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At last, a guide to the literature of Kazakhstan

Kazakh Landscape

When I talk to my students about the culture of Central Asia I try to make engaging and enlightening comparisons. As I begin talking about Central Asian culture I often tell them they are about to discover things that are completely new to them: they are about to open a window that looks out on a different galaxy. Some of what they see may seem familiar at first glance – built, after all, on the same humanistic structures – but I always suggest that they stop for a moment, to think and look more closely: beneath and inside familiar forms and shapes lies an immensely different experience. Contemporary literature is a substantial and infinitely revealing part of this distinctive universe. Indeed, this is a unique universe of people who lived in the never ending steppe for millennia and who built their worldviews by looking both at the beauty of the land where they put their yurts, nomadic felt tents, and by looking beyond horizons for new ideas and new opportunities.

There are different and competing views on the Kazakh literature of the post-World War Two era. One group stresses how it has developed under strong Russian and Soviet influence, pointing out that it has incorporated and developed only the major themes of the Russian and Soviet literary heritage and has followed the trend of Socialist realism. Social realism has been, according to these scholars, the overriding formational influence on modern Kazakh writers, poets and journalists, and has therefore heavily infused Kazakh literature with ideologically motivated topics and themes. Thus, this school of literary criticism claims, contemporary Kazakh literature should be viewed exclusively in the context of Soviet literature. Little Kazakh literature was translated into the western languages between the 1950s and the 1980s, with most of the translations and publications being the work of the ‘Progress’ Soviet Publishing House in Moscow. Even though very few published works from Kazakhstan actually had an ideological flavor, mere association with the Soviet publishing house often led to the perception of their being ideologically motivated. Therefore, scholars who study the literature of the Eurasian region rarely focus on the Kazakh literature of the post-World War Two period, and very few research works find their way to the pages of western academic journals. The post-Soviet Kazakh literature also remains largely terra incognita in the West, for scholars as for the general public, as it is seldom made available by western publishing companies. There is, of course, a much larger body of research literature on this period, but very often this literary criticism evolves around the same few topics, such as national identity, nation-state building and some other aspects of the modern Kazakh literature.

The other group of literary critics calls for a more nuanced assessment of the literary production of modern Kazakh writers. They agree that during the Soviet era between the 1950s and 1980s the popular culture, literature included, was heavily influenced by Soviet ideological perceptions, censorship, and the social realism approach. Yet they point out that, firstly, there were changes over time. The “thaw” of the 1960s had a long-lasting effect on subsequent generations of writers, poets and journalists who looked for inspiration not only in the West and western and Russian culture, but also in the traditional culture of Central Asia; not only in modernity and modernism, but also in traditionalist values of their own localities. Secondly, with the rise of national identity and national culture in the 20th century more Kazakh writers and poets begun thinking and discussing and often calling to rediscover the roots of modern Kazakh culture not only in the “west” but also in the mystic “orient.” These “roots” could be found in the heritage of Turkic nomadic civilization with its unique perception of mother nature and cosmology of nomads manifested in peculiar view of the power and responsibility of individual being connected to commander of the circles of life (powerful Yer-Suu) and weaved whimsically with the influential thoughts of Sufi thinkers who preached in the Eurasian steppe for centuries. Thirdly, the Kazakh intelligentsia, like those in Eastern and Central Europe, had grown accustomed to century-long cat and mouse games with the censors and the state bureaucrats. Like generations of writers in Imperial Russia of the 19th century they accepted the Procrustean bed of censorship, but they filled their works with allegories, symbols and surreptitious – and sometimes not so surreptitious – messages in order to get around the strict rules and restrictions and to express their thoughts and ideas. These critics, therefore, would have us avoid clichés and generalizations, and carefully examine the rich and wonderful heritage of the Kazakh literature of this era. After all, many writers, poets and intellectuals endeavored in their works to reflect and discuss the massive social changes and transformations and to deal – in their own ways – with the most common themes of that era, thus contributing to intellectual discourses in their own home country and in their region.

