included Dulatov, the youngest of the three editors of Qazaq. For example, there are indications that the poem titled «At boarding school many Kazakh children study», which today is considered one of Abai’s canonical poems, may have been authored by Dulatov. Even though it was briefly cited in an article in Aiqap in 1912, [117] Dulatov was the first who first drew attention to the poem by citing it in full in an article about an admissions scandal at a Russian-Kazakh gymnasium in Omsk. [118] A stylistic analysis of this poem quickly establishes that it is much angrier in tone than any other poem in Abai’s canon. The calm and prophetic tone characteristic of Abai’s poems is absent here. Dulatov was notorious for his argumentative, sometimes angry voice – a fact for which he was criticized by older readers. [119] A stylistic analysis of this poem also establishes that it uses an unusually high number of Russian words and phrases – a stylistic trait that is characteristic of 20th-century Kazakh not of 19th-century Kazakh. Most of Abai’s poems were probably written in the 19th century, probably by Bukeikhanov, who, like Baitursynov, used few Russian words in his writing. The most likely author of «At boarding school many Kazakh children study» is therefore not Bukeikhanov but someone younger, someone like Dulatov.

The picture that thus emerges is complicated: while it is clear who created the persona «Abai» and who promoted it in the first decades of the 20th century, the poetry canon of «Abai» probably contains poems that were written not only by Bukeikhanov but also by other authors, whose identity may never be known with certainty.

Other aspects of the genesis of «Abai» in the 20th century are also clear. One such aspect is that the three editors of Qazaq are the most likely candidates for having authored the many translations and rewritings of classical Russian poetry that today are still part of Abai’s canon. In today’s canon there are about fifteen fables in verse that can be considered free translations or rewritings of fables by Ivan Krylov, eight poems that that can be considered free translations or rewritings of extracts of Aleksandr Pushkin’s novel in verse Yevgeny Onegin, and about thirty lyrical poems that that can be considered free translations or rewritings of poems by Mikhail Lermontov. In 1951, the scholar Zaki Akhmetov, who researched Abai’s poems more deeply than any of his colleagues, proposed that there were even more poems in Abai’s canon that were inspired by poems by Lermontov. [120] Who was the author of all these translations and rewritings? How could anyone believe that they were produced by a 19th-century Kazakh nomad whose entire Russian education, according to the official biography (already established by Bukeikhanov in 1905), consisted of three months of lessons at an Orthodox Church school?

The only people capable of producing such sophisticated work at the time were highly educated people such as Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov. The three editors of Qazaq shared a passion for Russian literature and were actively engaged in producing translations of verses by Krylov and Lermontov in books and newspapers. Already in 1894, Bukeikhanov, who was seven years older than Baitursynov and nineteen years older than Dulatov, had published his translations of one of the fables by Krylov and a novella by Leo Tolstoy. [121] Probably under Bukeikhanov’s mentorship, his younger colleagues went on to produce their own translations of Russian literature. In 1909, Baitursynov published a book titled Forty Fables, which contained translations of fables by Krylov. In 1913-1914, Dulatov published his translation of Lermontov’s poems in Aiqap and Qazaq. [122] Moreover, given that Bukeikhanov already possessed a notebook with Abai’s handwritten poems in 1903, and given that Bukeikhanov and (to a lesser degree) his two younger colleagues spent several decades promoting the work and reputation of Abai, Bukeikhanov and (to a lesser degree) his two younger colleagues were the most likely authors of the many rewritings of Russian poetry that entered Abai’s canon.

The influence of Russian culture on Abai’s artistic work extended even further, affecting also the songs attributed to Abai. In his research published in 1951, Akhmetov established that at least two of Abai’s poems were based on popular Russian songs: Anton Rubinstein’s romance «Broken Heart» and Mikhail Glinka’s folk song «Not a Common Autumn Rain». [123] The influence of Russian romances had already been noted in 1925 by the Russian musicologist Aleksandr Zatayevich, who recorded three songs, which, according to his sources, had been composed by Abai: «Tatyana’s Song», «My Soul is Hapless» and one untitled song. Zatayevich, who admired the freshness and originality of Kazakh folk songs, was not impressed by Abai’s songs, which he evaluated as imitations of dilletante Russian songs of low quality. [124]

Whether or not Zatayevich’s personal appreciation of Abai’s music can be considered fair is another matter. However, his professional assessment that the musical structure of Abai’s songs was based on Russian songs should be taken seriously, as it shows that the person who composed these songs was not a nomad but a Russified urban Kazakh – in other words, someone like Bukeikhanov (rather than someone like Baitursynov, who was immersed in Kazakh music, not Russian music). Bukeikhanov, having lived for many years in Omsk and having married into a Russian family, was an appreciative concertgoer, who had thought deeply about Western music – a fact that he confirmed by writing (under the pseudonym Arys-uly) an extensive article on music, titled «Song, Music and its Instruments», in Qazaq in 1914. [125] Furthermore, Bukeikhanov’s article on music provides further proof that Bukeikhanov was not only the most likely composer of Abai’s songs but also the most likely creator of Abai’s poems. For example, the image «A newly born child greets the world with his crying song. A dying man sings a song in his last breath», which he uses in his article to describe the life-long importance of music, is very similar to an image in one of Abai’s poems, titled «Man in Mourning, Heart in Pain»: «When you are born, a song opens the door of the world, / Your body enters earth with a song.» Was Bukeikhanov so inspired by his reading of Abai’s poetry that he unconsciously repeated the same image? Given what we know about Bukeikhanov’s close involvement with Abai’s poetry since it was first published in 1889, it was probably the reverse: in his article on music, Bukeikhanov repeated (consciously or unconsciously) an image that he had created in one of his own poems, many years before.

One final aspect of the genesis of the persona «Abai» is also clear. After the newspaper Qazaq was shut down in 1917, the promotion of Abai’s work and reputation entered a new phase with the founding of the magazine Abai in 1918. This magazine, during the brief period that it was allowed to exist, openly supported Alash Orda, from which it received in return financial support through the organization Uaq. It was edited by a collective of five or six writers, among whom Zhusipbek Aimautov had been appointed as the official editor.

