Kazakhstan has rich oral tradition of epic poems, ballads and verse tales performed in songs call “kyui, “by traveling storytellers called “zhyrsy”, and improvisational poets and musicians called “akyns”. The songs are often about heroic horsemen or lonely shepherds and about battles between Kazakhs and Kalmyks and other rivals in the 16th century.

Epic poems and songs have traditionally been handed orally from generation to generation. Recitals and contests known as “aitys “with akyn were popular forms of entertainment in the old days and are featured events at many festivals and gatherings today. The most well known akyn is Zhambyl Zhabayev. There is a statue of him in Almaty on Dostyk.

Dostoyevsky was exiled to Kazakhstan. He spent five years doing forced military service in the city of Semey, near the place that became a nuclear testing area. He began writing “The Brothers Karamazov” there.

Famous storytellers and improvisational poets include Bukharzhyrau Kalmakanov (1693-1787), Makhambet Utemisov (1803-1846) and his friend Isatay Taymanobe, the leader of the Kazakh uprising in the Bukeevsky Horde in 1836-1837. Among the other famous literary figures are Ibray Altynsaron (1841-1889), Saken Seyfuluin (1894-1939), Beymbet Maylin (1894-1939), Akhmet Baytursunov, Djambul Djabayev and Mukhtar Auezov (1897-1968, author of the epic novel “The Path of Abay”), the novelists Nuroeisov and Esenberlin.

Traditional Kazakh Literature

Kazakhs have a rich literary heritage. As there were many illiterates, folk literature handed down orally was quite developed, and includes myths, legends, folk stories, narrative poems, long love poetry, ballads and proverbs, among which, long poetry is especially outstanding. By some reckonongs, there are more than 200 Kazakh long poems. "Akens" have made great efforts to collect, study and re-create old verses, tales, proverbs, parables and maxims. Many outstanding Kazakh classic and contemporary works have been published in the Kazakh language. |

Because of the Kazakhs' nomadic lifestyle and their lack of a written language until the mid-nineteenth century, their literary tradition relies upon oral histories. These histories were memorized and recited by the akyn , the elder responsible for remembering the legends and histories, and by jyrau , lyric poets who traveled with the high-placed khans. Most of the legends concern the activities of a batir , or hero-warrior. A popular Kazakh fable is about a mythical bird Samruk, which lays a golden egg each year in a poplar tree. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Primary sources of Kazakh literature are the epics "Alyp Er Tonga" and "Shu Batir," reportedly created in ancient times. The Kazakhstan government dubiously claims they were created in “11.3 centuries B.C.” and claims “scientific studies proved that the events described in them are closely connected with the ancient history of the Kazakh people. Old-Turkic written documents showed that the Turkic tribes of the art word is poetic force, depth of thought and richness of content.” [Source:, Official tourism website of Kazakhstan]

Among the tales that have survived are Koblandy-batir (fifteenth or sixteenth century), Er Sain (sixteenth century), and Er Targyn (sixteenth century), all of which concern the struggle against the Kalmyks; Kozy Korpesh and Bain sulu , both epics; and the love lyric Kiz-Jibek . Usually these tales were recited in a song-like chant, frequently to the accompaniment of such traditional instruments as drums and the dombra , a mandolin-like string instrument. President Nazarbayev has appeared on television broadcasts in the republic, playing the dombra and singing. *

Kazakh Aken Singers

Kazakhs have a long tradition of informal recitation of folklore and improvised narrative singing performed by bards, accompanied by a two -stringed, apricot-wood instrument called the “komuz”. The Kyrgyzs have a similar tradition except they use a three-string instrument.

An “aken”, or “bakshy”, is the musical title given to the bards who mastered the art of improvised narrative singing. In the old days aken acted as shaman, healers and passed on history, myths and clan stories and genealogies and commented on moral and political issues of the day. They were famous for philosophizing and reeling off verses hours at a time about subjects ranging from the wonders of the universe to the pleasures of drinking koumiss. They were skilled at using old stories and legends to make thinly veiled editorials about current leaders and figures.