In approaching Kazakh modern literature, therefore, we ask many questions: how should we describe the place of Kazakh literature in the literature of Eurasia and of the world? How does Kazakh literature reflect the intellectual discourses within Kazakh society, Eurasia and the developing world? Did this literature reflect the inspirations and frustrations of the post-World War Two generation and the social and youth revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s in the same way as American and western European literature? Or did it ignore these discourses and trends, developing its own approaches and themes? For instance, did the writers and intellectuals of Kazakhstan use their own cultural and artistic symbols to talk about universal themes and values?

After raising those and many other questions comes time for reflection and discussion. This is another difficult part – how to generalize about modern Kazakh national literature which consists of hundreds great writers, poets and journalists who left an extremely rich cultural heritage? How to talk about all their concerns, values, changes, their relations with modernity and the modern globalizing world? These individuals have often used very different symbols for expressing their ideas and thoughts, against the backdrop of an ancient nomadic civilization and from within the Central Asian cultural universe.

This introductory article is divided into three sections. The first section deals with the historical and cultural background and the historical setting, which greatly affected the development of modern Kazakh literature. The second section examines the major themes and issues common in the Kazakh literature of the post-World War Two period and discusses their links with discourses in the world literature. The third section assesses the transition to the post-Soviet era and looks at some major emerging trends in Kazakh literature since gaining independence in 1991. The concluding section summarizes the major findings of this introductory article.

Kazakh landscape

1. Symbolism in Kazakh literature

The most important feature in traditional Kazakh culture and art is the perception of the universe through the eyes of a nomad. In this view – nomadism is not only way of life, but also a way of thinking about the world around him, about circles of life, about the interactions with Mother Nature and a never ending movement of human soul. Human soul – according to this view – should always search for both perfect balance in real world and imaginary philosophical construction of the world.

If someone would like to distinguish and identify the essence of Kazakh literature and a single most important symbol of creative art among Kazakh – the main character would be a nomad.

It is not necessarily for a nomad to travel physically around the world – although actual travel between different localities is an important part of his nature. Sometimes s/he moves around in the thoughts and spiritual search of meaning of the life and his or her place in this universe. May be this is one of the reasons, reflected in the Kazakh literature and manifested in many literary works – Kazakh literature often invents and focuses on these travels and these explorations. One of the main characters of a nomad is his or her curiosity and desire to explore both the locality and the universe around him or her. A nomad is interested in learning, traveling, experimenting and exploring in an attempt to build these explored knowledge and feelings into his or her mosaic of the personal perception of the world around an exploring nomad. Therefore and it might be one of the main reasons that characters both in prose and poetry in Kazakhstan are often on the move – both personal move in exploring themselves and their relations with the people and the world around them and on the actual move – exploring new localities and meeting new places.

Another popular motif in the cultural symbolism of a nomad and nomadic life is the relations with nature. Here, a human being is a part of the universe equal to all living creatures overlooked and handled by the mother earth. Though s/he has one significant feature – human being has a power and ability to make a difference – it is in his power to make this world a better place or worse. Yet, a nomad is not entirely independent from the nature around him or her – the mother earth might some and indeed would come after a nomad if s/he makes mistakes and destroys nature especially animals around him. From this perception of the habitat and the world comes one of the interesting and quite common features in the Kazakh literature – the ability of a person to talk to animals, to trees or to simply to share his or her thoughts, emotions, worries and happiness. At certain point in Kazakh literature, especially in the 1950s and 1960s a large group of writers and poets reinterpreted the traditional nomadic relations with the mother earth and focused on conquering mother earth and building a new technocratic society. In this technocratic society people were free of “superstitions’ and were using new technologies (large factories) and new relations (brought together into collective farms (kolkhoz)) to conquest mother earth and build modernity – a ‘modern’ world for a nomad free of restrictive relations with the mother earth. Yet, there always were groups of writers and poets who opposed those views and interpretations of a life of a nomad. In their works they called for respecting and remembering the traditional nomadic philosophy of life and reminded in their works that mother earth would always come after them punishing for destroying the nature and in an attempt to restore the balance (or in modern language – eco-balance).

