Kazakh Literature

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The nomadic life of Kazakhstan meant that its poets and storytellers followed an oral tradition of creating, telling and retelling, and passing on their work, from ancient times to the present day; written literary forms really began to develop in the middle of the 19th century.

Ancient oral tradition

The artistry and skill involved in the Kazakh oral tradition demanded extraordinary memory to retain and perform epic poems that could take hours to recite, remembering every tiny detail with no written reminders; the skills and the poems have been handed down through many generations. The most famous of these Turkic epic poems, which originated sometime in the 9th century, are Korkyt-Ata 2 and B.

Heroic poems (such as Koblandy, Yer-Targyn, Alpamys, and Kambar-batyr) and lyrical poems (such as Kozy-Korpesh and Bayan-Sulu, and Kyz-Zhibek) were handed down in the form of oral narratives performed by akyn singers, only later recorded in written form.

Religious literature

With the arrival of Islam in the 9th century, religious literature began to develop across Kazakhstan, with written literature developed mainly in cities. Works of Dervish poets and writers (travelling ascetics) had a significant place in urban culture life. One of the most famous personalities was the son of a steppe musician, the Islam Sufi poet Khoja Akhmet Yassawi (1103-1166) 3. Yassawi was the first talented Turkic poet who wrote his works in Oguz-Kypchak dialect; the most famous of his works are Divan-i-hikmet (The Book of Wisdom), Mirat-ul Kulub (Window to the Soul), Pakyr-nama (Legend of a Poor Man).

Yassawi’s pupil Suleymen Bakyrgani was the author of Zamu Nazir Kitaby (Book of Judgment Day), which explains that on the Day of Judgment everything will die, but that God will recreate the World and everything will be live again. For several centuries, books by Yassawi and Bakyrgani were taught in the madrasa (religious schools) throughout Central Asia.

Kazakh Oral Literature

The earliest works of oral folk arts ascribed to a known author date back to the 15th century; the 16th century produced works by the legendary Asan-Kaigy 4, by akyns (improvising poets) Dospambet 5 and Shalkiiz 6. In the 18th century came the akyn Bukhara-zhyrau Kalkamanuly 7, who created political verses. Akyns from the second half of the 19th century included Birzhan Kozhagulov, Asset Naimanbayev, Sara Tastambekova, Zambyl Zhabayev 8 and others, who used the aitys form as an expression of public opinion in the process of defending social justice.

Kazakh Written Literature

Modern Kazakh manuscript literature came to life in the second half of the 19th century under the influence of Russian and European cultures, driven by prominent Kazakh intellectuals Chokan Valikhanov 9, Ibrai Altynsarin 10, and Abai Kunanbayev 11. The beginning of the 20th century saw the flowering of Kazakh literature, as it absorbed many features of European literature. The basis of Kazakh modern literature was laid down, and the literary language coalesced; new stylistic forms came into existence, such as novels and novelettes. At the turn of the century a group of authors, including Nurzhan Naushbayev, and Maskhur-Zhusup Kopeyev, was actively propagating patriarchal views and gathering folklore materials. Nationalist forces were grouped under the newspaper Kazakh. They included Akhmet Baytursynov 12 , Mirzhakip Dulatov 13, and Magzhan Zhumabayev 14. After the 1917 Revolution, they joined the camp of Bolsheviks’ opponents.

Literature of the Soviet Period

The pioneers of Kazakh Soviet literature were poets like Saken Seifulin 15 (whose poems include Sovietstan, Albatross, and Socialiststan, novelettes such as Groundmen, Fruits), Ilyas Zhansugurov 16 (his poems Steppe, Musician, Kulager), and novelists Mukhtar Auezov 17 (Night Echoes), Sabit Mukanov 18 (social and historical novel Botagoz), and Beimbet Mailin (novelette Communist Raushan, novel Azamat Azamatych).

The Soviet period is famous for its ambitiously long literary works, including, for example, the tetralogy Abai’s Path by Mukhtar Auezov, the trilogy Nomads by Ilyas Yesenberlin, and the two-part novel Saks by Bulat Zhardanbekov.

