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.

Back to AWR: essays about kazakhstani identity from participants, part 3


Alisher Rakhat

I think this is a very complicated problem to tackle. It raises a legitimate question: do oriental ideas determine the consciousness of Kazakhstani people or is it determined by the West? And if art is a mirror of a society, what do we see in this mirror? In this case we are also talking about Kazakh customs and traditions, the Kazakh worldview, which is different from both Eastern and Western.  

Before joining the USSR and the Holodomor, Kazakh society was characterized by a synthesis of its traditions with Eastern ones. Sufism, founded by Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, emerged as a result of the introduction of local customs and traditions into the Islam that came from the East. The doctrine was congruent with Tengrism, the ancient religion of the Central Asians. It praised selflessness, suppression of carnal desires, high morality and sense of responsibility before others, practised contemplation of death. That is why the Kazakh beys were Sufis and fair judges, they were not afraid to tell the truth to the Khan, they did not patronize their relatives, that is why people really trusted them – they subordinated their consciousness to the contemplation of death during their lifetime. 

The leaders of the Alash party and the intelligentsia supporting them were interested in both Eastern and Western ideas and sought to bring them into the Kazakh worldview. This can be seen in the translations made by Akhmet Baitursynov and Mirzhakyp Dulatov and in the poems of Magzhan Zhumabaev. I think it is obvious that this movement, led by the national leader Alikhan Bukeykhanov, sought to ensure that the Kazakh people did not lag behind in anything. However, after the artificially created famine, which took the lives of half of the Kazakh population, after the repressions that swept over the best representatives of the intelligentsia, the people became frightened. Life turned arduous and survival became the main concern, pushing aside the desire for education, science and arts. That is, all national spiritual values began to be gradually destroyed, culture began to lose traction, and at that point Western ideas were imposed on the people. I think that Western countries came to this era through evolution. The teachings of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the works of Sigmund Freud, various social movements, ideas about women’s equality and human rights began to penetrate the consciousness of the Kazakhs, which combined the features of Turkic and Eastern worldviews. At the same time, the Soviet authorities put pressure on free-thinking people of science and art, keeping them in the tight hold of censorship. In other words, Western ideas entered the minds of the Kazakhs unnaturally, not evolutionarily, but spread like a virus. People were afraid of the Gulag and the Karlag, where they could end up in light of a slightest mistake. People of the West put themselves in place of God, “killed” by Nietzsche and Darwin, and, when the period of “democracy” came, Lenin and Stalin, who proclaimed themselves “solar leaders”, became gods in the USSR. 

As for the modern Kazakh society, it reminds me of the nuclear test site in Semey, which is the fault and responsibility of the USSR, or the dying Aral Sea. Mutually exclusive ideas crowd in the minds of our people. They do not know the true meaning of national beliefs and traditions, but want to preserve them, being under the influence of radical religious ideas, unsuccessfully trying to adapt them to modern life. The Western worldview to them seems alien but an inevitable imposition of time. As a result, unable to make sense of this complicated mix of ideas, they feel utterly confused. 

Now back to the main question. I believe that Kazakhstani literature should not confront ideas borrowed from Western and Eastern cultures, but combine them in an original manner, giving the texts a national content and sound. Kazakh literature will definitely not lose if it absorbs the ideas of thinkers who have had a great influence on the world, such as Freud, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Jung, but only if it finds a way to combine these ideas with Oriental myths and Kazakh worldviews. Perhaps it is then that every reader will find answers to their questions.


Aman (Amangeldy) Rakhmetov

Before answering this question, I would define, or rather put myself within the frames of a Kazakhstani author. This is necessary in the first place because I am me, and then goes everything else. For my mother, I am a son, for my wife a husband, for my reader — a poet. I think that the most important thing for a person is to be a noun. So, to my mother I am a good (or any other adjective) son, to my wife I am a faithful husband, to the reader I am either bad or good writer. The reader will not think about my nationality, he will think about the poems, if, of course, they will be to his or her liking. 

For example, I admire Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. He writes, “Man designs for himself a garden with a hundred kinds of trees, a thousand kinds of flowers, a hundred kinds of fruit and vegetables.” It’s a beautiful image. I don’t say German writer Herman Hesse, I just say Herman Hesse. Kobo Abe writes, “ Year after year students tumble along like the waters of a river. They flow away, and only the teacher is left behind, like some deeply buried rock at the bottom of the current.” To compare teachers to rocks and students to passing waters is cruel and beautiful. And here I’m not talking about Japanese writer Kobo Abe.  

But are there those for whom I am not just a poet, but a Kazakhstani author? Not for a Russian speaker and not for my compatriot. I will be a Kazakhstani author for a third person, for a translator or for the reader of these translations. And so, what can I say to this world as a Kazakhstani author? Is there anything to say at all. I’m a Kazakh. I will say with confidence that I am a Kazakh, for the proof of this fact will be the line in my passport and the cut of my eyes on my face. I am a Kazakh who thinks and speaks not Kazakh, but Russian. And it’s not about the circumstances, it’s about my choice. Yes, in part I am a lost nomad of the Russian language, and as a rule, anyone who has lost their way must surely recognize their footprints and follow them back home, to the beginning of their journey, to look at their life as a personal history, to take a new road. But I am not going back. I am used to the space of the Russian language, the walls of which are covered with poems by a hundred poets and writers. I got used to that air. 

I have learned that it is important to see the distance between letters because it is always the same; if it is not the same, it is not a word but a sentence. This minor emptiness within the word is the beginning of thought. T (air) a (air) b (air) l (air) e. The next distance is between words. It is larger and can be heard. Each person has their word and it is their name. And the name is a shell with a kind of emptiness inside, an emptiness necessary for the first thought. 

And all of this seems to be in a space that is foreign to me. I used to feel ashamed of my ignorance of my native language (not everyday speech, but literary), but today I am aware that the space of language does not go beyond space as such. That is to say, we shouldn’t attach much importance to it. If we paint the walls of our apartment, this does not mean that the walls of the flight of steps outside should be shabby and colorless. It doesn’t have to be that way. We should be looking for balanced space. Roughly speaking, if my apartment is painted green and my neighbor’s blue, it means my apartment is painted green and my neighbor’s blue, and the color of the shared flight of steps does not have to be turquoise blue. Its being clean will suffice. We modern people are able to catch and hold the balance of space, while the other, equally important dimension becomes the exact opposite in the context of my conversation. I’m talking about the balance of time. I’m talking about impossibility. Time is like horses, rushing god-knows-where, only for the sake of rushing, and when some miracle of art appears on the way of this herd, one part of the herd will fall into the abyss of the moment unwillingly, by inertia, and another part will not understand what is happening because of the dense steppe dust in the air. Or maybe the time is nothing like horses, but tall cold marble statues without any images (disfigured) and love. It doesn’t matter. We will still treat the clock as one of the conveniences that man has invented. Time is a chair. Time is a cup of morning coffee. 

