“Is that us?” – review on Nygmet Ibadildin’s play “Shakhmardan comes out of the Well”

A review by Almira Ismailova. Translated by Alyona Timofeyeva

The play “Shakhmardan comes out of the well” by Nygmet Ibadildin has sunk into my soul. This is a story about how sorcerers from the Soviet government, led by the Commissar and his faithful dog Karasart, came to plunder the Kazakh aul, while its sorcerers – old Atabek, his disciples Shakhmardan and Shakhmardan’s wife Korlan came out to fight them. The conflict is complicated by the fact that Karasart is a former student of Atabek. The weapons of those from aul – fireballs and optical illusions – are opposed to combat rifles and pistols. The play takes us back to 1928 during the collectivization of the Kazakh village.

Historical background

In 1924, Kazakhstan became the Kazakh SSR. It was not possible to manage nomads in conditions of constant migration of the population. Therefore, in 1928, the Soviet government decided to make the Kazakhs settled and accustomed to farming by organizing sovkhozes – large collective livestock farms. A sharp change in the social system from nomadic cattle breeding to a sedentary lifestyle led to famine and the death of cattle in the 1930s. Excesses on the ground, the desire to fulfill the “settlement plan” and harvesting grain and meat aggravated the situation. By 1932, people were already dying en masse from starvation; those who raised uprisings were mercilessly killed; some managed to migrate to China and Iran. This time in Kazakhstan people call as Asharshylyk (Holodomor). During the Holodomor, the population of the republic decreased by a third.

Only in my personal information bubble over the past few years have materialized three multi-genre stories about the 30s of the last century. A year ago it was a comedy (!) by Temirlan Shagrap about children, brother and sister, who escaped from the village on a camel and went to the city orphanage through the hungry steppe. At the Drama.Kz festival  – the only drama festival in Kazakhstan – I heard the story of Nygmet Ibadildin “Shakhmardan comes out of the well” about the collectivization of the village. And just recently I watched the ethno-horror “Kash” from Aisultan Seitov about the wandering of a father and son in the steppe and the battle with the chthon called hunger. Moreover, in 2017, a play by Olzhas Zhanaidarov called “Jute” about the early 30s of the XX century was staged at the Russian Drama Theater in Almaty.

And how many other projects have passed by. Apparently, a request was brewing, and now it has already formed to pronounce a long-suppressed topic. It seems that Kandy Kantar (economic protests that turned into political ones and led to the deaths of hundreds of people in January 2022) provoked the rejection of silence. And the fierce resistance of Ukraine prompted the post-Soviet states to think about defending the “self”. And Nygmet’s play captures very precisely how this very “self” was etched. At first, it was etched by a radical change in the nomadic way of life.

“Your time to roam is over”, Karasart says in the play. This phrase also hurts more because it comes from as if its own. Karasart was one of Atabek’s students. But that was before. And now he is playing for the Reds, expounding their ideology, completely trampling in himself belonging to “his own” by blood. This phrase can be read both as “your freedom is over” and as “we know what is best for you.” Such slogans in auls led to the fact that yurts were lined up in the streets, and cattle were closed in pens. Neither one nor the other led to anything good. Both cattle and people were dying. Sedentariness was planted among the people who did not understand it, did not know how to survive in these conditions. The very essence of the ethnonym “Kazakh” – a free person – was questioned. Free people remained only in self-designation.

The title of the play refers to the death of the poet and philosopher Shakarim. There are several stories of his death. One of them features a well. His body was thrown there after the murder in October 1931. Abzal Karasartov became the head of the group of the SPD (State Political Directorate – special service for monitoring “socialist legality”), who gave the order to shoot the poet. He was probably the prototype of Karasart from Nygmet’s play. For a very long time, even after Shakarim’s rehabilitation, Abzal Karasartov opposed the publications of the poet’s literary heritage. After Abzal’s death, his brother and grandson did it. They repeatedly threatened local editors that they would write up to Moscow. And many were afraid to publish. The psychology of fear of the owner is the central topic considered by Nygmet.

Shakarim Kudaiberdyuly

This theme worked perfectly in conjunction with the image of a dog in Turkic myths. There is an expression “a dog has a master, and a wolf has a tengri”. According to one interpretation of the translation, the wolf does not obey anyone, only the supreme pagan deity Tengri, and the dog is tamed by man. At the beginning of the second act, Karasart switches to barking and a demon takes possession of him. The commissioner at this moment covers Karasart with a burka (a man’s cape). He, minting words, drives a Soviet conspiracy into Karasart’s head. Karasart is now the demon dog of the revolution. And Karasart is not the only one, the Reds want to make a whole nation submissive dogs. But the mirage in the form of a heavenly strongman gives hope that the heroes will survive.

«..Don’t be afraid, Aksakal, these are not poisoned blankets like in the American United States.

You probably don’t know where it is?

They are already covered with dust in their steppe.


As we remember from a well-known myth, Medea sent a poisoned garment to a rival. But Nygmet recalls a closer story – the history of the relationship between Europeans and native Americans. There is a story that the British military poisoned the blankets of the Indians and brought smallpox to the Indians’ environment. The Red Army soldiers give sweets to women and children. Sweets are not poisoned by anything, but their very appearance already affects like poisoned blankets. The Red Army men put the culture of the nomadic people below their own. They see themselves as educators and missionaries. Here Nygmet sets another frame for reflection – the relationship between colonized and colonizers.

A brief summary from Olzhas Zhanaidarov, the head of Drama.kz festival, on its website: “Postmodern action about the battle of the aul inhabitants with the Red Army.” And indeed, Nygmet’s play fully reflects the traditions of postmodernism: mythology, folk conspiracies, Kazakh aitys (oral song improvisational poetry like a rap battle), rap, Facebook sofa sacks, and some kind of online folklore are intertwined in it.

