If only David McCullough could write about Kazakhstan

I have read several of David McCullough’s historical books. He seems to be fair and honest in his appraisals of past presidents and other relevant U.S. historical events.  An author of his stature has won many prizes for his thoroughness to detail. He culls through diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, anything that can shed light on his main character whom he writes about. Seems some of his books know no boundaries. The book on “Truman” is 992 pages long.  Since I’ve seen the movie titled “Truman” portrayed by Gary Sinise and have been to President Harry Truman’s library in Independence, Missouri, “Truman” would be a laudable read for me this summer. (what’s left of it)

I know when I read “John Adams” and later listened again to the book on tape, the many letters that were saved from his wife Abigail and Adam’s response to her were strongly edited I’m sure.  What I do recall while reading McCullough’s book is that our founding father, John Adams, had a deep and purposeful faith in God. That is very clear in his letters to Abigail when he was in England on important, diplomatic business. Meanwhile, she managed to struggle to maintain the house and farm back in Massachusetts in his absence.  Abigail no doubt had servants while raising a family. It came through while reading McCullough’s book that the Adams were both opposed to slavery.  It would be 100 years later that that issue, which could have been nipped in the bud earlier with the founding of our nation, was “settled” with the Civil War.

If a McCullough-type author would rise up in Kazakhstan, what would he have to do to write an accurate report about the last 100 years? Or, let’s go back 200 years when the tsars of Russia had dominance over the steppes of Central Asia?  Would the author find honest reports?  How would they test the accuracy of the information from the sources that would no doubt be in Russian?  Would there be deliberate distortion of facts once the Soviets took over in writing the history books of the great and powerful Soviet Union, thus obliterating Kazakhstan’s past?

Would there have been adventure seekers from Europe or specifically U.S. or England who would have written letters or accounts in English of what they saw while going along the old Silk Road to the south?  Those accounts would hardly cover the diversity of the land from the Tian Shan mountains to the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea in between with the vast steppes.

Was there a Max Penson type photographer who would have taken photos of the more recent past of Kazakhstan?  [Max Penson, at the bidding of the Soviets, went to Uzbekistan in the 1930s to take photos of the happy Uzbeks during forced industrialization.]  Penson got into trouble later by his authorities for exposing what was really happening to the land of Uzbekistan.

With oral history making a qualitative research comeback in ethnographic circles, are there stories that were courageously documented about what the Kazakh nomad went through when forced industrialization and collective farms replaced their livelihood of sheep and cattle herding?  My husband, back in the 1980s did what was called “The Soviet Interview Project” where he gathered info from former Soviets who had come to the U.S.  He was trying to find out more about Soviet agriculture.  All files have been lost from that project, were there any Kazakhs he interviewed in Russian during that time?

What can we learn about the Kazakh cultural values while we try to avoid imposing our western values on this group of people?  Sorry for all these questions that I bring up. What I try to do with my blog is to write in English the little bit that I learn about this fabulous country.  I am trying to give voice to the voiceless. Westerners are intrigued and some want to know more but others don’t even know what questions to ask to find out about this culture that has been tucked away and is perhaps the world’s best kept secret.

Let me put it another way.  What if I lived in a world that was reversed where everyone spoke Kazakh? It would be required that all people globally were to know how to speak in Kazakh, but our problem is that many of us only know English.  Perhaps we would not need a David McCullough type author after all because we would have stories handed down to us orally.  We would not need to go through the messiness of getting things written properly with good vocabulary and precise grammar.

As it is, westerners need something in writing about Kazakhstan that is true and accurate.  It would have to be written by a Kazakh who knows his/her own language and culture. McCullough writes superbly about U.S. history for his American audiences because he IS American.

Perhaps this is similar to when some people are gifted in doing music without reading the notes, it is just in them internally.  While others have been trained to read music so they can replicate what the composer intended.  If a musician has BOTH gifts of playing or singing by ear AND also reading the notes, now THAT is talent!!! Will the real Kazakh McCullough please stand up!!!

2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    KZBlog said,

    I really hope that when our leaders get old, they will write very honest biographies and talk about what their life and word was really like. It’s sad, but understandable, that they are building a sort of mythical history of independence but seriously how did these guys feel in 1991 when they suddenly found themselves in charge of a country? Not just Nazarbayev but Tokayev, Kazhgeldin, Akhmetov, Marchenko and all the people who contributed to this nation.

  2. 2

    kazaknomad said,

    The first person you mentioned, as president of Kazakhstan, has (ghost written in English) several laudable biographies. One in particular he goes into great detail of what it felt like for Gorbachev to be in hiding in the Crimea I think and their nervous anticipation of all things caving in around them back in 1991. He also explains what it felt like to change from the ruble currency to that of tenge. That was a top secret mission but he and other Kazakhs pulled it off. (I can’t remember the name of that biography) I think those accounts are accurate and the best we have in English about the angst this particular leader went through guiding a young independent nation of Kazakhstan in the early years.

    Perhaps the best we can hope for is a collaboration of the other VIPs you mention to pool their stories together starting 20 or 25 years ago. Yes, there seems to be a “independence” myth that is perpetuated but that would play well to western audiences who would read it in English. I wonder if it were first written in Kazakh (then translated into English) how it would sell?

    Thanks for your input about the other major contributors to Kazakhstan, who else are the unsung heroes? (to me they are the common, garden variety Kazakh who survived the Stalinist purges and the Great Patriotic War!!!)


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