In this new phase in the genesis of «Abai», the focus shifted from Abai’s poems to Abai’s prose texts. In their articles and promotional activities, Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov and Dulatov had presented Abai as a visionary poet and a deep thinker, but never as writer of prose texts. Therefore, the idea to add a new genre to Abai’s repertoire probably did not come from the former editors of Qazaq but from someone else: most likely, Aimautov.

The idea that Abai was also a prolific writer of prose texts had been invented a few months before the launch of Abai, in the newspaper Sary Arqa. On 14 September 1917, an anonymous prose text was published in Sary Arqa, under the title «Abai’s Word». [126] This text reflected on the importance of unity among all Kazakhs and on the importance of honest, hard work. In 1933, it would officially enter Abai’s canon as the «Sixth Word», when the Soviet authorities published not only Abai’s poems but also an extensive series of prose texts, titled Qara Sözder (Black Words).

The idea introduced in Sary Arqa in 1917 proved influential, as in the next year, the magazine Abai would publish five more prose texts under the same title. In 1933, all five texts would be entered almost literally into Abai’s canon in 1933. The prose text titled «Joy and Consolation» (subtitled «Abai’s Word»), published in issue 1, would become the «Twenty-third Word». The prose text titled «Abai’s Word», published in issue 5, would become the «Fortieth Word». The prose text titled « About Proverbs» (subtitled «Abai’s Word»), published in issue 7, would become two texts in Abai’s canon: the «Nineteenth Word» and the «Twenty-ninth Word». The prose text titled «Wisdom, Will and Heart» (subtitled «Abai’s Word»), published in issue 11, would become the «Seventeenth Word». And finally, the prose text titled «The Difference Between the Wise and the Foolish» (subtitled «Abai’s Word»), published in issue 12, would become the «Fifteenth Word».

If any of these texts had been written by Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov or Dulatov, they would have cited, discussed or published them much earlier. The most likely author, therefore, was one of the talented younger essayists that were part of the magazine’s editorial staff: either Aimautov or Mukhtar Auezov. The latter wrote about many subjects in the magazine but not about Abai. In fact, despite having been mentioned in a satirical piece about Abai’s children in Sary Arqa in 1917, Auezov would not write about Abai until he emerged as one of the leading editors of the Soviet book project in 1933. Aimautov, on the other hand, openly expressed his great admiration for Abai as a thinker and an enlightener in the first pages of the first issue of the magazine. Moreover, in the same issue, Aimautov also published under his own name another prose text, titled «Wealth and Poverty», a critique of Kazakh hypocrisy and laziness, which probably formed the basis for the text that in 1933 would enter Abai’s canon as the «Twenty-eighth Word». Given the many stylistic and philosophical resemblances to the other texts in the series, Aimautov probably also published the text titled «About Strength» in issue 10, which in 1933 would enter Abai’s canon as the «Fourteenth Word».

While Aimautov’s prose texts were critical of some of the social and ethical foundations of Kazakh culture at the time, they were not anti-Muslim, anti-bai or anti-nomadic. In this regard, they can still be distinguished from the dozens of new prose texts that would be added to Abai’s canon in 1933, when the Soviet authorities would launch a large-scale campaign to promote «Abai» as a pro-Soviet thinker.

Many of the magazine’s contributors used pseudonyms – and for the same purposes for which their intellectual and political mentor, Bukeikhanov, had used them. Bukeikhanov had used pseudonyms during his entire career, sometimes to protect his identity, but sometimes also, for example when he used pseudonyms such as Uaq or Qyr Balasy, to convey a specific message. The most significant pseudonyms that were used in the magazine Abai in this regard were probably «Aqylbai Abai-uly» and «Magauia Abai Balasy» – the authors of two long narrative poems published in issues 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10.

Since the Soviet era, these two pseudonyms have often been misinterpreted as the real names of actual people – namely, the sons of Ibrahim «Abai» Qunanbai, one of them, according to Bukeikhanov’s obituary of 1905, died forty days before his father, in May 1904. It is unlikely that a man, who had not been identified by his biographer (Bukeikhanov) as a poet, would have a long and sophisticated poem published, fourteen years after his death. In fact, any Kazakh reader of the magazine Abai would have understood the names «Aqylbai Abai-uly» and «Magauia Abai Balasy» differently: as symbolical names that were meant to send a specific message. Regardless of who wrote the poems (possibly Magzhan Zhumabayev, who published another poem under his own name, «Magzhan», in issue 11), the names were meant to announce that Abai’s legacy would be carried on by a new generation of writers, Abai’s intellectual children.

During the brief existence of the magazine Abai, the language and the style of Kazakh prose writing improved greatly. This increased quality was the culmination of a cultural movement, initiated decades before by writers such as Bukeikhanov and Zhusip Köpei-uly, which had created out of the sophisticated oral culture of Kazakhs an equally sophisticated written culture. A new generation of poets and prose writers had stood up: Baitursynov, Dulatov, Zhumabayev, Aimautov and Auezov. These men were the real heirs of «Abai», the real students of «Abai’s school», whose work would go on to shine like the Pleiades of Kazakh literature.

The events that would take place in the years and decades ahead were unexpected. Neither Bukeikhanov nor Aimautov nor any of the other contributors could have anticipated what would happen to the poems and prose texts that they had created under the avatar «Abai», as part of their fight to maintain Kazakh autonomy in the face of an increasingly oppressive Russian ruler.