And yet, in spite of wars and disease, the smooth quiet art of letters has always found this balance to keep a man walking, for men are rope walkers of tongues. To walk does not mean only to step forward, but also to speak and to observe. A good poem is eternity, and to eternity we are always close, one has to feel themselves, their skin, this delicate border, which is easy to cross. All it takes is to open one’s eyes.

What else can I say to this world? I’ll say it again — anything, but will they listen to me, and if they do, will they get me right? Will they mistake my voice for a steppe tulip and my throat for a Chinese glass vase? Will they understand that my collarbones can not only be the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, but also the hilt of a tight Turkic bow. Will they be able to feel the tingle of each arrow in the silent quiver? I don’t know. Boris Poplavsky, in his article “Among Doubts and Obviousness,” observed, “One does not write for oneself or for the public. One writes for friends. Art is a private letter sent at random to unknown friends, a kind of protest against the separation of lovers in space and time. This is why there are as few true readers as there are few true friends. That’s why every real reader could be a friend and, what is more, would like to be one. And this is what I would say to my friend.

Today I was looking at a tree whose branches had been sawn off at a height of two meters. One of the branches, cut down at the base, never touched the ground. It was holding on to the rest of the tree, like a person holding on to another person. Not pulling, but holding. It is an accident, but I am so willing to give my entire self to such accidents. So, a person exploring the cosmos sometimes stops thinking and starts enjoying the stars.

Alisher Rakhat was born on January 11, 1995, in Karasaz aul of Rayimbek district, Almaty region. He graduated from Zhurgenov Kazakh National Academy of Arts where he majored in Cinema and Drama. His dramatical piece “Zhalgyzdyn zhary” (“Lonely Bride”) won the competition of young playwrights, which was held by the Kazakh Academic Drama Theatre named after Mukhtar Auezov (2015). In 2017, his play “Zhalagan men shyndyk” (“Lies and Truth”) won the competition “Dramatic Work Against Terrorism” organized by the Department of Religious Affairs of East Kazakhstan region, and was staged at the theater in Ust-Kamenogorsk. In 2017 his drama “Tugan kuninmen, anashym” (“Happy Birthday, Mom”) won the national contest “Tauelsizdik tolgauy” (Thoughts of Independence) in the nomination “Best play glorifying family values”. In 2018, with the play “Zhalagan men shyndyk” (“Lies and Truth”) won the third place in the republican competition of dramatic works “Yel tarikhy — Zher tarikhy” (History of the Country – History of the World), which was held in Taldykorgan. In 2018, the drama “Tugan kuninmen, anashym” (“Happy Birthday, Mom”) was short-listed for the “Drama.KZ” Modern Drama Festival. In 2019, the novel “Makhabbatam — constant” (“My love is constant”) was published. In 2019-2020, his works were published in literary newspapers and magazines, literary websites, including the Russian online magazine “Literra”, the newspaper “Қазақ әдебиеті”, sites “Әdebiet portals”, “Мәdeniet portaly”, magazine “Adyrna”, newspaper “Zhas Alash”, web-portal “Қalamger”. On January 13, 2021 the premiere of the drama “Tugan künninen, anashym” (“Happy Birthday, Mom”) took place on the stage of the creative space “Өzge Epik” within the framework of the theater laboratory “Start Drama”. It was directed by Farhad Moldagali. Short story “Qara mysyktyn kozhayyny” (“The Black Cat’s Master”) won the incentive prize of the prose contest “Qala men Qazaq” (City and a Kazakh) and was translated into Russian, Turkish and English. For Kazakhs living in China, the two stories and the novel were written in Arabic script (Tote Zhazu, the Kazakh alphabet based on the Arabic script, developed by Akhmet Baitursynov) and published on several websites. One of the founders of the creative association “Burshaq”.

Aman (Amangeldy) Rakhmetov. A poet. He was born on June 3, 1995 in Uralsk (Kazakhstan), wrote his first poems in the military boarding school “Zhas ulan” at the age of 11. After graduating from school, he was enrolled into the Military Air-Force Academy named after N. Zhukovsky and Y. Gagarin, where he began to take poetry seriously. 2017 – took part poetry seminar “contemporary” held under the Union of Writers of the Russian Federation. Participated in literary readings at the Platonov Festival. The poem “The Earth revolves, and people…” was included in the collection “50 best literary works of Kazakhstan according to “Ansar”. 2018 – his poems were published in the magazine “Podyem”, “Thoughts”. Participant of the Voronezh regional convention of young writers.2019 – His first poetry book – “Almost” – comes out with a foreword by Vyacheslav Lyutoy. Publications in literary magazines “Moloko”, “Prostor,”“Kamerton” and in the newspaper “Literary Russia”. 2020 – Publications of poems in the magazines “Neva”, “Friendship of Nations”, “Formaslov”, “Dactyl”, “New Bank”, “Lift”, “Prostor”.Took part in the poetry workshop of the SEIP Foundation, supervised Anna Gedimin. 2021 – Graduate of the open literary school in Almaty, head of the poetry workshop Evgeny Abdullayev. Participant of the poetry seminar of the publishing house “Poetry”, head of the poetry seminar Alexey Alyokhin.Poems published in “Gostinaya” journal.

Back to AWR: essays about kazakhstani identity from participants, part 2


Irina Gumyrkina

One of the problems of Kazakhstani literature is fragmentation. Kazakh-language literature exists separately from Russian-language literature. And from this another problem follows — the absence of institutionalized translation practice. The Russian-speaking reader, as well as the Russian-speaking author, has no opportunity to get to know the works of Kazakh-speaking authors, namely modern ones. Whereas the classics have been translated during Soviet times, translation is a huge failure in the modern literary process. Everything that is out there is thanks to the sheer enthusiasm of the writers and poets who engage in translations only within the framework of seminars or simply do it for themselves. There is no such formulated objective — to translate the modern authors writing in Russian into Kazakh and vice versa, on any significant scale. 

