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Folklore in the Nineteenth Century: Reflection of Russian Rule

Folklore in the Nineteenth Century: Reflection of Russian Rule - e-history.kz

It has been noted that early Kazakh folklore followed a relatively traditional pattern and was created by aqyns whose names were lost to posterity. The authors of the old Kazakh oral art were, in the words of the contemporary Kazakh writer and critic Sabit Mukanov, "the collective of anonymous aqyns and zhyrshy who created poetry and, in the course of centuries, embellished their original variants.” Kazakh cultural life in the nineteenth century was characterized by two new phenomena: the appearance of oral poetic works, composed in the main by known aqyns, whose productions reflected a new social and national content, and, in the second half of the century, the development of a written literature and the emergence of a national intelligentsia. These new currents in Kazakh culture were stimulated by the contact of the Kazakhs with Russian culture during the period of colonization. The impact of the invader on the Kazakhs brought to the fore varying attitudes toward the new rulers. The early aqyns of the eighteenth century sang in their poetry of the resistance to the Russians and of the fight against all things Russian. These revolutionary poets acted as spiritual and political leaders of the people and incorporated their names into their poetry, leaving no doubt as to their authorship. But as it became clearer that the Kazakhs must accept foreign rule, the later oral poetry reflected more and more trends of resignation, submission, and bitterness. Somewhat later in the century, a native intelligentsia emerged and with it the first beginnings of a national written literature made their appearance. This development was encouraged by varied influences, including the effect of the Kazan Tatar mullas, teachers and traders who were particularly active in the steppes during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the new Russian educational system, and the considerable number of Russian political exiles who spent many years in the Kazakh steppes.

Bukhar Zhyrau (c. 1693-1787)

A few remarks must be made about an eighteenth-century Kazakh poet, Bukhar Zhyrau, whose work anticipated the later social poetry and who departed from the traditional folklore forms and from the traditional objective attitude toward society. Bukhar was one of the first Kazakh poets whose name remained known to posterity. He was distinguished from the earlier poets, as he was not a wandering bard, but a bard with a definite and firm position in the entourage of khan Abylay. He might be described as a court poet, although one cannot speak of a Kazakh "court" in the traditional sense. By this time formal court life was somewhat more developed among the Kazakhs as the result of the influence of the sedentary societies to the south and of the gradual increase of power of local rulers. In most of his works Bukhar supported Abylay's policies of expansion and his efforts to unite the Kazakh tribal federation (el), which had been split into several hordes, in the face of the danger threatening it from Russia and China. His support was not, however, unqualified. In many respects his writings were similar to those of the didactic court poets of the Renaissance and also to the works of some of the eighteenth-century classic poets who considered it their duty to exert a pedagogic influence on the rulers or the princes. Such didactic works had been extremely popular long before Bukhar's writings in the sedentary societies of Central Asia, just as they had been in the Middle Ages in the West. Bukhar acted as advisor to the khan and it was in this capacity that he composed most of his poetry of advice and admonition.

The works of Bukhar do not appear to be influenced to any great extent by his adherence to the Moslem faith but are primarily concerned with political and moral questions of the day and abound in concrete allusions to historical situations, such as the negative advice which Bukhar gave to Abylay, when the latter was considering fighting the Russians:


Do not enter battle with the Russians;

Spare your people from war,

Your people who guard you like a precious stone.


There were instances in Bukhar's writings of sharp and bitter recriminations against the khan and even of social protest.


Oh, Abylay, Abylay,

Always victorious over the enemies,

And still you are not satisfied.

You have squeezed the people with extortions

You never think of the slaves of the tribe,

Must I tell you what kind of man you are?


Although Bukhar's works departed in many respects from the past, the old forms of traditional folk songs were often apparent in his works. Thus his zhoktau, composed at the occasion of departure from the native pasture lands in the flight from the advancing Kalmyks, follows the traditional pattern.


