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Book Review

Kazakhstan’s history and great thinkers

Dmitry Shlapentokh

Kazakhstan may appear insignificant on the global chessboard but it offers important lessons for national identity for people in the entire Central Asian region and beyond.

Great Thinkers of the Kazakh Steppe by Yerkebulan Dzhelbuldin (Dana Jeteyeva, translator); AuthorHouse, 138 pages, $12.18; 2016.

Considering the author of this book and the publisher, some may wonder why it should deserve to be reviewed much less read by anyone. The author is not a well-known scholar and he paid the publishing house to print his book. The West usually ignores such books. The logic is simple and it goes like this: a worthwhile manuscript would find a reasonable outlet and the very fact that the author was not able to find one indicates that he has not produced something worthwhile.

Such books usually do not have a market and the vast majority of libraries and reviewers ignore them. But to assert that the book is not worthwhile simply because it did not find a suitable publisher in the West is an oversimplified view. This is related to the general Calvinist and Social Darwinist view that prevails in the US and generally in the entire Western world. It is assumed that if one is talented and hardworking, one would always find a good job, because the Western society rewards talent and work.

Such views are rather simplistic and often self-serving. Even a cursory glance at Western academia and the writing world would reveal that the opposite is often the case. The original text often does not pass “peer review” and fails to see the light of day. Vanity press is usually the only outlet that would entertain such works although its publications are generally ignored. The interest in reviewing books is not, however, the result of their originality, unique information, or profound analyses.

The importance of the book stems from another reason: it provides deep insights into the emerging national identity of not just the people of Kazakhstan — the big Central Asian state that was part of the USSR in the not-too-distant past — but many other post-colonial countries as well. It is natural for the country’s elite to assert the people’s cohesiveness, the land’s naturalness, so to speak, finding deep historical roots of statehood and also figuring out the new state’s relationship with its former colonial masters. Each of these post-colonial states had their own specifics and looked at and arranged the past accordingly.

Kazakhstan, the biggest Central Asian state and one of the biggest in the world, had several problems at the outset of the country’s history. One of the major problems was its very historical legitimacy. Many Russians in Mother Russia asserted that Kazakhstan was an artificial state. They held that Kazakhstan was artificially created as a constituent republic of the USSR a few decades ago. They also asserted that Kazakhstan had received a good portion of Russian territory populated by ethnic Russians. It was a peculiar gift to Kazakhs, on condition that they would be a part of the Union state with Russia and now, after the collapse of the USSR, this land should be returned to Russia. Finally, Russians asserted that Kazakhs were primitive nomads who owed everything to the civilized Russian European power.

Kazakh intellectuals and the political elite tried to change the description of the past and provide their own narrative. Finally, the Kazakh elite have to deal with the fact that Kazakhstan had a big Russian-speaking community and has a long border with Russia. This aspect of Kazakhstan’s presence also affects how the country’s intellectuals constructed the past. And one could state here that they replaced the Soviet myth with a new myth.

The major ideological problem of the new Kazakh state is that it is actually only 25 years old. This delegitimizes it in the eyes of some segments of the Russian elite. Dzhelbuldin challenges this assumption. He appeals to the legacy of Mukhammed-Khaidar Dulati, the scholar who lived in 16th-century Central Asia, to prove that if not Kazakhs, then at least their direct ancestors lived in the territory of present-day Kazakhstan a long time ago, and created a powerful state. According to the author, Mukhammed-Khaidar Dulati proved that the great Turkic state had already existed in Central Asia in the fifth century BCE.

Here Dzhelbuldin extends the history of the Turkic Khanate for at least a thousand years. He clearly sees the importance of the Turkic Khanate for Kazakh history. Still, it was the empire of Genghis Khan, which was a real forefather of the Khazakh Khanate, whose rulers were direct descendants of Genghis Khan (p. 55). Thus Dzhelbuldin implies that the roots of Kazakh statehood could already be found in the first millennium BCE. Consequently, the Russian view that Kazakhstan is a new, and in a way, artificial, state is not valid. The author also challenges the other assumption of the Russian elite that Kazakhs were primitive savages, who owe their cultural advancement to them.

Dzhelbuldin’s major task was to dispel the notion that Kazakhs were savages, and he implied that Kazakhs, or at least their direct ancestors, produced one of the most refined minds in the world. Turkic Oguz was an ancestor of present-day Kazakhs. They lived in the early middle ages, and created a great culture. In 1815 a German scholar published one of Oguz’s heroic epics (p. 89), whose hero was Korkut, who wanted to achieve immortality. As the author of the quoted article implied, it was indeed a great masterpiece.

During the classical middle ages, Kazakhstan continued to be a place of great cultural achievements and produced extraordinary minds. For this very reason, Dzhelbuldin appealed to the legacy of Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi (872–950ce), one of the best-known thinkers, born in the territory of present-day Kazakhstan. Dzelbuldin rightly notes that al-Farabi was a great scholar, and manuscripts of his works are available all over the world. The author also correctly notes that al-Farabi was most likely of Turkic origins even if he settled in Damascus and died there. He spoke many languages.

Still, the very fact that he was born in the territory of present-day Kazakhstan has no implications either for the present-day Kazakh state or even for Turkic people who also lived in this area during the sage’s lifetime. As the author notes, the sage spent most of his life in the Muslim East (aka the Middle East) and is buried in Damascus. While mastering many foreign languages, he wrote most of his works in Arabic. Thus, he really had little to do with Kazakhstan or even the Turkic people who lived in the area during the (European) Middle Ages. Given that scholars traveled and usually gravitated toward the centres of great learning, it is not surprising that al-Farabi settled in Damascus. Thus, the sage had nothing to do with Central Asia and even less with Kazakhstan, apart from being born there. Dzelbuldin, however, has “kazakhized” the sage by not only extending Kazakhstan’s history deeper into the past, but also to emphasize Kazakhstan’s cultural splendor.