Some authors attempt to fill this gap by publishing books in two languages. Last year a bilingual children’s book by Kazakhstani authors Elena Klepikova and Ksenia Zemskova, “Quarantine People”, was published. However, this is a very labor-intensive, time-consuming and costly process. While children’s literature justifies this approach in terms of audience coverage and distribution, this is unlikely to be the case, for example, with poetry. 

However, some Kazakhstani Russian-speaking poets have found their way co-habitation with the Kazakh language. They use bilingualism as an element to emphasize their Kazakh-ness. While the implementation of bilingualism in literary writing itself is far from a new trope, it is the use of Kazakh words or whole phrases that indicate a kind of symbiosis between the two linguistic cultures. It is difficult to say whether Kazakh-speaking authors use the same technique, given the aforementioned fragmentation of Kazakhstani literature.

Another problem is the lack of a unified platform where Kazakh-speaking and Russian-speaking authors would get to know each other. There is the literary magazine Prostor in Kazakhstan, which publishes only authors who write in Russian. And there is the online literary magazine Daktil, which, due to the lack of the translation institution and thus the lack of support from such an institution, has no opportunity – much as one would like to – to publish works in the Kazakh language.

The fragmentation is also in the fact that the Kazakh literary process is focused mainly in Almaty, partly in the capital, and in Shymkent, but it is local, not unified to the point where it could be discussed as a whole. And there is yet no possibility of uniting writers and poets from all over Kazakhstan. Although it would certainly be an advantage for Kazakhstani literature to be able to bring the two linguistic cultures together and progress in the same direction, on the same level, complementing each other.


Shapagat Serdaliqyzy

In our society, smart people hire people who are smarter than they are. We are all in fact either hired slaves or sellers of our labor and intelligence. To avoid starvation and to meet our most basic needs, we have to work for someone. We delude ourselves by thinking that we are doing it for our country or to benefit the company we work for. Many of us don’t have the courage to admit that we are just trying to survive.

Even if our work means nothing to society, we keep at it. Because we are afraid of being short on money, worried about food for ourselves and our family, not being able to pay our loans. These insecurities make us take jobs that we don’t like and find pointless.

On the one hand, it reveals willingness to submit to others. This phenomenon can be linked to “economic crime,” when an employer pays you money and forces you to do work that does not benefit the country’s economy.

This is discussed at length in David Graeber’s book, “Bullshit Jobs. A Theory.” Looking into what he believes to be pointless activities, he searches for answers to three basic questions:

 1. Why do people agree to engage in meaningless labor?

 2.What economic and social factors contribute to the proliferation of useless activities?

3. Why doesn’t any political scientist or cultural scientist consider it a serious social problem that the modern economy is turning into one based on meaningless labor? Why does no one seek to resolve this problem?

In analyzing the social problems linked to these issues, the author focuses on the fact that people engaged in work they don’t like treat this situation as  “normal.” He poses the question of how such “normality” arises. As you read this book, you begin to ponder the fact that the new activities that have emerged in today’s society can be very costly to the society. You begin to realize that this book is an important study of the twenty-first century labor market. You begin to pay attention to how the people around you make a living. In addition, when you think about the people you know, you wonder if what they do is good for society and what would change if that kind of activity would be cancelled.

Graeber, the author of “A Treatise on Meaningless Labor,” denies the idea that some activities and jobs are disappearing as a result of technological progress.  In his view, by examining the concept of pointless activities, it is possible to understand the essence of complex social problems of today.

The publication of this book triggered an outcry from businessmen, economists, financiers, sociologists, politicians, and specialists in other fields.  One could even say that a bomb exploded in the minds of all these people, and their rusty brains got dusted off and started working again.

The author uses concrete facts and compelling arguments to prove that there are meaningless activities in any field. Although the labor is pointless, the author discusses the common practice, the company or state funds are allocated for employees’ salaries.

It also leads to real professionals in many institutions settling for small salaries, while their bosses, even if he or she does nothing, gets much more simply because he or she holds a higher position.

According to the author’s research, some institutional heads hire assistants and secretaries, even if they don’t really need them. Some supervisors do this in order to give the impression of an “authority.” In this way they want to emphasize the public utility of their activities.

From the point of view of economic efficiency, a company should not pay salaries to workers it does not need. However, in reality things are different. Many companies now have deputy managers, personal secretaries, and personal drivers. But are these positions really necessary? Will the work stop if they do not show up?

Unfortunately, there are many workers in the job market who are willing to do meaningless work, and those who offer such work. There is still no system that determines the usefuloness of jobs. Executives who do not preform on high managerial level, but manage the financial resources of their companies, copy the management system of other companies and hire employees. As a result, jobs appear not because of production needs, but simply because some manager has decided to do so. Technological progress is not having the impact that we expected. The number of specialists and new activities is growing proportionately with technologies. And there still many of those asking the question “What is the point of such activities?”

Think about it: there are positions that seem unnecessary to an outsider. For example, in the administration of companies or public service. Nevertheless, these employees emphasize the importance of their work in every possible way, although they know that in fact it makes little sense. They feel that they do not bring any benefit to the organization, but they do not show it. Over time, they masterfully get into the role of loving their job. They become the boss’s yeasayers, their aggressive advocates trying to “patch up” problems that arise, scapegoats, and zealous control freaks. Technology allows them to use five days to do simple tasks that can be easily managed in one. Don’t you have to show everyone how important you are to the company? So they get trapped in meaningless work and can’t get out of it. “Such people make a habit of subjecting themselves to moral abuse.” The result is a growing number of dissatisfied people who blame themselves for not doing anything useful. They become discouraged and may even commit suicide.

To prevent such consequences, we must seriously consider why society is indifferent to criticism of a growing number of meaningless activities.

People love to talk about freedom. But at the crucial moment they are ready to tie their hands and feet by pointless work. People don’t really understand what real freedom means. They think superficially. In order to make Kazakh society think about this problem, we need to translate into Kazakh David Graeber’s book “Bullshit Jobs. A Theory” After all, we have many useless institutions and ministries. Maybe someone will think about it… Not only novels about lakes and deserts are worth the attention, business literature is important as well.