7. Soviet Union

In 1933, the Soviet authorities launched a large-scale campaign, across different news media, to promote Abai as a pro-Russian thinker. At the center of this campaign was a book titled Abai Qunanbai-uly: Complete Collection of Writings, of which 6000 copies had been printed by the newly established state publisher Kazakhstan Baspasy. As the publisher’s representative, Tair Zharokov, stated, this book project was unprecedented in the short history of Kazakh written literature: «never before in the history of Kazakh literature, not to mention Kazakh book publishing, did any poet or writer publish such a complete collection. The reason is well known to us: before the October Revolution, under the Russian Tsar’s colonisation, Kazakhs were not an independent nation, and with their backward economy and culture, they did not have a chance to develop the language of their literature, music and art.» [127]

Would a reader who did not know the biography of the poet Abai be able to infer from the publisher’s statement that Abai was, in fact, not a Soviet writer but a 19th-century Kazakh nomad? Most likely not. The statement was representative of how Soviet propagandists wanted to present «Abai»: as a prototypical Soviet writer, who spoke about eternal, transhistorical truths, and therefore did not have to be connected to any specific historical context. Soviet publishers were supported in their work by a massive propaganda state that, through its news media and through its education system, succeeded in indoctrinating the peoples of the Soviet Union with many impossible ideas. The effectiveness of Soviet propaganda can still be seen today. Even in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, the majority of people still believe the impossible: that «Abai», a 19th-century nomad who never abandoned his traditional way of life and attended a Russian Church school for only three months, was able to develop a new kind of written Kazakh poetry whose forms and ideas were indebted to Russian literature.

As can also be seen in Zharokov’s statement, the Soviet authorities went even further. Not did only they present «Abai» as the first writer of Kazakh literature, they presented him as the only one who had ever existed. This meant that the people who, in the first decades of the 20th century, had played a vital role in creating an independent Kazakh literature, including the literature by a poet and thinker called «Abai», had to be eliminated – a process that was already underway in 1933.

Having done away with the people who could tell a different history about Kazakh literature, the Soviet authorities presented in 1933 an entirely new version of the writings of «Abai». This new version included not only the poems and prose texts that were first published in the newspapers Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí and Qazaq, in the magazine Abai, and in earlier books (the first version of which was printed in 1909 or 1913-1914 and the last version of which was published in Tashkent in 1922).

The edition of 1933 also included poems that had never been seen or published before: several new lyrical poems and two new narrative poems, titled «Azim» and «Vadim». It also included a historical note titled «Some Words About the Origins of Kazakhs», which only in 1939-40, in a new edition of Abai’s collected writings, would be announced as having been «handwritten by Abai himself». [128] Most importantly, the book of 1933 also featured 43 prose texts, which together were presented under the title Qara Sözder. Of these 43 texts, 7 had first been published in the magazine Abai in 1918, under various names and rubrics. 36 prose texts were completely new, but the Soviet publishers did not bother to explain their history or to justify their sudden appearance.

The texts known to us today as Word 1 and Word 45 were not included in the book project of 1933. The series began with Word 2 and ended with Word 44. The number 44 suggests that the anonymous Soviet editors of the Qara Sözder wanted to present Abai’s Words as the equivalent of the forty-four chapters of the Qabus Nama, an 11th-century Persian text that offered readers advice regarding education, manners and ethical conduct.

By 1945, the number of Abai’s Words had been expanded to 45. In the edition of 1939-40, Word 1 was added. [129] (Researchers have claimed that Word 1 was already published in Orenburg in 1916 as a preface to a book containing Abai’s selected poems. However, this book is not available in any library in the world, and thus it is not certain that this book ever existed.) In 1945, in yet another edition of Abai’s collected writings, Word 37 was split into two parts, with the second part becoming what is now known as Word 45. [130]

The edition of 1939-40 also included the music scales of twelve songs, newly discovered and attributed to «Abai», but recorded by two Soviet composers, «comrade Latif Khamidi and comrade B.G. Erzakovich.» [131] How is it possible that Soviet editors were allowed to add and change so many texts, not only in the edition of 1933 but also in subsequent editions? There is only one plausible explanation. Soviet editors could make so many changes because they themselves, or one of their colleagues, were the actual authors of these texts.

The publication of the 1933 edition of Abai’s collected writings is still considered the most important event in the history of Kazakh literature. According to many researchers today, the book of 1933 was the first edition to be published in Abai’s own country, Kazakhstan. This may be true, but only within the realm of Soviet-era Kazakhstan. These researchers ignore the fact that the nomads of the Russian Empire, unlike their Soviet descendants, were not confined by national borders: nomads were moving freely across Eurasia until 1928, when Stalin’s collectivization campaign resulted in stricter border controls. The division of the Soviet Union into republics was completed only in 1936. Even though the historical context in which the edition of 1933 appeared is never discussed by scholars, it may be, in fact, one of the most important reasons for its sudden publication that year.

In 1933, the former Kirgiz Steppe was in agony. Stalin’s collectivization plan of 1928-1937 had taken a catastrophic turn in the Steppe. In addition to forced collectivization, the people of the Steppe were subjected to other brutal measures: the anti-bai campaign, with which Stalin intended to eliminate all the wealthy and influential leaders of the nomadic tribes, and the 5-year atheist plan, which ran from 1932 to 1937, and with which Stalin intended to eliminate all religious expression in the Soviet Union. As a result, 40% of all Kazakh nomads starved to death between 1929 and 1933. Moreover, those Kazakhs who stood in the way of Soviet «modernisation», such as tribal leaders, religious clerks and independent intellectuals (including writers), were terminated by other means. The shocking events that occurred were hidden by the state media, but the Russian intellectuals who were working inside the Soviet propaganda machine were very well aware of what was happening. In November 1933, in a private notebook, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who worked at the time for the newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets, wrote down the following eight lines:

Our saintly youth, Have nice songs in their blood: That resemble lullabies, And they declare a war on bais. I caught even myself Singing something similar, I cradle a kolkhoz bai, And sing about a kulak’s pai. [132]

Osip Mandelstam was 4000 km away from Central Asia, but he was aware, perhaps even directly involved, in the anti-bai, anti-kulak and anti-Muslim propaganda that was carried out by the Soviet press. Later, his wife Nadezhda Mandelstam recollected: «This suffocating time demanded that he expressed his attitude to it … These eight lines, perhaps, contained more bitterness than others.» [133]

This was the historical context in which the 1933 edition was published. While state officials were struggling to deal with the unplanned consequences of the Kazakh Famine – large streams of refugees and unmanageable numbers of abandoned dead bodies – the Soviet propaganda machine was working at full capacity, preparing the surviving 60% of the Kazakh population for life under Soviet rule. The publication of Abai’s collected writings in 1933 was part of this propaganda campaign. The persona and writings of «Abai», which had been introduced by Kazakh nationalists in the first decades of the century, would now be used to convey a different political message. This was already announced in the title of the book: Abai Qunanbai-uly: Complete Collection of Writings. The first name «Ibrahim», now considered too Muslim, was completely eliminated from the Soviet editions of 1933, 1934 and 1936.

The question of when and by whom it was decided to elevate Abai to the status of «national poet» of Kazakhstan is a question that will require further research. According to publicly available information, Abai’s lyrics were included in a list of literature books and manuals that would be published by the Narkompros of the Kazakh ASSR in the period 1927-28. [134] Why, in the end, Abai’s lyrics were not published in this period is also a matter of further research, but the answer may lie in the fact that both Akhmet Baitursynov and Mirjaqip Dulatov had worked in the academic center of Narkompros of Kazakhstan in the years before and had been continuing their efforts to make Abai the most prominent Kazakh poet. However, by 1928-29, both Baitursynov and Dulatov, just like their fellow activist Zhusipbek Aimautov, had been branded enemies of the state and had been arrested. By 1927, Alikhan Bukeikhanov – the creator of the original «Abai» persona and probably the author of many of Abai’s poems – had been forced to retire from his job as editor of the Kirgiz division of the Central Publisher of the Peoples of the USSR and had been placed under house arrest in a small Moscow apartment. In other words, it is unlikely that any of the original promoters of Abai was part of the committee that decided to make Abai the «national poet» of Kazakhstan.

The editorial part of the book project of 1933 was carried out by three writers. A short preface was written by Zharokov, at the time working for Kazakhstan Baspasy, but soon to become the personal secretary of the «national poet» of the entire USSR – Jambyl Zhabaiev. A long introduction was written by Ilyas Zhansugirov, who, at the time was a member of the committee in charge of forming the first Writers Union of the KSSR, of which he would become the first chairman (before he would be executed in 1937). Zhansugirov’s name was printed on the front page of the 1933 edition, but in much smaller letters than the name of the person who was probably the main editor of this edition: Mukhtar Auezov. According to the front page, the edition had merely been «compiled by» Auezov, but it is possible that Auezov’s influence had in fact been much greater. Officially, Auezov did nothing more than organize Abai’s writings, add a biography (which he copied from Bukeikhanov’s obituary of 1905), and add two memoirs (by Abai’s friend «Kökpai» and by Abai’s son «Turagul»), which, he claimed, he had already recorded in 1924.

However, given its unexpectedly voluminous contents, the 1933 edition raises many questions: Who wrote the new lyrical poems, including the six poems devoted to Abai’s son «Abdrakhman»? Who wrote the two long narrative poems «Azim» and «Vadim»? And who wrote the thirty-six new prose texts? Given that Auezov was a talented prose writer, could it be that Auezov was involved in the writing of the 36 prose texts? After all, Auezov knew the Arabic script and therefore had access to all the prose texts that previously been written in the newspapers Qazaq and Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí and in the magazine Abai. Moreover, he had personally known the promoters and probable creators of the writings of Abai at least since 1917 (when he was mentioned in a satirical piece about Abai in the newspaper Sary Arqa). [135]

Could it be that Bukeikhanov, who was probably a gifted poet as well as an energetic prose writer, was involved in the writing of the new poems? Given that Bukeikhanov’s archives have probably been destroyed, and given that Auezov’s archives have been closed to the public, answers to these questions may not be forthcoming. But it cannot be excluded that the search for answers will have to focus on the activities of these two men (who had known each other personally since 1918), in the years leading up to 1933.

Unlike Bukeikhanov, Auezov survived Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. However, Auezov’s actions from 1940 onwards suggest that he may not have been entirely comfortable with the role he played in the creation of the Soviet version of «Abai». In 1940, Auezov published an article in which he urged future researchers to investigate the living conditions in which 19th-century Kazakh nomads lived so as to better understand Abai’s writings. [136] In subsequent years, Auezov started writing Abai’s Path, a novel about Abai’s life, which he explicitly presented as a work of fiction – although this did not stop Soviet propagandists from presenting Auezov’s novel as a factual biography, a misrepresentation that continues until today.

In the book project of 1933, the difficult task of persuading the reader that Abai, despite being a nomad from a feudal culture, was in fact a socialist poet had fallen on Zhansugirov. In his lengthy, 64-page introduction, Zhansugirov stated that if Abai’s writings were analyzed properly, according to a «Marxist-Leninist dialectic», they displayed the contradictions that could be expected from a writer of his feudal culture, but that Abai expressed enough anger and disagreement with nomadism to be considered a socialist writer, who (just like the aristocrat Leo Tolstoy) believed in the necessity of «class struggle». [137] Zhansugirov repeatedly restated the main point that would dominate the Soviet propaganda scheme for the next fifty years: that the most visionary aspect of Abai’s philosophy was that he was a severe critic of his own (feudal, nomadic, Kazakh) culture.

Some of the poems reveal this ideological agenda more clearly than others. For example, the poem that appeared in the 1933 edition under the title «Summer», but that first had been published anonymously in the newspaper Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí in 1889, was altered to accommodate the Soviet agenda. It is almost certain that this poem was altered specifically for the Soviet edition of 1933, as the poem had not been included in the edition of Abai’s collected writings that had probably been published by Baitursynov in Tashkent in 1922. The poem of 1933 contained elements of social criticism that were absent from the original version of 1889. Whereas the original version presented the aul as a community of nomads living together in harmony, the version of 1933 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).

The new poems, such as the new narrative poem titled «Vadim», had clearly been inserted for the purpose of serving the Soviet authorities’ ideological agenda. Even though its narrative was based on the 19th-century novel of the same name, written by Mikhail Lermontov, its ideological inspiration was the mythology that had been built by Soviet propagandists around Emelyan Pugachev, who led a rebellion by Russian peasants against their land owners in 1773-75. While the Tsarist regime had previously condemned Pugachev as a criminal and a murderer, Soviet propaganda had elevated him to the status of national hero, celebrating his leadership in books and films from at least 1928 onwards (when Pugachev appeared as the hero in the film The Captain’s Daughter). How could anyone ever have seriously believed that a 19th-century Kazakh nomad had become so interested in the class struggle between 18th-century Russian peasants and their land owners that he went on to write a poem about it?