In the author’s view, Kazakhstan was not just a place of cultural splendor, but also of deep spirituality. It is for this reason that the author turns to Khodja Ahmed Yassawi. He was a man of unusual abilities and mastered several languages when he was still a young boy. He was a great Sufi mystic and author whose writings have inspired even contemporary readers (pp. 64–65). He was able to reach God directly because of his asceticism and spirituality (p. 66). Pilgrims have continued to come to his grave, centuries after his death.

All of these references to Kazakhs and Kazakhstan’s long historical pedigree and cultural splendor was needed to confront the views of those Russian intellectuals who regard Kazakhstan as an artificially-created young state, and Kazakhs as savages who owe all of their cultural advances to Russians. At the same time, Kazakh intellectuals should address another issue, which is also related to Russia and Russians. To start with, Kazakhstan has a big Russian/Russian-speaking community, and Nursultan Nazarbaev, the Kazakh president, tried not to antagonize it for several reasons. Secondly, Kazakhstan had been a part of Russia, or the USSR, for a long time, and Russia did not conquer Kazakhstan directly. All of these issues need to be addressed.

While implying that Kazakhs have a great statehood tradition that could be traced back almost to prehistoric times, and great culture, they are not hostile to the Russians, and acknowledge the fact that Russians were generous people. Their contribution to Kazakh culture has also been acknowledged and appreciated.

As Dzhelbuldin notes, a certain Kurmangazy was a talented composer and some people believe that had he a European-type education he would have been a first-rate musician (p. 110). He was unjustly locked up in prison. Still, he was able to escape with the help of Russian women, and later he created a song dedicated to these women (p. 112).

Russians were not only generous, but also a people of great culture. And Ablay, the most famous Kazakh poet, also acknowledged this. In the author’s view, Ablay was as great as the classical European and Russian authors. He loved Russian culture and was influenced by the great Russian writers (p. 118). Ablay was a man who advocated friendship between people of different ethnic origins (p. 117). While the author of the quoted work has no problems with Russians as any other ethnic group, the story was more complicated with the Russian state, which incorporated Kazakhstan long before the Bolshevik Revolution. The author’s point can be summed up as follows: first, incorporation by Russia was the best choice for Kazakhs; secondly, the Russian state was not just an oppressive force, and Kazakhs benefited from being a part of the Russian empire and implicitly, the USSR.

Khan Abulkhair was an 18th-century Kazakh khan who started the Kazakh incorporation into the Russian empire. Dzelbuldin, the author of this book, praises him. He notes that Khan Abulkhair was a direct descendent of Genghis Khan and had a great inborn political instinct. The khan had made Kazakhs Russian subjects and for this reason, some historians regarded him as having been bought by the Russians. It is true that Abulkhair’s choice was not entirely voluntary. Still, it was the best choice. Kazakhstan faced powerful people and nations, which constituted a clear threat to the Kazakh people’s very existence. For example, the Jungars threatened them and were ready to exterminate the Kazakhs. The Chinese were equally dangerous. They pitilessly exterminated the Jungars and, the author implies, the same fate could have befallen the Kazakhs. Russia here was clearly the best choice. The author notes that what happened to the Kazakhs was not unique. Many other indigenous peoples looked for patronage of the Russian tsar, considered a better choice than being incorporated by other powers that would be much worse.

Ablay Khan (Waliyullah Abu al-Mansur Khan, 1711– 1781) was the other example of a wise khan, who regarded Russia as the best among all choices. Ablay Khan was vilified during the Soviet era. Still, his projection as a villain in Soviet discourse is not quite accurate. He had very difficult years in early life and needed to be tough in the future. Indeed, he could not have survived otherwise. In any case, his contribution to the well-being of his people cannot be ignored. He created a viable state structure and was the first ruler who encouraged people to engage in settled life. He accepted Kazakhs’ incorporation into the Russian empire simply because he had no other choice, and he also understood that Kazakhs could indeed benefit from the Russians’ presence. Consequently, he asked the Russian authorities to send Russians who could teach them agriculture. It was only the wise khans who understood that the Russian protectorate was their best choice. This was the case with Kazybek Bi, the 17th-century Kazakh sage.

Kazybek Bi has been considered as an equal with the Prophet Solomon (a) in wisdom and fair judgement. Indeed, Kaztbek Bi was an extremely wise judge. Two women, as was the case with the biblical King Solomon, brought a child to him, each claiming that the child was hers. Kazybek Bi followed Solomon (a) in his decision, proposing to cut the child in half. The biological mother also responded in biblical fashion: she stated that she would prefer that the child be given over to the other woman. Bi was not just extremely wise in practical matters, but was a man of great geopolitical sagacity.

Kazybek Bi argued with those who wanted to attach Kazakhstan to China, for he understood that Kazakhstan’s incorporation into China would spell the end of Kazakhs as a people. He promoted Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, which implied a balanced relationship with China, Russia, and other powers. And as Dzhelbuldin implies, he gravitated to Russia more than to other powers.

The collapse of the century-long empire, Russia and the USSR in our case, led the elites of the newly emerging states to scramble for a new ideological paradigm. They quickly discarded the old narrative about benevolent, civilized masters who transformed the savages into a civilized nation, and replaced it with another narrative. There, the ancient and civilized people were compelled to look for protectors, and chose the lesser of the possible evils. The previous narrative was discarded as a myth imposed on Kazakhs by the imperial power, and which now emerged as the true narrative. Still, it was hardly the case. The new narrative simply means that one myth has replaced another.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 46, No. 1

Jumada' al-Akhirah 02, 14382017-03-01

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