Irina Gumyrkina graduated from the poetry seminars of the Open Literary School Almaty (2017-2018 and 2020-2021) Winner of the “Russian Poetry World Cup 2017”, the All-Russian literary festival-competition “Crystal Spring 2018”, finalist of several seasons of the competition “45 gauge” and the festival “Russian Stil” (Germany, 2017). She was among the winners of the VI International Literary Competition dedicated to the memory of writer K. Simonov (2016), the literary competition of the Stradivarius Drum Arts Festival (Israel, 2017), she was in the long list of the “Russian Prize” (2016), the long list of the literary prize named after I. Annensen (Germany, 2017). I. Annensky (2019) and the Lyceum Prize (2020). participant in the literary festival in Kazakhstan (2019). Author of books of poems “Through Darkness and Light” (Almaty, 2020) and “Properties of Things” (Moscow, 2021).

Beketbayeva Shapagat Serdalikyzy was born on January 20, 1995, in the village Tartogai of Shieliysky district,Kyzylorda region. She studied to be a journalist. Since high school, she has won district, regional, city and national competitions. Her stories dealing wth religious themes brought her the first and third places.Her works were published in newspapers and online at madeniportal.kz, adebiportal.kz, abai.kz, massaget.kz, bugin.kz, alashainasy.kz, ult.kz, skifnews.kz, almaty.tv/kz, http://www.oinet.kz, qazbrand.info, asiainfo.kz, osken-onir.kz, halyqline.kz, qarmaqshy-tany.kz.She worked as a journalist and editor of the information portal Skifnews.kz, freelancer of the international platform “Cabar.asia” (Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting) (for more than two years), as well as a correspondent of the regional newspaper “Kasipker kelbeti” (Portrait of a businessman) and the national magazine “Kasipker zhane mendeniet” (Businessman and culture), as a journalist for the national publishing house “Orda.kz”.

Back to AWR: essays about kazakhstani identity from participants

In September of 2021, the Almaty Writing Residency welcomed its first cohort of poets, fiction writers and essayists. Centering on the theme of Kazakhstani identity, the six writers chosen to participate considered the past, present and future of Kazakhstani literature and the multifaceted challenges facing Kazakhstani writers.

Drawing on partnership with the US Embassy and the Iowa Writer’s Program, the residency did not simply ask this question in the context of Kazakhstani literature — but rather, in the context of literature as a global conversation that transcends the linguistic and cultural realities of one country. A diverse founding team that this year included translator and poet Nina Murray and poet and cultural diplomat Christopher Merrill established the residency as a meeting ground for diverse languages, ideas, and ultimately a launchpad for Kazakhstani literature into the world.

While the residency concluded on September 22, the questions raised by the writers, guest speakers and authors remain unanswered — as is, perhaps, the nature of all good questions.


(Contemporary Kazakhstani literature: working languages and publication opportunities)

Akzhan Amanzhol

Nowadays, as globalization has taken root, the ability of society to be competitive as well as the national identity has not lost its importance. In this regard, the language issue has received special attention in the cultural and literary sphere. 

It may seem that modern Kazakhstani culture needs a kind of bridge connecting the two languages. This is noticeable during various events that take place and in the literary process on the whole. Sometimes there is a feeling that for this very reason it may be difficult for authors to find their place in the modern literary space, to exchange views with like-minded people.

Nevertheless, I have noticed that recently there have been projects aimed at developing a dialogue between authors writing in the Kazakh and Russian languages. Among those I would point out the project MÄTIL, held within the framework of STYQ online. The word “MÄTIL” is derived from the words ” мәтін ” (text) and ” тіл ” (language). The project comprises three blocks — exhibitions, panel discussions and translation workshops — and aims at creating language practice in the field of culture. This practice focuses on the language of contemporary art, dialogue between authors, and literary translation. 

At this year’s Literary Translation Workshop, Kazakh and Russian-speaking poets translated each other’s texts. They also had the opportunity to exchange experiences with foreign writers. The workshop was conducted in Kazakh, English and Russian.

The MÄTIL panel discussions dealt with language initiatives. Professors and students of Nazarbayev University, philologists, art critics, translators, poets and other representatives of the activist part of the society were engaged in the discussions. They would bring up language related issues, share their experiences and opinions about the interaction of languages. 

During the panel discussion entitled “Тіл бастамалары” (“Language Initiatives”), held as part of this project, the speakers discussed the activities of initiative groups and public movements, created to solve the problems related to the functioning of the Kazakh language. Among them are QazSoz [1], QazaqBubble, QazaqshaJaz [2] and the Solakaylar [3] literary club, which is engaged in literary translation. The initiators of these projects, young people, talked about the importance of increasing the prestige of the Kazakh language, about the changes that have occurred in the language culture, and about common problems. This example shows society takes interest in the language. 

I often see endeavors like that in literary life, namely in the field of poetry. It is gratifying to see joint poetry evenings and meetings of Kazakh and Russian-speaking poets. Such initiatives provide authors with an opportunity to publish their work and reach diverse audiences. 

I believe that such exchange of experience is one of the most effective ways to strengthen ties between authors who find themselves in active creative search and to broaden their understanding of the literary process.

[1] QazSoz – translates as “Kazakh word”

[2] QazaqshaJaz – “write Kazakh”

[3]  Solakay– «left-handed person», which can mean – «a person not taking others’ opinions into account» 


Nuraina Satpaeva

I was born in the city of Atyrau, and it takes just one step across the bridge to move from Asia to Europe. I lived in the Soviet Union and it took just one December dawn to wake up in the Republic of Kazakhstan. At the click of the clock’s second-hand, I turned from a resident of the twentieth century into a Generation X person, who has seen times without the Internet. And Covid-19 forced me to balance between “offline” and “online”.

Existing at the junction of continents and eras, cultures and concepts, I often feel uneasy, unable to feel like I belong to any particular community:

–  Kazakh by nationality, but writing and thinking in Russian;

– A software engineer by profession, but a novelist and playwright by vocation;

– A woman with an Eastern upbringing, but a European education.

I watch Kazakh cinema, whose stories seem copied from foreign movies. Even the sound of the cue from the first scenes, imbued with the rustle of dry grass and the rumble of the wind, seems foreign. I read modern Kazakhstani authors, and sometimes it is not easy to feel the nationality of the characters and where they come from. The names of the characters have become international, the events that happen to them can happen anywhere in the world, and it only requires a change of names and place, and the impression of the uniqueness is lost.