Literature today

The fledgling literary art of an independent Kazakhstan is now getting the attention of a wider global readership, and is searching for new directions. Among modern Kazakh authors of note are Alibek Askarov 19, Gerold Belger20, Dulat Isabekov 21, Bakhytzhan Kanapyanov 22, Kadyr Myrzaliyev 23, Tumanbai Moldagaliyev, Abizhamil Nurpeissov, Azilkhan Nurshaikhov, Nurlan Orazalin, Moris Semashko 24, Ivan Shegolikhin, and Olzhas Suleimenov25.

A collection of religious and mystical poems written in the Kypchak dialect of the old Turkic language. The original manuscript hasn’t survived, although there are 15th or 16th century copies.

In his work Yassawi preached asceticism and humility, believing that the way to the truth is also the way to God. The book includes a great deal of cultural, historic and ethnographic information about tribes of that period. Turkic peoples sometimes called Divan-i-hikmet the Korani Turki as they interpreted the Koran through Yassawi’s work – which is why he became known as Hazret Sultan (Holy Sultan); and the book made his tomb in Turkestan something of a second Mecca. Yassawi’s Khikmets (poetic pamphlets) preached Islam but also they called for the spiritual unification of Turkic speaking nations.

Ibrai Altynsarin (1841-1889)26 was a Kazakh scholar, writer, educationalist, folklorist, public figure, and ethnographer. Born in Torghai oblast (now Kostanai) Altynsarin graduated from a Russian Kazakh school. He then worked as a translator and interpreter in Orenburg and was also a school teacher and inspector, and was instrumental in the opening of many Kazakh-Russian boarding schools, technical schools and schools for girls.

His literary activity was all part of his lifelong dedication to improving public education. In his works (Ignorance, To Insidious Aristocrat) he criticized fanaticism and superstitions; he blamed behavior of Muslim alfaquis (in Kipchak Seytkul and Wooden House and Yurt); he called cattle breeders to farm more effectively; and in Son of Bei and Son of Poverty he contrasted the diligence and productivity of poor people to the stinginess and greed of the rich. In his poems Spring and Autumn Altynsarin presented a clear description of the Kazakh landscape and scenes of Kazakhs’ nomadic life. As a folklorist he wrote and published the stories Kara Batyr, Altyn Aidar, Zhyrenshe the Wisecracker, an abstract from the epos Koblandy, and many others.

As well as his own creative work, he compiled an educational anthology of texts (chrestomathy) in the Kazakh language to appeal to the Kazakh spirit; he also compiled early collections of folk poetry and literacy primers: in 1879 his Initial Manual for Kyrgyz people learning the Russian Language and The Kyrgyz Chrestomathy were published. The latter included a number of his stories and poems as well as works by Russian authors translated into Kazakh. A significant element of Altynsarin’s ideology is his interpretation of religion. He wrote an Islamic textbook, standing for enlightened and liberal Islam. The whole of Altynsarin’s creative activity is shot through with the idea of applying innovation to tradition and customs.

This epic novel by Mukhtar Auezov describes the life of the famous Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbayev. The first Kazakh language epos within the traditions of European literature, it consists of four books, published between 1942 and 1956.

On the face of it, a great historical novel about Abai, who was a friend and neighbour of Auezov’s family in Semey – but the book offers far more, describing the dramatic and controversial lives and attitudes of nomads and settled people at the end of the 19th century. Auezov captures the beauty of the free spirit of Kazakh people, their dreams of better lives, their hopes, their special spiritual style of life, and their national character. In 1959, Auezov was awarded the Lenin Prize for the work, which was translated into the Russian language by a group headed by Leonid Sobolev.

