One of the largest museums in Kazakhstan, the Abay museum in Semey celebrates national poet Abay Kunanbaev. Well-funded and luxuriously decorated compared to other museums in Kazakhstan, it serves to instill a sense of pride in Kazakhs for their national heritage, through the figure of Abay.
Abay’s achievements as a literary figure are impressive. Under the guidance of banished Russian intellectuals who he met in Semey, he became one of the founding figures of Kazakh literature. His work – which tries to blend Eastern tradition with modern Western ideas – fits nicely into the national image projected by the current Kazakh government. Explains the nice building.
Overwhelmingly, this is a museum for locals. As a foreign tourist, you can still enjoy the displays of Kazakh customs and values here. Surprisingly, and disappointingly, you will not find out much about Abay’s poetry or his vision for his beloved Kazakh people. Furthermore, all exhibits are subtitled in Kazakh only. If you do not have your own guide as a foreigner, local guides will squeeze out some Russian, but not with glee.
It all starts off with an extensive family tree, putting into focus the importance of family relationships in today’s Kazakhstan. We then get a protracted history of Abay’s life and that of his most important male relatives.
Of most interest for tourists are the exhibits that try to shine a light onto the life of a high-status ‘bay’ (lord) like Abay. The highlight is the beautiful summer yurt display. The displays of immaculately preserved jewelry and weapons, as well as objects for daily use in the life of a semi-nomad, are some of the best you can see in Kazakhstan.
Out of the 17 rooms in the museum, there is 1 that deals with his work. He wrote books, apparently. Then it’s time to move on to the secondary heroes of Abay’s time.
Shakarim & Alash Orda
Shakarim Kudayberdyuly (1858-1931) was a poet, translator, historian, philosopher and progressive politician. He was Abay’s cousin. Ultimately killed by the Stalin regime, as a literary figure he probably stands shoulder to shoulder with Abay. For whatever reason, he is less recognized than Abay today.
In the same period, other intellectuals in Semey got together and started their own state, based on a modern interpretation of traditional Muslim and nomadic values. Calling themselves Alash Orda, their independence lasted from 1917 to 1920, in the confusion that followed the Russian Revolution.
Once the Soviet regime had firmly gained control, all were murdered, and the great tragedy of collectivisation began.
The great irony
Abay loved his native land, and tried to reconcile being a Muslim and a nomad with modern times. He tried to show his people a way forward, but was ultimately disappointed by their lack of moral fibre.
Abay was not a popular character in Soviet times. But ever since independence, in a new nation looking for symbols, his star has been on the rise to the point where he has now become somewhat of a saint.
Local Muslim sects bring followers to pray for favours at his mausoleum in Zhidebay, 180 km southwest of Semey.
He would be turning in his grave.
With this museum, poor Abay has fallen victim to a dreadful irony: to be glorified by the society he tried to reform so much. