A Shot in the Arm of Pure Meaning: A Review of The Illustrated Guide to the Meanings of Almaty

Guest post from Zimri Leisher

I’ve lived most of my life in small, boring towns in the US which nobody writes about. These pleasant but unremarkable places seem designed to pass by unexamined, acting just as a background to a school or home. So when I came to Almaty to study Russian, I had no idea what it meant to deeply and caringly engage with any place, let alone a city of two million people. I still don’t know how to do this, but I’m having a great time figuring it out! My best helper
along the way has been The Illustrated Guide to the Meanings of Almaty, a book so superbly useful to me that it seems almost as if it were made for twenty-somethings from the US studying Russian in Almaty. Instead of a tour guide to the hottest restaurants and shopping malls (boring), it is a shot in the arm of pure meaning, memories, places, and people. Published by Knigolyub, designed and illustrated by Zoya Falkova and translated into English by Anton Platonov, it consists of thirty self-contained poems and essays by twenty-two authors, each of which is associated with a specific place. My favorite piece is entirely focused on a pilaf and shish kebab wagon on Ryskulov Street. That’s the name of the poem–”Pilaf and Shish Kebab Wagon” (70-1). Like the title, the writing by Aliya Dzhirman is simple and direct, with the kind of concreteness I aspire to myself. It is descriptive enough to make me hungry for the shish kebab, served with a finely chopped onion abundantly sprinkled with vinegar from a Coke bottle. I value it because it describes something utterly mundane. The wagon is not a spectacle meant to impress or convey meaning, and yet meaning can be found in it. It exists without self-reflection, without caring about how
others perceive its shabby oilcloth and broken plasterboard, it just does its job: “only pilaf and shish kebab/only shish kebab and pilaf”. A bit of reflection sometimes is nice, though. Pavel Bannikov’s poem titled “Beloved
Mordor” humorously compares Almaty’s smoggy, chaotic look to Mordor, the land of shadow and evil from The Lord of the Rings. It teaches me the lesson I should have known without needing to be told: don’t judge the city by its appearance. The scene of the poem is quite pleasant: walking along a river canal with someone else at night, somewhat inebriated, destined for “coition places”. “Coughing dwarves/walking their pets” and “pixies […] wrapped in tunics” flow by them–just normal denizens of the night. The illustration of an intense-looking, muscly orc holding the leash of a dog which is peeing on a trash can is
particularly striking. Even the Eye of Sauron (the Ritz-Carlton tower) is “beckoning with an impetuous fun/a licentiousness of a warm winter night”. It would seem that the storyteller is in for an exciting evening.

Pavel Bannikov’s poem attempts to humanize the city and its people. Maria
Vilkoviskaya’s poem, “Timing (Metro Guide),” goes in the other direction. A break up at midnight in a metro station is depicted with the harsh formatting of a train schedule. Almost every line begins with a 24-hour timestamp, and each event or observation is noted down in a single sentence, like a disaster report. The poem shows the messiness of life juxtaposed on the system of the city. It does not attempt to put metaphor onto the metro station, to find life thirty
feet underground. Too much effort. Instead, with a weary voice in the third person, we follow along with the female character as they ride the metro. She sees ads at each station which “defy description,” hears a mechanical voice exclaim “WE ARE CLOSING AT,” and sees people leaving the train, wearing hard hats. It feels like an unfeeling and uncaring world–the opposite
side of the city that Pavel Bannikov depicts. Together, they give a more complete picture of Almaty. I am new here, and so everything that I hear I must weigh in my head equally. Who am I to say that one source of information is better than another? But after reading the book, I am confident that I could not have found a more concentrated source of meaning than this guide. It
reminds me of Anuar Duysenbinov’s idea of the söz (Qazaq for ‘word’, see the poem Metamorph)–a dense sediment of language. I read it and the ideas stick in my mouth and come out again every once in a while (like in my first writing assignment for this trip). I was only able to cover a few of the thirty pieces of work, so I highly recommend you read more. Some more of the varied perspectives you can read about are: Elena Klepikova in “Monument to
Soldiers-Internationalists (‘The Afghans’)”, who makes sure we remember the painful past of the Soviet-Qazaq soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. Talgat Dairov’s “The Border”, which vividly depicts the divide between Almaty’s modern future and the past from “where you reluctantly escaped in the late nineties”. And Lilya Kalaus’s wonderful writing (she contributed five pieces and the afterword) is particularly rich with memory, history, change, and funny little things like two people exchanging garbage bags every morning. In her afterword, she writes: “it’s no secret that our city was not lucky with literary impressions”. However, it seems Almaty finally struck it rich.

Zimri Leisher a senior computer science major at Carleton College, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, USA. Spent 10 weeks at KazNU in Almaty to study the Russian language and Qazaq culture, to dive deep into people, life and language.

What it means to be Qazaq in contemporary Kazakhstani literature

Guest post by Teagan Klinkner

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Socialist Republics had to cope with the sudden lack of a literary publication system among the collapse of other institutional infrastructure. Kazakhstan has yet to fully establish its own framework for the distribution and publication of Kazakh stories. In their interview with the Alma Review, Kazakhstani writers Kseniya Rogozhnikova and Mikhail Zemskov elaborate on the state of contemporary literature in Kazakhstan. The couple explains the competition between Russian and Kazakh publishers, since the former typically attracts a larger audience they subsequently generate more funds as well. Despite the national language being Kazakh, the lasting impact of the Soviet Union created a bilingual population; with urban areas relying on Russian and rural areas speaking primarily Kazakh. This dynamic along with the trends of literary audiences have many Kazakh artists straying from their origins in order to break into the industry.

In our exploration into the contemporary literature of Kazakhstan the reality of this dual-language problem is continuously prevalent. While reading stories considered the “unofficial city texts” of Almaty (the central location of this program), we noted that many were originally written in Russian, not Kazakh. Simply put, the cultural mythology of Kazakhstan was not written in its native language. This situation would be analogous to a state like India having its literary canon written in English due to the British colonization of the country. Kseniya Rogozhnikova and Mikhail Zemskov are both native to Kazakhstan but started learning kazakh rather recently. However, couple mentions that they already can speak on the basic level. Moreover, Kseniya’s books that she ofthen writes with co-authors are mostly bilingual. Writing books in several languages is a direction many authors have gone in. Some however have published on a small scale solely in Kazakh. I was intrigued by the difference in details across stories written in English, Russian, and Russian/Kazakh. This post will focus on a brief comparison between story #14 by Denis Keen from The Illustrated Guide to Almaty, Пастухи-близнецы (the Twin Shepards) by Yuri Serebryansky from Kazakhstani Fairytales, and Mängilik Jel (the Eternal Wind) by Anuar Duisenbinov from Metamorph. These texts are further explored in the book reviews by my fellow classmates so if these stories interest you please read their reviews as well!

Denis Keen was born and raised in the US, eventually moving to Almaty, Kazakhstan where he began to write about the city and its mythology. As the only story from The Illustrated Guide to be originally written in English it presents a unique foreign interpretation of the city. Keen’s story focuses on the individuality expressed in the single story cottage neighborhoods, posing a stark contrast to the skyscraping skyline presented to travelers in publicized documentation of the city’s design. These details, Keen argues: “will never be conquered,” as they survived the Soviet era and a push towards independent expression of nationality. As Kazakhstan has adopted new means of distinguishing itself from its former colonizer (such as changing the alphabet from the Russian cyrillic to Latin), forms of individualism such as the intricate external woodwork depicting traditional national patterns have become a vital symbol of what it means to be Qazaq rather than Kazakh.

The Illustration accompanying Serebryansky’s story “The Twin Shepherds”

Coming from Russian and Polish heritage, Kazakhstani writer Yuriy Serebryansky has a very different interpretation of Kazakhstan. Writing primarily in Russian, Serebriansky crafted a collection of tales which form a national folklore with many stories having references to specific areas of the country. Serebriansky’s work was published in Russian, and then translated into Kazakh and English; since he, like many Kazakhsani authors, he knows very little Kazakh. Exemplifying the language gap and the imagined audience for his work. However the exception in Kazakhstani Fairy Tales is the use of references which a person unfamiliar with Kazakhstan may struggle to visualize. The story Twin Shepards is one which derives from stories of the mountain range and details regarding Kazakh customs.

