Kassym-Jomart Tokayev: Abai and Kazakhstan in the 21st Century

Abai Kunanbayev left an indelible mark in our history as a philosopher, poet, educator,  translator, composer and founder of a new national literature. In his poems, songs and words of edification, he reflects the national spirit – the life, faith, language and traditions of the people. That is why his compilation of work has become a unique phenomenon, which has been dubbed “the World of Abai.” 

Photo credit: egemen.kz.

In this article, I would like to share my thoughts on the relevance of Abai’s work today and lessons learnt from the poet’s works by our people.

Code of National Identity

Modernization is not only a departure from the past, but also openness to new values. In fact, as a result of modernization, it is possible to preserve and enrich national values while integrating the best modern achievements of mankind. In this regard, Abai’s ideas play an important role. Indeed, more than a century ago, the great thinker addressed the need to modernize and adapt to the requirements of the times. Kazakhstan’s First President Nursultan Nazarbayev emphasized the enduring value of the poet’s legacy: “Despite the changing time and changing world, our people are not disappointed with Abai, over time, they discover for themselves the new aspects and secrets of his greatness. Abai will forever coexist with his native people, encouraging the people of Kazakhstan centuries to reach for new heights.

Photo credit: egemen.kz.

Looking at Abai’s works, we can see that he always wanted the country to advance and prosper and he wholeheartedly supported progress like the promotion of education and science. Abai wholeheartedly wanted Kazakhs to start studying.Do not boast until you master science,” he said, speaking of the need to acquire knowledge to achieve new heights. By saying “We do not want to buy science for livestock,” Abai emphasized the importance of education for the prosperity of the country. In this context, we need to understand the teaching of the Great Abai: “Do not think about profit, think about conscience, strive to know more.” These lessons are still relevant today. And their importance continues to increase. We are observing the rapid development of science in the 21st century. Our task is not only to keep up with progress, but also to take a leading position. To do this, we must develop the education system in accordance with modern trends. Undoubtedly, large-scale work has already been done in this area in Kazakhstan, but there is still room for improvement. Strategies for the advance of the education sector were described in the election program and at an August pedagogical conference last year. 

The adoption of the law “On the status of a teacher” is one of the positive initiatives in this direction. This is a step towards improving the quality of the education system. The position of a teacher is special in any society. Teachers play a key role in raising educated and conscious generations. It is our responsibility to respect a teacher. Therefore, the state should improve the status of the teaching profession and ensure better conditions for their jobs

Abai especially emphasized the importance of studying foreign languages. In the twenty-fifth word of edification he says: “Having studied the language and culture of other peoples, a person becomes equal among them, and is not humiliated by worthless requests. That means it is also important for us to be on a par with people who are ahead of us.” In the new historical context, we all need to pay attention to the development and promotion of our native language and to enhance its status. In addition, learning English should be a priority. The more languages our youth will learn, the more opportunities they will have. However, they should be aware of their native language. The younger generation will bring only goodness to the country if they, as Abai said, will be fully knowledgeable in science, respect their own language and truly become polyglots.

The modern world does not change daily, but hourly. New tasks and requirements are being created in all spheres of life. Scientific discoveries move humanity forward. The time has come when it is possible to develop only through intelligence and education. We need an open and clear mind. We must learn to combine the advanced achievements of civilization with national interests. We must abandon negative stereotypes and habits. For this reason, Abai was dissatisfied with some of the actions and criticized lies of his compatriots: “They do not seek deep thought, deep scientific knowledge, preferring lying and gossip whipping like wool.The poet encouraged people to master different kinds of art. He clearly knew that all of this was a matter of time, but he spoke to the nation ahead of time anyway. Even the idea of forming an intellectual nation, which we are talking about today, can be argued was an idea that came from Abai. The great thinker, in every word, sought to grow the nation in a different direction. That is why a deep study of the heritage of Abai is so important for us.

To know Abai is to know oneself. And self-knowledge, along with continuous development and education, bestows wisdom. This is the key to an intellectual nation. In this regard, it is obvious that Abai’s words should become the guiding force of a new generation. Abai urged the state to educate Kazakh children to become patriots of their homeland. His legacy is a school of healthy patriotism, the basis of respect for statehood. If we want to see our citizens educated and enlightened, then we must not stop studying the works of Abai. We must love our people as much as Abai did. The great poet, although he criticized the shortcomings of his compatriots, set for himself a goal – to lead the people to prosperity and high achievements. Abai’s rich heritage forms a new quality of the Kazakh nation. The reflections in his works instill in every person a sense of patriotism in relation to his people, country and land. That is why the absorption of the fruits of labor into consciousness and the transformation into the life force of the young generation is one of the important steps in the revival of the nation.

The interests of the state are above all

For the sake of the prosperity of independent Kazakhstan, strengthening our statehood should be a top priority. The common duty of all citizens is the strict observance of the laws and keeping of public order. The most serious test for the nation’s unity is the lack of respect for power on the part of the people. It is necessary to educate the citizens, especially young people, on the importance of respecting the state. In this regard, it is necessary to pay attention again to the heritage of Abai. The great poet in his works raises the dream of the unity of the nation and the creation of a just society. Abai’s views are in keeping with the fundamental principles for the well-being of Kazakh society in the 21st century. Abai’s principles are in line with the principles of a civilized state. Justice will be firmly established only if the rule of law, the openness of government and the accountability of the people are kept at high levels and civil representatives are actively involved in the affairs of the state.

My concept of “A State that Listens to the Voice of the People” is aimed at developing the ideal just society. A constructive dialogue between government and society strengthens trust in the state. Government members, including ministers and akims (governors), must consider the suggestions and wishes of citizens when making decisions on matters of state and social importance. In my opinion, this is one of the conditions for the formation of a just society, of which Abai spoke about. The great poet said: “Important advice is lost, the country began to whisper” for a reason. The words of this thinker illustrate that the public is not always satisfied with the representatives given to them by the authorities. The government should always listen to the people, so that our contemporaries, who “have no other business but whispering, and are not skilled in the household” do not grow. Representatives of the state and the public created the National Council of Public Trust to discuss and resolve problematic issues. I worked closely with its members to ensure that the council did not become a formal meeting.

Photo credit: egemen.kz.

In the works of Abai, special attention is paid to the principle of meritocracy. He evaluated a person not on status, but by such qualities as dedication and hard work. The great poet tried to show the Kazakh youth the right path. Now, a process of political modernization is underway in Kazakhstan. With the support of the First President – Elbasy (Leader of the Nation), a new generation of leaders has appeared. However, there are often reports that our country needs radical political changes. But it is important to come to a nationwide agreement on this issue, to truly assess the state’s capabilities and to responsibly approach the assigned responsibilities. Those who talk about the need for change often do not think about the future of the people and give in to populist ideas. 

Populism has gained a global character as a negative trend. Around the world, there is a choros of voices from groups who have no clear strategy and who seek power through empty slogans. Speaking of such noisy people, Abai says: “They are poisoning idle talk, they will leave us in the cold someday.” Indeed, this is a dangerous process that undermines the development of any country and undermines a nation’s identity.

As Abai has said, excessive boasting, counting others below oneself and contention are completely unsuitable for us. We must clearly calculate every step, be able to correctly analyze the events taking place in the country and the world. We must above all value unity and harmony, which are the guarantee of stability and our development. Thinking about public interests, we must preserve continuity and not lose our values ​​and achievements. Only pursuing such a policy will allow Kazakhstan to achieve its strategic goals and become one of the developed countries of the world.

Seer of a new society

Today it is clear that the future of Kazakhstan depends on the development of society, its transition to a new level. We must become a competitive nation. It is necessary to get rid of the negative qualities in our country that hinder progress and harm our unity. Today, a number of intellectuals around the world warn of a looming crisis of classical capitalism and are skeptical of its future. The reason is the growing gap between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, increasing imbalances between regions, cities and villages. Over time, inequality only increases. Business strives exclusively for profit, society is atomized, and each begins to bear responsibility only for themselves. Cities are growing rapidly, and small settlements have stalled in the pace of their development. Scientists believe that all this is the result of the weakening of social responsibility. But how do we  revive social responsibility? It’s not that easy.

The solution to this complex problem should be sought in Abai’s “Holistic Human” formula. This concept exactly corresponds to the modern English term “A man of integrity.”. This is characteristic only for those who are very confident in themselves, but are striving for good and kindness. This concept, which is now widespread, was interpreted by Abai in the 19th century. Human life is filled with social relationships. And without them, you can easily become an outcast and drop out of society. And relationships necessarily engender the growth of mutual responsibility. This responsibility is easily violated when a person is overcome by selfishness and concerns only for their own benefit. That is why Abai said: “Keep your mind, strength, heart on an equal footing, and you will be filled separately from the country,” meaning that a person needs a good heart, a clear mind and willpower. He considers these three concepts constantly in unity, but believes that the first two should be subordinate, indicating that this is the philosophy of life of the Kazakh people.