Nowhere was the ideological agenda of the book project of 1933 stated more clearly than in the Qara Sözder, most of which had not been seen or published before 1933. The main purpose of these forty-three prose texts was to tell Kazakh readers that it would be ill-advised to hold onto the backward culture of their ancestors and thereby resist Soviet collectivization.

To this end, the Soviet authors and editors of the book project of 1933 inserted the word mal – the Kazakh word for livestock, and the main source of health and wealth for nomadic families – as the most frequently recurring negative word in the prose texts. The Soviet edition of Abai’s collected writings of 1933 thus became the first, and immediately also the most influential, book in the Kazakh language to present mal as a problem, a source of trouble. The attack on the traditional Kazakh belief in the importance of breeding mal occurred throughout the entire series of prose texts, but it was at its most aggressive in Word 3, Word 5, Word 6, Word 11, Word 33 and Word 44, where Kazakhs, wanting to keep mal, were scolded for being lazy, greedy and corrupted.

How could anyone believe that a 19th-century Kazakh nomad, who, according to the official biography, always remained faithful to his family and his ancestors’ nomadic way of life, could have voiced such criticism about his own people? Only ideologues, with no knowledge or understanding of the subject they were criticizing, could have voiced such baseless criticism. As the anthropologist Jack Weatherford, who spent many years studying the nomadic way of life, once explained, a nomad could not afford to be lazy: «A child of the steppe is trained for survival and for constantly making vital decisions. Every morning, the herder steps out of the ger, looks around, and chooses today’s path according to the results of last week’s rain, yesterday’s wind, today’s temperature, or where the animals need to be next week. The quest for pasture is the same each day, but the way to find it varies. If the rains do not come, the herder must find them; if the grass does not grow here, the herder must find where it does. The herder cannot remain in one place, be still, and do nothing. The herder is forced to choose a path every day, time and time again.» [138]

In fact, the Soviet editors of the edition of 1933 did not bother to disguise their ideological goals. Already in the first prose text of the series, Word 2, Kazakh nomads were described as inferior to others: «When I look at the Nogai, they take soldiery, poverty and death equally, they are capable of attending the madrasa and keeping their religion. They know how to work and earn a living, luxury and beauty – all belong to them. When I compare us with Russians, I have no words, we are worse than their slaves and servants.» The goal of making the Kazakh readers of the edition of 1933 feel ashamed of their ancestors was clearly part of the propaganda scheme.

Even when the editors made «Abai» turn his thoughts to something as innocent as traditional sport games (wrestling, eagle hunting, dog hunting), as they did in Word 26, their primary goal was to inflict shame on their Kazakh readers. What these games provided to Kazakh nomads, they made «Abai» say, was not the pleasure afforded by play and leisure, but another opportunity to boast, «with the sole goal of making each other angry and jealous.» If that was not enough, they made «Abai» go even further, criticizing Kazakhs of all time, past and present: «Kazakhs have no other enemies than Kazakhs themselves.»

Not all the prose texts in the Qara Sözder offered criticism in the same harsh voice. For example, Word 38 differs from the other prose texts not only by its religious content and by its much larger size, but also by its tone. In Word 38, «Abai» addresses his readers as «my children» and in the polite form. No signs here of the impatient anger and frustration that is so manifest in other prose texts (for example, Word 2, Word 3 and Word 26). And when «Abai» eventually criticizes a group of people, he does so through gentle mockery (not through angry scolding). Even the target of his mockery is different: the religious clerks who fool the nomads (rather than vice versa). In combination with the more than one hundred footnotes (explaining Islamic concepts), the calm, soothing tone of this text gives the impression that it was written by a mullah.

The different voices that are being made to speak in the Qara Sözder suggest that they are the creations of different authors. For example, it can be stated with certainty that Word 19 and Word 29 were written by Aimautov, as these two prose texts are the exact copies of a lengthy article titled «About Proverbs», a reflection on the social and philosophical aspects of certain Kazakh idioms, including the word mal, which Aimautov published in the magazine Abai in 1918. By contrast, Word 5 and Word 6, even though they were also inspired by the same article, were written by a different author, as their tone was much harsher and their goal was to prove that the word mal occupied an undue importance in Kazakhs’ way of thinking.

This way, «Abai». entered the Stalin’s Socialist Kazakhstan as a harsh critic of nomadic Kazakhs and a promoter of Russian culture. After 1953, in the more relaxed climate of the post-Stalin period, a risk appeared on the horizon that might one day disrupt the propaganda scheme concerning «Abai». Bukeikhanov, Baitursynov, Dulatov and Aimautov – the original promoters and probable creators of the writings of «Abai», who had all been executed by the end of 1937 – had their names erased from history. Zhansugirov and Gabbas Togzhanov, the two Soviet-Kazakh scholars who investigated the genealogy of Abai’s writings and probably knew the truth about the Soviet edition of 1933, had also already been executed by the end of 1937. Yet many of the writings that the aforementioned men had published in various articles and books still existed. These written records had not been erased completely. As a result, there was the risk that, sometime in the future, the truth would be discovered by a new generation of scholars who could read the Arabic script of their Kazakh ancestors and who thus would be able to track down the entire genesis of Abai’s writings, through various Kazakh newspapers and magazines, to its starting point, Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí. One such incident occurred in 1954 (only a few months after Stalin’s death), when Alkei Margulan discovered a bilingual notebook, signed by «A.K.», and containing twelve of Abai’s poems and that had been “translated by Count Kudashev”. Margulan’s claim that he had discovered the notebook in the archives of the Russian Geographical Society, with whom Bukeikhanov maintained good relations throughout his life, was risky: it could have been interpreted by knowledgeable editors and scholars inside the Soviet propaganda machine as an attempt to bring the name of Bukeikhanov back to the surface. While Margulan’s Soviet colleagues hailed his discovery as proof that Russian orientalists such as «Count Kudashev» had attempted to record Abai as early as 1897, it is more likely that, sometime in the future, Margulan’s risky discovery will lead to revelations that contradict the Soviet version.

