Shahkarim Qudaiberdiev: Introduction to Translations

I will be posting some translations of some texts written by Shahkarim Qudaiberdiev, but I would like to preface those posts with some information about the author and my reasons for studying him.

Who was Shahkarim Qudaiberdiev?

Picture of Shahkarim which appears in most books about him.
I have no knowledge of its provenance.

Shahkarim Qudaiberdiev (Шәкәрiм Құдайбердiұлы, Шаһкарим in some of his own texts) was born in 1858 and grew up in the steppe region of the Russian Empire bordering the Qing Empire. About his early life I can find few facts, but in middle age he became politically and creatively active. Following a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1906, he began to write. Following the rise of Soviet power in the steppe in 1920, he entered a life of self-exile until his death in 1931. In fact, some sources describe him as a hermit after the early 1920s, though there is little evidence or factual evidence for the last decade of his life. Since the 1990s, he has become a relatively famous historical figure in some parts of Kazakhstan: for example, in 1999 the Government of Kazakhstan decreed that the State University in Semipalatinsk be renamed in his honor.

Shahkarim’s renewed fame in Kazakhstan seems to stem largely from the efforts of the late Gabdulkaium Mukhamedkhanov (1916-2004). Mukhamedkhanov is honored in Kazakhstan as a founder of Abay studies alongside one of the most famous historical figures in the history of Kazakhstan, Mukhtar Auezov (1897-1961). Shahkarim, as an associate and contemporary of Abay and Auezov, became the focus of Mukhamedkhanov’s scholarship, though as with Auezov’s study of Abay, there was a personal history connecting all of these men. In a short biography of Mukhamedkhanov published after his death in Kazakhstanskaia Pravda, we learn that as a young boy Mukhamedkhanov spent some time with the elderly Shahkarim and that almost of Shahkarim’s work was destroyed by Soviet repression.

A Little about the Field of Abay Studies

Abay studies (Aбайтану, Абаеведение) is a serious branch of scholarship in the modern Republic of Kazakhstan, much as it was during the time of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. The fact that there are many continuities between the ostensibly repressive communist/socialist government of the Kazakh SSR and the ostensibly liberal free-market/capitalist government of Kazakhstan bears enunciating clearly. The raising of Abay to the highest cultural status in Kazakhstan generally echoes a similar process in other parts of the Soviet Union, where certain figures were credited with “developing” the literature of certain peoples or nations: Pushkin in the RSFSR, the Manas tradition in the Krygyz SSR, the works of Navoiy in the Uzbek SSR, etc. After the fall of the Soviet Union, these traditions unsurprisingly continued. However, some new figures have arisen in the pantheon in Kazakhstan alongside the adamantly pro-Russian Abay. These figures, the victims of Soviet oppression, have had their works republished. I would count Shahkarim among them.1

Although Abay is often presented unquestioningly as a universal character, by which I mean he represents a role model resonating with the entire Kazakh people, it is important to realize that Abay, his circle of acquaintances, the field of Abay studies, and scholars within that field generally share a specific territorial and tribal identity. In other words, if all Kazakhs can claim Abay for themselves, the Kazakhs of the Argyn tribe of the Middle Horde living around Semipalatinsk can contest that those are truly universal claims. One of the earliest texts propagating Abay (posthumously) as the most important cultural figure in Kazakhstan came from Akhmet Baitursynov (1873-1937). [«Абай — қазақтың бас ақыны», published in the journal Qazaq in 1913] Baitursynov, like Auezov, is a name every citizen of Kazakhstan knows. A political firebrand, Baitursynov was active in the movement for increased autonomy for Kazakhs within the Russian Empire known as Alash Orda before joining the Bolsheviks in 1920. He later served as Commissioner of Enlightenment. During the Russian Civil War and the days of the Alash Orda, Auezov, Baitursynov, and Shahkarim all wrote for the same journal based in Semipalatinsk. The journal’s name was Abay and it ran from February until November of 1918.

In short, a very large portion of the representative culture of Kazakhstan was crafted first in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and expanded somewhat in the current Republic of Kazakhstan from the work of a relatively small group of men, first Akhmet Baitursynov and, following the arrest and execution of almost the entirety of his generation of intellectuals, Mukhtar Auezov. This representative culture which they gathered, curated, and wrote themselves hails, broadly speaking, from a relatively small geographical area. Moreover, the original audience for much of this work was similarly small and decidedly not universal or national in character. Rather, these authors and their works were created in and for, generally speaking, those people near the middle course of the Irtysh River in today’s Eastern Kazakhstan region, between the city of Pavlodar and Lake Zaysan.