Our people, adhering to such a worldview, opened their friendly arms to representatives of other nationalities, despite their own difficult situation. They considered it their duty to share a piece of bread with others, although they themselves lived from hand to mouth. Our ancestors showed respect to the elder, treated the younger with courtesy, and supported them in times of trouble. Having managed to carefully convey these values to our days, our people have preserved themselves as a full-fledged nation.

We need to re-study Abai’s concept of the “Holistic Human,” in which scientists need to carry out more research. The concept of a holistic human should, in essence, be a fundamental pillar in any area of ​​our life, government, education, business, and family institutions. One of the themes at the heart of Abai’s work is the struggle with drunkenness. The poet constantly urges himself to be vigilant, and not to sink into carelessness and laughter. He seeks to keep busy through constant hard work. He beseeched his contemporaries to work hard and to seek knowledge. The poet urged them to abandon carefree carelessness, and unrestrained fun, and to become sensitive and vigilant, to improve through constant work. He said that the right actions help to defeat dark thoughts, deeply penetrating the psychological aspects of the fight against drunkenness. Back in those days, Abai paid attention to emotional intelligence, which we began to talk about only recently. He called for abandoning the psychology of bragging and drunkenness, promoting hard work and the desire for knowledge. We are all familiar with the treasury of Abai’s wise thoughts and sayings: “If you work tirelessly, you will be full”, “Satiety, Idleness, spoil a person”, “Believe in yourself, your work and mind will save you.” Each person must firmly consolidate these key concepts and set an example for others with their honest work. Our people know the value of labor. We have not forgotten that the hard work of our parents became a huge force that led to victory over fascism. And now ordinary workers have achievements worthy of admiration. Recently, many of them were awarded state awards. Every citizen should be aware that his productive work directly affects the development of the country’s economy. 

Abai can be safely called a tribune of progress for his time. In his wise works, the great thinker cited as an example those who achieved professional success and worked hard. To improve his own life, he calls for the mastering of new work skills. Also the poet values ​​initiative and honesty. For example, in the tenth word he concludes: “Who will not become rich if he works hard, works diligently, and finds his place?” According to Abai, in order to earn money, you need to learn a craft. Because “Wealth eventually fades away, but skill doesn’t” (thirty-third word). I think the ideas of the great poet are relevant for the society of Kazakhstan today. That is why today we mark getting rid of the psychology of addiction to raw materials and maximizing the prosperity of small and medium businesses.

The magnitude of world culture

Almost all civilized states can boast of outstanding historical personalities. Among them are politicians, statesmen, public figures, military leaders, writers and poets. The Kazakh people also have plenty of outstanding personalities, and among them Abai has a special place. However, we have not fully succeeded in presenting the great thinker to the world community. Over the years of my diplomatic service, I have often met politicians and experts in various fields. I exchanged views with foreigners on the many common problems with humanity. In general, they are well aware of the political and economic achievements of Kazakhstan, but not with our spiritual and cultural values. In this regard, the question arises: Why don’t we reveal Kazakh culture to the world through Abai?

Abai is a genius son of the Kazakh land of global proportions. He sowed the seed of wisdom for all mankind. Our researchers, who have in depth studied the poetic power of Abai, say that he received inexhaustible material from Kazakh folklore, Eastern and Western word art, Russian literature and historical works. The uniqueness of Abai’s thought can also be traced in his religious views. “Allah is the truth, the word is the truth, truth is never false,” he said. Obviously, he came to this conclusion, having deeply studied and comprehended the works of the philosophers of East and West. His religious views are fully revealed in the Thirty-Eighth Word of Edification. Scientists, philosophers and religious scholars, who have assessed the spiritual heritage of Abai, pay special attention to his concept of a “faithful Muslim.” It is applicable not only to the Kazakh people, but also to the entire Islamic world. Here is our thinker and sage Abai, who continues to grow at the world level thanks to this religious point of view. As you know, we hold traditional meetings of all religions in our capital. There is a balance between the purpose of such events and the position of the great Abai. We all think about the poet’s desire to preserve the purity of the soul of all mankind.

The artistic image of Abai in the novel by Mukhtar Auezov “The Path of Abai” was highly appreciated in world literature. However, this is just one aspect of Abai’s knowledge. In order to know the real Abai, the poet Abai, it is necessary to reveal the essence and meaning of his thoughts expressed in his poems and words of edification. It should be translated into the main languages ​​of the world, while preserving all the beauty of its syllable. It is hard to say that we succeeded. Translating the works of true folk poets into other languages ​​is not an easy task. A translator must also have the talent of the thinker he is translating. Our scholars, linguists and sympathetic fans of Abai should pay special attention to this. Nazarbayev said: “Abai is not only an outstanding person who made an invaluable contribution to the spiritual treasury of the Kazakh people, but also a wise person who worked hard to make the Kazakh people a nation. Abai is a wonderful figure among world-class thinkers.” Indeed, the works of a wise poet can enrich the spiritual life not only of the Kazakh people, but of all mankind.