An attractive feature of the play is its fullness of various sounds, musicality, and rhythmicity. Potential directors can take excellent material to make a full-fledged ethno-opera or aitys out of the play. Witchcraft is stated in the play as a common way of interacting with reality. It is presented as a confrontation between the Soviet and non-Soviet, new and old. But from the very beginning, something in this world is strangely shifting. The commissar dances in dhikr, although dhikr is the practice of Sufis. And the same Commissar, as if appropriating the power obtained from someone else’s knowledge, shoots at the dombra.

“The commissar pulls out a pistol and shoots at Atabek’s dombyra (national string instrument). The dombra splits with a plaintive sound. Atabek stops. He looks at the Commissioner in surprise. Everyone stops at this long sound.”

This scene and this sound refers to Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” and the famous sounds of a broken string and the knock of an axe on wood. By analogy, in Nygmet’s play, the sound of a split dombra also symbolizes the death of the old world. At the same time, there is also the sound of a pistol shot. The pistol becomes a symbol of militarism in the play. Dombra versus pistol, art versus weapon. Dombra is splitting. The author tries to convey a bitter thought about the fragility of the steppe civilization. Karasart turns from a dog, a slave into a kind of antihero. 

“There is a song performed by Karasart to the tune of the song “I Shot The Sheriff“,”Karasart includes the essence of the Commissioner. His brains are poisoned by propaganda, he craves war, blood and power. We see how power distorts, how his thoughts get confused in his head.

Shamans-bucks were responsible for the manifestations of magic and communication with spirits among the nomads. Most often, the bucks came to treat mental and physical illnesses or to find out where the horse thieves had stolen cattle. In the play, Atabek acts not so much as a shaman, but as a real specially exaggerated wizard. He throws burning balls and flies. Atabek is a combination of Harry Potter and the characters of Mithun Chakraborty. Atabek, followed by Shahmardan, possesses some deep knowledge. Nygmet slightly reduces the pathos of the “aksakal” value system (a value system implying the unshakable authority of the elder) and at the same time connects viewers with the help of mass culture characters. This combination helps to avoid excessive moralizing.

Shahmardan is the protagonist of the story. He, like Karasart, studied in the city and doubts that their fireballs will be able to resist rifles so much. He respects the state, but he does not intend to sell for pennies. At the same time, Shakhmardan is entangled in typical stereotypes. He believes that Moscow does not know about the lawlessness that Red Army soldiers are doing in villages. The real awakening of Shahmardan begins after the murder of Atabek. Nygmet leaves the murder of Shakhmardan behind the scenes, but we see him in the well, talking to the murdered Atabek. At this moment, the worlds in the play – the dead and the living – are mixed. Shahmardan rises from the dead, engages in battle with Karasart and falls again, but does not die. Shahmardan floats in an endless circle of death, as if doomed to torment Karasart’s liver forever. He is the ghost of the revolution.

But who is she? “But you have to live and die like a human being,” says Korlan to Karasart’s proposal to marry him and start a new life. Korlan, unlike Karasart, adheres to the old way of life and remembers traditions. She must bury her husband, mourn for a year, give as – all these are ritual actions of the traditional way. These traditions are about trusting what has been tested by many generations, what has never failed. These are rituals of creation. They did not lead to famine, they did not destroy. Living and dying is a holistic process. A woman, as a giver of life, knows that by disrupting this process, everything can be destroyed. But it’s too late, the mechanism is running.

“Everyone shies away from the girl, Karasart swings a kamcha (traditional whip) at her, but she turns the cradle over with a laugh and runs away. There is no one in the cradle. Karasart shoots the girl several times, everyone starts shooting at her, gets hit, but she runs on laughing.”

For me, this is the most powerful and truly terrific scene in the play. The appearance of the image of a ghost child comes from ancient times. Many people had a belief in children who could destroy an entire village. Often these were children who, due to lack of food, were killed in infancy (the theme of hunger, which is not shown in the play, but is about to begin in the steppe). The Eskimos called this spirit angyak, the Swedes – utburd. The Eskimos filled the baby’s mouth with snow and carried it away from the dwelling. Utburds are usually children stuffed into a stocking and buried alive. It is also appropriate to recall the German folk tale “Hansel and Gretel” with a similar canvas. In the fairy tale, the father takes the children to the forest to get rid of them.

At the same time, the ghost girl is almost a woman. And female images in Turkic mythology are almost all negative (Albast, Zhalmauyz, Zheztyrnak). The motif of the besik (cradle) as a symbol of life is mixed with all this. The cradle with its device resembles the location of the baby in the womb. Besik seems to be helping the baby to survive the transition from being inside to being outside. Thus, the half-woman who turned over the cradle becomes the embodiment of ancient spirits. The spirits are angry, awakened by a force that knows nothing about them. Karasart, who has forgotten the magic of Atabek, is like an empty cradle. He can’t control spirits, so his bullets are ineffective, as is his magic.

It is worth noting that in the play the author quite clearly marks the boundaries of the conflict. He divides the heroes into supporters and opponents of the revolution, drives the heroes into close roles of good and bad. It is also interesting to consider the teaching and image of Atabek from the point of view of the postulates of Sufism. How, according to this canon, would the development of his two disciples – Karasart and Shakhmardan go? How does Korlan exist as a follower of the doctrine? It would be interesting to look at this period from the perspective of a decolonial choice.

Finally, the Red Army choir sings the final song. And it has the last line “Is that us” (“Мы ли мы”) with a dot at the end. It may be that this is such an ironic adjustment to the now fashionable agenda for the search for self-identity. The play reminds me of such a kurak korpe (a kind of antique blanket sewn from scraps of multicolored fabric). Nygmet has woven an eclectic picture that tells us so subtly about ourselves. Today, the Commissar seems to be winking at us from under the burka with a smirk of the Elbasy (self-title of the first president Nursultan Nazarbayev – “the head of nation”): “Hey there, how are you doing in Zhana Kazakhstan?” (Zhana Kazakhstan is the new political course of President Tokayev, announced after the Bloody January).

