Abai – the Historical Figure

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by Michael Hancock-Parmer on 3/18/2012 · 6 comments

Registan Bloggers Michael Hancock-Parmer and Christopher Schwartz have teamed up to write about Abai Kunanbaiev (or, if you prefer, Abay Kunanbayev). A force of nature in the Republic of Kazakhstan, he was similarly popular in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Born Ibrahim, he took Abai (“careful”) as his takhallus (تخلص), or pen-name. He is most famous for his prose work, Qara sözder (قاراسوزدەر, often mistranslated as Book of Words, instead of Words of Edification). It has been characterized as a philosophy of the Steppe, a ‘Kazakh Philosophy.’ Schwartz believes that there’s more than meets the eye to this text. Meanwhile, Hancock-Parmer argues that Abai, the historical figure, is himself worthy of rethinking.

This post is about the difficulty of finding the historical Abai. I sincerely hope that Abai will forgive any misunderstanding on my part of his life. He lived a long time ago and today is largely known through the memory of his edited and translated work, rather than the memory of his life. His life, however, is sacred, as is his burial site. His mausoleum is a target for pilgrimage on a national level. I do not intend my scholarship and questions to be construed as an attack on his legacy. I hope to better understand the man behind the legend, the reality inside the myth.

The reality in 2012 is the myth. The words written by the hand of Abai, his autograph, are illegible to almost all Kazakhs, save the million or so living in China. Abai was not famous while he was alive, though it seems he was widely respected (see Virginia Martin citation below). How did his current status in Kazakhstan come to pass? Allow me to elucidate where I can and question where I can’t.

In this post I will discuss one source of Abai’s current and Soviet-era characterizations. If you are interested in a more prolonged and better researched discussion of Abai and the cultural heritage bequeathed by the Soviet Union to the Republic of Kazakhstan, I strongly recommend looking up Eva-Marie Dubuisson’s PhD dissertation, The Value of a Voice: Culture and Critique in Kazakh Aitys Poetry.

If one wants to learn about the modern Abai–the man in the statue, the man name-dropped constantly in Aitys competitions, the man regarded as the Father of Kazakh Literature–there is another name that should be studied first. This name is Mukhtar Auezov.

The work of Auezov lies at the root of the “cult of personality” built around Abai. Auezov claimed deep, personal connections to Abai, to the point where he felt it was his duty to collect Abai’s work and write a heavily fictionalized biography of the man. It’s worth noting that Auezov knew the elder Abai as a child. Auezov went on to marry a granddaughter of Abai, though the marriage didn’t last. In the end, it would be a fair generalization to say that Auezov made his own name and career on works with Abai’s name in the title.

This was not merely an act of altruism.

Mukhtar Auezov wrote for the Soviet Union, not entirely independent of its modernizing mission. Abai, on the other hand, wrote for the Russian Empire, not entirely independent of its own civilizing mission. Auezov was a Bolshevik almost from the beginning – though he was accused of nationalistic tendencies already in the 1920s. He quit politics and went on to write scientifically researched history and poetry from Abai.

However, might one ask whether writing about Abai as a model for modern Kazakhs was itself a political maneuver?

Steven Sabol published a monograph in 2003, entitled Russian Colonization and the Genesis of Kazak National Consciousness. Sabol is an Associate Professor of History at UNC Charlotte and is currently on leave to write his next book, The Touch of Civilization’: Comparing American and Russian Colonization of the Sioux and Kazakhs. In Russian Colonization, Sabol illustrates how the Soviet Union enforced its modernizing-mission by selecting three Kazakh enlighteners: Abai, Chokan Valikhanov, and Ibrahim Altynsarin. Labeled “democratic-enlighteners,” (54) all three were Russian-educated and deeply involved in the ‘civilizing mission’ of the Russian Empire of the 19th century.

In the 20th century, the Soviet Union utilized its press and media to advertise and extoll the writings and virtues of these pro-Russian writers to the larger population of Kazakhs. Unlike other authors and literate Kazakhs of the time, these three gentlemen were “blessed” by the Soviets by having their “Collected Works” gathered and redacted by editors and published in large print runs. Their importance and writings were maximized over other cultural figures, some of whom remain obscure today. Part of the reason lies in the power of the standard narrative on the language of the ancestors of modern Kazakhs:

In Kazakhstan, the two official languages are Kazakh and Russian. Kazakh belongs to the northestern Turkic language subgroup of Nogai-Kipchak group. The language is influenced heavily by Mongol as well as by Tatar. The Kazakh language was written first during the 1860s with the Arabic script. The Latin script had been introduced later in 1929. Stalin decided in 1940 to unify the Central Asian written materials with the materials of Slavic rulers through a modified Cyrillic form. In the year 1992, an alphabet based on Latin was once again discussed but was not considered any further because of the high costs involved in the process.

This narrative must be challenged.

