Abai’s Thoughts, Kazakh Matters

by Christopher Schwartz

What does it mean to be critical? As the Editor-in-Chief of NewEurasia Citizen Media (neweurasia.net), Central Asia’s largest citizen-journalism network, I frequently ask myself this question. Obviously, as an editor, a sloppy answer risks sloppy content. Worse, in a region like this, it could endanger reputations and lives.

Alhamdulilah, I have found some insight from Kazakhstan’s Ibrahim “Abai” Kunanbaev (1845-1904). Indeed, as his nation’s first-ever philosopher, he is in many respects the ancestor, if not prototype, of today’s independent Kazakh journalist.

Abai was educated in both the Muslim madrasah and the Russian shkola, becoming the first major urban literati of a pastoral society that was still new to the written word. Indeed, the creep of urbanism is evidenced by his harsh rhetoric toward the lishnii chelovek (“superfluous man”/“dandy”). Today, Kazakhstan is a sedentary society well-acquainted with literacy (and as any stroll down the streets of Almaty and Astana will demonstrate, the lishnii chelovek reigns supreme), but it is still very new to independent critical journalism. More importantly, Abai was a Modernizer, who saw in limited Russification an important means for unleashing the best of Islamic spirituality and Kazakh tradition, and resisting Tsarist colonization.

“One should learn to read and write Russian. The Russian language is a key to spiritual riches and knowledge, the arts and many other treasures,” Abai remarks in the twenty-fifth passage of his Book of Words (EL Bureau,1995). “If we wish to avoid the vices of the Russians while adopting their achievements, we should learn their language and study their scholarship and science, for it was by learning foreign tongues and assimilating world culture that the Russians have become what they are.”

He also emphatically argues that Modernization equally entails an investigation into, and adaptation of, traditional Kazakh systems of knowledge and jurisprudence. Careful but enthusiastic Russification and the renovating of Kazakh customs were not rogue arguments for the era. The early Islamic Modernization movement, embodied by such thinkers as Jamāl-ad-Dīn al-Afghānī and the Jadīds in Uzbekistan, was of the view that a rapprochement between Western methodologies and Islamic customs was both possible and preferable, not a zero-sum contest. Nor is it outlandish today. Under Abai’s influence, many of Kazakhstan’s independent journalists are re-hashing it with respect to the United States (state-sanctioned journalists and even President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself also make this argument, but only when talking to Americans). Liberalization, democratization, transparency, civil society, and English are the new vocabulary of an old idea.

Abai transforms the Kazakh tribal nobleman, the bey, into a moral archetype, which enables him to forcefully denounce the actual beys as complicit in the steppe’s descent into dog-eat-doggery. He also spits venom at the Islamic education and judicial systems. In what may be his most poignant line, Abai weeps, “on our steppe there is neither divine nor human justice.”

As one can imagine, such criticisms, if not voiced subtly (and Abai is often blunt, at one point calling humanity “sacks of shit”), could be easily manipulated to de-legitimize and dismantle the Kazakh ancien régime – which is exactly what happened in the Soviet period. That Abai would have protested the destruction of his world was cunningly disregarded as “regressive”.

Abai’s ambiguous legacy casts light upon Kazakhstan’s current struggles. Since independence, Nazarbayev et al. have vacillated over implementing democracy and the free market. Critics, especially Westerners, denounce them as corrupt nomenklatura clinging to power under the guise of cultural relativism, and although that is probably true, Abai may also be lurking in the back of their minds.

Indeed, Abai arouses strong, complicated feelings today. When I first encountered him, happening upon a graffiti portrait of his round face and penetrating eyes rising out of a suit jacket and wearing a traditional skullcap, I was immediately intrigued and inquired about him among my Kazakh colleagues. Asqat Yerkimbay, a pioneer in Kazakh-language blogging, practically bubbled over with enthusiasm, but Sabina Tussapova, a magazine editor and journalism student, rolled her eyes.

“He is just an old fat Kazakh!” Sabina exclaimed. “We’re forced to learn his writings in school! They’re nothing but folk wisdom – we should be learning about real thinkers like Nietzsche!”

I suspect my status as a Westerner brought these post-colonial feelings to the surface. For Asqat, my interest conveyed a re-affirming legitimacy; for Sabina, an embarrassing backwardness. This is not the end of the story, however. Subsequent conversations revealed a real feeling among Kazakhstan’s independent journalists of being voices in a wilderness, hopelessly struggling to enlighten a misguided and stubbornly ignorant nation. I eventually discovered that this was Abai’s great theme.

He begins and sets the tone of Book of Words with these words: “I have realized the vanity and futility of my labors and the meanness of my existence. (…) Henceforth, pen and paper shall be my only solace, and I shall set down my thoughts. Should anyone find something useful here, let him copy it down or memorise it. And if no one has any need of my words, they will remain with me anyway.”

My “discovery” did not surprise Azhar, a young Kazakh psychologist. When I confessed my own shock at the cultural centrality of a man so excruciatingly bitter about his own people, she responded:

“Yes, it’s really strange, and I wonder if that’s why our society has so many issues: maybe we are dispirited? His thoughts are really at the centre of our collective consciousness, and that’s worrying because thought effects matter.”

She sounded rather like Abai.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Christopher Schwartz is Editor-in-Chief of NewEurasia Citizen Media (neweurasia.net) and editor of CyberChaikhana: Digital Conversations from Central Asia. He is also a graduate student at the University of Leuven studying philosophy and political theory.

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