These discourses and hot debates between “modernists” and “traditionalists” manifested building different competing concepts of a nomad-hero. Both camps turned to a traditional motif in nomadic culture and folklore – a motif of a hero, but reinterpreted and reinvented the concept of hero in very different ways. Both camps were engaged in building collective positive characters for the hero and borrowing ideas from competing camps to build a character of anti-hero. On the on side of the ring was a hero who presented a power derived from modernity – logic, knowledge, ability to control emotions and reject old traditions and “superstitions” and even to sacrifices his love for his cause. On the other side of the ring was a traditional hero, often derived from traditional legends and from folklore. Like in the classic heroic literature of Europe, the 20th century “traditionalists” often romanticized a medieval knight or invented brave modern social warrior – a person with superior personal values, honesty and bravery and devotion to his love. The nomad-knight in Kazakh literature, like his counterparts in the western classic literature is a manifestation and symbol highest quality in friendship and in building his personal relations with loved ones; yet, full of emotions and superstitions which often led them to make personal and social mistakes.

This “traditionalist” school of Kazakh writers – both during the Soviet and during post-Soviet eras – turned for inspiration to the history of Kazakh land and Kazakh tribes, especially to the history of the late middle ages and of the modern era before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.Kazakh landscape

2. Kazakh literature and modernity

The focal point of the modern Kazakh literature has been the issue of modernity. The Kazakh intellectuals have dealt with the rapidly changing would around them, as the traditional slow-moving pre-industrial society has been rapidly changing around them in an uncatchable speed. These changes have impacted not only everyday life, political and social relations, but also culture, values, special relations and world views.

And these complex changes led to intricate clashes between old and new, the values from the East and West, deeply localized community based cultures and cultural perceptions with highly internationalized and globalized perceptions of modernity and modern world. On the top of it deeply conservative perceptions of family values and interpersonal relations based on the tribal notion of honor and honesty clashed with very different notion of modern family, society and social relations. And Kazakh intellectuals have thought to discuss the impact of modernity at individual psychological levels, to explore family conflicts and changing nature of social relations between generations reflecting these changes, challenges and clashes in an artistic ways.

On the top of it – the post-World War Two era was the era of the rise of mass literature and mass readership. Very quickly – within a couple of decades – the Kazakh society turned from the society of mass illiteracy to one of the most reading nations in the world.

The modern literature of the 20th century reflected complex changes in Kazakh society. It bridged the gap between the nomadic oral heritage and new literature, which experimented with European models — “new” forms, especially in prose. The literary heritage of this era is an intricate reflection of these changes.

In general, Kazakh literature, like Central Asian Soviet-era literature revolved around three major themes — the revolt against old traditions and prejudices; the search for and establishment of social justice; and an awakening of a new hero and rebel spirit in the ordinary person. These themes were developed against a background of dramatic polarization wrought by the Bolshevik revolution in Kazakh society, and the extraordinary social, cultural and political changes instigated by the Soviet system, which radically altered the lives of every person in the region. The Schwarzenegger of Kazakh Soviet literature, however, was not of a kind readily adaptable into today’s Hollywood “action-hero”. His main mission was to change himself and people around him. His rebellion was against social injustice, traditional ways of life, rich and oppressive lords (bais) or restrictive ancient rituals. Also he challenged the age-old conception of family and personal honor, and their associated codes of revenge and forgiveness.