To reduce the risk that similar incidents would occur again, several counter-measures were taken in the following years. First, access to pre-Soviet Kazakh sources was severely limited and controlled. Second, a counter-discovery was made. Shortly after Margulan discovered Count Kudashev’s manuscript, other Soviet scholars discovered the notebooks of a man by the name of Murseit Biki-uly, supposedly Abai’s personal secretary, who had transcribed Abai’s poems, shortly after Abai’s death. That the notebooks had actually been written by Murseit is unlikely: until the 1950s, no book or article had ever mentioned Murseit or the name of any other secretary Abai might have had. Give that the contents of Murseit’s notebooks and the 1933 edition are identical, the notebooks probably served as the handwritten draft version of the 1933 edition. In this case, «Murseit» was probably a Soviet code word, not the name of a real person. Only an international panel of independent forensic experts would be able to uncover the truth and determine the identity of the person who wrote Murseit’s notebooks.

However, with the discovery of Murseit’s notebooks, Soviet propagandists finally possessed confirmation that all the poems and prose texts that had appeared in the various Soviet editions of Abai’s collected writings were authentic. As a result, any further inquiries into the ties between «Abai» and the forbidden history of Kazakh nationalism were shut down for the next fifty years.

In the post-Stalin years, Abai continued to be promoted as a visionary thinker, a philosopher, who expressed his thoughts mostly through prose and only to a lesser degree through poetry. These thoughts were cited everywhere: in schools and universities, in books, magazines and newspapers, on radio and television. In conversations and discussions, Abai’s thoughts were cited as the ultimate source of authority – the ones that could be used to decide an argument. However, some of the thoughts that were among the most frequently cited, at least in schools and in state media, were the ones that were critical, negative, about the culture of Kazakhs – the thoughts that criticized Kazakhs for being slow, lazy and jealous of each other.

The impact that these thoughts have had on the self-esteem of Kazakhs may be difficult to measure, but it is real. To this day, Kazakhs struggle with an inferiority complex that was inculcated in their families and communities during the Soviet era. In part they may be the expression of a trauma that was felt for decades after the devastation caused by the Kazakh Famine, but in part they are probably also the result of a relentless exposure to the harsh criticisms that were put in the mouth of a poet they were taught to admire more than any other Kazakh writer.

8. Conclusion

This article has uncovered many facts that go counter to the official history that has been spun around the life and work of «Abai» for the last one hundred years. In the process, this article has amassed a great amount of evidence pointing to Alikhan Bukeikhanov as the most likely author of many of Abai’s writings. If historical events had taken a different turn in the 20th century, would Bukeikhanov, the creator of the most influential heteronym in the history of Turkic literature, be considered as one of greatest writers of the Central Asia? Would his «Abai», his heteronym, his poetic alter ago, be considered a genius invention?

As this article has suggested several times, scholars of Abai’s work have been aware of the true identity of «Abai» for a long time. Influential Soviet scholars such as Hairzhan Bekhozhin, Mikhail Fetisov and Ushköltai Suhbanberdina frequently substituted the name «Abai» for that of Bukeikhanov. Countless other scholars and propagandists have followed suit, taking elements from Bukeikhanov’s personal life and attributing them to «Abai». When readers of this article reread Abai’s official biography or hear about a new discovery regarding Abai’s personal history, they should do well to remind themselves that the real subject of this personal history may be Bukeikhanov.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that Abai’s personal history is a copy of Bukeikhanov’s. Abai’s official biography (or one of the different versions thereof) probably contains many fictional elements. Moreover, Bukeikhanov’s personal history contains many elements about which very little is known: the time and location of his birth, his living conditions during his childhood years, and last but not least, his professional activities while living under house arrest in Moscow until his execution in 1937.

Nonetheless, the facts that this article has uncovered about Bukeikhanov’s writings could be the beginning of a new biography. No matter how many personal papers were destroyed under Stalin’s reign and no matter how many archival documents disappeared in the post-Soviet period, enough records remain to document at least some moments in the life of Bukeikhanov. It would be worth the effort, as Bukeikhanov is one of the important figures in Kazakh history. As a political leader, he was courageous and charismatic, inspiring others to rise up with him and defend the rights of Kazakh nomads and Kazakh speakers in general. As a journalist, he was eloquent and productive, contributing to numerous newspapers and magazines and editing two of the most important Kazakh newspapers in history. As a poet, he was secretive but brilliant, creating some of the most sophisticated and best-loved poems in the Kazakh language. A new biography could also reveal to what extent Bukeikhanov modelled the life of «Abai» after his own and to what extent the writers, scholars and propagandists who followed in his footsteps modelled the life of «Abai» after the facts of Bukeikhanov’s life.

Much more research is needed, but the facts that this article has already uncovered show that the identities of Abai and Bukeikhanov cannot be exchanged. Neither their personal lives nor their writings match completely. Even though Bukeikhanov wrote many of the poems and prose texts that are now attributed to «Abai», he did not write all of them. Other writers contributed. Important early influences included Zhusip Köpei-uly and Shahin-Gerei Bökei-uly. His main Alash collaborators, Akhmet Baitursynov and Mirzhaqyp Dulatov, contributed to poems and, a few years later, another Alash collaborator, Zhusipbek Aimautov, added a series of prose texts. And finally, a group of anonymous Soviet poets and propagandists took control of the writings gathered by Alash Orda to produce a collection of poems and prose texts that is still regarded as definitive and canonical today.

However, rather than treating the Soviet version as the canonical version, Abai’s poems and prose texts should be restored to their original state – that is to say, to the intentions of their original authors. If this restoration principle is applied to all other important works of art in the world, why should it not be applied to the writings of Abai? Abai’s writings will always be an most important part of the cultural patrimony of Kazakhstan, even if it is shown that Abai’s collected writings are a composite work, to which many authors contributed.

