Abai Kunanbayev: A Legacy That Connects People Across Time, Culture and Space

The poet, philosopher and national enlightener Abai Kunanbayev became famous for his approach to “saving the Kazakh people” in the era of the “farewell ball of nomadic civilization.”

Abai Kunanbayev

This year, the world community celebrates the 175th anniversary of the poet, composer, philosopher, enlightener and founder of Kazakh written literature, Abai Kunanbayev. Cultural scientist and Honored Worker of Kazakhstan Murat Auezov opened up about the relevance and importance of Abai today in a recent interview. 

– You are a well-known public figure, writer and cultural scientist in Kazakhstan. But you are also the son of the man who gave Abai to the world. Mukhtar Auezov is not only the author of the famous prose poem “The Path of Abai,” but also a student of Abai, his follower. What kind of advice could you give to those who for the first time will get acquainted with the works of Abai Kunanbaev, whose 175th anniversary is celebrated this year, even approved by UNESCO?

Murat Auezov. Photo credit Caravan.kz.

– For everyone who will get acquainted with Abai, I want to convey that he truly is great. And this is not simply a local feeling of patriotism speaking – where we pull something out of nothing and then begin to embellish it. For more proof of this, let’s take an excursion back in time to see why Abai has earned the title of being “the savior of the Kazakh people.”

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was the time in which Abai lived – it was the time that could be called the “farewell ball of the horse-nomadic civilization.” A civilization that had begun 2,500 years ago. Great poets, musicians, people of high spirituality of the 19th century in Kazakhstan made desperate attempts to preserve the people in this land. For example, the last Kazakh Khan Kenessary, who is revered in Kazakhstan as the leader of a national liberation movement of Kazakhs in 1837-1847 for independence from the Russian Empire. The great warrior and poet Makhambet Utemisov, the poet Sherniyaz Zharylgasuly – both participated in the uprising in the Bokey Khanate and spoke of the will of the people for independence and freedom. Shozhe Karzhaubayuly and Suyunbai Aronuly, who sang about the life of a man, Murat Monkeuly, who criticized the colonial policy of the tsarist government in his epic poem “Three Lands.” Birzhan Kozhagululy, who from a young age proved to be a talented composer, poet, singer, and became not only the author of magnificent love poems, but also a firebrand denouncer of the treacherous cattle breeders who had taken over Kazakhstan. All of them lived in that same era known as the “final farewell ball of the horse-nomadic civilization.”

A huge interest in the story of Abai was shown by very educated people in the Kazakh intelligentsia at the beginning of the 20th century. Many of them were members of the Alash Orda People’s Party (The 20th century Kazakh intellectuals’ party), which led to many of them being executed during the subsequent years of repression. These people considered Abai their spiritual leader. A much younger Mukhtar Auezov was also an Alash Orda Party member.

In the 30s, during the years of collectivization, there was a terrible famine in Kazakhstan. More than a third of the population died. Enlighteners and writers who survived from hunger and repression considered it their civic duty to preserve the memories from the collapsed world, the old Kazakh civilization itself, for future people. At that time, Mukhtar Auezov wrote the novel “The Path of Abai,” which was later hailed as an encyclopedia on the life of the Kazakh people. An outstanding work about the tragedy of the collectivization period in Kazakhstan appeared in the form of the poem “Kulager” by Ilyas Zhansugurov, whose 125th anniversary the world community celebrated in 2019. Both works are a last cry of desperation against an uncertain future.

Mukhtar Auezov at that time was already a well-known writer, playwright, author of small epic forms and translator. But he left everything behind after he took up the epic novel “The Path of Abai,” because the nomadic world collapsed, and people were passing on to heaven in droves. Remarkably, Abai anticipated the onset of these tragic and truly apocalyptic times. The 19th century was a period of liquidation of the khan’s power in Kazakhstan by the tsarist government, especially after the introduction of the “Provisional Regulations on the Governance of Kazakhs” in 1867–1868 and the establishment of a new order on its basis. This led to the loss of the main foundations on which the Kazakh society was based. It was a period of hard times, “Zar Zaman” (the Age of Sorrow) as it was later called in the song of the poet Shortanbai Kanayuly. Then the literary movement “Zar Zaman,” a protest against the economic, political and cultural colonization of the Kazakh steppe appeared. The poets of this movement idealized the past of Kazakhstan, since not everyone could find new ways that could save the nation. They were writers of the apocalyptic sort. We call Abai the savior of the Kazakh people, because, experiencing the same anxiety for his people and for his legacy, he suggested new ways to deal with these problems.

Steppe Uniter

– Abai was gifted to Kazakh society in order to connect the eras? How did this happen?