Almira Ismailova is a playwright, curator of the festival of modern Kazakh drama “Drama.KZ» 2019/2020. She studied at the Yekaterinburg State Theater Institute, majoring in Literary Creativity (workshop of N. Kolyada). She graduated from the courses of theater and film drama of the Open Literary School of Almaty (OLSHA), the course “Fundamentals of Film Drama” at the Kazakh National Academy named after T. K. Zhurgenov, the laboratory of Modern Drama of Olzhas Zhanaydarov. Long-lister of the drama festival “Nim-2018”. Participant of the Central Asian Laboratory of Screenwriting (CASL), implemented by the UNESCO Cluster Office in Almaty as part of the project “Strengthening the film Industry in Central Asia”). Almira also is a director currently working on her debut documentary “Burning land”. She is a member of the QazDoc documentary filmmakers’ association.

Nygmet Ibadildin was born and lives in Kazakhstan. He studied at the Open Literary School in Almaty (drama and poetry seminars). The script of the author’s cartoon was selected at the Almaty Film Festival. He has published as a journalist and as a researcher in various Kazakhstani publications. Academic articles and chapters have been published in Kazakhstan and abroad. Finalist of the modern drama festival “Drama.KZ»

The Spirit of Magic. Review on Nuraina Satpayeva’s “Alka’s Silver Tamga by Irina Gumyrkina

When I was a child, I was fond of one book about a mischievous little girl who always was involved to incredible incidents. It was “Pippi Longstocking” by Astrid Lindgren. Kind and funny, it attracted like a magnet, I wanted to read this book again and again (I would probably re-read it with great pleasure even now). Recently, a children’s book by Kazakhstani prose writer and playwright Nuraina Satpayeva, “Alka’s Silver Tamga”, was published in Almaty. When I closed the last page, suddenly remembering the long-forgotten Pippi, I realized that if the book about Alka existed in my childhood, it would definitely be my favorite. Well, after Astrid Lindgred’s book, of course.

In fact, little Alka, who lives in Kazakhstan on the coast of the Caspian Sea, has nothing in common with the little girl from the small Swedish town. The eight-year-old Alka, unlike the nine-year-old Pippi, has a family: mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, uncles, a cousin, while Astrid Lindgren’s character lived alone, because her mother was an angel and her father – a traveling sailor. But it was the sincere childlike kindness and magic in Nuraina Satpayeva’s short stories that reminded me of the Swedish writer’s wonderful story.

A boy’s life is always full of adventures. Especially if he lives on the very shore of the Caspian Sea. But a real magic happened to Alka from Aktau – now he understands the language of animals and birds!

from the book’s cover

Alka, who received a silver tamga as a gift from his grandfather, suddenly discovers that he understands the language of animals and birds. And not only understands, but also can talk to them. He begins to use this gift to help them. He rescues a baby seal from the nets and even finds the courage to beat braggart Timka, protecting his new friend; he saves a caracal that is used to living in the wild, not in a cramped apartment among people; a pelican that swallowed his glasses and almost died of starvation; a cheetah caught in a poachers’ trap; a wolf that fell into a pit; a turtle that fell from the sky and cracked its shell on the rocks.

“My son always gets involved into weird experiences, father complained. “He tries to rescue everyone and everything.”

“You better be happy he’s growing up to be a kind young man. He could as well play computer games all day long,” grandmother tried to calm him down.

Pippi, like Alka, also has a special gift: she is incredibly strong, and she uses her strength to protect the weak ones. But at the same time, due to her childish emancipation, she is always caught up in some stories. And so does Alka: he feeds his flamingo with dried apricots and the bird ends up getting sick; or he sneaks a ride on his grandfather’s pony, but the horse takes him to the steppe and Alka falls there and scratches his knees; or he goes on an “expedition” with his cousin, climbs the cliff and finds himself there without water and a chance to go down safely. But in these stories, the good that has been done always comes back: Alka helps the animals and the animals help Alka in return. That is, nature is generous and kind when a person treats it with respect. This is one of the main messages of the stories which has its roots in antiquity, when man and nature were closely intertwined (in fact, they still are, we just have forgot about it). Ancient people were completely dependent on their environment, deifying natural phenomena, vegetation, and animals. Hence the myths and legends of different ethnicities exist.

“The Blue Sky (Tengri) sent me to save your people from eternal oblivion; here I am, in the guise of a wolf, to help you, a bleeding little one. Now, if you want, I will become your wife…”

The wolf gave birth to ten sons from him. Their leader was Ashina, which in Mongolian means “noble wolf”. He is also considered the ancestor of the Ashina clan, which ruled the ancient Turks and Turkic nomadic empires. And each of the sons of the wolf became an ancestor of a separate Turkic people. According to the legend the ancestor wolf had a white withers. Hence the name of the wolf cub in Nuraina Satpayeva’s book  – White-Paw, and his mother – the she-wolf Aktore (literally means “white leader”).

“I can sense the silver tamga on you and I know you speak my language. You must be a son of the Tore tribe, the tribe of The Great She-Wolf”.

“Am I? Does it mean I have the wolf blood running through my veins?” Alka wondered.

“Sure! Look at your two buns on your head! Just like us, only we have ears. If there is no blood in you, how would you understand the animal so well?” the she-wolf grinned.

“I thought it was the power of the silver tamga…” Alka couldn’t believe his ears.

“That’s true, you do own The Great She-Wolf engraved tamga. But it is not the only source of your gift,” Aktore growled.

Of course, it’s not about the silver tamga. After all, magic is not about having conversations with animals, but about understanding nature without words, like our forefathers.

If Astrid Lindgren’s countries, animals, and events in the book exist because her little character is a great storyteller, then the animals, birds, and reptiles in Nuraina Satpayeva’s book are not accidental. The author tells about the inhabitants of the Ustyurt Plateau in western Kazakhstan. Including rare, endangered, endangered, included in the Red Book – those that need to be protected and preserved as a species. That’s what Alka does, in fact.