Resembling the story of Cain and Abel (minus the murder), the two brothers work professions related to their geographic position, both brothers pose dreams to a force larger than themselves, and one is granted his wish; the ending, albeit, is not as originally imagined by the one brother. This story illustrates the “origins” of the Kazakh yurt through references to the geographic features of the region, a religious belief of the Kazakhstani people, and details which note elements of Kazakh national costume. While Keen noticed the architectural aspects of an urban Kazakhstani city, Serebryansky describes the steppe, glacial trails, pastures, and the mountain range in a single story, illustrating the vast, geographically diverse state. The story contains the use of Russian words which would be foreign to a native Russian speaker outside of Kazakhstan. One brother wears a тюбетейка (tubeteika) which is a traditional central asian cap, this same brother was tending his flock in a жайляу (zhaylyau), the term for a summertime mountain pasture in Kazakhstan. These terms distinguish Serebryansky as a Kazakhstani writer who writes in Russian from a strictly Russian writer, yet still limits his audience to those who understand Russian.

Anuar Duisenbinov, unlike the aforementioned authors, is fluent in Kazakh and although his poems often integrate both Kazakh and Russian his intention is to bring the Kazakh language into the multilingual literature world. As a queer Kazakhstani author, Duisenbinov facing criticism from multiple areas of life, and his poem Məңгілік Жел highlights the deeper cultural elements of Kazakhstani culture. Similar to Keen and Serebryansky, Duisenbinov references specific geographical features in order to orient the reader in the city of Astana. Along the same vein as Serebryansky, but absent from the writings of Keen, is Duisenbinov’s use of Kazakh-specific details like the “universal seacalf (мирового тюленя)” or the phrase: “you pump your traumas from the ground (качающий свои комплексы из земли).” These elements narrow the audience to the people of the country who connect to the globalization and colonization of Central Asia or to the victims of the Great Terrors or the displacement of people for the purpose of drilling for fossil fuels.

Duisenbinov is then further separated from the other authors through his use of the Kazakh language, the meaning of which cannot be retained or understood in the process of translation like the few words of Serebryansky. The title is one of these examples, мəңгілік жел is translated as the Eternal Wind but beyond the surface acts as a reference to the title of Kazakhstan as the “Eternal State (Məңгілік Ел),” and a remark on the climate of the capital, Astana. Matching the subject of the poem, Duisenbinov discusses the “great Kazakh nation” which he is disgracing and bringing shame upon. Shame is a crucial aspect of Kazakh culture, and one which the author argues is not as eternal as the wind blowing across the country. These are among several examples of Duisenbinov’s use of the Kazakh language to illustrate what is Kazakh and what is truly Qazaq. He challenges more than the institutions of publication by publishing poems which combine Russian and Kazakh, but utilizes language to redefine the boundaries of contemporary Qazaqstani literature.

Teagan Klinkner was born in Oregon, USA and currently attends Carleton College in Minnesota, USA. She is majoring in International Relations with a double major in Russian language. She spent 10 weeks at KazNU in Almaty, Kazakhstan studying Russian and the culture of Kazakhstan. She has won the Lee Sigelman Prize in Political Science for a paper on Russia and Ukraine. 

A Fantastical Ride: A Review of “Kazakhstani Fairy Tales” by Yuri Serebriansky

Guest post by Adrian Boskovic

People often say fairy tales are for kids. They say such stories are unbelievable, ridiculous, or even silly. Personally, I think this sentiment misses the bigger picture. To a large extent, fairy tales can speak to the human soul. Dreams, aspirations, character, and values across countless different cultures can be drawn from silly little tales to grow into something meaningful. From the whimsical, to the tragic, to the bittersweet, I somehow always find that fairy tales are what stay with me the longest. The stranger a story, the more I’m allowed to tap into the depths of my imagination, and the more that image stays with me for years to come.

