Dr. Olcott’s “turn of phrase” about the Kazakhs

Dr. Martha Brill Olcott wrote a much more scholarly book about Kazakhstan, titled “The Kazakhs” than did Colin Thubron in his short chapters of “The Lost Heart of Asia.”  That is, if you can manage to navigate past the minute detail she got from her plethora of other “scholarly” sources.  My husband bought this book in 1992 which was published by Hoover Institution Press at Stanford in 1987.  Judging by Olcott’s sources, 100 western (in English, not counting her own) and around 350 Russian, obviously she knows Russian and adeptly translated all her sources. But my question is, are they accurate even though this volume on the Kazakhs was in a Hoover Institution series about the Crimean Tartars and Volga Tartars, Estonians and Georgians as well.

 

What is also obvious to me is that she shows a dearth of writings in the Kazakh language, only 17 that she documented in her bibliography.  My husband wrote in the margins of this book which he read over 17 years ago that he suspected Soviet or communist propaganda was bleeding through her Russian sources about the Kazakhs.  I would posit that someone else needs to write about the Kazakhs in English for curious western readers and have a more thorough going approach to the history of this great country.

 

What I found of interest in Olcott’s seminal work was in her Conclusion about Olzhas Suleimenov.  Remember as you read her words that it was before the Soviet Union dissolved and there was an internalized tug-of-war going on over the nationalities question.

 

“A group of Kazakh writers and historians has provided particular trouble for the regime because of their preoccupation with the Kazakh past and with the historical figures who helped shape it.  These individuals seek the right to present a Kazakh-centered view of history, one which implicitly rejects Moscow’s contention that all history must be told from the Russian point of view.  However, these people are often treated as though they have taken the first step toward ideological heresy.  A case in point is the book Az I Ia (Alma Ata, 1975), by the poet Olzhas Suleimenov, which seeks to retell the “Igor’s tale” from a Turkic perspective….

 

…Kazakh scholars may study individuals who opposed Russian conquest, but the conquest itself must still be depicted as voluntary submission by the Kazakhs, since Russian contact with the Kazakhs must always be construed as positive.  Because Suleimenov’s book reversed this relationship and denied the Russians a central role in the history of the medieval period, Moscow reacted furiously. (p. 253)

 

Still, Kazakh intellectuals remain preoccupied with preserving the historical legacy of their past, particularly since the economic policies of the 1960s and 1970s obliterated the nomadic way of life in all but the desert regions of the republic.  These intellectuals, like many of their Third World counterparts, are glorifying a past that poses them no direct risk.  They no longer have to suffer the wrath of traditional leadership, and so the past may be romanticized.  Many prominent contemporary Kazakh poets – such as O. Suleimenov and K. Murzaliev – and novelists – such as S. Sanbaev, A. Alimzhanov, and I. Esenberlin – have made their reputations from works that rely heavily on historical themes in a tradition as old as Kazakh oral literature itself.  Some of these writers, such as Suleimenov and Sanbaev, talk about the old values and tell tales about nomadic life before the revolution; others write historical novels about important personages in Kazakh history, such as Esenberlin’s Khan Kene (1971, about Kenisary Kasimov) and Kochevniki (1979, a three-volume portrait of Khan Abu’l Khayr).

 

These books, romantic treatments of times long past, reflect the influence of socialist realism as much as of traditional Kazakh themes; they are in no way meant to incite Kazakhs to resist Russians.  The books were published and many were widely distributed and translated as well; they are meant to portray the distinctive heritage of which all Kazakhs should be proud.  However, Moscow tends to view any increase in Kazakh national self-awareness as dangerous and so watches the Kazakh authors closely…” (p. 254)

 

“The philosophy of the Kazakh intellectuals is far more difficult to categorize and may ultimately be more dangerous.  Apparently harmless demands for greater Kazakh cultural self-determination potentially threaten the status quo, although the search for a modern Kazakhstan has thus far been restricted to cultural autonomy (witness Suleimenov’s reinstatement) – appear to have been met, and Moscow’s attack on erring Kazakhs has been relatively low-key.  Were the Kazakhs to demand greater control of their economic and political lives, they would be unlikely to receive a mild response.” (p. 255)

 

“The impact of the tradition of Kazakh secular nationalism on present political developments in Kazakhstan is difficult to assess, but some points are clear.  A minority in their own republic, the Kazakhs have managed to exert strong control not only in their political life but in cultural, social and religious affairs as well; they have politicized cultural issues in a way that other Central Asian nationalities have not.  As a result they have managed to preserve at least part of their history from complete reinterpretation by the Soviets.  Their literature is strongly linked to that of the prerevolutionary period, and although heavily ideological hack writers exist whose works receive wide distribution, they do not overshadow the large group of serious Kazakh writers.” (p. 256)

 

Yes, I would like to meet these serious writers, or at least read their works if translated into English.  I want to be able to read about this buried treasury of Kazakh history from what has been handed down orally for centuries.  I would hope that some of my own Kazakh students would take up this challenge and let the western world know what an amazing culture and country this really is!

 

 

2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    J. Otto Pohl said,

    I think Olcott’s book on the Kazakhs still stands as one of the better works on the history of the Kazakh people. My main problem with the book is that it does not deal adequately or ever really at all with the large number of non-titular nationalities in Kazakhstan. There is nothing on the Germans, Koreans, Uighers, Chechens, etc. The book instead tries to treat the ethnic Kazakhs in isolation as if the other nationalities in Kazakhstan did not influence Kazakh national history.

    Out of all the Hoover Institute books in the series on Soviet nationalities, the one on the Crimean Tatars by Alan Fisher is the best. He used a lot of Ottoman archival sources for the early part of the book and a lot of Crimean Tatar samizdat publications in the later part of the book. Hence he did not rely primarily upon official Russian and Soviet sources. This gives the book a much more Crimean Tatar rather than Russian and Soviet view point.

    That said, I think the source base problem is not one that can ever be completely overcome. Olcott used the best available sources at the time. Which of course were Russian language Soviet sources with a particular bias. But, even today most historical works on Kazakhstan and Central Asia are still written in Russian by people trained in the USSR. So the bias still continues to inform much of the scholarship on the region. There should be more emphasis on bottom up history using more sources including oral ones by ordinary Kazakhs. This is also true for Kyrgyzstan. I will be doing an oral history project on special settlers with some of students next semester. I purchased The Silent Steppe by Shayakhmetov, but have not started reading it yet. When I finish it I will put a review up on my blog.

    Happy New Year and keep up the good work. I will be back in Bishkek next week.

  2. 2

    kazaknomad said,

    Otto, I highly value your comments regarding Olcott. If she were to do an updated edition of her work, she would have to revamp quite a bit of what were conjectures or other things that we now know was part of the Soviet propaganda. Can’t get away from that. Yes, you are right, there needs to be a more comprehensive scholarly work done on all the nationalities that were dumped in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Perhaps that is what you are up to. Keep up the good work in your field of expertise. Do you know of an English translation of Stalin’s book on the nationalities question? Anyway, enjoy your time at home. It was nice to return to snowclad Almaty, the mountains is what does it for me.


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