Misunderstanding Abai and the legacy of the canon: “Neponyatnii” and “Neponyatii” Abai in contemporary Kazakhstan

Journal of Eurasian Studies. 2018;9(1):20-29 DOI 10.1016/j.euras.2017.12.007


Journal Homepage

Journal Title: Journal of Eurasian Studies

ISSN: 1879-3665 (Print); 1879-3673 (Online)

Publisher: SAGE Publishing

Society/Institution: Asia-Pacific Research Center

LCC Subject Category: Geography. Anthropology. Recreation: Geography (General) | Political science

Country of publisher: United Kingdom

Language of fulltext: English

Full-text formats available: PDF, HTML, ePUB



Diana T. Kudaibergenova


Double blind peer review

Editorial Board

Instructions for authors

Time From Submission to Publication: 8 weeks


Abstract | Full Text

The Soviet canonisation of Abai, the nineteenth-century Kazakh poet and enlightener became a problematic theme for local intellectuals in the 2010s after the Occupy Abai movement in Moscow raised concerns over the heritage of Abai as a Sovietised canon and as an independent non-Soviet thinker. In 2012 oppositional leaders in Russia occupied Abai monument in Moscow and the leader of the opposition Alexey Navalny, called for his supporters to gather around the monument to unknown strange Kazakh guy using the Russian slang word – neponyatnii Kazakh. Local audience in Kazakhstan at first responded with offensive comments and questions to the Russian opposition movement – how come Abai, the Kazakh version of Russian poet and a visionary Alexander Pushkin, the symbol and canon of Soviet Kazakh literature and the symbol of post-Soviet Kazakhness and its culture could be unknown and strange? From the celebrated writer of the Soviet dekadas and Leninist prizes for Mukhtar Auezov's novel The Path of Abai (Abai Zholy) Abai turned into neponyatnii – incomprehensible, strange (in words of Russian Alexey Navalny) and neponyatii – misunderstood poet. These discussions on popular online Russophone as well as Kazakhophone platforms and blogs opened up a debate on the legacy and problematic canonisation of Abai. Is Abai misunderstood in contemporary Kazakhstani society? From short essays when famous writer Gerold Belger speaks to Abai's monument in central Almaty to mobile phone applications featuring Abai's Qara Sozder, to the famous anonymous Abai graffiti in central Almaty and Occupy Abai movement responses in Kazakh internet sphere, I trace the mutations of Abai's canon. These discussions reveal the conflicting trends of young Kazakhs and Kazakhstanis who take their cultural criticisms online but continue using the “national” frameworks in their globalized discussions.