– It is worth noting here that the Kazakh civilization is one of the oldest on Earth, existing since the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age was replaced by the Age of Iron when the exploration of large spaces began, after which point, the range of nomadism sharply increased, and a number of peoples and civilizations of the Eurasian space are drawn into closer interaction with China, North India, the Iranian, Arabic-speaking world, and even antiquity. The space of Eurasia, as it was called by Gumilyov, begins developing. The Silk Road appears, the Chinese begin building their Great Wall, world religions start to emerge, and myths are replaced by historical dogma and philosophy. The Eurasian world came into its own intellectually at this time, just as the middle of the 15th century saw nomadism start to wilt and the era of great geographical discoveries begin.  The lands on which the nomads lived began to shrink like a shagreen skin. In the nineteenth century, a period that we have agreed to call the “farewell ball of the horse nomadic civilization” began.

The greatness of poetry and music, the philosophy of the steppe, the relationship of the nomads with nature, and the logos of large space could simply fade into oblivion. Abai knew and revered his people’s culture and the spirituality of his ancestors. Fate itself endowed him with his humanitarian and creative senses and gave him the ability of introspection. Because of his work, he became a vital bridge between a waning and a new civilization. His work was also helped along by Sufi missionaries, who had settled in the Kazakh steppe, bringing with them an era of Islamic Renaissance, thanks to which Abai was able to get an excellent education and become acquainted with the names of Plato and Aristotle, learned Arabic, and wrote his first poems in Farsi.

Also of note – Semei, the homeland of Abai, is a place where the tsarist regime exiled many educated and subversive Europeans. Abai read their works in the quest for answers to his many questions. Fate almost certainly marks some people for greatness, helping them stand out. Abai turned out to be one of those few Elect: an enlightened philosopher, an excellent poet, a musician and a composer, a brilliant speaker, gifted with the ability to resolve all kinds of disputes, including judicial ones.

He could not live in the “Zar Zaman” literary framework, that is, in the format of the era of grief. Fate had given him another mission, and he was very seriously involved in Sufism. The Hamletian question of “to be or not to be” became the main one for him. It was necessary to focus on preparing his students and followers, and he himself was a very grateful student. So Abai created his so-called “Words of Edification”, although we have since had to change this title because he was not, in fact, an edifier. When fate brings a person onto the historic scene to address fundamental problems and the task surrounding the survival of his people during turbulent times, a transformation of consciousness can occur. This happened with Abai. He wrote magnificent poems that easily fit into the minds of people. The steppe responded to his call for education: people began to send their children to schools with modern education which at that time, suddenly started appearing everywhere in Kazakhstan. Russian patrons supporting such schools appeared on the scene and the mass enlightenment of the people began. A lot of Kazakh men then left to study in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and the future Alash-Orda Party leaders grew from there.

The great khan Kenessary did not manage to unite the Steppe, but where he failed Abai succeeded. He managed to mobilize it as well as creating a sort of time-bridge for generations to be able to bone with their past. After all, it is no coincidence that Abai uses the word “time” in two different ways: one as ordinary time (“zaman”) and the other as an understanding of great time (“zamana”). For him, the question of whether his people would remain in great time or not was the most important thing. And from this perspective he engages in ethnic self-criticism: Abai severely criticizes the shortcomings of the Kazakhs. He treats them as a commander treats his soldiers that must be admonished and put into line in order to continue operating effectively for a common goal.

The children in different villages of Kazakhstan grew up with poems written by Abai, with his songs, they were “chicks of the nest of Abai.” There were stunning rich libraries in Semirechye — an amazing benefit of “colonization,” and there were both economic works and socio-political treatises. For Abai, enlightenment became a special means of struggle against the very serious challenges of time and space. And as a result, he managed to stir up the people, and as the leader of the Alash-Orda Party Alikhan Bukeikhanov said, Abai himself became the spiritual leader of the new Kazakh nation.

During the years of repression, the Kazakh intelligentsia that grew up thanks to Abai, was brutally beaten down, but the wealth of spirituality planted by him proved capable of withstanding those terrible conditions. People learned the poems of Abai and his followers by heart, which illustrated the amazing ability of the people to survive and resist death.

And now, reading Abai and listening to his songs, Kazakhs perceive him as a savior of the people. Abai has become a civilizational figure who has preserved the spirit of the ancient nomadic people, and the nomadic world with its unique worldview and sense of space and put them in context in world civilization. Even now, the current youth of Kazakhstan is in love with Abai.

Maxims of Abai

– Many events dedicated to the 175th anniversary of Abai are to be held in Kazakhstan and in the world this year. Abai is an akyn, that is, a folk singer. What is the attitude of the people to the celebration of the anniversary?