Nomads is a trilogy by Ilyas Yesenberlin (1915-1983)27, which won the State Prize of Kazakh SSR. It describes historical events of the 15th – the 19th centuries, with the main characters of the novel taken from history: great leaders from Genghis Khan to the last Kazakh khan, but the great Kazakh steppe is almost a character in itself; the novel is in three parts: • An Enchanted Sword (15th & 16th centuries) describes formation of the Kazakh Khanate, when Kazakh tribes want to form their own state, and when khans Abulhair, and Zhanibek and Kerey struggle against each other for the throne. • Despair (17th & 18th centuries) tells of the struggle of Kazakh people against invaders from other countries as well as the dramatic changes of fortune for Kazakh people becoming citizens of the Russian Empire. The novel presents a detailed description of Abylai Khan’s heroic deeds on his way to create an independent Kazakh Khanate, and the victories of the Kazakhs over the Dzhungar invaders, under Abylai Khan’s command. • Khan Keneh (18th & 19th centuries) tells us about Abylai Khan’s grandson Kenessary Kassymov (1802-1847), the last Kazakh khan, who led the anticolonial rebellion of 1837-1847.

A two-part novel by the Kazakh writer and public figure Bulat Zhardanbekov (1932-1991) , Saks was written during the period of Soviet era decline. The two books are Tomiris and Shirak’s Feat and they tell us about the brightest pages of the eastern Saks people who inhabited Kazakhstan from the 7th to the 3rd century CE. Both parts of Zhandarbekov’s story are dedicated to the period of Saks’ struggle against Persian military expansion, led by their fierce Queen. • Tomiris is set in the 6th century BC, when one of the earliest conquerors, the Persian King Cyrus the Great, made his appearance. He failed to conquer the Saks when these wild tribes, guided by Queen Tomiris, crushed the invading army. • Shirak’s Feat is set after the defeat of Cyrus, when Darius won the Persian throne through intrigues and conspiracies. Once King, Darius made the attempt to conquer the Saks, but was defeated thanks to the courage of a shepherd, Shirak, who sacrificed his own life to drive Darius’s army back to the desert.

Gerold Belger (1934-2015) 28 was an ethnic German born in Russia, in a village on the Volga River, in the Saratov region. In 1941, he and his family were deported to Kazakhstan, where he mastered the Kazakh language to perfection. Belger graduated from the Literature Faculty of the Abai Kazakh Pedagogic Institute and taught Russian language and literature at a secondary school in Zhambyl region.

In 1971, he became a member of the Union of Writers of Kazakhstan, and in 1992 he took on the role as deputy chief editor of the German almanac Phoenix. Belger wrote 53 books in Kazakh and Russian, of which the most popular are Pine House on the Edge of the Aul, Gulls over the Steppe, Over the Six Passes, Brother among Brothers, The Stone Shallow, Tomorrow It Will Be Sunny, and Talking Nonsense. He also translated into Russian some of the Kazakh classics: Mailin, Musrepov, and Nurpeissov. As well as his own books, he edited and compiled another 19 books, and was the coauthor of 103 collections.

Bakhytzhan Kanapyanov 29 was born in 1951 into a family of teachers in Kokshetau city. He graduated from the Kazakh Polytechnical Institute in 1974, took courses in film direction and scriptwriting (1977) and went on to the Maxim Gorkiy Literature Institute (1983).

He has worked as an editor and a scriptwriter for Kazakhfilm Cinema Studio, he was an editor at Zhalyn publishing house, a literary consultant to the Union of Writers of Kazakhstan, the head of the independent Kazakh publishing house Zhabel Zholy, and edited two almanacs: Literary Asia and Literary Alma-Ata. Kanapyanov’s film credits as screenwriter include about 20 cinema films and videos including Abai: Life and Creative Activity (1983), Balkash Saga, about repressed people deported to Kazakhstan (1990), and Shakarim’s Last Autumn (1992).

His poetry collections include Night Coolness (1977), Reflections (1979), and Sense of Peace (1982) which have been translated into many other languages. He has also translated poetry by Abai, Makhambet, Zambyl, Kenen, Shakarim Kudaiberdiyev, Magzhan Zhumabayev and many poets from elsewhere in the world; in 1988 he also translated into Russian the poem Kyz Zhybek, the outstanding emblem of Kazakh folklore.

Olzhas Suleimenov30 (born in Alma-Ata, 1937) represents both the Soviet generation of Kazakh writers and one of the most famous and popular personalities of the contemporary set.

He graduated from the geology faculty of Kazakh State University (1959) and from the Maxim Gorkiy Literature Institute (1961); at the beginning of his career, in 1955, Suleimenov worked for a literary newspaper and several literary magazines, and for the Union of Writers of Kazakhstan.

