“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»