One wonders how, for example, the American writer Khaled Hosseini, who left Afghanistan as a child, managed to preserve his national identity and wrap his books in it. And why is it so difficult for authors living in Kazakhstan to make Kazakh heroes recognizable, and native steppes not similar to the prairies of Ernest Seton-Thompson?

I write my stories and plays in Russian, which immediately severs off Kazakh-speaking readers who make over 60 % of the population. I do not write in my mother tongue, and modern Kazakh authors are seldom translated from Russian into Kazakh, which automatically strips me of the status of a Kazakh author. But I don’t consider myself a Russian author either. To become a Russian writer, you must be born and live in Russia, like Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, and feel Russian with all your soul: the bright green of flooded meadows, strawberries beaded on a stalk of grass, a creaking wooden bridge across the river.

To be a Kazakhstani author these days, for me, means to be limited: limited in readership; limited in the subject matter, since there is always a fear that the work will turn out parochial and neglected by readers from other countries; limited in freedom of expression because of ethnicity and the phenomenon of “Uyat” (Kazakh for “shame”).

How to find balance in your work and your life? How to write about events in Kazakhstan and destinies of Kazakhs, preserving something unique, not thinkable in other countries? How to understand who you are — a Kazakhstani, Kazakh, or Russian writer?

I guess I have long decided for myself that I am a Kazakhstani author. Now it’s up to the reader.

Akzhan Amanzhol was born on March 31, 2001 in Almaty. Works under a pen name Ai kyzy (Moon girl). She is currently in her third year at the Zhurgenov Kazakh National Academy of Arts majoring in “Film Dramaturgy”. She is head of the poetry group “Qoltanba” (“Autograph”). Since 2018, it has held creative meetings and poetry evenings. Her poems were published on a republican level in newspapers “Kazak әdebietі”, “Ұlan”, “Madeniet” magazine, Internet portals “Massaget”, “Qalamger”, “Әdebiet portals”.She is a member of the creative association “Burshaq”.From October 14, 2017 to February 10, 2018, she participated in the Youth Literature Workshop of the Almaty Open Literature School, where she took the prose master class led by Dina Makhmetova and Aizhan Akhmet. The works written at the time were included in a collection of stories “Zheke kenistik” (“Personal Space”).In August-November 2019, she was the editor of the website of the Union of Writers of Kazakhstan.

Nuraina Satpayeva lives in Almaty. She graduated from Kazakh Technical University as a systems engineer. She studied at Almaty Literary School. She participated in the forum of young writers in Lipki, the Children’s Writers Forum of the SEIP Foundation. Laureate of Litodrama contest, finalist of Grand Remark contest, semi-finalist of Voloshin festival, Lubimovka contest, Badenweiler contest, Author to the Stage contest. She was published in the magazines NevaSibirskie OgnyLiterraNovaNovaya Yunost, and in a collection of short stories by AST Publisher and the SEIP Foundation.

A Life-Critical Need – interview with Kseniya Rogozhnikova and Mikhail Zemskov, part 2

Students of the Open Literary School of Almaty. Mikhail as a head is observing from the side

— You established the Almaty Open School of Literature in 2009. Mikhail, you told an amazing story of its emergence (and of the school that preceded it) when we talked one day. I would like to ask you to tell it to the readers as well…

M.Z.: The Open Literary School of Almaty actually continued the work of the Musaget Foundation, which existed from 1997 to 2008. Kazakhstani writer, philologist and teacher Olga Markova created the foundation. The major activity of the fund was to hold literary master classes – three-month courses in writing skills, which were held three times a year. Once I graduated from the very first literary workshop in 1998. In addition to the literary courses, the foundation published the literary magazine Apollinarium, maintained a literary portal on the Internet, held various literary and educational events, and later opened a publishing series. The major activities of the foundation were in turn financed by the Dutch foundation Hivos. Olga Markova died in 2008, and the foundation ceased to exist. My wife Ksenia Rogozhnikova and I were living in Moscow at the time, and Ksenia was studying at the Higher Literature Courses of the Institute of Literature. She had also graduated from the Musaget workshop, and that is where we met. We returned to Almaty in 2009 and felt a complete emptiness in the literary life of the city without the foundation and its projects. We really missed the literary events, communication with like-minded people, lectures and conversations about literature. That is why we turned to our friends and acquaintances from the Musaget Foundation, mainly the alumni of the previous master classes, and suggested creating our own literary school, the Open Literary School of Almaty (OLSA). We mainly recruited teachers from Musaget at the beginning, and later we started inviting the most interesting teachers from different Almaty universities. Compared to the Musaget courses we expanded the program, the duration of the course was not three months, but eight. We made it very close to the program of Higher Literature Courses of the Institute of Literature, we expanded the practical seminars, and we launched seminars on dramaturgy and children’s literature in addition to seminars on prose and poetry.  Recently, a seminar on literary criticism was also held. Some time later, in addition to literary courses, the OLSA started launching other projects — various literary events, even up to large festivals, seminars for teenagers. The Almaty Writers’ Residency was launched two years ago. Last year, the Qalamdas literary prize has started.

— By the example of your students, but not only: what do contemporary writers in Kazakhstan care most about, about texts, about meanings? Including the youngest ones, whose two books you’ve published (I’ve held them in my hands and read them; the newest one is quite a weighty volume).

M.Z.: Generally speaking, the concerns range from history to social issues to personal relationships. A lot of young authors write fiction. I’m interested in different periods of history – from pre-revolutionary history of Kazakhstan to events of revolution, Stalin repressions and jute, famine in Kazakhstan in 1931-1933. That seems to me somewhat surprising: I am interested in late-Soviet history – 70-80s of the twentieth century, the related texts  I have met more often than the texts about the 90s, for example, despite the fact that the 90s seem much more dramatic and eventful. At the same time, in 2022, after the January events in Kazakhstan and later events in Ukraine, there was a sharp growth of interest in acute social and historical topics related to the search for one’s own Kazakhstani identity, comprehension of history in terms of imperial/colonial past and post-imperial/post-colonial present, inheriting old behavioral patterns and worldview and their expression in a world that has rapidly changed over the past twenty years.