"Aken" have traditionally been like minstrels: folk actors that recited poems, epics and myths and played instruments and sing. They are regarded as the keepers, spreaders and creators of folk art. A Kazakh proverb goes: "Aken cannot live to be a thousand years old, but his songs can be spread for a thousand years." Aken are expected to have rich knowledge, abundant enthusiasm, a vivid imagination and the ability to sing in an impromptu and improvisational style that addresses contemporary issues and the character of the ausience watching him. Their songs are vivid and lively. Some aken write lengthy narrative poems, short folk songs and narrative songs. The best Aken forge their own style, sing impromptu songs in a loud and clear singing voice, with incomparable wisdom, accompanied by the Dombra. Listeners feel like they are hearing the flow of a river and the galloping of horses and experiencing life on the steppe. The rhythm of many songs is meant to duplicate movements of their horses. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

Famous “aken” include the Kyrgyzs Togolok Moldo, Sayakbay Karalayev and Sagymbay Orozabakov, and the Kazakh Jamboul Jabayev. The later was born in 1846 and lived to be 99. He was known throughout the Soviet Union and was declared “the patriarch of folk poets.”

Abai Kunanbaev

The philosopher and poet Ibrahim “Abai” Kunanbaev (1845-1904) is one the most well known figures in Kazakhstan. He has been chosen as unifier in Kazakhstan the same way that Tamerlane has been in Uzbekistan, Genghis Khan has been in Mongolia and Pushkin has been in Russia. He is credited with launching Kazakh as a literary language and inspiring generations of writers and poets. Ever 5th-grade schoolchild can sing a song composed by him.

Kunanbaev was born in the village of Kaskabulak in the Shyngghystau hills area of eastern Kazakhstan He spent much of his life in Semey and died in Zhidebai. He was also a musician, translator and politician. He translated many famous Russian works and Western classics such as “The Three Musketeers “into Kazakh. His own poetry was inspired by ancient Kazakh epics and folk tales from the steppe. It was said that his work sounded best when he read it.

Kunanbaev’s poetry has been described as economical and precise. He “celebrated the natural world around, the dramatic sequence of the seasons and the spiritual inheritance of Central Asian sufism.”

Kunanbaev’s Philosophy

Kunanbaev was known for candidly expressing his feelings and doubts. He believed that it was the duty of every human being to perform good deeds and aspire for noble goals but often expressed his disappointment in humanity for not embracing these simple principals and not showing more strength in the fight against evil.

In his most famous work “A Book of Words”, Kunanbaev wrote: “My life might be good or bad but I have gone a long way—through struggles and quarrels, conflicts and disputes, sufferings and worries, I have lived to an old age...Worn out and satisfied with everything, I discovered the futility and transience of my deeds and became aware of the humility of my being. What should I do now, how should I live out the rest of my life? My difficulty lies in my inability to answer this question.”

Kunanbaev was thoroughly Russified. He once wrote, “Study Russian culture and art—it is the key to life. If you obtain it, your life will become easier.” After his death, Kunanbaev was out of favor with Soviet authorities and was condemned as feudal and backward. Later he was resurrected as both a unifier of the Kazakhs and as a Kazakh who loved Russia culture. There are museums devoted to him in Semey and Zhidebai. Kunanbaev has had a number of institutions named after him such as the Abai State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet.

Soviet-Era Literary Figures

Important figures of the early stages of Kazakh nationalist self-assertion, including novelist Anuar Alimzhanov, who became president of the last Soviet Congress of People's Deputies, and poets Mukhtar Shakhanov and Olzhas Suleymenov (Oljas Suleimenov), who were copresidents of the political party Popular Congress of Kazakhstan. Shakhanov also chaired the commission that investigated the events surrounding the riots of December 1986. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

An even more powerful figure than Shakhanov, Suleymenov in 1975 became a pan-Central Asian hero by publishing a book, Az i Ia , examining the Lay of Igor's Campaign , a medieval tale vital to the Russian national culture, from the perspective of the Turkic Pechenegs whom Igor defeated. Soviet authorities subjected the book to a blistering attack. Later Suleymenov used his prestige to give authority to the Nevada-Semipalatinsk antinuclear movement, which performed the very real service of ending nuclear testing in Kazakhstan. He and Shakhanov originally organized their People's Congress Party as a pro-Nazarbayev movement, but Suleymenov eventually steered the party into an opposition role. In the short-lived parliament of 1994-95, Suleymenov was leader of the Respublika opposition coalition, and he was frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. Suleymenov wrote in Russian.