Yuriy Serebriansky’s Kazakhstani Fairy Tales, published in 2017 with translations in both Kazakh and Russian, offers a contemporary look into Kazakhstan – its cities (especially Almaty), its history, people, and landscape all viewed through a delightfully whimsical lens. Readers, both old and young, will chuckle at Serebriansky’s playful collection of short, clever tales, and perhaps be enthralled by how he carefully and creatively weaves this heartfelt tapestry. Some of these stories are modern, and others inspired by folklore or historical figures. The first story, which Serebriansky chose to open his collection, depicts the famously eccentric Soviet painter Sergey Kalmykov riding atop a giant turtle through the streets of Alma-Ata in late March. Hence, the title “Ехал на черепахе”, which literally translates to “Was riding a turtle” in English. The image is absurd, but amusing, and in Serebriansky’s version of the city this occurrence is certainly possible (albeit uncommon). By drawing from the absurd, Serebriansky is able to pull his readers into a playful conversation with a quirky historical figure in a historical setting in an altogether creative way, which I find is an effective method to introduce Almaty to someone who may not be familiar with Kazakhstan.

“Ехал на черепахе” is far from the only story in Serebriansky’s collection, however, as it includes at least 12 different stories, each told in unique settings and time periods, and carefully composed illustrations to accompany each. These tales are, for the most part, short and sweet. I enjoy reading about the ironic forgetfulness of the “Король-изобретатель” (“Inventor King”), or the peculiar backstory of Lake Balkhash in “Балхаш”, or, in my personal favorite story, the origins of the flag of Kazakhstan in “Золотой орёл” (“Golden Eagle”). Some of the stories, like “Пастухи-близнецы” (“Twin shepherds”), explore the Kazakh nomadic lifestyle of centuries past, with the herding of sheep and Serebriansky’s unique spin on the origins of yurts. Similarly, the story “Яблоки” (“Apples”) paints an amusing picture of the giant apples that existed in ancient times, drawing from the importance of apples in Kazakhstan, which is often regarded as the birthplace of apples across the world. Not all these stories are based in fact; for example, “Замок Кок-Тобе” (“Castle Kok-Tobe”) clearly draws from the imagery of European knights instead of Kazakh nomads, and thus it can be said this story is historically inaccurate. However, within the realm of fairy tales, it makes perfect sense for knights to appear in this story, which I believe only adds to the fantastical nature of Serebriansky’s writing.

Serebriansky’s fairy tales, though often lighthearted, are not always so, and on occasion he uses his whimsical settings to explore more serious topics. In his telling of “Пагода” (“Pagoda”), Serebriansky seeks to teach a moral lesson to his readers about existentialism, legacy, and greed, as well as the potential consequences of abandoning tradition. The character Vacharavat, struggling with the realization of his own mortality, is faced with the choice to accept his fate and live as one with the land, or to defy his elder to transform his people into a nation to be remembered throughout history. This tale is quite a bit longer than the others, and by its conclusion the reader may be left with more questions than answers. Another story, “На других планетах всегда веселей” (“It’s always happier on other planets”), is somewhat less philosophical, but thought-provoking all the same. It transports the reader into the setting of a toyshop, where a kindly salesman comforts a crying girl by telling her the story of a toy robot. This story is heartwarming, with a message about finding home in an unfamiliar place. It’s a theme that highlights Kazakhstan as a multi-ethnic country, where people of many different origins and backgrounds have been welcomed despite linguistic barriers. As a whole, each of Serebriansky’s stories has something interesting to say, including the more lighthearted ones, and in very little time these tales convey important themes that can stay with the reader long after reading them.

So, what do I think of Kazakhstani Fairy Tales by Yuriy Serebriansky? Personally, I think it is well worth a read. The English translation I read is likely quite a bit different from the Kazakh-Russian in which the work was originally published, but at the end of the day, I still found this collection to be delightful, fantastical, and thought-provoking. So set off on your journey and go where the turtle takes you! I’m sure it won’t disappoint.

Yuriy Serebriansky is a Kazakhstani author of Polish origin who writes prose, poetry and translates. He teaches at OLSA and works as an editor for Kazakhstani Polish diaspora magazine “Ałmatyński Kurier Polonijny” and Russian literary magazine “Literratura” (before 2023). His works have been translated into many languages and published in a number of different magazines. Yuriy has been awarded the prize “Russkaya Premia” twice and his book Kazakhstani Fairy Tales was named the best bilingual book for young in 2017.  

