A Steppe Forward: Abay and the Foundation of Kazakh Poetry

Harry Leeds on Abay Qunanbaiuli

“A strong man may defeat one hundred enemies. But a learned man—one thousand.”

If you have ever heard of the small Kazakh city of Semipalatinsk (recently renamed "Semey"), it is probably because of the Semipalatinsk Polygon, the USSR’s test zone for nuclear weapons. The Semipaltainsk Polygon was the Soviet Bikini Islands; a fairly desolate chunk of Siberia mostly deserted, except for its plant and animal life and a few thousand people living there during the 456 detonations from 1949 to 1989. (Those affected by the tests are now awarded reparations by the Kazakhstani Parliament.) Or perhaps you’ve heard of it because of Dostoyevsky. He spent his first two years out of labor camp in Semipalatinsk, working on Notes from the House of the Dead.

But Semey is famous for another reason and another writer. It is home to Abay Qunanbayuli who lived there from 1845 to 1904. Abay was a lawyer, statesman, educator, and poet who arose from the eastern steppe to become a premier intellectual of his time. Usually referred to simply as “Abay,” the great scholar is by far the most recognizable and famous Kazakh poet. He is the Kazakh Pushkin and Byron and Tagore and John Dewey.


In his younger years—spent in Eastern Kazakhstan, then part of the Russian empire—Abay was a politician and a democrat. After years of deep involvement in local governments, he grew disenchanted with political action and the limits inherent to it. As a result, he turned to literature to deal with the extreme changes underway in his society.

Until Abay entered the scene, Kazakh literature had been composed mostly of epics and songs of steppe life passed down orally—and for good reason, too. The Kazakhs only converted to Islam in the eighteenth century, and by the nineteenth century the vast majority still lived in auls—itinerant village coalitions whose members moved around with their herds. Kazakhs rarely studied in traditional schools or prayed in ancient mosques. Even now, Kazakhs sometimes consult Tengristic shamans before doctors or imams.

During Abay's time, nomadic life—though prevalent—was increasingly under attack. With the introduction of Russian hegemony, Kazakhstan’s transhumant nomads began to stay put. Villagers were encouraged to settle in cities and towns. Abay sought to synthesize these two lives—the nomadic and the settled—across his body of work. It was from this that he distilled the possibility of a new Kazakh literature; one conscious and perhaps even symptomatic of the transitions within his culture.

In his description of the three types of people, for example, we can see Abay's piety in struggle with his acceptance of a society coming to grips with modern social institutions. Even a Muslim who considers himself to be pious and takes his religiosity for granted, suggests Abay, can still be amoral.

Someone boasts, imagining that he's the almighty creator of earth.
Another, a lawyer, lets it be understood that he is able
to drag you off as a result of one denunciation.
A third shakes the hand of holy people . . . but inside he's a wicked person.
. . .
Why was he zealous for this, when he's given back the gift of being a Moslem?
You know things are going badly when the guy shaking hands with holy people is being compared to a lawyer.

But Abay’s vision was even wider. Not only did he address the tangible changes in Kazakh life, but he set out to contextualize these within the world of the metaphysical, the mystical. He developed a kind of humanism from Islam and was striving towards reconciliation of apparent contradictions in modern, materialistic life with the teachings of the Qur’an. A staunch theist, Abay still had a bone or two to pick with God, whom he sometimes considered unfair.

. . . why are you so inaccessible?
If you give, you give five,
if you take, you take six.
His was not a tedious scholastic method, but a journey to truth through poetry—a journey that in the process founded a national literature.

Abay spoke approximately eight languages including Persian, and adored both high Persian poets and Russian Golden-Age masters. Their influence is felt throughout his oeuvre. That is to say, he writes of natural base desires melded into the lives we strive to live. Humanism, materialism, spirituality, adventure, nature, sex and, of course, horses make multiple appearances. (No Kazakh story is complete without horses!) For example, in one of his Words—a collection of thoughts written at the end of his life—Abay attempts to prove the existence of God because love and justice are “the crown of divine creation . . . even the way the stallion takes possession of a mare is a manifestation of that [divine] love.” Did someone say Rumi?

This Rumi-like approach is often paired with a now familiar conundrum: the parallel between the creator/God and the creator/artist (or parent) that we know so well from existential philosophy:

“Nature can die, but humans are immortal,
but they can't return, nor joke and laugh again . . .
Many are captives of the transitory,
and so they trip and fall.
But can one say “died” about one
who left behind immortal words?”
The immortal words are both those of a true poet and the Qur’an, dictated by God himself. Humans may achieve immortality through works of literature which outlive them, just as God is immortal through his connection to sacred texts.

Though Abay denied it, it is fair to say he was influenced deeply by Sufism, which was instrumental in bringing Islam to the Turkic peoples who followed Tengrism. Abay is constantly looking for a personal connection with God, and does not shy away from questioning the accepted tenants of the Qur’an. His search for a personal connection to a God born of nature leads him to a familiar, existential leap of faith:

“Man is a sack, full of shit
When you die, you'll smell worse than shit.
…. Yesterday you were a child, now you are in your declining years”
And what is the solution to this existential crisis?
“. . . Love human beings, feel the mystery of Allah.”
Beyond his poetry, perhaps Abay’s main gift to his culture is his justification of a traditional education. He saw the power of words, and he valued their vitality for doing good.