One of the main functions of children’s literature is not only educational, but also behavioral. That is why in fairy tales love and good always triumph over evil. However, boring stories devoid of humor, simplicity and mischief will hardly hold child’s attention. And if the book does not contain illustrations, at which one may look and compare one’s own imaginary looks of heroes with the depicted ones, – it sunk. Nuraina Satpayeva’s book is written in simple and understandable language and tells about the wildlife of Kazakhstan, gives a clear idea of what is good and what is bad, and is supplemented with high-quality illustrations that attract attention. But the main feature of the book is that it is bilingual – in Russian and Kazakh, with a parallel page-by-page translation. Although there is a disadvantage to this concept. This parallelism somewhat disturbs the usual reading and perception, when you automatically move your eyes from page to page, but then bump into text in another language and stumble, because you have to turn the page to continue reading. However, by the middle of the book you forget about it. But this bilingual approach gives equal access to the book for both Kazakh- and Russian-speaking audiences.  And a book of favorite stories is also an ideal aid in learning the language.

The magic that happens in children’s books is always kind, bright, and reassuring. In the last chapter, Alka asks Santa Claus to bring back his uncle who is drifting on a ship in the Caspian Sea,while Pippi and her friends, Tommy and Anika, swallow “pills” for a symbolic Christmas so that they never become adults. In “Alka”, the miracle happens literally: the uncle returns by the time the chimes strike; in “Pippi,” the children remain children. The story ends ideally to preserve the spirit of magic. And in Nuraina Satpayeva’s collection of stories, the ending also leaves a sense of hope for a magical continuation of fascinating stories. Even for adults.

Translated by Valeria Krutova, edited by Alyona Timofeyeva

Nuraina Satpayeva is a novelist, playwright. Graduated from the Kazakh Technical University with a degree in system engineering. Graduate of the Open Literary School of Almaty. Participant of the Young writers Forum in Lipki, the SEIP Foundation’s Forum of Children’s Writers, Drama.kz laboratory. Laureate of the drama competition “Litodrama”, finalist of the drama competition “Big Remark”, semi-finalist of the Voloshinsky Festival, drama competitions “Lyubimovka”, “Little Remark”, “Badenweiler”, “The author on stage”. Has been published in the magazines “Neva”, Literranova, in the “AST” publishing house collection of short stories.

Irina Gumyrkina is a poet, journalist, editor. Graduate of the Open Literary School of Almaty at poetry and literary criticism seminars. Poems were published in “Floating Bridge”, “Prostor”, “Etazhi”, “Zvezda”, “Periscope”, “Druzhba narodov”, “Younost”, “Formaslov”, “Khreshchatyk” magazines, in “45th parallel” and “Literary Alma-Ata” almanacs , on the “Polutona” website. Editor-in-chief of the Dactyl magazine.

Bristol Translates Literary Translation Summer School – All online

Translation can sometimes be a lonely endeavour, especially when you work for months on end on a long and difficult literary text. Input from peers as well as established translators may be needed to get your spirits up again and infuse your work with brilliant, new ideas.

Bristol Translates is an online summer school where language lovers work together exploring literary translation. This year’s event will take place from 3 to 7 July, comprising three days of workshops (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) from nine languages into English or, alternatively, in a multilingual group.

The other two days are filled with panel discussions and workshops on industry trends, job readiness and the opportunities available around different literary genres (fiction and non-fiction). These include sessions on

  • how to pitch to publishers,
  • how to approach literary journals and magazines,
  • how to negotiate contracts,
  • how to translate for the stage,
  • translator activism,
  • queer translation,
  • translation at war.

Bristol Translates offers a very extensive programme, and participants from previous years have lauded it as a launchpad of their careers.

The event is led by Ros Schwartz and Holly Langstaff. Tutors include well-known translators from nine languages into English, and the roll call of guest speakers and panellists is truly impressive.

Information on eligibility as well as the application form are available on the Bristol Translates website.

Applicants who apply before 28 February can also apply for a full bursary.

There is no formal application deadline – it is first come, first served, and workshops will fill up.

For more information see: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/sml/translation-studies/bristol-translates/

If you have any questions please email: bristol-translates@bristol.ac.uk

Valeria Krutova’s Drunken Fridays – Review by Alexander Mendybayev

When does she write? Probably on drunk Fridays, when the most hidden skeletons burst out of our closets. «Time doesn’t teach» is a collection of eight short stories by Krutova. The same mysterious Skeletons are opening the collection. It is the character’s confession of the deeds that linger behind her, rattling her knuckles through the stuffy alleys of fate. Kittens drowned by her grandfather are a rebuke to the infirmity of inaction. And the character herself is like a helpless kitten. She can only watch, tacitly acquiescing to her grandfather’s ferocious truth. She is also powerless. Her only advantage over the blind kittens is her sight. Though this advantage is rather a punishment. Being able to see, but to do nothing. “And in the morning he will pour out dead water” – how mundanely and terrifyingly Krutova writes about it. Two parallel worlds. Tragedy for one is the routine of centuries of life for the other. And the boundless chasm in two generations.

Sweetie. A confession of pure and tender sisterly love. Delayed one. Unheard one. And therefore, impossibly sincere. “A child with eyes as blue as a dream” – the author, or maybe the main character vividly describes her «Sweetie». She was a child and still is a child. Who loved the whole world, tried to understand it. In the result – two husbands; one caressing the asses of colleagues with sweaty hands. The other one is fiddling on his smartphone screen with his sweaty fingers, unable to return from his endless and meaningless virtual war. And she is looking for caps for his finger and talcum powder to make it easier to play. And even in the hospital, Sweetie convinces everyone that doctors are not beasts, not fools. They get tired, they make mistakes, and sometimes they do stupid things. And Sweetie’s life is just another mistake, or maybe a stupid thing. No big deal. She would have been justified and forgiven if she had lived.

Cracks is the story of the first, genuine first love. With drunken kisses with lips smeared in salted fish. And with eyes of broken caramel’s color. Why broken? Probably because for one this love is something to remember, and for the other – a fractured fate, where everything that is behind is clear, but what is ahead is scary.