The Folklore of Revolt

By the latter part of the eighteenth century the Russians had begun their expansion into the land of the Kazakhs, and by 1858 they controlled the entire area of Kazakhstan. The Russian advance was met with fierce resistance by the population, whose pasture lands were increasingly restricted; and before the Russians could consolidate their rule over Kazakhstan they had to face a series of violent popular uprisings. Among the most important risings were the revolt in the 1790's in the western Kazakh steppes led by Syrym Datov, another rising in the early 1830's led by Isatay Taymanov and the aqyn Makhambet Utemisov, one in the early forties in the central Kazakh steppes, led by Kenesary Kasymov, the revolt under the leadership of Zhankhozha (1856), and the rising in the Aktyubinsk steppe led by Eset Kotybarov and Beket Serkebayev, the defeat of which in 1858 ended organized Kazakh resistance and firmly established Russian rule.

These revolts against the Russians found strong expression in the oral tradition of the period. A great number of poems and songs have been recorded which memorialize the uprisings and their leaders. Composed for the greater part by contemporary aqyns who were themselves often active and even leading participants in the uprisings, these songs are important not only as records of the bitter struggle, but also as significant weapons in the awakening of national consciousness. The names of only a few of the more important aqyns of this period have been preserved, e.g., Makhambet Utemisov, Doskozha, Nasynbay, and Sherniyaz. Their poetry, simple in style and language, was filled with a great popular energy, a feeling for the justice of the national cause, and an undying hatred of the Russians and their Kazakh collaborators. It is a poetry rooted in the tradition of the Kazakh heroic epic, with its worship of the brave hero, who was strong enough to defeat all enemies and preserve the integrity of the nation.

Among the most vivid reflections of the risings against the Russians are the songs of the aqyn Makhambet Utemisov (1804-1845) about the revolt led by Isatay Taymanov. Makhambet, who participated in this revolt as Isatay's close associate, can be regarded as the intellectual leader of the rising. As he knew Russian he was of considerable value to Isatay and carried out all of Isatay's negotiations and correspondence. Fortunately many of his songs have been preserved. They characteristically sing of the glories of the revolt and call on the people to rise to fight the invaders and their domestic helpers.

In his call for support of the people for the revolt, Makhambet described the need for merciless fight:


We must walk in mud up to our knees

So that we may pull ourselves out of it.

The one-humped black camel

Is needed by us for this.

For this we need a hero,

Not afraid of pain, even

If they should break all his ribs

One after the other.

We cannot now take that which is ours,

We cannot now, in great expanse,

Camp in our own fields -

A high-handed enemy has gripped us all around

In a tight vise.

Oh, men, we all are cursed

Cursed by our unhappy life.

Like free deer we went

To drink from the clear spring; like the wild horse

We grazed on the plains -

And now again we are hemmed in by an enemy.


He attacked in his poetry not only the national oppression of the Russians, but also the social oppression on the part of the khans and the tribal chiefs:


What good are golden thrones to the people,

What good are dashing khans to the people,

If there is no justice

For the weak and the poor?


In a poem which is probably his best known, «The Address of the Hero Makhambet to Sultan Baymagambet», he assails the tribal leaders who have betrayed their people by collaborating with the Russians: 


Khans like you and fat elders

I wanted to behead,

Make them bawl like camels,

So that they with mugs raised to the skies-

Would howl, remembering former dignity...

I wanted to break into your zhurt

With its snow-white cupolas

With my ax and hack to pieces its wooden frame

Like dry brush wood;

Your fine felt I wanted

To cut up for saddle cloth,

And your wives, oh you crowned khans,

I would take for my wives by force.


Not always, however, was Makhambet's poetry fiery and warlike. He could be soft and lyrical. When, in 1838, Isatay was killed in battle with a Russian punitive detachment, Makhambet's song was full of sorrow over the loss of a close friend and of a leader of the people:


O dismal, gloomy, dark was the day, full of grief,

The day, when a deep-hanging cloud covered up the sun.

The day when the evil breathing of the tornado sounded from the


When, in the midst of battle, the firm steel of the sword

Was broken-and lo, only the hilt remained whole;

The day, when the proud beautiful poplar

Could not withstand the blows.


This song follows the traditional form of the mourning song (zhoktau) and the song of notification of death (estirtu), in which the qualities of the deceased were extolled and in which frequently the deceased is metaphorically depicted as an animal or a plant.