Adrian Boskovic is an American student from Sammamish, WA, who currently studies at Carleton College. In spring of 2023, he participated in an exchange program at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (KazNU) in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he studied Russian language, literature, and cultures across Central Asia.

Life at the Intersection – A Review of the Almaty Writing Residency Catalog

A guest post by Sylvia Tammen

In April, the American Space and MakerSpace in Almaty hosted the
presentation of the Almaty Writing Residency catalog, a collection that takes stock of all that the residency has accomplished so far and presents some of the major works produced by participants.
The Almaty Writing Residency is an international project organized by the Olga Markova Open Literary School of Almaty (OLSHA) and the American
IWP International Writing Program that first took place in 2021.

Each year, the residency invites authors from Kazakhstan and abroad to discuss texts and meet with other writers. It’s no exaggeration to say that this project is making a profound impact on the literary scene both within Kazakhstan and
far beyond its borders. The catalog introduces the residency’s participants from 2021-2022. Many of them are already established prose writers, playwrights, and poets, but some are just beginning their literary journey. In their works, they ask questions: how does Kazakhstani literature fit into the global literary scene? And in light of the country’s multiculturalism and unique historical
development, how can the sore points in society be transformed into an
opportunity to create new literature, free and unconstrained by longstanding

In her essay “Life at the Intersection”, the writer Nuraina Satpayeva reflects
on what it’s like to live at the intersection of different epochs and cultures
without seeming to belong in any of them: “I’m Kazakh by nationality, but I
write and think in Russian… I’m a woman with an Eastern upbringing, but a
Western education.” Satpayeva’s desire to preserve her national identity is
evident in all her work. And in the poetry of Akzhan Amanzhol, Irina Gumyrkina, and Oral Arkuenova, we encounter language that is unlikely to be understood by readers in Russia.

«Этот год увековечен в Шаныраке и Акбулаке…» (И.Гумыркина)/ «Я подозревала, Что дыхание улиц — Красным углём задувающие мои мысли уже успели поселиться в моих лёгких…» (А.Аманжол)/«…привычный генетический страх смотреть, дышать, слушать разговаривать на родном» (О.Арукенова)

“This city’s immortalized in Shanyrak’s trauma, Akbulak’s” (I.
Gumrkina/translated by Katherine E. Young); “I felt like the breath of the streets blowing the fire in my mind has already settled in my lungs” (A.Amanzhol, translated by Aizharyk Sultankozha); “ordinary hereditary fear to see, to breathe, to listen, to speak freely in my way” (O. Arkuenova, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega).

AWR 2022 participants

This is the sound of Kazakh Russian, Almaty’s Russian. Coming from the pen
of Kazakhstani writers, the Russian language becomes rich with new signs,
omens, and distinctive stylistic features and mannerisms. Aman Rakmetov’s wonderful prose sketch “Ghostly Hills” is published in the catalog along with its English translation by Meirzhan Kurmanov. At first glance, the story appears absurd, but it turns out to be entirely logical. A talented acrobat is able to glide above the earth with ease because he lives by different laws, laws inaccessible to ordinary human understanding.

“Is it true that you are not afraid of death, like a crocodile, and always perform without a safety rope?” The journalist continued, staring at Nikolai’s hands.

“No, I am not afraid of death. Because death is a dream where we don’t have a sense of smell, but we see ghostly hills.”

“What hills?” The journalist wondered.

“The ghostly ones,” Nikolai answered, and left for the stage.

After the first trick, his hands slipped from the rope; he fell to the ground, broke his neck, and died instantly.

As soon as the hero accepts an ordinary understanding of reality and begins
to submit to earthly laws, the spell breaks – earth’s gravity comes into force,
and Nikolai falls to his death. In his discussion of translation, the Kazakhstani author and playwright Alisher Rakhat raises important questions about the divide between the Russian-speaking and Kazakh-speaking sections of the literary landscape and the appallingly low circulation of literary and scientific works published in Kazakh, emphasizing the need for a common space where authors can collaborate as equals to promote Kazakhstan’s literary and cultural
development. Rakhat proposes that all significant literary works written in
the languages of Kazakhstan’s peoples be translated into Kazakh: “this will
strengthen the unity of all peoples living in a single state… and signify
respect for the Kazakh language.”