According to the Kazakhstan government: “In the 1920s, the process of formation of prose in Kazakhstan took place. B. Mailin, M. Auezov, S. Seifullin, I. Zhansugurov, S. Mukanov, S. Sharipov, J. Tlepbergenov, G. Musrepov, Mustafin, U. Turmanzhanov, E. Bekenov and others wrote stories, essays , novels. They found the appropriate realistic colors to create bright human images, characters, portraits of characters. Novels by I. Shukhov — "Bitter Line" (1931; in the Kazakh language in 1972, translated A. Ospanova) and "Hate" (1932, translated H. Esenzhanova)— are significant works of modern literature of that period in the genre of the novel.

“During the World War II era the novel AA Beck "Volokolamsk Highway" (1943) established the heroic images of B. Momyshuly, I. Panfilov. In the postwar period, he published the novel "The Face of the Sun" I (Shukhov (1950) . VD Vanyushina (1952) wrote the novel "Wings of Song" (1959), which reflected the socio-historical position of Kazakhstan in previous 20 years, reflected in th formation and development of national art created in images of talented artists (I. Baizakov, A. Kashaubaev, K. Munaitpas, AV . Zataevicha etc.). I.G. Shchegolikhina wrote in the novel "Snowstorm" (1961). GV Chernogolovinoy wrote "Nedozhdlivoe time" and the novel "Risk Zone" (1981). In the novel,"Commissioner Zhangildin" M.D, Simashko created a vivid image of the Kazakh people. Dm. Snegina in dilogii wrote "In the Morning and at Noon" (1976, 1982), expanding the boundaries of historical subjects. Acclaimed poets included VA Antonov, AK Elkov, DE Ryabukha, LV Skalkovsky, FA Morgun, VA Smirnov, MI Chistyakov et al.

Kazakhstan Crackdown on Human Hobbits

In 2001, fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, some of whom like to dress up and pretend they were hairy-footed hobbits or othe r”Lord of the Rings” characters, were the subject of police crackdown on "counter-cultural groups".Craig Nelson wrote in The Telegraph, “The peaks of the Tian Shen Mountains which tower over Almaty, the main city in Kazakhstan, offer an impressive representation of Middle Earth, the world created by Tolkien. An estimated 1,000 local aficionados of the British author, who call themselves Tolkienisti, trek regularly to forts they have built in the foothills, dress up as their favourite characters and re-enact adventures based on The Hobbit and the subsequent trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. "I find city life so crude and gloomy. I want to get away from it and create a different world," one 17-year-old said of Tolkien's allure. "When I look at other kids who hang out with nothing to do and no interests in life, I feel sad. Their lives seem so empty." [Source: Craig Nelson, The Telegraph, August 26, 2001 ***]

“The pastime, however, is viewed as subversive by Almaty police, whose ranks include veterans of the old communist security forces and rural Kazakhs who have never heard of the Oxford professor and his creations. They have launched a campaign against the Tolkienisti, and any group that they believe exhibits undesirably "Bohemian" traits, including street musicians, "alternative" artists and homosexuals. Victims of the crackdown have been beaten and detained for up to three days without charge, according to a report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. One victim, the leader of a well-known punk rock bank was forced to squat in a jail cell less than 5ft high and half-filled with water. ***

“The most frequent form of harassment is less severe, said the 17-year-old Tolkienist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. She said Tolkien enthusiasts were stopped in the street and ordered to remove their costumes and surrender their rubber axes and home-made wooden swords. The threat of a three-day detention on charges of carrying a concealed weapon is used to extract a bribe of up to £2.80, - a large sum by the standards of Kazakhstan. The young woman, an art student, denied that the Tolkienisti posed any criminal or political threat. "The police and soldiers stop us because we are different. They believe if you are different from everyone else you are against everyone else," she said. ***

“Erbol Jumagulov, an Almaty journalist and a co-author of the IWPR report, blames the wave of harassment on a clash of cultures. The junior ranks of the police and army are burgeoning with non-Russian speaking, ethnic Kazakhs who have flocked to urban centres. They have little experience of people who dress and act differently to what they are accustomed. Furthermore, Mr Jumagulov said, the police and soldiers are products of Kazakhstan's rigidly conformist police and military academies, where hazing (brutal initiation rites) is routine. ***

“The resulting mixture is volatile. "They hit the streets and see people dressed in an eccentric way and they want revenge. Or, they're simply envious," he said. The Kazakh embassy in Moscow refused to comment on allegations of brutality by Kazakh security forces. Tolkien's world of elves, dwarves, orcs and hobbits comprises one of the most treasured series of books ever written. It has sold more than 90 million copies worldwide since the first appeared in 1937. The books were translated into Russian in 1976, quickly becoming enormously popular throughout the Soviet Union.” ***

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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