Maybility. And again, about love. Unrequited one. More precisely, unripe one. Yura and Sonya are ordinary people, even just boring names. And their endless friendship is boring to black in the face, to anger. Their sitting on the pipes, splashing in the dacha pool, casually rubbing bodies. And even when Yura kisses Sonya on the stomach, a noisy crowd of friends that are so hated in these moments, surrounds them with a tight ring. And in general – Sonya remembers some Vanya, and Yura allows her to talk about this Vanya and the study when it is high time to kiss. Sonia would better be quiet, and Yura would better drag his Sonia away from the drunken crowd, and Sonia would sit on Yura, not the pipes … But “someone said something”, “someone added details”, and “someone finished the rest”. And that was it. Even the damned, so annoying to both, their friendzone is ruined. They will meet when Sonya is in the hospital. And the standard, mediocre and guaranteedly unloved husband – so gray that Krutova could not even find a nickname for him – would take her home. And Yura will go to Israel. Probably, because it is warm there. And because it is irrevocably late.

AU. Another drama of closest people who are strangers to each other. The father is an alcoholic intellectual. The mother is a manicurist.  What could these people have in common? Only Tenia, the daughter with the strange name and gray eyes. No one needs Tenia. Only her father’s friend, surprisingly a professor, needs her. It happens that way. It is common for alcoholic intellectuals to have outlandish friends. And the professor needs the same thing as the locksmith. Human things are not alien to him at all. He grabs Tenia by the ass, while her father does not oppose, only scolds his daughter for spilling the tea in fright. As a gray mouse the girl yurts into the workshop, where the white-bearded master teaches her jewelry craft. There Tenia will find peace. And it’s unlikely she’ll make it to the surface. Valeria Krutova’s work is an endless series of social experiments on destinies, souls, passions and vices. She has no random characters. Extraordinary observation, thoroughness in details, no banality of denouements and uncompromising, sometimes ruthless frankness – that’s Krutova.

Edited by Alyona Timofeyeva

Valeria Krutova was born in 1988. Novelist, children’s writer. She is a regular contributor to the literary magazines “Druzhba Narodov”, “Yunost”. She has been published in literary magazines “Autograph”, “Literratura”, “Formaslov”, “Dactyl”. Children’s stories from the collection “FtaroiBe” were read by actors in the project “From Five to No End”, prepared by the MDT-theatre Europe. FIKSHN35 Literary Award Long List (2020). Finalist for the Danko Literary Prize (2021). Coordinator of the first writer’s residency in Central Asia “Almaty Writing Residency”.

Alexander Mendybayev was born in 1982 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Graduated from the Kazakh State Law Academy, majoring in International Law. Since 2015 he has been a student of the Open Literary School of Almaty named after Olga Markova. He has been published in Neva, Volga, Literary Alma-Ata, Esquire Kazakhstan, Za-Za, Dactyl magazines. He co-wrote the script for “The Quarters” story which was filmed by Qara Production and will be released in 2023.

Dramaturgy in Manshuk Kali’s Short Story “Instead of a Thousand Words”

Review by Alina Gatina. Translated by Alyona Timofeyeva

The story with the inconspicuous title “Instead of a thousand words” is a wonderful example of ultra–short prose written by the method: “author” – “reader-co-author”. It shows there is no shortage of plots because reality is overflowing with them, the only important thing is to choose the right scenery, set the lights and turn on the microphones.

In a noisy pizzeria light falls on a table by the window where a father and son are sitting. Life is happening between them. Everyday life is a sufficient source of drama in literature if the writer uses the possibilities of drama, as Manshuk Kali does. The task of dramaturgy is to expose the conflict.

There is a place for drama here – a pizzeria – and the visitors are teenagers and a young couple in love. They make noise and interfere with the main dialogue. The father still says what he came to tell his son, but the son can isolate himself from his father’s explanations, distracting himself from visitors and uttering things that are normal in a pizzeria.

– I want to tell you how everything happened.

– I’m hungry, <…> can I eat first? I just came from school.


… I don’t drink anymore! I go to work, stay there until night. Sometimes I even forget to eat.

– Can I have dessert? <…>

Another important point that creates the drama is that the author does not provide any backstory – the the reader learns about what happened only from the characters’ words. This method is the best gift to the reader. It will help to complete the unwritten, relying on the written.

“Instead of a Thousand Words” is written in the first person – such a narrative is characterized by relative freedom, however, and here the author does not forget about drama – the main character (the son) does not tell the reader anything about himself – his silence, abstract phrases, and most importantly actions tell more about the relationship with his father than if he explained them directly.

<…> – I looked at the photos the other day. Beautiful photos. And I thought: we are no worse than others. Maybe not better, but not worse as well! By the way, I don’t drink now. Do you think Mom will forgive me?

I shrugged, stubbornly not looking up. He drained the last sip of water from his glass. Then he asked:

— Does she know that you’re with me?

— Yes, – I put down the empty cup and got up. — I have a lot of homework.

— Fine. Tell your mother I don’t drink anymore, okay?

Turning my back to him, I took my backpack off the hanger.

— Okay.

—Wait, – he said, and handed me a box of Raffaello. — Can you give this to her?

The “laconic” author (here: “laconic” hero) is a godsend for the reader and an indicator of prose mastery.

Sometimes there are stories in which the author writes the exposition in detail. The story “Instead of a thousand words” perfectly illustrates why this is not necessary. Reading it leaves a cloying taste of raffaello sweets mixed with pineapple in the mouth. One cannot help but feel bitter about the fact it is so hard to understand each other, and want to think about how everything was, how everything could be, and how everything will be, but above all, joy there are authors who write stories like this.

I recommend reading it!

Manshuk Kali is a graduate of Open Literature School of Almaty (prose seminar), a student of the Moscow playwright Olzhas Zhanaydarov. Finalist of “Drama.KZ 2019” festival. Published in the almanac “Literary Alma-Ata”, in the “Tamyr” and “Druzhba Narodov” literary magazines.