The writer and translator Aynagul Sadykova conducts an interesting
experiment. When she talks to children about multiculturalism, she starts the
conversation by focusing on the children themselves: “…we need to help
children answer the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What makes me unique?’” in
terms of their age, gender, appearance, character and nationality. Then we
can ask those same questions about others: “And who is she? Who is he?
Who are they? What makes them unique?”

Which is perhaps the main takeaway from all our conversations about the
problems of contemporary Kazakhstani literature. The important changes
taking place in literature and in our culture as a whole must begin with us
and with our personal qualities. And this is exactly what the Almaty Writing
Residency does, helping authors to understand themselves and their identity
– and, on the basis of this understanding, to solve the problems of
Kazakhstani literature.

Selina Taisengirova was born in Almaty, graduated from KazNPU named after Abay. Majored in Russian language and literature. Graduate of Pavel Bannikov Poetry Seminar in the Open Literary School of Almaty (2017-2018). Editor of the criticism and journalism section in the literary magazine “Dactyl”. The author of poetic collections published on “Polutona” and in “Dactyl” magazine. Finalist of the Metajournal literary award in the nomination “Poem of the Year” (2021). Entered the prize list of the Russian literary prize “Poetry” (2021).

Sylvia Tammen is a translator. She holds bachelor’s degrees in piano performance and Russian from the University of Georgia and spent a year studying at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (KazNU) in Almaty, Kazakhstan through the American Councils’ Language Flagship program.

“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.

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”.

More Reasons Why the War Affects us All, though Still Not Enough: Contemporary Ukrainian Literature

by Dana Kanafina

The copy of Voices of Freedom: Contemporary Writing from Ukraine, edited by Kateryna Kazimirova and Daryna Anastasieva, found its way to me on December 16th, Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. I read it immediately – I was home all day anyway. After almost getting arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time (post-Soviet jargon for  “being seen protesting or being mistaken for a protester”) a few times I try to play it safe. Either way, the matter of the fact is that at the end of 2022, bloody for most post-Soviet countries (Qandy Qantar, the war in Tajikistan, unrest in Kyrgyzstan, further escalation of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, and, of course, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine), I was home reading through the literary collection of contemporary Ukrainian authors. And I was grieving. And I was furious.

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has shaken everyone in the former Soviet Union (except Russia, but it seems so desensitized to violence at this point that shaking doesn’t seem to be possible or preferred), and I speak for most Kazakhs when I say we felt it acutely. For most of colonial history, Ukraine and Kazakhstan unintentionally mirrored each other in suffering. The genocide attempt of the Stalinist period – known in Ukraine as Holodomor and in Kazakhstan as Asharshylyq –  took lives of 4 million on Ukrainians and 4 million Kazakh people. Both had their languages banned from public use, their celebration days outlawed. Many significant Kazakh authors – Akhmet Baitursynuly, Magzhan Zhumabai, Zhusypbek Aimauytov, Mirjaqip Dulatuli – were executed during the 1930s. In Ukraine, this period is known as Red Renaissance and has its own victims – Mykola Kulish, Mykhaylo Semenko, Les Kurbas, Klym Polishchuk, and others. Despite this, Kazakh and Ukrainian lands have been the largest source of income for Soviet Russia. The idea of brotherhood is overused as a part of the Soviet propaganda, but if there truly are twins within the former Soviet rule, Kazakhstan and Ukraine would be them.

Continue reading “More Reasons Why the War Affects us All, though Still Not Enough: Contemporary Ukrainian Literature”

“The Fly” by Tonya Shipulina – a children’s book about an adult problem

Sarracenia is an ingenious trap, an ideal mechanism for catching and killing insects. Its design is amazing! The top of these stunning plants looks like a flower with a pattern of red veins. It doesn’t just draw attention to itself, it promises future victim a fabulous treat. Drops of enticing nectar stand out on the underside of the sarracenia leaf. The insect can’t resist it. For example, this fly. Just look at how passionate it is about eating treats, but it does not notice that it becomes quite difficult to stay on the sheet. The leaves of sarracenia initially help the insect to go down — inside the water lily, but then they become slippery. The fly slips, falls and drowns in a well filled with digestive enzymes. There is no escape — it is impossible to get out of the water lily. The insect gradually decomposes, and the plant absorbs nutrients, replenishing all energy costs for the production of sweet nectar.