K.R.: Let me explain right away, or the day after the interview there will be a queue for publications in weighty volumes (smiles). We are talking, of course, about the collections that can be formed of stories written at children’s and youth literary workshops, which are projects sponsored by the U.S. Consulate General in Kazakhstan and Chevron. We accept children and teenagers from 13 to 21 years old to participate in these workshops. Workshops are held once a year in Kazakh and Russian.

I like the fact that there are a lot of Kazakh themes in the texts of teenagers, they write about the legends their grandmothers told them, about occasions that happened in auls, they even write fiction based on Kazakhstani material. The authors at the LitSchool seminars have the same tendency: more stories about us, about Kazakhs and Kazakhstanis.

— I can’t resist asking, where can graduates of your school publish in Kazakhstan? I know about the magazine Daktil, which I am personally very interested in. How important is it to contemporary Kazakh/Kazakh literature. What else is important?

M.Z.: Yes, first of all Dactil. In just a few years this magazine has become probably the main bilingual platform for modern Kazakh literature. In addition, there are Russian-language magazines such as Prostor, a “thick” literary magazine that has survived since Soviet times, another young electronic magazine called Angime, the annual almanac LiterraNova, and Kazakh-language magazines such as electronic magazine Adebiet Portaly, Zhuldyz (also since Soviet times, the official organ of the Kazakh Writers Union), and Kazak Adebieti.

K.R.: In addition to Daktil (www.daktil.kz), where one can publish in Kazakh and Russian, there is also the trilingual Angime (https://www.angime.com/), whose editors try to do translations of texts into English as well. There is also the Alma Review project (https://thealmareview.wordpress.com/), which publishes reviews and articles about Kazakhstani authors in English.

– Ksenia, I managed to read your book Little Quarantine People, published in the covid year of 2020 (which is actually about the covid situation) during my short stay with you. How important was it for you to tell this story for young readers? It’s also about overcoming maybe not fully realized stress, putting anxiety into a playful and entertaining form, which I think is important…

K.R.: “Little Quarantine People” turned out to be a kind of escape from quarantine. I gladly got involved in writing the story so I wouldn’t go crazy at home with two small children and one older one. The three of us wrote the story: Elena Klepikova and I as co-authors and my daughter Lydia as the protagonist. We only had to peek, take notes in time, and give all the quarantine “splashes” and phrases in the style of Chukovsky’s From Two to Five the right facet of the plot and adventures. It is good that this book has performed a double function : first, it helped the authors to pass the forced sitting in four walls, and secondly, it became interesting for children readers.

— This book and The Queen’s Crawl, or Times of Change are co-authored by you and Elena Klepikova, whom you have already mentioned twice. Tell us a little about your co-author. How do you work together? Do you write in fragments or in some other way? How is your collaboration structured?

K.R.: Elena and I met in 2010, and within a year we began teaching at prose and children’s literature seminars at the LitSchool together. After six or seven years of teaching together, we began to feel that we could follow up on any idea each other had in common. That’s when the idea arose to try writing in co-authorship, and our first book was a book of poetry, a book-dialogue called Two Letters, which came out in 2018. For two years, beginning in 2016, we exchanged letters written in the form of tankas, hokkas, tankas, and beatankas-creating a kind of contemporary ranga, poetry dialogue. In 2018, we also edited each other’s books: for Elena it was my novella for teenagers, In the Rhythm of Salsa, and I edited her quest, The Mystery of the Blue Web. It was only in 2019 that we wrote our first teen novel together, The Queen’s Crawl or Times of Change, which was published in Russia by Meshcheryakov Publishing House.

When we realize that we have an interesting story, we can spend hours on end discussing and sketching out the plot, describing major and minor characters, inventing their hobbies, dreams, and inner conflicts. We usually write chapter by chapter, then edit, proofreading and correcting each other’s chapters, and bringing the style to a common denominator. After two or three edits, when we feel that the text has “sung”, we let the story rest and return to it later, engaging beta-readers, after whose comments we arrange the major editing.

Kseniya Rogozhnikova and Elena Klepikova

— As for the stories: how much of it is reality, and how much is fiction?

M.Z.: It depends. There is probably none in which fiction is 100%. But there are no 100% documentaries either. Most of the time it’s about 50%/50%, I guess, but the scale can shift left and right. But what’s funny is that many of those stories that may seem fantastic or readers think they are outright fiction are actually based on real events and details such as the search for the Gospel of John in the steppes of Kazakhstan in Sectarian or the method and techniques of regressive hypnosis in Gabriel Saxophone.

— Your work on the word is also interesting. I was surprised at how stereoscopic the text is. Usually, when I read, I notice extra words that I, as an editor, would cross out. But in your book, the text is sharpened with a sharp blade. Tell me, does this happen to you by itself or do you work with language in a special way? For example, how many edits does your manuscript go through?

M.Z.: I do not like unnecessary words or deliberate “beauties” in the text, I prefer a minimalist style (although I do not consider myself a minimalist). So, yes, I am usually very strict about my text in an editorial way and try to get rid of extra words, superfluous turns and images. After writing a manuscript it usually goes through at least two revisions.

— How do you see the future of Kazakh/Kazakh literature? I mean in terms of language, distribution, and other aspects.

M.Z.: It seems to me that first of all Kazakh literature (both in Kazakh and Russian) will try to make its way to the Kazakh reader, I hope that in the coming years it will be more successful in this than before. For objective reasons connected with the problems of the Kazakhstani book market, which I mentioned above, a wide audience of Kazakhstani readers still knows very little about modern Kazakhstani authors and their works. But small shifts are already observed. Also in the last 2-3 years the growth of interest to the modern Kazakhstan literature by foreign researchers and philologists is noticeable. It is hoped that the rather narrow interest of scholars will grow into a broader interest of publishers and literary journals, and then – of readers. As for the future of the language, it seems to me that the number of books in Kazakh will undoubtedly grow. But literature in Russian will also develop. Ideally, I would like to see an increase in the number of literary translations from Kazakh into Russian and back. This would help both the mutual enrichment of Kazakh and Russian-language literature, and the mutual increase in the readership, and the emergence of new themes and new points of view on the same events.

K.R.: It’s important for Kazakh literature now to be translated into English and other languages, to go to the West, to other countries. But here we have a translation problem. There is an acute shortage of literary translators in Kazakhstan, and their qualifications are often insufficient. We tried to solve part of the problem during our most recent Almaty Writing Residency 2022, where Kazakh-, English-, and Russian-speaking translators worked.