The social changes in the literary and intellectual world in Kazakhstan made a huge impact on the development of the literature and criticism. The old social barriers were removed and many talented individual from all kinds of backgrounds — working class, peasants, ethnic and religious minorities, – received an opportunity and often were encouraged to reflect their personal experience and experience of the people around them. Young Kazakh authors actively experimented in new genres, styles and themes, by by learning from classic Western and Russian literature and poetry, as many of them translated those works into local languages by themselves. All these changes significantly undermined influences of the classical Kazakh oral traditional heritage building favor of completely new literary universe, though many poets and writers frequently turned to the classic Kazakh oral traditions for inspirations and themes.

Yet, creativity in the Soviet system had its limits. The Soviet system did not tolerated criticism or deviation from the ruling party line. For many decades the government imposed a strait jacket of rules in the form of the “socialist realist approach in literature.” Socialist Realism stipulated “truthful, historically concrete reflection of reality in its revolutionary development”.

Like many Soviet writers of that era, Kazakh authors wrote about building the “new Soviet life” through the kolkhozes and industrial enterprises. But what distinguished the Kazakh writers was that they dramatized and complicated these stock themes by adding new local flavor and out of the ordinary nuances, and by representing the culturally distinctive patriarchal ways of Kazakh life and religious backwardness, as qualities in need of modern redemption. A typical cliché in the writing of this period was the depiction of newcomers (often urban educated and modern) as people of superior moral and spiritual power who helped the influential local characters to abandon the old (and “wrong”) ways of life and “discover” the irresistible power of the Soviet ideology and “culture.”

Between 1950s and 1990s the major literary themes has been Soviet patriotism and the World War Two (also called the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945)). The war had a huge impact on the Kazakh society as this war was depicted and perceive3d as a defense of the motherland from the powerful enemy who threatened the very existence of the society and the country. The suffering of ordinary people from hardship of the war era and bravery of those tens of thousands of young people who fought thousands miles away stimulated the comparison with the past history of Kazakh society and Kazakh steppe and interest in historical novels for many decades. Some Kazakh writers also turned to historical issues writing monumental historical novels. Various dramatic and decisive pages from Kazakh history were illustrated by Iliyas Esemberlin in trilogy Koshpendiler (Nomads) and Altyn Orda (Golden Horde), by Mukhtar Auezov (1897-1961) in his monumental four-volume novel Abai and Abai Zholy (The Path of Abai), by Abdizhamil Nurpeisov in trilogy Kan men ter (Blood and Sweat), by Abish Kekilbayev in Abylai Khan, Saken Zhunisov in Akhan Sere and Amanai men Zamanai (Amanai and Zamanai), and Anuar Alimzhanov in Makhambettin zhebesi (The Arrow of Makhambet) and others.

Probably the most popular genre in Kazakh literature has been short novels and short stories, as this format found mass readership through publications in literary newspapers, cultural and literary magazines and in small American style take-to-the-beach format inexpensive collections of short stories. The best works of that era focused on changing relationships in small close-knit communities in remote areas, as difficulties and sufferings helped people to overcome family, tribal and communal differences and Romeo and Juliette-style romantic stories about young people whose love help them to overcome prejudice of old social traditions, vendettas or social and cultural barriers. Importantly, during this era a new common character emerged in Central Asian literature – this time a local hero returned home to a small town or city – the Kazakh equivalent of Alabama or Montana – bringing a whole new universe with him or her after experiencing a “new” life in a completely different “real Soviet” environment.

Among the writers of short stories who won huge following and commanded large audiences were Gabit Musrepov (1902-1985) with his short stories and essays with picturesque depiction of the life in Kazakh auls (villages), Abish Kekilbayev (1939-) who mastered romanticizing the Kazakh steppe, Rollan Seisenbayev (1946-) who produced interesting short stories about the youth, Oralkhan Bokeev (1943-1993) who idealized the simple life of people living country side and the beauty of the Kazakh nature, Tulen Abdikov (1942-) who mastered short stories and novels about people and nature, Mukhtar Magauin (1940-) whose short stories attracted attention by depiction of the relations between people and natural world, Muagali Makatayev (1931-76-) whose poems attracted attention by depiction and romanticizing of simple life in Kazakh aul.