Identifying the authors who wrote the thirty-six prose texts that were added to Abai’s canon in 1933 will be especially difficult, as it will require researchers to delve into the secretive world of Soviet propaganda, in which writings passed through the hands of multiple editors and translators before they were validated by a supervising editor. Moreover, there are prose texts in Abai’s canon that were written by authors whose identity cannot even be guessed. For example, who wrote Word 38? Given its tone and content, it is likely that Word 38 was written by a mullah. But who was it? Was it a mullah associated with Alash Orda, whose writings and belongings had been confiscated by the Soviet authorities? If so, this would strengthen the point that most of the poems and prose texts that are now attributed to «Abai» were in fact created by members or supporters of Alash Orda. Moreover, if Word 38 were found, it would cast new light on the ways in which Soviet editors manipulated the contents of the 1933 edition of Abai’s collected writings.

Writing a new history of the genesis of «Abai» would not just be a cultural history, it would also be a history of the life and work of one man. If, one day, after a full scientific review, it is finally recognized that Bukeikhanov was the author of most of Abai’s poems and, possibly, some of his prose texts, a whole new area of scholarship will open up. Throughout his career, but especially in the nineteenth century, Bukeikhanov was a prolific writer. If all of Bukeikhanov’s prose texts were collected in a bilingual, authoritative edition, they would provide a monument to one the most formidable intellectuals in Kazakh history, whose name and work has been suppressed for too long. An authoritative edition of Bukeikhanov’s collected writings would also have the added benefit of deepening our understanding of the writings in Abai’s canon.

One such example would be an article titled «The Story Kazakhs Cannot Forget», which was first published in the Russian newspaper Sibirskii Vestnik in 1892, and republished, with a Kazakh translation, in Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí later in the year. [139] This article, which consisted of a retelling of the legend «Enlik and Kebek» and a geographical history of the region of the Qarqaraly, was rediscovered in the 1980s (during Glasnost) and attributed to a man by the name of «Shahkarim Qudaiberdiev», supposedly a nephew of Abai.

The writer and critic Mukhtar Magauin disagreed. Having noticed stylistic resemblances between this article and Abai’s canonical prose texts, and reasoning on the belief that Abai was the only Kazakh at the time who had the scientific knowledge necessary to write this article, Magauin declared that the author was none other than Abai himself. Moreover, Magauin was so impressed by the retelling of the legend that he wanted to go further and name Abai the first Kazakh fiction writer in history. [140] However, Magauin probably did not look at the original text in the Russian newspaper Sibirskii Vestnik and therefore failed to notice that its retelling of the legend, the story of two lovers who are punished for breaking with the tradition of the arranged marriage, was dedicated to a Russian woman, named by her initials, «M.P.B.». If Magauin had looked at the original in Sibirskii Vestnik, he would have understood the impossibility of his attribution: a pious and prosperous Kazakh nomad such as Abai, married with three wives, would never declare his love for a Slavic woman in a Russian newspaper, not even under cover of a pseudonym.

The only Kazakh who could possibly have written this text in 1892 was Bukeikhanov. Not only was Bukeikhanov born in the region of Qarqaraly, he was probably the only Kazakh in the Stepnoi Krai at the time who combined an active interest in literature with an active interest in science. In fact, in 1892 Bukeikhanov was studying forestry science (in either Tomsk or St. Petersburg), which would also explain why he paid attention in the article to the deforestation of the region. Moreover, if the article’s author was identified as Bukeikhanov, also the article’s dedication to an anonymous Russian woman could be more easily understood. While no personal papers survive that could attest to Bukeikhanov’s romantic attachments in this period, his passion for at least one Slavic woman can be established by a historical fact: in 1901 Bukeikhanov married Elena Sevostyanova, the daughter of a Narodnik – a marriage that would last until her death, in 1918.

If the text from 1892 was given its proper place in Bukeikhanov’s canon and then read side by side with two poems from Abai’s canon, namely «My Dark Soul Will Never Light Up Again» and «What Have You Done to Me», many readers would find it illuminating. The relationship in these two poems – between the male poet, supposedly a Kazakh nomad, and the white-skinned woman who has forsaken him – has always puzzled readers. The writer and critic Talasbek Asemqulov, for example, wrestled with several explanations, each of them improbable. [141] If Asemqulov had read Bukeikhanov’s text from 1892 and had known that its author also wrote Abai’s two poems, he would have understood. Such is the power of comparative reading: much can be revealed by putting texts side by side.

Unfortunately, contemporary scholarship in Kazakhstan is following a different approach. All too often, the focus is not on analysis but on discovery: the discovery of a new person who was supposedly related to Abai or the discovery of a new material object that supposedly belonged to Abai. All too often, these discoveries are announced by official news media, without having gone through a scientific review process.

The problem of non-scientific discovery, so characteristic of the field of Abai studies, is not new. Already in 1940, Mukhtar Auezov warned that the process of assigning writings, life events and personal objects to Abai should be done in a scientifically responsible way. [142] The problem is further exacerbated by the country’s linguistic divide: Russian-speaking scholars, due to their lack of knowledge of the country’s official language, have no idea what kind of research is being done by their Kazakh-speaking colleagues.

Despite the detrimental effect that Soviet ideology has had on the current state of scholarship in Kazakhstan, there is always room for hope. This article was written in hopes of reaching a new generation of literary critics, who could pool together their expertise in the traditional methods of Arabic, Kazakh and Russian philology and the new quantitative methods of stylometric analysis in order to investigate the similarities between the writings of the many members of Alash Orda and the writings of «Abai». With the help of foreign experts in forensic science, these critics could even begin to decipher the origins of handwritten notes and notebooks hiding in various archives.

This article was also written in hopes of reaching a new generation of historians, who would be willing to abandon the Soviet habit of presenting human subjects as flawless stone idols and instead investigate the tangled lives of the talented but flawed human beings who created the avatar «Abai» for political reasons but were defeated by historical circumstances they could neither predict nor control. At least, this new history of the life and work of «Abai» would have the potential of being a true history – not a fake, idealized narrative created by Soviet ideologists. Moreover, at the heart of this history could stand a transcendent work of art, restored to its original, pre-Soviet state: Abai’s poetry.