No, this is not an excerpt from a biology book. And no matter how deceptive the title is, Tony Shipulina’s “The Fly” is not about insects at all. “Fly” (“Муха”) is the main character Misha’s nickname. He is no different from his peers: he listens to Imagine Dragons, skips classes, spends free time on the Internet. Just instead of Googling games or sports, he searches for such terrible words as “alcoholism”, “fumes” and “traps”. Because Misha’s dad Maxim is that fly, and his sarracenia is a stash of alcohol.

The problem of alcoholism in families is not a new topic, but “The Fly” is a very modern book. The main characters – Misha, his dad Maxim and mom Alina – are constantly looking for something on the World Wide Web, and Misha’s classmates make “cocaine” tracks by rubbing ascorbic acid. There is no clear geographical reference in the book either. The names and speech of the heroes allows to present them in any post-Soviet space.

The uniqueness of “The Fly” is that a completely childish theme is inscribed in a children’s book with surgical accuracy. Young readers will hardly understand the text, but it will not cause rejection in adults. The author admits that it was the main idea to describe a difficult topic without blackness.

“Misha also turns away. From Dad. He follows Tigran. They trudge slowly. Even slower than before. Misha feels like the sole of the shoes is burning — this happens in extreme heat in summer. If you walk on asphalt heated in the sun. But it’s not summer, and the shoes are burning anyway. “It’s probably a shame,” Misha thinks. With every step that takes him away from his father who lies freezing on the bench, it becomes harder to breathe — the heat creeps up his legs, gets to his throat, cheeks. Now he will melt all this snow. Misha’s cheeks are flushed — they are red. Probably red. Is it noticeable?”

The book colorfully conveys child’s tough experience. Misha does not fully understand what is happening, but feels something wrong in his gut. He gets acquainted with the senses of shame, fear, disgust, finds himself in a codependent relationship with his own father. He sees how the bottle turns his kind, perky dad into a mooing disgusting creature. He learns the vulnerability of his mother, who could always protect him from everything, but now for some reason she can’t. And how vividly this range of emotions lives in a very small book deserves respect.

Perhaps the only shaky place in “The Fly” – it is not quite clear how old the main character Misha is. For a middle school pupil he does not know some simple things, but for a junior in certain situations he behaves more than consciously. Perhaps this is a special author’s move to erase the boundaries. Tonya, who has two sons, knows firsthand how boys behave at different ages.

It is also noticeable that the book consists of personal experience. The author admits that she herself went through alcoholism of a loved one. Therefore, the book is both therapy and an opportunity to give a helping hand to those who are lost in the problem. This is a good incentive to talk about addiction from an early age in order to protect children from it in the future. And it is also a wonderful reading, woven in an easy and natural language.

The ending of the book is positive, but at the same time open. The reader learns that Alina is planning a trip with the whole family to Malaysia, Maxim is looking for ways to treat, and Misha is returning to the theater section which he left because of difficulties with his father. It seems that everything is getting better, but Alina’s phrase is firmly entrenched in the subcortex: “do you know how many of these “that’s all” were?” The final illustration of the book hints at the same thing: the mirror is divided into two parts. The first reflects a happy family, and the second is shattered. However, I really want to believe that the glass is rather half full here.

Tonya Shipulina was born in Almaty. In 2004, she graduated from the Faculty of Journalism of the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University. She worked as a correspondent and editor in Kazakhstani newspapers and magazines. Tonya is the author of “One amazing adventure of a cowardly rum and a stupid norik”, “Three Tea Dragons and Sparkling Dust”, “The Witch of the Mists’ Land”, “The Secret of the Witch Ursula”, “Shrews and Slits” books. Her story “Marshmallow Zhora” was turned into a play in Almaty’s “Art&Shock” theatre. In 2017 Tonya Shipulina received a Krapivin International Prize and became the winner of the illustrators’ competition “Write a Writer” at the Red Square Book Festival. Tonya is in the catalog of “100 best new children’s books” according to the Gaidar Library.