The spoken and written word is powerful. Literature, poetry, song each can move one’s heart, mind and soul. The Kazakh people come from nomadic roots. In a time without tools for writing or recording, while moving their herds from pasture to pasture as the seasons changed, the Kazakh people kept alive the traditions and folklore of their culture through stories and songs.
Kazakh literature came to bear visceral feeling and clarity, and reflected the social zeitgeist. That remains today. Kazakhstan, rich with so much history, is home to many great writers and poets who have shaped the modern culture of Kazakhstan, but not the core of who the Kazakh people are.
From well-known Kazakh writers like Abai, to lesser known poets and musicians, here are some Kazakh writers, poets and bards whose words are deeply engraved into Kazakh culture and national identity.
Abai (Ibrahim) Qunanbaiuly (August 10, 1845 – July 6, 1904) is a name that is familiar to the people of Kazakhstan. Oftentimes referred to as just Abai, this Kazakh poet, philosopher, and composer is an important figure in Kazakh history for his contributions to literary and musical arts.
Abai was born in what is now Karauyl in East Kazakhstan. His parents gave him the name Ibrahim due to his brightness, but was later given the nickname “Abai”, which means “careful.”
When he was growing up, Abai attended school in Semipalatinsk where he learned of the writings of Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov. The impact of these writers would change Abai’s life forever.
Perhaps Abai’s greatest contribution to Kazakh culture is his poetry, which reflects on Kazakh nationalism as well as socio-political and socio-economical themes in highly philosophical ways.
Abai is possibly one of the most recognizable names in Kazakh literary history, and his works are still revered to this day. In fact, many places in Kazakhstan are named after him, such as the city of Abay and Almaty State University. There is also an Instagram account called @abaicartoons immortalizes Abai’s wisdom in cute and relatable cartoons.
Abai’s most famous work is The Book of Words, which features his philosophies as well as a collection of poems.
Ilyas Yesenberlin was born on January 10, 1915 in the town of Atbasar in the Akmola region of Kazakhstan. He and his brother became orphans at a young age when their parents passed away from black smallpox. But Yesenberlin did not let this adversity stop him from being dedicated to his studies in school.
In school, Yesenberlin was a master of mathematics and a lover of Kazakh folklore. He eventually graduated from the Kazakh Mining and Metallurgical Institute in 1940 and joined the fight in World War II. However, he was wounded in 1942 and made his way back to Kazakhstan. It was during war times that he started to write. His first poems were published in 1945, and after he left the war, he put more of his effort into literature.
Yesenberlin moved to Alma-Ata where he was surrounded by famous names in literature such as Shaken Aimanov, Olzhas Suleimenov, and Kapan Satybaldin. Here, he wrote his first novel “Pesnya o cheloveke,” edit films, and wrote plays and screenplays.
In 1965, Yesenberlin penned the first book (“Kakhar”) of his famous trilogy called The Nomads. These books touch on patriotism, nationalism, and history of the country. Other famous works of Yesenberlin include “Golden Horde,” “Dangerous Crossing,” “A gold Bird,” and “Flight.” These books have been translated into many different languages and have been published all over the world.
Saken Seyfullin was born in October 15, 1894 in what is now the Shet area of the Karagandy region of Kazakhstan. During his studies at the Omsk Teachers Seminary, Seyfullin published his first collection of poems called “Otken Kunder” or, “The Past Days” in 1914.
In 1916, while working as a Russian language teacher in Silet-Bugyly, Seyfullin started writing poems to support the national liberation movement. He eventually moved to what is now the city of Astana, continued to write poems, and created the “Zhas Kazakh” or “Young Kazakh” organization. From there, h wrote one of the first works about the future of Kazakh women called “Zhubatu” or “Consolation” in 1917.
In the same year, Seyfullin wrote a play called “Bakyt Zholynda” or “The Path to Happiness.” After going through some political turmoil and imprisonment, he eventually wrote a play called “Kyzyl Sunkarlar” or “Red Eagles” and wrote several articles in the 1920s, as well as a collection of poems called “Asau Tuplar” or “Indomitable Horse.”
From here, the list goes on and on. Seyfullin kept writing throughout his life, making an impact on the literary world in Kazakhstan. He became a highly-renowned figure who is still recognized to this day in the realm of Kazakh literature. He tragically died when he was repressed in 1938 and killed by shooting in Almaty.
Sultanmahmut Toraygirov was a major Kazakh writer and poet who was born on October 29, 1893 near the city of Kokshetau, Kazakhtan. Toraygirov wrote his first poems when he was only 13 years of age, and kept up with writing as a sub-editor for Aikap; the first Kazakh journal. In 1914 and 1915, the writer worked as a teacher. He moved to Russia briefly in 1916, and then returned back to Kazakhtan in 1917 due to the February Revolution.
Throughout his life, Toraygirov released many collections of poems. After his death, his novel “Beauty Kamar” was released and became one of the first novels in the Kazakh language. To this day, Toraygirov is remembered by his works and the state university in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan is named after him.
Mukagali Makataev was born in the Alma-Ata region of Kazakhstan, in the foothills of the Great Khan Tengri mountains. Some of his famous works include “Life is a Legend,” “Life is a River,” “Favorites,” and “Mozart’s Requiem.” One of his poems, “Sarzhaylyau” was adapted into a popular song. Makataev is known for translating classic pieces of literature into Kazakh and Russian.
Sabit Mukanov was born in 1900 to a family of cattle ranchers residing in what is now the North Kazakhstan Province. Mukanov studed at the institute of Red Professorship from 1930 to 1935 and, while he was there, published the novels “Son of Bai,” “Pure Love,” and “Temirtas (Iron Stone.”
Throughout his life, Mukanov studied history and literature theory from the 19th and 20th centuries. He is known for writing several novels including “Botagoz,” “Syrdaria,” and the “School of Life” trilogy.
Preserving History & Folklore with Oral History & Storytelling
Nomadic Central Asia has presented the world with an almost inexhaustible reservoir of folklore productions representing a wide variety of genres from the simple song to ceremonial songs, tales, legends, fantastic stories, and finally the heroic epos.
This folklore heritage of the nomadic peoples is clearly a product of their whole way of life and culture. The ceremonial songs reflect the existence of definite, prescribed tribal and clan rites. The tales and legends suggest a strong tradition of tribal lore and mythology. The heroic epos, which was most highly de-veloped by the nomads, indicates a tradition of struggle and war- fare for conquest or for defense against transgressors which was carried out by groups large enough to have created a national spirit and a sense of tribal history.
ART, FOLKLORE, AND MUSIC: The Oral Art and Literature of the Kazakhs of Russian Central Asia. Thomas G. Winner Durham: Duke University Press, 1958. xiv, 269 pp