There is good news here as well: a collection of prose by Kazakhstani women writers was published this year in New York by Gaudy boy, and Amazon Publishing has also signed a contract to publish books in English by Kazakhstani children’s writers Lilya Kalaus and Zira Naurzbay.

This interview is translated by Almaty Writing Residency 2022’s translators seminar, namely Yulia Gubanova, Gulsaya Mazhenova, Catherine Petrikova, Meirzhan Kourmanov. Alma Review expresses gratitude to the translators!

Vladimir Korkunov is a poet, translator, critic, editor. Born in 1984 in the city of Kimry, Tver region. He graduated from the Moscow State University of Instrument Engineering and Computer Science and the Gorky Literary Institute. Candidate of Philological Sciences. Co-editor of the journals “Context” (2018-2019) and “Paradigm” (2019-2021). Poems and articles were published in many literary magazines. Author of the book of poems “The Last Concert of the Ghost Orchestra” (2021), the book of interviews “The Urge to Speak: 15 interviews with modern poets about life and literature” (2020), etc.

Kseniya Rogozhnikova (Zemskova) — poetess, children’s literature writer. Kseniya graduated from the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow. Her works have been published in a number of magazines such as “Dactyl”, “Literratura”, “Angime”, “Apollinaris”, Soloneba art-digest, Polutona, etc. She is an author of three and a co-author of four books. Kseniya also holds a workshop on prose and children’s literature in the Almaty Open School of Literature. She is currently based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Mikhail Zemskov — prose writer, playwright. Born in Almaty, Mikhail graduated from KazGU (Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics) in 1996, and VGIK (Screenwriting Department) in 2003. Mikhail’s works were published in various magazines, including “Apollinaris”, “October”, “Friendship of Peoples”, etc. He was announced Laureate of the Russian Prize (2005) with a collection of novels and short stories named “Alma-Ata Stories”. He is also a Laureate of the mono-play competition called “The Man” (2007). Mikhail is a founder and leader of the Almaty Open School of Literature and author of four books. Currently lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  

A Life-Critical Need – interview with Kseniya Rogozhnikova and Mikhail Zemskov, part 1

On literature in Kazakhstan, Open Literary School of Almaty and their own artistic endeavor.  Interviewed by Vladimir Korkunov.

Kseniya Rogozhnikova and Mikhail Zemskov are partners not only in life, but also in literature. They write in almost every genre: children’s and adult poetry, children’s prose, literary criticism (Kseniya), adult prose, dramatic art, and film scripts (Mikhail). With the same loving attitude to all aspects of the family life, they are raising together three beautiful kids.    

Another child of the couple is the Almaty Open School of Literature, which has trained hundreds of young (and not too young) writers in Almaty. And now, thanks to the method learnt during the covid years, number of authors joining from other countries is constantly growing. All the above mentioned constitutes a solid base for an interview, but I was mostly curious to know about what’s happening in the Kazakhstani literature: where it is going, how it is developing, and, of course, who are the stars of our days we should immediately read (from Kseniya’s and Mikhail’s point of view). That is why the interview came out to be ‘multidimensional”, just like the interviewees.  

Kseniya, Mikhail, the way to literature is often paved in a family, e.g., with children’s readings. I suppose, you both grew up in the company of books. How did you find yourselves in literature? 

Mikhail Zemskov: True, there were lots of books in our house. I grew up in a family of city intellectuals: my mother and grandmother were university professors; my father was an engineer. But I must say I became interested in literature “by a reversal of logic” – I didn’t quite like those soviet children’s books I used to read to my little brother. So, I started writing stories for him myself. That’s how it began. 

Kseniya Rogozhnikova: Mother got me a subscription to the Krylov library when I was in the 2nd grade. I ended up going there almost every week till the 8th grade. A couple years ago I had a chance to revisit the Krylovka within the campaign for my book called “In the Rhythm of Salsa”, where I met many adorable schoolkids. 

— Your teachers in literature (I am referring to books here) – are they mostly Russian, or Kazakh? Or, maybe, different ones?

K.R.: As a kid, I used to devour books by Vladislav Krapivin, Yuri Koval, Yuri Tomin. I still love going over and re-reading Fazil Iskander, Jane Austen, and Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I have recently discovered another beautiful author – Narine Abgaryan.  

As for the Kazakh-language authors, I read them only in translation. It is “The Lonely Yurt” by Smagul Yelubai, poetry by Mukagali Makatayev and Ardak Nurgazy. In terms of poetry, as a teenager, I adored the Silver Age poets: Marina Tsvetaeva, early Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhamova… Years later, I could get my hands on the uncensored poetry of the Soviet period. 

M.Z.: I would say, it was mostly the 20nd century European literature. I discovered its true nature (I mean the true power of literature – when it gets deeply into you and influences your beliefs, your mindset, your emotional state, etc.) after reading Camus, Hesse, Hamsun, Sartre, Cortazar, Ionesco, and Kundera. And a bit later, through the prism of the 20nd century European literature, I discovered the Russian classic literature in a new light: Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, and Leskov. 

If we talk about Kazakh and Kazakhstani literature (by the way, tell me which is correct), what key books/authors would you highlight/recommend? Who are the “must-reads” for a Russian reader?

K.R: For sure: Anuar Duisenbinov, Zair Asim, Aleksey Shvabauer, Pavel Bannikov, Yuriy Serebryanskiy. As for Kazakhstani children’s writers: Tonya Shipulina, Adeliya Amraeva, Zira Naurzbayeva and Lilya Kalaus.

The issues of identity are not simple: there can be Kazakh authors, and Kazakhstani Kazakh-speaking authors, similar to Kazakhstani Russian-speaking authors, and Kazakh Russian-speaking authors (some authors are Kazakh by nationality, but write in Russian). It all depends on how one defines oneself.

M.Z.: First of all, I would recommend Abai. He was the first to most fully convey the traditional worldview, philosophy and culture of the Kazakh people. Ilyas Yessenberlin, Abdizhamil Nurpeisov, Mukhtar Auezov, Smagul Yelubai, Rollan Seisenbayev – the classics of Soviet and late Soviet literature. As for the most modern literature, there is a good collection “Read Kazakhstani” (“Читай казахстанское”) available on bookmate.com electronic library. The collection, which was made by the literary school of Almaty as part of cooperation with the website, included the best Kazakhstani literature pieces of the last 30-40 years (available in electronic format).