Alina Gatina is a novelist, literary editor. Graduated from the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow, Department of Prose. Laureate of the First President of Kazakhstan Foundation’s literary prize “Altyn Tobylgy”.

Nabijon Boqiy: “Slaves will Create a Servant Literature”

Dear readers! We would like to introduce you to a wonderful novelist and short story writer from Uzbekistan, Nabijon Boqiy. Born in 1956 in the Baghdad District of Fergana region, he is one of the leading contemporary authors of Uzbekistan.  His novel about the recent hard times of the Uzbek people during the dictatorship is available in English. His two novels have been published in Turkish. Nabijon Boqiy spent months in the KGB archives in search of historic materials for his novels.  His published books include Qatlnoma (A Story of execution, dedicated to the sad fate of the great Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy); Gulzamira; Letters to Chingiz Efendi; and The Will of Anwar Pasha.  Nabijon Boqiy translated works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Chingiz Aitmatov, Mukhtor Shakhanov and Georgiy Pryakhin into Uzbek.  He is the holder of the Shuhrat medal and the winner of the ‘Best Historic Book’ award.   

In the interview below, Uzbek poet A’zam Obid and writer Nabijon Boqiy talk about the current state of creative writing in Uzbekistan, the life of a writer, and what it means to be a writer in this Central Asian country.

A’zam Obid: Hello, brother Nabijon! Thank you so much for agreeing to answer my questions!

It seems to me that a good writer or poet is not only a person who writes a beautiful work of art, but also a person who regularly reacts to events in his/her society on various platforms (for example, on social networks).  A writer must be a defender of human rights, an opponent of an unjust system, a humble person as well as a strong person who lives with conflict. In fact, I am not a person who describes or evaluates poets or writers, dividing them into ‘mediocre’, ‘good’ or ‘great’ artists. A writer or a poet, who is unpopular or shallow, sometimes seems to me to be a very strong person. In general, I would like to ask you how important strength is for a creative person. Who is the real Uzbek writer today? Can you describe him or her?

NABIJON BOQIY: I think now in Uzbekistan the one who describes himself as ‘a true Uzbek writer’ is a hypocrite. One type of writers are those who hang around the presidential administration (Devon) until they beautify their own houses and the cemeteries where they could be buried. The other type (such writers are too many) are those who, even if they could not get to Devon, they would take themselves to the managers from Devon and work with them.  The most interesting thing is that both groups think that they serve the nation, always saying “My people!” and “My country!”  However, their ultimate goal is that they reach the level when the government would feed them and they would be closer to the palace. I told an interesting story about them in my novel called The Diary of Yurtmenboshi. In 2010, I signed a contract with Ozodlik Radio (RFRL), and the main part of the novel was published on its website.  My teacher, famous Uzbek writer Erkin A’zam, who was one of the first readers of that novel said: “This novel of Nabijon brightens the face of Uzbek writers, no matter when he publishes it: during his life or after his death. The person who reads this work, fortunately, will say that representatives of Uzbek literature are not only engaged in praise and that they also wrote the bitter truth!” Writers and poets such as Temur Pulatov, Gulchehra Nurullaeva, Miraziz A’zam, Asqar Haydar, Nurulla Oston, Ibrahim Haqqul, Orozboy Abdurahmanov also liked this novel.

Continue reading “Nabijon Boqiy: “Slaves will Create a Servant Literature””

Independent Existence: Davra Collective Poetry Evening

Almaty is vibrant even if you don’t know where to look for cultural events, but it’s even more impressive if you do know where to look. Last weekend, the Central Asian research group Davra Collective hosted a contemporary poetry reading at Dom 36, a social-cultural space in the city. The poetry evening was specifically dedicated to Kazakh and Uzbek young poets, and it got me thinking about the very nature of poetry outside of the existing power structures in local literature.

Poetry evenings in Almaty are not a rare occurrence on their own, but most of them are handled by OLSHA (Open Literary School of Almaty). This results in more or less the same performers (or lecturers, depending on the format) being represented. Most of these people are writers in their forties, with strong and explicit ties to Russia. This often alienates individuals like myself and many more – Asian (and otherwise non-white), queer authors. Having evenings like the one hosted by Davra shows what the alternative might look like.

Tillaniso Nuryog’di was the performer of the night who read poetry in Uzbek. Her poetry is an examination of the way the personal relates to the political in the contemporary Uzbek society. Nuryog’di’s poetry features a lot of action verbs, an invitation to participate directly in the life of the country. In many ways, it reflects the modern attitudes in the country. “Those who say hope // Those who say moral // Make me laugh. // Every kind of weakness // Every kind of violence // […] Looks like going to the toilet.” she writes. Her other works were a personal commentary about womanhood in a culture that has strong ideas about shame and appropriate behavior for a woman. “[…] my manners were not suitable for them. // I learn and am tired a lot. // I am a perfect woman. // I changed the way I walk // But anyway, I am the second one” she writes, “A woman throughout all her life searched for the true and false. // World is divided into hierarchy, // And those who knew became dominant // Over those who did not. // But those who knew knew what?”

The Kazakh poets, including myself, were represented by the Jalanash poetry collective. This group of talented individuals has been covered by Alma Review before and it is as strong as ever after its rebranding. Jalanash poetry now focuses not only on LGBTQ+ representation but also on decolonizing contemporary Kazakhstani poetry, in all the ways that are relevant to its participants. One of the poets of the night, for example, presented a poem that talked about Russia’s predatory political practices while using the metaphor of the Rubik’s Cube. Other poets talked about love, including queer love, and the complexity of navigating it in my big city, especially while being so young. One of the performers was MEREY, a poetess and a singer-songwriter who recently saw major mainstream success with her song Betperde. I was second to last to read my poem, and my work was a homage to one of Bianca Phipps’ poems.