– Nowadays it does not matter so much how much money the state has allocated for events dedicated to the anniversary of Abai, there are amazing volunteer efforts to preserve the memory of his work, thoughts and ideas. Recently, 525 people, including myself, began to read “The Path of Abai” on television and radio in Kazakh. I was offered the first spot, since I am the son of Mukhtar Auezov. I read the first two pages. But people of different ages and professions read and will continue reading the poem. The famous writer Anatoly Kim made an inspired translation of the encyclopedic work “The Path of Abai.” And now Russian children – my acquaintances, children of friends, driving school college students with whom I spoke recently — they have taken the initiative themselves and read Mukhtar Auezov’s poem in Russian.

The modern youth have an understanding of Abai, who loved mountains, land, steppes, people, and who wished them the most in life. His works pierce with their strength even reaching those who do not really enjoy reading. Even those people, who saw something written by Abai out of the corner of their eyes, will forever become his readers and admirers. And when people, wherever they live, face the question of survival, like in the case of today’s coronavirus epidemic, a crisis that we are mostly in the dark about, Abai comes to the rescue with his deep philosophy on life, on faith and on humanity. The main thing for people, according to Abai, is to preserve and nurture the human in themselves.

No one needs anyone to applaud Abai. He is already a historical figure who casts a shadow on a vast territory. Now a documentary is being created about Abai, which reveals all the conceptual issues that we are talking about in this interview. The activities of Abai are amazing lessons for the survival of a nation during any difficult time. The lessons of peculiar self-sufficiency taught in the writing all lead to a noble pursuit of knowledge through the highest morality and through the education of students with an open mind.

– Numerous translations into different languages ​​of his works confirm the deep and genuine interest in Abai’s work around the world. So, do the books of Abai find their readers in other countries?

– Anatoly Kim recently translated what is now called the “Words of Edification” by Abai. This work has been translated and continues to be translated into more than ten languages ​​of the world. Yes, Abai is starting to attract the serious interest of scholars. Abai’s story and the events of world history are bound together quite closely. In his works, there is an alarmed conscience, an alarmed mind, in which there are many doubts about the future course of civilization. Therefore, the so-called “edifications” are rather more like maxims. That is how the book is translated, for example, into Chinese. In its stylistic format, the work of Abai is very close to Chinese literature, which I realized very well when I became a diplomat in China. The translation into Dutch was also no less remarkable.

After all, I’ll say once again that Abai spoke of a people who were on the edge of the abyss, who had acute concerns about staring down the barrel of oblivion, and this problem is still relevant today for many peoples. How not to panic, what to do in this situation, how to take into account the experiences of people – Abai remarks on all of this.

– In the life of modern Kazakhstan, how relevant are the ideas and thoughts of Abai?

– In his article on Abai, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks of an open mind and the need to deal with the vices that the Kazakh people have accrued. Imperial and totalitarian society have formed a dashed and fragmented consciousness among the citizens, making it easier to manage such people. In such societies, there are always forbidden topics: taboo historical moments that are not open to revisionism. For a long time, for example, it was impossible to talk about the tragedies of the 30s of the 20th century anywhere. But real history cannot and should not be distorted. For the survival of the Kazakh people, the Kazakh ethnic group, this is very important as we have experienced both colonialism and totalitarianism to the full.

A fragmented and fractional consciousness is ignoble – it gives rise to vices. High ethics and morality take a back seat, while lies and other human shortcomings come to the fore. Abai gave these things a huge voice, President Tokayev also cannot be silent about this. Abai created a category of person called a “full person.” Not in the sense of being obese, but rather full of soul, a real person with all his human facets intact and functioning. Both Abai and the next generations had to deal with a new, more “broken” person, and now, as always, we need to start developing the fullness of human life, the fullness of consciousness – which cannot be done when a people are constricted. The nation will survive if it consists of “complete people” and will then itself become complete spiritually.

The Kazakh poet and writer Magzhan Zhumabaev wrote in his poem “Kazakh”: “I am Kazakh. I tasted the bitterness of life from the cradle. I was dying and born a thousand times … “. The issue of preserving the nation and the independence of Kazakhstan has been repeatedly raised in the history of my people. Abai is moisture in the soil of the Kazakh people, which does not allow them to die, he is the self-awareness of the people.

Both Nursultan Nazarbayev in his time, and now Kasym-Jomart Tokayev face a difficult task, which is always complicated by geopolitical factors. Kazakhstan is in the zone of interests of many states; therefore, the country needs a reasoned policy to help Kazakhstan exist equally in the modern geopolitical space. Our leaders have managed this delicate balancing act so far. Now even people who are far removed from politics are trying to support Tokaev as they can, and it is very important for Kazakhstan now to preserve the state itself and its people. The spirit of survival in any extreme conditions planted by Abai is vital moisture which saturated the land and the people and is bearing its fruits now.

Abai is destined to be the messiah of the Kazakh people. Therefore, he is in the heart, in the mind and on the lips of people – not only Kazakhs – but also people from all over the world.

The article was originally published in Profile.ru website. 

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