Poetry is the queen of language, the sovereign of the word.
It takes a wise man to extract it from the strongholds.
Language has free will in it and it warms the heart
with the roundness and perfection of its form.
Abay held education—one built upon the pillars of discipline, discovery, and hard work both in matters practical and spiritual—to be the key to a great future for his beloved Kazakhs. Still, he continued to be frustrated by their stubbornly patriarchal ways.

Abay wanted a population engaged in voracious reading, learning, and self-reflection. It was a tall order, yet his willingness to pragmatically take the most effective aspects of all his influences—Islam, Christianity, the Russian Empire, and Tengrism—could save his nation from extinction. Education was imperative to prevent Kazakhs from being assimilated to the point of disappearing. Only objective study and surrender to God could prevent people from falling victim to the “speech of the powerful . . . peppered with proverbs,” and tell real truth from fancy rhetoric.

He had for years written his own wisdom, but found the vices of his people too strong. Indeed, he was disillusioned not so much by his lack of success, but by virtue of the fact that his people did not heed his moral warnings. All his learning had not halted the processes he strove to temper—and so at the end of his life he turned inward.

I myself strove to improve my mind,
and knew no equal in eloquence!
But my work is not valued among the people
and I chose the peace of solitude in life.
For all his love of education and Islam, Abay believed a virtuous life is lived in real, tangible deeds. Going through the motions and being pious, being a poet or a scholar is not virtue. “He who knows Shariah law well,” Abay comments, “cannot tell his friends from his enemies.”

And so he began to develop the concept of an ideal Kazakh. Bemoaning his people, praising the Russians, and concentrating on Russian law earned him plenty of enemies. Abay was not so much a nationalist as he was a patriot; forever walking the tightrope between humanistic confidence in a material world and jingoistic pride. As a voice of his people, he can be irritatingly self-deprecating—and yet this lends his poetry a kind of self-reflexive appeal. Simultaneous love of and disappointment with the Kazakh people are constant features in his work.

Oh, Kazakhs, my poor people,
you let your mustaches grow.
Since you don't distinguish good from evil,
now you have blood on one cheek and grease
on the other
Sure, he is jaded and disaffected and disavows Sufism, a movement so popular because the whirling dervishes reminded Tengristic Turks of the rituals of their shamans. Abay's ideal Kazakh does not have a Sufi-esque, direct connection with God, and yet he is no atheist, but neither is he a Russian Christian. Indeed, Abay championed a rather more subtle divine connection, exemplified by the inward, psychological turn he took in his late writing. All human endeavor is futile in light of divine infallibility, Abay seems to propose, but it is still necessary that one continue to fight the good fight. And that, for Abay, was writing.

You cannot reach Allah by reason.
Oh, I haven't got the language to talk intelligently about Him.
The ideal Kazakh sees and embraces this conflict, respects the Russian tongue and its European organization, yet he maintains his Islamic and nomadic traditions. There is a middle way here—a conscious choice to see East and West as one, nomadic life and sedentary progress as fused. In this way, Abay predicted the fate of his people, sometimes lamenting the loss of steppe life, but certainly seeing settlement as the better option for survival.


Despite his profound influence on the Alash Orda movement and its newspapers through the early Soviet period, Abay’s poetry was lost to the average Kazakh over the course of first settlement and the absolutely devastating collectivization, which killed and displaced millions.

His work was rediscovered in the 1940s when Mukhtar Auezov published a multi-volume semi-biographical work entitled The Path of Abay based on his grandfather's personal relationship with the old master. The grand narrative shows Abay as a young boy coming to terms with the impending changes of modernity, and brilliantly depicts traditional Kazakh life before settlement and before communism. These immensely popular works rejuvenated interest in Abay, the Alash Orda movement, and Kazakh culture and traditions.

These days, Abay is read in school and considered to be the most important Kazakh writer. His sense of culture—which never fully settles on the side of either Western positivism or Eastern asceticism—fits nicely into the national image projected by the current Kazakh government. The state has pushed translation projects of Abay's works, and President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself has written prefaces to some collections. And finally, there is a fine English translation by David Aikyn and Richard McKane.

Kazakhstan today finds itself on another historical cusp. With only twenty-odd years of independence behind it, a new capital city, Astana, and a population that is majority, but by no means overwhelmingly, ethnically Kazakh, the nation still seeks to define itself for the first time as a modern, sovereign state.

Still, it is an educated, secular nation with a Muslim majority. Kazakhstanis live peacefully, with universal education and an influx of funds thanks to the rich natural resources preserved on Kazakhstani soil. Despite any challenges Kazakhstan may face, perhaps Abay's dream is closer to realization than ever before.