The life of Olzhas Suleimenov – Kazakh poet, writer and intellectual – is a good example.

Olzhas Suleimenov (1936- ). While a student at Kazakh State University he began to write poetry. In 1958-1959 he attended the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow). In 1959 he published his first collection of poems in Moscow. From 1961 to 1975 he worked variously as a journalist, an editor of the literary journal Prostor, an editor at the studios of Kazakh-film, and in administration for the Kazakh Union of Writers. His poem Zemlia poklonis cheloveku (The Globe bow to a man!) (1961) brought him wide recognition. In 1975 Suleimenov published his book Az-i-ia, a historical-philosophical essay on Turkic historical destiny. In it he explored the history of the interaction between nomads (Turks) and settlers (Slavs) and the place of the Kazakhs in the historical development of Eurasia. The publication was condemned by Moscow’s policy makers as “nationalistic”, and the book was confiscated and banned until 1989. Suleimenov became one of the most prominent Kazakhi dissidents of the 1970s, and only the personal intervention of the Kazakh first secretary, Dinmuhammed Kunaev, saved him from imprisonment. Az-i-ia won him nationwide recognition in Kazakhstan and a reputation as the “opener of difficult issues in the national history”. After political rehabilitation, he worked in various positions with the Union of Writers. He became one of the most influential writers in Kazakhstan in the 1980s. His active public life in the 1980s won him a reputation as the “voice of the Kazakh intelligentsia”:

A word – [is] a leisurely reflection of a human deed.
The height, depth and colors are begot by the tongue.
Reflected in the words are a sip,
And a strike of a blow,
And a smile,
A sound of hooves through the aeon,
And incline of a weighed-down vine.

In the 1970s and 1980s mainstream writers continued to explore the crucial social issues surrounding the development of Soviet society. During this time Central Asian literature was more in line with popular Soviet themes, as many writers depicted the life of large collectives, where innovators and enthusiasts struggled against opportunists and conservatives. Yet, some Central Asian writers ventured away from propaganda and the Socialist Realism theme and began exploring such forbidden issues as the rise of nationalism or anti-colonial struggles, or they simply revised and even challenged state-impose dogmas and ideas, especially official Russia-centric interpretations of history and cultural development. For example, Kazakh poet Olzhas Sulemenov, in his books Azia turned to the traditional issues — the history of nomadic steppe — radically departing from the ruling party-approved interpretation of the conflicts of those periods and paved the way towards creating alternative historical accounts.

The quality of Soviet-era literature was very uneven. Even Soviet literary critics recognized the existence of works they deemed “primitive with no artistic merit”, having “clichéd characters…with stereotype heroes” and “vaguely defined” conflicts. The Schwarzenegger of Central Asian literature, like his American “action-hero” counterpart, was predictably a good-looking, politically-correct person, who inevitably challenged bad guys and always won the battle (and often the heart of an attractive woman) despite numerous tricks by his enemies. Yet there were many literary works that reflected upon genuine conflicts between the old and the new, or critically examined the emancipation of women and men from the stultifying restrictions of old tribal, communal or religious customs. And these, by and large, were the works that the ordinary people were reading. Some extraordinarily talented writers and poets created works that captivated many people in Central Asia and beyond. It is also important to remember that the Soviet authorities were investing heavily in the development of the national identity of the newly created nation-states, and to this end, they sponsored national literature, poetry, art, education, etc. In addition, it must be keep in mind that the Central Asian languages were standardized only in the 1920s and 1930s. Therefore the national writers and poets of that era were often pioneers who revolutionized national culture by writing not in classical Persian or Turkic, but in the languages understandable to ordinary peasants and workers.