The Q&A session after the readings was arguably as engaging as the performances themselves. One guest in the audience has lived in Uzbekistan for some time and she took great interest in Nuryog’di’s work. The exchange was later translated into Kazakh; the same thing followed all the questions asked in English and the discussion about the nature of modernism that bloomed as a result. Nobody in the audience asked for an interpretation into Russian. Moments like these really bring forth the understanding that Central Asian culture exists independently from contemporary Russian culture, and therefore its forceful interference is not necessary. While the whole event lasted slightly under an hour and a half, it is nights like these that bring us as a community forward.

The Danish girl: how a journalist from northern Europe wrote a book about Almaty, part 2

In this part Mia shares her experience in Kazakhstan as a foreigner

Let’s talk a little about you. What does it mean for you to be a foreigner in Kazakhstan?

I have never encountered any negativity on being a foreigner. But strange situations sometimes happen. For example, when I’m talking to my son in Danish on the playground, someone will always come up and ask – where are you from? And when you say that you are from Denmark, people suddenly become interested in your whole life – how, from where, why? Sometimes it’s very tiring. But in general, this is a pleasant attention – there are much fewer foreigners in Almaty than, for example, in Astana, so people are curious.

Which part of Kazakh culture is the most pleasant for you?

This is perhaps the main difference – alas! – from my native culture. Everyone here is very hospitable, open, ready to help in any situation. In Denmark, people are closed, you can’t just come up and talk to someone – it takes years to establish close ties. Here you never feel lonely – there is always someone who will offer you a cup of tea. We have a joke in our family about this. My husband is Kazakh, and when we visit his parents, we always pass through dastarkhan (rich table). We call it “Kazakh food torture”. You overeat, but you understand that there is such love behind the desire to feed!

And what part is the most unacceptable?

I don’t like some post-Soviet things, but this applies not only to Kazakhstan. For example, people do not care about their city: they litter, if something is broken, they leave it, because it is not their responsibility. And it saddens me because people have to take care of their home.

Read more: The Danish girl: how a journalist from northern Europe wrote a book about Almaty, part 2

And how did your loved ones react when you said that you were marrying a Kazakh?

No one was surprised. I already have an international family. My sister and mom are married to Turks, and my dad was married to a Kazakhstani woman. Therefore, my half-brother has a mixture of Uzbek, Tatar, Russian and Danish blood – in a word, a typical Almaty (laughs). That’s why no one expected me to marry a Dane. And my friends from Denmark are interested in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, so they were not shocked either – like “KazakhSTAN? Oh my God!”. In this regard, I was very lucky.

Although we are talking in English now, you speak Russian perfectly. What about Kazakh?

I understand many things, but I don’t say them. Grammar is too complicated for me. But I know the most basic words – rakmet (thank you), salemetsiz be? (greeting), something else. I try to use them in everyday life – in the store, for example. But I really want to know more.

Do you speak Danish and Russian at home?

My husband and I communicate in English. But our son speaks Russian and Danish, but I think he understands English quite well. Although we live in Kazakhstan, it is very important for me to speak Danish with my child – after all, it is my native language. While I’m afraid to teach him Russian – cause what if I teach something with a mistake? Therefore, my husband teaches him.

Are Danes very different from Kazakhs?

They are completely different. There are universal values, but in general the difference is very noticeable. If we lived in Denmark as a Danish-Kazakh family, we would need to adjust, just like here. My culture is very individualistic, and here everything is aimed at the family. And a banal example: Denmark was a colonizer, and Kazakhstan was a colony, this also affects. It’s hard to compare.

Thanks for the conversation, Mia! I really hope to see your book on the counter soon.

Mia Tarp Nurmagambetova is Danish, but came to Almaty in 2000, and has since lived in the city periodically. She has two university degrees in Russian studies and has been doing postgraduate research about Kazakhstan for several years. Besides Kazakhstan, she has lived and worked in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Australia, Russia and Czech Republic, and spent a lot of time travelling the world. For the last four years she’s been based permanently in Almaty with her Kazakh husband Dias and their kids. Besides being a writer, Mia has worked as a journalist and with human and civil rights. Her debut novel, Frequency, which takes place in Almaty, came out in February 2022 in English. The Russian version Частота will be out soon. 

The Danish girl: how a journalist from northern Europe wrote a book about Almaty, part 1

When foreigners write about Kazakhstan, it always causes some jealousy. But the Danish writer Mia Tarp Nurmagambetova is an exception. Tweny two years ago, life connected her with our country, gave her a family and inspiration here. Mia has written a book about Almaty, which will soon appear on the shelves under the title “Frequency”. In this interview writer shared with us about what Kazakhstan means to her and what it is like to be a foreigner in the country.

How did you end up in Kazakhstan?

I was born in Denmark and lived there until I was 12. We lived in a small town by the sea, so for me the smell of childhood is the smell of fish. When I turned 13, we moved to Almaty. My father worked in the oil sector, and he was offered a job here. It was 2000, the industry was just developing, so I was not the only foreigner. I studied in an international school, and many of my classmates were also non-local.

I lived in Almaty for a year. But then my parents divorced and I returned to Denmark. However, my father continued to work here, and I often visited him. I was just an ordinary Scandinavian girl when I first arrived. And living here has become a culture shock for me – in the best sense.

After school, I decided to study Russian at the university. It was the only opportunity to get closer to the region – after all, it is unrealistic to learn Kazakh in Denmark. I really wanted to return to Kazakhstan. But my father had already left at that time and I didn’t know how to get a visa. And suddenly I found an internship in Russia. And from there by train I got to Kazakhstan again, and this trip changed my life. I’ve been finding ways to come back all the time – so much comfort I feel here. I have lived in different countries: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, studied in Australia, but Almaty has always remained the center of my world.

I have been living here for four years permanently with my husband, but previously lived here also for longer periods.

Read more: The Danish girl: how a journalist from northern Europe wrote a book about Almaty, part 1

How did you start writing?