Under the influence of Makhambet there developed a strong tradition of patriotic poetry. Bard after bard composed songs to memorialize uprisings during Makhambet's life and after his death. The revolt under the leadership of Kenesary Kasymov was immortalized in the songs of the aqyns Nasynbay and Doskozha, and the last large-scale uprising, defeated in 1858, was celebrated in the songs of an unknown aqyn which were discovered and written down at the end of the last century.

Nasynbay and Doskozha were active participants in Kenesary's uprising and composed their verse while fighting in the ranks, as had Makhambet Utemisov. When Kenesary, after several defeats by the advancing Russians, was forced to leave the old nomadic grazing grounds, Doskozha, who accompanied him, composed a farewell song (koshtasu) in which he sang with deep feeling of the suffering of his people and of the beauty of nature in the Kazakh steppe which they had to leave to the invader:


Farewell forever,

Cool mountain heights,

Green carpet of grass.

Never would we have left you,

But the enemy is pressing us.

On my native isles,

Where with the stag and the wild ram

Sheep herds were grazing.

I must leave you forever to save myself,

O my summer grazing ground.


He describes the sad fate of his people:


And the drowsy forest now

Remains behind, like an orphan.

My people, who live in these woods,

Will now be tortured with fierce longing.


In Nasynbay's songs there are already anticipations of a mood of disillusionment which was to become prevalent later. In his poem Kenesary-Nauryzbay, Nasynbay describes the last campaign of Kenesary's revolt and ends with a passionate mourning song, similar to the traditional zhoktau, in which he bemoans the death of the two revolutionary leaders:


Oh, rulers, khans, if my speech

Were only fiery:

Can the pheasant keep his feathers,

If the locusts are upon him?

And the goose, frightened by the owl,

Will he not fly high in the air, cackling?

How then can the people be strong,

Dragging their lives without a khan?

Like the larks we used to sing

But now, the whole nation is silent.

Is not this the end, my friends?

Now a lowly šaban13 talks rudely to us…

Oh, my deserted people!

You have lost your power and your peace.

Oh, people, we find ourselves

In the most dire misery.


The last great uprising against the Russians was memorialized by the unknown author of the forceful poem Beket-Batyr, dedicated to one of the leaders of the revolt. The poet tells how Beket collects a band of insurgents and attacks and kills the ruling sultan. Later he is betrayed to the Russians, captured, and sent into exile. On the road to Siberia, as the poem goes, his old mother finally reaches him to bid him farewell. She sings:


Oh my son, my stately tulpar,

I hurried to you, my tulpar,

Over the steppes, through meadows and woods.

If ever a fox would run out of the brush,

You would catch him with your hand.

And if the evil enemy would think to strike

Hotter than fire your eyes would glow,

And he would not dare approach.

And if you would choose a horse

You would always find a pacer.

O you bright falcon, my own begotten,

You have hitched a horse to your carriage

And left your mother for a distant land.

Have you no pity for your dear ones?

Be happy then, my beloved one.

But could it be that a son

Would throw over his mother and father?

O Beket, you are our only one;

Let me embrace you, my son.

Tell me where your path leads you.

O my own, my long awaited one,

My dearest, my beloved,

Come back to us soon.

The cruel news has spread,

That a misfortune has befallen you,—

At this your family was distressed

The people became upset.

The people remember that you are stronger than all.

They know that you are braver than all.

The aul is an orphan without you.

I ran to you like a mare

Whose udder is full,

But whose foal was taken long ago.


And Beket spoke in answer:


O my beloved mother,

My native home is far away.

Your son was a mettlesome horse

But now Beket is in captivity.

I am in the infidels' chains.

Farewell, beloved mother.

I had a sword and a lance,

I had two beloved horses.

But now I am disarmed,

My hands and feet are chained.

The Lord's world is no longer dear to me.

Grief is choking me.


On the way to Siberia, the poem tells us, Beket's wife, disguised as a Tatar trader, also reaches Beket and hands him a dagger with the aid of which he frees himself, returns home, kills the man who betrayed him, and continues to fight. The whole poem breathes the spirit of the heroic epos. The hero Beket is described with all the imagery and metaphoric devices which are used in the depiction of the epic batyr. The author of Beket-Batyr is only one of the many unknown aqyns who spread the spirit of revolt through the power of their songs. While the heroic epic was the form most commonly used as a model for the new songs, other traditional forms were also employed, as the zhoktau and estirtu in the song composed by Makhambet Utemisov at the occasion of the death of Isatay.