Suleimenov became widely known as a writer in spring 1961 through his poem Earth, Bow to Man, dedicated to Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space. The poem found popularity in the Soviet Union, and on the back of this success, Suleimenov published several poetry collections, including Argamaks, and Good Time of the Rise.

Suleimenov’s verses and poems were translated into many languages of the world, and his work was translated into films such as Fathers’ Land, The Blue Route, Red Wormwood (Makhambet) and Ah, So Interesting It Was in Petersburg. Today Suleimenov is still working, both as a writer and a researcher in linguistics, and working in the field of public process and not just in the sphere of literature but also in the sphere of linguistics, researches of the language and the history as well as in the sphere of public processes comprehension.

In 1975 Suleimenov’s most influential novel Az-i-Ia (Az and Me) was published; an analysis of the ancient Slavic text The Song of Igor’s Campaign from the point of its Turkic component, the book attracted criticism from the literary elite in Russia, charging Suleimenov with ‘glorifying feudal nomadic culture’ and ‘national chauvinism’. Since 1989, Suleimenov has been actively working not just in the sphere of literature but also on the political stage, notably in the campaign to close the nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk.

Suleimenov’s contribution to the cultural, public and political life is really appreciated in Kazakhstan during the present-day period. He is one of the recognized authorities in the country, and a representative of Kazakhstan in the wider world, first as ambassador to Rome, and from 2002 to 2014 as Kazakhstan’s ambassador to UNESCO in Paris.

Green Desert: The Life and Poetry of Olzhas Suleimenov is the first comprehensive translation of his poetry into English.

  1. Hello, remember to smile today

  2. Korkyt-Ata was a Kazakh philosopher, thinker, and creator of the kobyz, which is a stringed instrument.

  3. Khoja Ahmad Yasawi was a Turkic poet and Sufi mystic who founded the first Turkic Surfi order.

  4. Asan-Kaigy was a poet, philosopher, and advisor to Khan Janibek - one of the founders of the Kazakh Khanate.

  5. Dospamet-zhyrau was born in 1490 and was one of the ancient representatives of Kazakh literature.

  6. Shalkiiz-zhyrau was a Kazakh poet, storyteller, soldier, and batyr who was born in Western Kazakhstan.

  7. Bukhar-zhyrau Kalkamanuly was born in 1693 and was a Kazakh poet who entertained the court of Middle Orda with singing and poetry.

  8. Zambyl Zhabayev was a renowned Kazakh traditional folksinger.

  9. Chokan Valikhanov was a Kazakh scholar, historian, and ethnographer who is regarded as the father of modern Kazakh historiography and ethnography.

  10. Ibrai Altynsarin was considered the most prominent Kazakh educator during the late 19th century.

  11. Abay Kunanbayev was a renowned Kazakh poet, philosopher, and composer.

  12. Akhmet Baytursynov was a Kazakh politician, poet, linguist, and educator who reformed the Kazakh language from Arabic script to Latin.

  13. Mirzhakip Dulatov was a Kazakh writer, poet, and a lader of the Kazakh nationalist Alash Orda government.

  14. Magzhan Zhumabayev was a renowned Kazakh poet.

  15. Saken Seifullin was a Kazakh poet, writer, and national activist who was the founder and first head of the Union of Writers of Kazakhstan.

  16. Ilya Zhansugurov was a Kazakh poet and writer who made a notable impact on the national poetic culture.

  17. Mukhtar Auezov was a Kazakh writer, Doctor of Philology, social activist, and honored academic of the Soviet Union.

  18. Sabit Mukanov was a Kazakh writer, poet, social activist, academic, and one of the heads of the Writers Union of Kazakhstan.

  19. Alibek Askarov

  20. Gerold Belger

  21. Dulat Isabekov

  22. Bakhytzhan Kanapyanov

  23. Kadyr Myrzaliyev

  24. Moris Semashko

  25. Olzhas Suleimenov

  26. Ibrai Altynsarin.

  27. Ilyas Yesenberlin.

  28. Gerold Belger.

  29. Bakhytzhan Kanapyanov.

  30. Olzhas Suleimenov

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