Mikhail and Kseniya in Almaty’s mountains

I notice that some books released in Kazakhstan are given in bilingual format: in the Kazakh and in the Russian languages. Including yours, Ksenia. What is it done for? Just to draw attention to the Kazakh language?

K.R.: I have always dreamt about publishing my books in Kazakhstan, both poetry and children’s literature, both in Russian and Kazakh. The dream came true in 2020, when our story for children “Little Quarantine People” (I write children’s literature mostly in co-authorship with my friend and colleague Elena Klepikova) won the “Altyn Kalam” award in the “Best Children’s Literature in Russian” nomination and was translated into Kazakh and published with the support of “Chevron” company.

People in Kazakhstan speak fluent Russian only in large cities, and not in all of them. In the West of Kazakhstan — in Aktau, Atyrau — they mainly speak Kazakh, and in the rural areas overall, too. Today, more and more people speak good Kazakh and English, for example, and can hardly speak Russian. Therefore, a bilingual book is, first and foremost, an expansion of children’s reading audience.

How are things with the Kazakh language in general? In Almaty, I heard Russian more often, which, of course, is convenient for me, but on the other hand, it is somewhat sad. How much attention does society pay to the national language?

M.Z.: The situation with the Kazakh language differs depending on the region of Kazakhstan. Now we have more monolingual regions where Kazakh prevails – southern and western parts of the country. At the same time, there are regions where Russian remains the main language of communication – these are the northern regions of Kazakhstan, as well as Almaty and Astana. In general, the situation is changing, especially after February 2022. The events that took place, as I can see, caused an unprecedented wave of patriotism and the search for national identity in Kazakhstan, and this applies not only to ethnic Kazakhs, but also to representatives of all other ethnic groups living here – Russians, Ukrainians, Koreans, Uighurs, Germans, etc. First of all, this can be seen in the attitude to the Kazakh language. Many bilingual people now choose the Kazakh language for communication, many of those who did not know or had a poor command of the Kazakh language before, sign up for language courses, begin to study it on their own. This can be observed everywhere in everyday life. Over the previous 30 years of independence, quite a lot of various state language support programs were launched, but almost all of them stalled and did not bring the expected results. Now this is absolutely a “grassroots initiative”, which is why it should work.

K.R.: I’ve partially answered this question earlier. Now more and more Russian-speaking people in Kazakhstan are learning Kazakh. I hope that one day I will also be able to read books in the Kazakh language. I want to understand the language of my native country.

What about the book market? I dropped into a grocery store the other day — there were many Russian goods. What about the book sector?

K.R.: Unfortunately, it is almost similar. There’s a lot of popular psychology, finance, and business literature being translated into Kazakh. The situation gets worse when it comes to the fiction literature translations. However, as far as I know, Kafka has been translated into Kazakh recently. Though, I think, Joan Rowling’s “Harry Potter” in Kazakh appeared earlier.

Today new Kazakhstani publishers appear, they plan to publish Kazakhstani authors: for example, in children’s literature there is Tentek Publishing, and Zerde Publishing, which was established last summer. Tentek Publishing has already published Tonya Shipulina’s book “The Fly”. Maybe positive changes will happen in Kazakhstani children’s literature as well. Publishing poetry books at the expense of a publisher — is only a dream so far.

M.Z.: Unfortunately, it is very difficult for Kazakhstani publishers to compete with Russian ones because of incomparable distribution and marketing budgets. Large Russian publishers in Kazakhstan can afford much more in distribution, advertising, and other investments than Kazakhstani publishers. That is a big problem for the Kazakhstani book market, because there is a vicious circle: Kazakhstani publishing houses cannot support Kazakhstani authors, authors write less or publish (or try to publish in Russia), and books of Kazakhstani writers do not reach their readers. As a result, it seems like Kazakhstan doesn’t have its own literature, and the easiest way for bookstores is to purchase books from Russian publishing houses, so Kazakhstani publishing houses are left without money and budgets for future publications

— How actively do publishers support authors? Otherwise, do the latter rather have to publish their books at their own expense?

M.Z.: The traditional rules of the book market for fiction do not really work in Kazakhstan, so the support of authors and any publishing projects is mostly done by enthusiasts or with the help of non-standard approaches and solutions —crowdfunding, attracting investors or sponsors, etc. Publishing books at your own expense is also widespread.

 K.R.: Rather at own expense. If we speak of publishing houses and book publishing in Kazakhstan, everything is rather sad. For example, many Russian-speaking children’s writers published their books in Russia until 2022. It is hard to say how events will develop further.

This interview is translated by Almaty Writing Residency 2022’s translators seminar, namely Yulia Gubanova, Gulsaya Mazhenova, Catherine Petrikova, Meirzhan Kourmanov. Alma Review expresses gratitude to the translators!

Vladimir Korkunov is a poet, translator, critic, editor. Born in 1984 in the city of Kimry, Tver region. He graduated from the Moscow State University of Instrument Engineering and Computer Science and the Gorky Literary Institute. Candidate of Philological Sciences. Co-editor of the journals “Context” (2018-2019) and “Paradigm” (2019-2021). Poems and articles were published in many literary magazines. Author of the book of poems “The Last Concert of the Ghost Orchestra” (2021), the book of interviews “The Urge to Speak: 15 interviews with modern poets about life and literature” (2020), etc.

Kseniya Rogozhnikova (Zemskova) — poetess, children’s literature writer. Kseniya graduated from the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow. Her works have been published in a number of magazines such as “Dactyl”, “Literratura”, “Angime”, “Apollinaris”, Soloneba art-digest, Polutona, etc. She is an author of three and a co-author of four books. Kseniya also holds a workshop on prose and children’s literature in the Almaty Open School of Literature. She is currently based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Mikhail Zemskov — prose writer, playwright. Born in Almaty, Mikhail graduated from KazGU (Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics) in 1996, and VGIK (Screenwriting Department) in 2003. Mikhail’s works were published in various magazines, including “Apollinaris”, “October”, “Friendship of Peoples”, etc. He was announced Laureate of the Russian Prize (2005) with a collection of novels and short stories named “Alma-Ata Stories”. He is also a Laureate of the mono-play competition called “The Man” (2007). Mikhail is a founder and leader of the Almaty Open School of Literature and author of four books. Currently lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  

“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»