«Abai»: the most famous unknown writer of Kazakhstan. Once Kazakhs accept this, perhaps they will also be ready to learn more about their shared history, about which so little is known today.


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[93] Zhusip Sultankhan Aquly-uly (ed.). Alikhan Bukeikhanov: Complete Collection of Works in the Russian and Kazakh Languages. Vol. I. Astana, 2009, pp. 534-536.

[94] Akhmet Baitursynov. The Main Poet of Kazakhs. In Qazaq, issue 39, 1913.

[95] Advertisement. In Qazaq, issue 8, 1913.

[96] Moldagali Zholdybaev. A reply to respected Sh. Alznanov. In Aiqap, issue 4, 1912.

[97] M.M. From Semipalat. In Aiqap, issue 4, 1914.

[98] Ushköltai Suhbanberdina. Annotated Bibliographical Index of Articles and Announcements Published in Aiqap. Almaty, 1995, pp. 303-364.

[99] Ilyas Zhansugirov. Introduction. In Abai Qunanbai-uly: The complete collection. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, p. 44.

[100] Gabbas Togzhanov. Abai. Qazan, 1935, p. 5.

[101] Grigorii Potanin. At the River Toqyrau. In Sibirskaya Zhizn, issue 86, 1914.

[102] Mirjaqip Dulatov. Exile. In Qazaq, issue 9, 1913.

[103] Mirjaqip Dulatov. Children Have Also Been Contaminated. In Qazaq, issue 28, 1913.

[104] Announcement. In Qazaq, issue 109, 1915.

[105] Akhmet Baitursynov. The Main Poet of Kazakhs. In Qazaq, issue 39, 1913.

[106] Mirjaqip Dulatov. Abai. In Qazaq, issue 67, 1914.

[107] Galikhan. Kakitai. In Qazaq, issue 105, 1905.

[108] Anonymous. Good Deed. In Sary Arqa, issue 2, 1917.

[109] Anonymous. Those who Joined the Tendik Partnership. In Sary Arqa, issue 11, 1917. Anonymous. Charity for Hungry-Naked Kazakh-Kirgiz. In Sary Arqa, issue 57, 1917.

[110] Anonymous. Alikhan’s Arrival in Semipalatinsk. In Sary Arga, 1917, issue 17 from October 30.

[111] Akhmet Baitursynov. The Main Poet of Kazakhs. In Qazaq, issue 39, 1913.

[112] Baitursynov. The Main Poet of Kazakhs. In Qazaq, issue 40, 1913.

[113] Baitursynov. Introduction to Literature. Tashkent, 1926.

[114] Esenbai Duisenbai-uly (ed.). Abai: Complete 2-Volume Collection of Works. Volume 1. Almaty, 2005.

[115] Untitled poem. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 12, 1889.

[116] Alikhan Bukeikhanov. Judge and Judgement. In Qazaq, issue 48, 1914.

[117] Moldagali Zholdybaev. A reply to Respected Sh. Alznanov. In Aiqap, issue 4, 1912.

[118] Mirjaqip Dulatov. Children Have Also Been Contaminated. In Qazaq, issue 28, 1913.

[119] Sabyrzhan Gabbasov. Open Letter. In Aiqap, issue 7, 1914.

[120] Zaki Akhmetov. New Information about Abai’s Translations of Lermontov. In Turkological Collection, issue 1, 1951.

[121] Asylqozha Kurmanbayev (Alikhan Bukeikhanov). Ant and Grasshopper. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issue 32, 1894.

[122] Mirjaqip Dulatov. Aitys (from Lermontov). In Qazaq, issue 6, 1913. Mirjaqip Dulatov. Aitys (from Lermontov). In Aiqap, issues 3-4, 1913. Mirjaqip Dulatov. Three Palm Trees (from Lermontov). In Aiqap, issue 17, 1914.

[123] Zaki Akhmetov. New Information about Abai’s Translations of Lermontov. In Turkological Collection, issue 1, 1951.

[124] Aleksandr Zatayevich. 1000 Kirghiz Songs. Orenburg, 1925, p. 331.

[125] Arys-uly. Song, Music and its Instruments. In Qazaq, issue 67, 1914.

[126] Anonymous. Abai’s Word. In Sary Arqa, issue 13, 1917.

[127] Tair Zharokov. On Behalf of the Publishing House Qazaqstan. In Abai Qunanbai-uly: Complete Collection of Writings. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, p. 1.

[128] Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbai-uly. Prose Writings and Translations: Vol. 2. Alma-Ata, 1940, p. 251.

[129] Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbai-uly. Prose Writings and Translations: Vol. 2. Alma-Ata, 1940, p. 165.

[130] Abai Qunanbayev. Complete Collection of writings. Edited by N.T. Sauranbayev. Almaty, 1945.

[131] Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbai-uly. Prose Writings and Translations: Vol. 2. Alma-Ata, 1940, p. 155-164.

[132] Osip Mandelstam. Oeuvres Complètes. Paris, 2018, p. 432.

[133] Nadezhda Mandelstam. Memoirs. Third Book. Moscow-Berlin, 2019, p. 169.

[134] List of Books to be Published by Narkompros in 1927-28. In Zhana Mektep, issues 11-12, 1927.

[135] Anonymous. Good Deed. In Sary Arqa, issue 2, 1917.

[136] 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.

[137] Ilyas Zhansugirov. Introduction. In Abai Qunanbai-uly: The complete collection. Qyzyl-Orda, 1933, pp. 6-7, 16-17, 67-68.

[138] Jack Weatherford. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire. New York, 2010, p. 161.

[139] Zabytyi. The Story Kazakhs Cannot Forget. In Sibirskii Vestnik, issue 60, 1892. Umytylgan. The Story Kazakhs Cannot Forget. In Dala Walayatïnïng Gazetí, issues 29, 31-32, 34-40, 1892.

[140] Mukhtar Magauin. Unknown Story of Abai. In, July 11, 2015.

[141] Talasbek Asemqulov. Abai’s Book (2004) and Abai’s Greatest Riddle (2005). In Talasbek Asemqulov: Writings. Almaty, 2016, pp. 178-184.

[142] 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.


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