I consciously echo Uyama in saying that such tribal affiliations were important, but not all-consuming. They were only a portion of a broader identity that functioned in a wide-cast network. 2 However, it’s important to talk about what role this part of identity played in the history of Kazakhstan. Even if tribal affiliations were not examples of a zero-sum game, the fact remains that Auezov and Baitursynov played a much larger role than their contemporaries in shaping the face of Kazakh culture shown to the rest of Soviet Union. Even more, by the fall of the Soviet Union, following decades of cultural change accompanied by famine, sedentarization, and urbanization, that carefully constructed face had replaced for many any rival conceptions of a Kazakh past. This is not to say that the entirety of Kazakh identity is derived from the Argyn tribe of the Middle Horde — only that we should recognize the historical accident that produced such an Argyn-centric face for the entire Kazakh nation. Tomohiko Uyama called their participation in the creation of the first group of Kazakh intellectuals “striking.” Uyama also remarked on the interesting case of so-called white-bone people, those outside the tribal delineations of the Kazakhs, being connected to the larger Argyn orbit. In this case we must include Mukhtar Auezov, a Qozha/Қожа who lived alongside the Argyn.

With regard to intra-national affiliations in Kazakhstan, President Nazarbaev is in a difficult situation. In the interest of supporting the development of the country, he has strongly supported the study of Kazakh language, history, and culture. At the same time, he has requested that Kazakhs disavow their tribal divisions. From my personal experience, I believe this is unlikely to happen. I also believe that President Nazarbayev does not care about tribal identity, so long as it does not threaten the stability of the country.

Why do I care about Shahkarim?

Shahkarim is an intriguing historical figure for several reasons, including the fact that the time of his adulthood coincided with an extremely cataclysmic period of history in Central Asia. For the purpose of writing my dissertation, however, Shahkarim offers something more specific.

At the current moment, Shahkarim remains the first person of whom I know to write and publish the phrase “Bare Footed Flight,” or Aқтабан Шұбырынды. In writing my dissertation I am gathering not only sources contemporary to the Bare Footed Flight (in the early 1720s), but also sources which help me to understand how the story of the Bare Footed Flight was told and retold for different audiences and with different purposes.

Unfortunately, I have not seen an original of this publication, which came out in 1911, according to a collection of Shahkarim’s works published in Kazakhstan.3 I can share one interesting point of confusion. In the bibliography of Shahkarim’s works, there appear two publications under that name in 1911: a 114-page work in Kazan and a 72-page work in Orenburg. Both original pamphlets bore the title “Genealogy of the Turks, Kirgiz-Kazaks, and Khans” (Түрiк, Қырғыз, қазақ һәм Хандар шежiресi). Unfortunately, following the repression of that generation of so-called “bourgeois nationalists,” it seems possible that very little remains of much of Shahkarim’s original work, though the editor of the collection did not give information as to the provenance of their copy of the work, only that it was republished following independence by two scholars: M. Myrzakhmetov and M. Qazbekov.

This, of course, is another avenue of research – finding their book, if not finding them personally, and asking about the original 1911 work(s).

The next mention of the Bare Footed Flight seems to come in the work of Mukhamedzhan Tynyshpaev, whom I believe knew and read the work of his contemporary Shahkarim, though I don’t know of a specific citation for that fact. Naturally, I will continue to exhaust all possible resources – both in making a stronger connection between the two and in attempting to find earlier mention of the Bare Footed Flight.


1 A question for another time, which I write here to save for later, is what to make of those figures who were repressed by the Soviets but have not been rediscovered. An interesting case-study would be the work of Baqytzhan Qarataev, descendant of Abulkhair Khan of the Little Horde, who stands out as a figure opposed to both Tsarist tyranny and the nationalist government embodied by the Alash Orda in 1918-1920. The simple hypothesis is that only those who supported the Alash Orda are worth rehabilitating.

2 Tomohiko Uyama. “The geography of civilizations: A spatial analysis of the kazakh intelligentsia’s Activities, from the mid-nineteenth to the early Twentieth century.” p. 83 []

3 There is a lot of serendipity involved in the research of any topic, I believe. In this case, in the same week that I first learned about Shahkarim and his involvement in the story of the Bare Footed Flight several years ago I visited the office of professor Devin DeWeese. On his desk sat the newly published “collected works” of Shahkarim, gifted to him, which he graciously let me use.

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