My story is so much cliché (laughs). I was one of those kids who didn’t look up from books. And I dreamed of becoming a writer. It seemed to me that this is the most powerful force – to create pictures in people’s minds. I didn’t study it anywhere on purpose, I just loved to write and read. I have always considered myself to be a creative person. As an adult, I went to Australia to write my doctoral thesis on Kazakhstan. Besides, I worked as a journalist, so I wrote a lot. And in 2015 I started writing for myself. I had a severe crisis and started a diary with the hope of feeling better. And at some point I caught myself making up stories. I took real events as a basis and reworked them. Moreover, I didn’t write in the first person – always in the third. It seemed strange to me that I was distorting reality, but it was a great therapy, because you see everything from the outside. I wrote every day and got good at it.

And what are the results?

I wrote my first book while living in Bishkek. I was chatting on the phone, we were discussing Bowlers (a coffee chain in Almaty) and everything that happens there. And suddenly I said out loud – hey, it’s like a book! And realized that I have to write about it. For three weeks I was creating only with breaks for the ordinary work, and without any plan I wrote 70 percent of the book. But finishing it took quite a while: I finally moved to Kazakhstan, started a relationship, gave birth to a child. However, I did not stop writing – it’s like a scratch that you touch a little – and it starts bleeding!

Now I have one finished book and one is in development. And recently I started a book in Danish – a big novel about a Dane who discovers that he has a stepsister in Kazakhstan. This is a story about Soviet and Danish spies, as well as about family vicissitudes.

Mia Hansen

In a nutshell – what is your Almaty book about?

It won’t take long anyway – the book is small, you can read it in a couple of hours. It is about seven Almaty residents who are part of the city, but at the same time they are absolutely independent people. Each of them goes through difficult times, but the city brings them together and helps them overcome difficulties. The city itself is a character on par with people. It is different: sometimes bright and cheerful, sometimes gray and disgusting. The book is somewhat philosophical – about how each of us sees life.

And what path will the book take next?

I couldn’t wait for the Russian version of the book to be released. I was very lucky that my friends recommended me to contact Anton Platonov and Yuri Serebryansky. Anton headed the translation, and Yuri edited.

I was thinking of releasing the book in Denmark, but I’m not sure that it will take root. There is no specific connection with the country, so Danish publishers are unlikely to be interested. I translated the book into Danish and printed 50 copies, but they didn’t sell. Interested people read in English. Therefore, if somewhere the book should be accepted, then it should be here. After all, it’s about Almaty, and I hope that I was able to convey how someone who knows history looks at the city, but sees it from the outside.

It seems to me that we have not overcome the perception of the Iron Curtain yet, and for us a book written by an author from northern Europe is a puzzle that needs to be put in our head.

Yes! Plus, the book is not written in the standard manner “from A to Z”. And I hope that my creative presentation won’t confuse readers. For example, the action takes place for one day, but this day lasts for a whole year. Morning is winter, day is spring, and so on.

Mia Tarp Nurmagambetova is Danish, but came to Almaty in 2000, and has since lived in the city periodically. She has two university degrees in Russian studies and has been doing postgraduate research about Kazakhstan for several years. Besides Kazakhstan, she has lived and worked in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Australia, Russia and Czech Republic, and spent a lot of time travelling the world. For the last four years she’s been based permanently in Almaty with her Kazakh husband Dias and their kids. Besides being a writer, Mia has worked as a journalist and with human and civil rights. Her debut novel, Frequency, which takes place in Almaty, came out in February 2022 in English. The Russian version Частота will be out soon. 

They do not reach a wide audience: why the works of Kazakhstani authors remain in the shadows, part 2

Doctor of philology, literary critic Alla Dzhundubayeva proposes why we all need to read and appreciate modern Kazakh literature. 

Translated by Alyona Timofeyeva

Alla Dzundubayeva

About the problems of Kazakhstani literature

I would single out three main difficulties that, in my opinion, Kazakh literature faces.

The first is the problem of publishing and distributing the works of Kazakhstani authors. There is a lot of talk about this on various platforms, but so far this issue relates only to commercial structures. It is difficult to solve, since it is more expedient from a business point of view to publish and sell well-known authors. And it turns out to be a vicious circle: our large domestic publishing houses do not work with local authors — they are not taken for sale by stores − they do not reach a wide range of readers — they stay unknown — it is unprofitable to publish and sell them.

For example, the works of the wonderful children’s writer Adelia Amraeva, who has several international awards, including the Krapivin Prize, the most authoritative in the field of children’s literature, are published by Russian publishers, but not ours. As a result, she is very well known in Russia — both in the reading and in the scientific community. Russian philologists study her works one after another, but only few people in Kazakhstan have heard about her, apart from a narrow circle. The same thing happened with the amazing Kazakhstani writer Tonya Shipulina, whose books became canonical children’s literature. I think domestic publishers should pay more attention to our authors.

Many of them release their works in so-called self-publishing, which requires large financial expenses, and then search for distribution channels for books. Now, of course, there are electronic platforms where e-versions of books can be placed, but all this does not have the necessary scale. At the same time, Kazakhstani readers with interest and gratitude would accept the books written by their compatriots if they knew about them. This also requires various literary events organized not only by writers for themselves, but also by other state and public structures − for a wide audience.

I am not talking about solutions to this problem, since I have not been deeply involved in this issue, but I think state support is crucial in popularizing Kazakhstani literature, in publishing and distributing the works of Kazakhstani authors, in helping to bring their books to readers. And as for children’s literature, it should, in my opinion, become all the more a state task related to the education of moral values among the new generation. For example, Elena Klepikova and Ksenia Rogozhnikova shared that when they gave their children’s books to regional libraries, they received the heartfelt gratitude of librarians in return, literally with tears in their eyes. And this is an indicator that the books of our writers are needed, and it is not the authors who should distribute them independently, but state structures that purchase them from the authors and transfer them to libraries. It would also be worth considering the possibility of introducing works by recognized modern Kazakhstani writers with appropriate translations for Kazakh and Russian schools into the school curriculum.

Continue reading “They do not reach a wide audience: why the works of Kazakhstani authors remain in the shadows, part 2”