The content of Abai’s works is full of universal values. His “Words of Edification” are a common heritage for the peoples of the whole world. This is a collection of classical ideas, instructive words, sayings, edifications – although the names are different, and this is an original genre. Abai in his words of edification, popularizing the common heritage for mankind, shows the desire to reach new spiritual heights. The core of his words of edification is humanity, culture, and virtue. The letters of the French thinker Montaigne come to mind when we look for alternatives to the words of the wise Abai. However, if Montaigne thinks more about his personality and human nature, the main mission of the words of Abai’s edification is to think, to let others think, to turn the goal into a principle. The words of edification of the great thinker are unique and extremely valuable.

The higher we represent Abai in world culture, the higher the honor of our nation. Abai’s words should resonate in the hearts of the people, especially in the modern age of globalization and era of information technology. There are many individuals in the world who have made a significant contribution to the development of various fields of science, education, and culture. Their works are widely known and constitute the intellectual heritage of mankind. For example, when thinking of China, we immediately recall Lao Tzuand Confucius. When we think of Russia, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy come to mind, and with France we recall Voltaire and Rousseau. We must also reach such a level that when mentioning Kazakhstan, we immediately remember the name of Abai. It would be a great honor if other people would greet us and say: “The Kazakh people are the people of Abai.”

No matter how Abai is praised, everything fits. His instructive life and true creativity are a role model not only for the Kazakh people, but also for the whole world. Abai’s deep thoughts about man and society, education and science, religion and traditions, nature and the environment, state and power, language and relationships do not lose their relevance even after centuries. After all, the poet’s legacy is the spiritual nourishment of all mankind. As long as Kazakhstan exists, the name of Abai will continue to grow. If we highly value his golden words as our spiritual wealth, the dignity of our country in the world will only increase. We must promote Abai as part of the cultural capital of our nation. We must not forget that civilized countries judge the life of Kazakhs, culture, literature and spirituality with the degree and popularity of outstanding personalities who have made it to the world level. Therefore, Abai must be widely presented to the world community as a new brand of a new Kazakhstan. This is the sacred duty of today’s generation. 

The significance of the anniversary

If we want to modernize our national consciousness and develop as a competitive nation, we must carefully study and comprehend the works of Abai. His views on various social processes are very useful for modern Kazakhstan. Abai, who reflects not only his era, but also modern society, is a guiding star of the national dream. We all well know that every Kazakh should have a dombra in a place of honor. Likewise, I believe that every home should have Abai’s books and Auezov’s novel “The Path of Abai.” Future generations must follow the path of Abai. This will be the fulfillment of the great poet’s dream. We must take the very best from his ideas and thoughts.

* * *

We attach special importance to the 175th anniversary of Abai as an event that can give a new impetus to the modernization of public consciousness, strengthening the unity of the nation, and developing the country. I believe that the main goal of this event is some kind of reporting back to the national teacher of the country. Abai’s critical words are serious, but constructive. Under the leadership of the First President and thanks to the wide support of the people, we have conquered many high peaks. We have set an ambitious goal to become one of the 50 most successful countries in the world, which we reached ahead of schedule. Our next task is to enter the top 30 most developed countries. I am confident that this milestone will be successfully overcome. And the legacy of Abai can help us achieve this goal. Today everyone should ask himself: “Were we able to adequately appreciate the words of Abai, can we make sense of them?”

The celebration of glory should stimulate the search for ways to fulfill the great task facing the nation. I would like every Kazakh citizen to think seriously about our country on the eve of this anniversary. What did Abai give to us? What did Abai demand from us? What did Abai expect from us? What good deeds did Abai like? What could we learn from this? Which problems upset Abai? Did we manage to get rid of them? It is enough just to think about whether we are doing the five bits of advice that the poet spoke about and whether we are working to get rid of the five vices. If we ask these questions, we can understand a lot. Abai’s legacy is an asset that opens the way to the unity and prosperity of our nation.

Following the advice of Abai in any area of life, we will strengthen as a nation and achieve our goals as a state. The dream of Abai is the dream of the people. We should not spare our strength in fulfilling the dreams and responsibilities of the people. Abai’s helpful instructions will lead a new Kazakhstan to new heights in the 21st century.

This article was originally published in Egemen Qazaqstan newspaper on January 9, 2020.

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