Almaty Skyline, Kazakhstan


Like the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the breakdown of the Soviet Union and breakaway of the Central Asian Republics in 1991 marked an important milestone in the development of the literature of the region. Suddenly many restrictions that had been imposed by the Communist Party apparatchiks disappeared. Many topics previously considered politically incorrect became open for public discussion. Also, the national intelligentsia, especially the writers and poets, discovered that they could discuss the development of national culture, national identity, and national history (even its darkest pages) without the approval of Moscow. Interest in national culture and national symbols skyrocketed, and there began a wide public search for hidden symbols and coded anti-colonial sentiments in past and present literature and in the works of the banned writers.

There was also much heated debate about the national literatures of the Soviet and pre-Soviet eras. Many argued that much of Soviet era literature was so ideologically infested and so superficial in depicting communist-era topics that it did not present any value in the post-Soviet and post-colonial era. At the same time, the Kazakh intelligentsia argued that many authors of the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras who were banned for their anti-colonial and anti-communist or politically incorrect views should be rehabilitated and given a place in the national cultural heritage. Yet another group argued that the wholesale rejection of Soviet era literature could not be justified; after all, those works laid the foundation for the national literature. Those writers also reflected the realities of everyday life, the depth of the political and social divides in the societies, and the confrontation between representatives of different generations and different social groups. These debates hit the pages of national newspapers, magazines and literary journals and sparked lively polemics about the historical development of art, literature and poetry.

While intellectuals were busy reevaluating the achievements and faults of their national literature, and the ways in which to respond to the changing world, the world itself arrived at their doorsteps in the form of crises that struck the literary circles on many fronts. Kazakhstan’s governments significantly cut its previously generous subsidies to publishing houses, writers unions, book clubs and individual authors. It was now up to the market or rich philanthropists to decide which authors could publish and survive in this very unstable environment. At the same time, the reading audience was shrinking at catastrophic rates, with recession, poverty, and unemployment affecting more than three-quarters of the population. Many people, even professionals — teachers, researchers, doctors, lawyers — could no longer afford to buy books. And most importantly many writers themselves, especially of the younger generation, failed to pen significant pieces worthy of wide public attention, as many intellectuals really struggle to capture the essence and impact of social and cultural changes and around them and come up with captivating and appealing pieces.

All of these factors engendered pessimistic themes and an emphasis on crisis at the personal, communal, or societal level. The verses of Kazakh poet Konysbai Ebil to some degree reflect this trend:

I don’t care
If it is bazaar or market:
If you have knowledge — show it;
I can’t define anyone as the “enemy of the nation” [anymore]
And there is also no one who has concerns about the people.

Yet, despite these problems some authors managed to continue to write, producing some interesting works. Paradoxically, the call to return to national roots was not realized in a grand revival of pre-modern genres and styles, although there was increasing public interest in traditional heroic epics, legends, tamasha (humor and satiric stories), etc. Many old works were republished with new and extensive commentaries. Most contemporary authors continue the modern Western traditions in writing novels, short stories, poems and polemical essays on various social, cultural and political issues.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Kazakh literature has been at a crossroads ever since independence in 1991. Many factors account for the slow and painful transition. The most noticeable trend is that the reading audience is much smaller than in the past and slowly shrinking further. Although living standards have been gradually improving, and many social groups have been struggling to adapt to the new economic reality.

The second important trend is the fragmentation and polarization of society. Social groups are stratified not only in terms of income. There can be seen the emergence of significant differences in living standards between urban and rural areas, growing differences and even rivalries between representatives of different provinces that begins in politics and extends to all other aspects of life. There is also a growing gap between the secular intelligentsia and the religiously oriented intelligentsia, and significant differences and values and lifestyles between people who grew up and were educated during the Soviet era and the post-Soviet period.

This is the foreward extracted from Dr Abazov’s new anthology of Kazakh Literature. Buy your copy here. Photographs courtesy of Shutterstock.

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