Poetry of Resignation

The defeat of the uprising under Eset Kotybarov and Beket in 1858 ushered in a period of unbridled Russian domination. The strong economic measures taken by the Russians, as well as the political domination and the Russification policies, brought about the disintegration of much of the old patriarchal and tribal structure. With the exception of a few sporadic uprisings, Kazakh resistance remained effectively broken during this period. As the era of revolt had found its echo in the heroic songs which expressed defiance and resentment, so the period after the defeat of the resistance witnessed its reaction of complete dejection, cynicism, and hopelessness expressed in a popular art which has been termed the poetry of the «time of lament» (Zarzaman). The artists of this era borrowed from the traditional songs of mourning in their descriptions of the hopeless fate of their people. Salvation was sought only in mysticism and in resignation.

This school of pessimism received its name from a poem by the chief exponent of this mood, Shortambay Kanayev (1808-1871). Shortambay, who had studied widely, clearly saw the changes that were taking place in Kazakh society and was probably the first Kazakh bard able to analyze the sweep of history and its effects on the people in something more than an immediate and subjective way. He sang of the destruction of the tribal patriarchal order, the introduction of mercantilism and its effects on the national traditions and on the moral fiber of the people. He sought salvation for his people in the return to the tribal patriarchal society of a past which he romanticized. In his poem Opasyz Zhalgan («Faithless Lying») he bemoans the unhappy fate of his people:


O unfortunate good people,

O ill-starred times,

God's anger, it seems, has

Struck you, my native land.


And he sadly paints the oppression by the Russians and their local helpmates:


Everywhere the enemy sets nets for us,

There's no freedom, wherever you may look.


He chides the people who, as a result of the breakdown of the tribal customary law, carry their quarrels and litigations to the Russian authorities and try to gain riches by taking advantage of their own countrymen:


Hardly have two started quarreling

When they take to the pen

And have recourse to the law

And in quarreling among each other

They come to harm at the hands

Of the officials from the West.

Unhappily my friends

The jail has made its appearance in our land.

Alas, many more threats

Come from the tsar's officials.


Shortambay comments on the new money economy:


Instead of herds, money. From such cattle

You can obtain no milk.

How can one put a saddle on it?


He advises his people to have none of the new ways:


We had better follow our cattle

And sleep peacefully, not knowing anxieties

Tear your souls out of the captivity of evil

And guard your blood and your home,

So that life may flow quietly again.


Among the followers of Shortambay's school were the poets Bazar, Abu-bakir, Akhan-seri, and Murat. Perhaps one of the most colorful of the poems expressing the mood of the zarzaman school is Murat's poem Three Epochs, which reflects the feeling of bitter despondency over Russian colonization. After recalling the rich and heroic past of the Kazakhs, when men were honorable and brave and land and cattle were plentiful, the poet laments:


The soldier's bayonet has taken the steppe from us—

The tsar has thrust his hand into our pocket,

And when he took the Zhayik from us

He gripped us by the collar.

He has realized his intentions.

The black hand of the thief

Has forever taken Uil from us

And the Mangyshlak peninsula.

Dragging his bullock cars, he advanced,

To Urgench, Tashkent, and Bukhara,

Taking, along the road, everything for himself;

Women and men and even the children,

Cattle and land. If you look around,

O men-over our native land

The day of life, like an evil night, is dark.


Like Shortambay, Murat was concerned with the corruption and impoverishment of the people. He resented the adoption of any Russian customs, even that of wearing Western clothes: 


He wears a suit, without sleeves,

Straight as a board. Between body and belt

You cannot even stick a finger-everything is pulled tight.


For Murat there was no way out. When towards the end of the poem he asks the question, «How shall we heal this epoch?» he finds no answer.

What little written literature there was in this period continued to be concerned with religious themes (in the tradition of the earlier mentioned «book songs»). There were also a great number of translations of religious and mystical works from the Arab and Persian. It was not until the later part of the nineteenth century, when the influence of Russian culture began to be strongly felt, that there developed a Kazakh secular literature concerned with Kazakh themes and problems.