Abai Kunanbaev was not the first author in the Kazakh language, the first to transfer oral poetry to the page, or even the first to praise the Russification of the Kazakhs.  On a technicality, I could point out that Abai didn’t even write in Kazakh, as he predated the Soviet Kazakh language of the proletariat, and was writing in a centuries-old language called Chaghatay. As Yuri Bregel explained in his Notes on the Study of Central Asia, the Soviet scholars of Uzbekistan “appropriated the Chaghatay language, which had been the common Turkic literary language of all of Central Asia, renamed it “Old Uzbek,” and proclaimed as Uzbeks all the Turkic poets and writers who wrote in Chaghatay…” (11). Except, it seems, Abai, and certain other authors of the 19th century.

Abai, like the other “democratic-enlighteners,” was conspicuous for the attention he gave to the “civilizing” mission of the Russian Empire and its enemy, traditionalism,  and traditionalist Islam which some saw coming from Islam. Prior to his own efforts, Chokan Valikhanov had written for a Russian audience on the dangers of Islam, explaining that it was alien and a dangerous newcomer in the steppe. Later in the 19th century, Abai, Bokeikhanov, and Altynsarin gained some renown (how much is debatable) through their involvement in the Russian/Kazakh bilingual weekly newspaper, Dala Ualaiatynyng Gazeti/Kirgizskaia Stepnaia Gazeti.  Published in Omsk from 1888 until 1902, this was a flagship in the age of the newspaper as civilizing tool.

The Russian mission in the steppe was not a nefarious plot to create a capitalist hellscape in which the innocent inhabitants would be chained to Mammon so that their blood might be converted to gold. It was also not a utopian wonderland where the nomads were welcomed as equal citizens among the Russians of Muscovy and St. Petersburg. If I may, I’d suggest that the Russian Empire treated the Kazakhs pretty well in comparison with the treatment received by other “ethnicities” categorized and surveilled by St. Petersburg. Similar to the Cossacks, their steppe nature was clear to the administrators, thanks to the work of Dostoevsky and Valikhanov. Abai deserves to be studied and read, particularly his actions outside of writing. For example, Virginia Martin writes in her 2001 monograph Law and Custom in the Steppe that Abai was at least tangentially involved in Kazakh customary law (7).

His cooperation with the Russians and his leadership among his fellow Kazakhs would by no means preclude his glorification and admiration. His achievements were many. I would only advocate for looking into the Kazakh steppe in which the Russian Empire was not interested – and how Abai lived practically in a swiftly changing environment not of his own design.


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This post was written by...

– author of 20 posts on Registan.net.

Michael earned an MA in Central Eurasian Studies in 2011 and remains a student at Indiana University pursuing a dual PhD in Russian History and Central Eurasian Studies. He served 6 months in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan in 2005. After the events in Andijan and the subsequent closure of the program, he served 2 years in southern Kazakhstan, returning to the Midwest in 2007. His general area of interest is on post-Timur Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, centered on the Syr Darya river valley.

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{ 6 comments }

Wendell Schwab March 18, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Michael, I doubt you meant to do so, but conflating Abai and Valikhanov’s understandings of Islam and the Russian Empire is pretty sketchy. Abai had a much, much different view of Islam and the Russian Empire than Valikhanov, right? Valikhanov was, to be generous, wary of what he termed “fanatical Tatar mullahs” and “wild Sart Sufis”; Abai was, without claiming to be such, fairly close to the jadidist thinking emerging from the areas to the north and the south of the steppe. To grossly oversimplify: one thought Islam was the problem; the other thought it was the answer.

Wendell Schwab March 18, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Sorry – the comment above should be addressed to Michael and Christopher. My apologies.

Michael Hancock-Parmer March 18, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Absolutely agree. You are being very generous indeed to Valikhanov – his distrust for what he saw as the nature of Islam was well known, and part of the reason he had difficulty following in his father’s footsteps as a administrative official, I believe.

Is there a specific Adai article you had in mind regarding his similarity to Jadidist claims to “using Islam” to “fix Islam?”

Wendell Schwab March 18, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Off the top of my head – the 38th and 43rd “words” are about Islam and Islamic ethics. There are more, but I don’t have the Qara Sozder memorized. Abai thought that Islam could provide an ethical basis for society, particularly if combined with knowledge from other parts of the world (I don’t know about “using Islam” to “fix Islam”).

Also, there has to be some sort of joke about typing Adai instead of Abai, but I don’t know it.

Michael Hancock-Parmer March 18, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Ha! Aдайлармен сойлескенде, кешiр мени демекшiмiн…
Christopher Schwartz wrote a post (soon to be published here) about philosophical value of Abai’s writing, and when he sent to me to have a look, I wanted to talk a bit more about Abai and how his historicity is obscured by Auezov and the agendas of first the Russian Empire and Soviet Union and now Kazakhstan itself. Islam is something I typed in the post above… as an accident? It was wrong. :/

Wendell Schwab March 18, 2012 at 5:34 pm

I don’t know about wrong, particularly since it was one sentence in a piece about Auezov and Abai! I just wanted to make sure no one ever mistakes Valikhanov’s screeds against “fanaticism” for Abai’s explication of Islamic ethics.

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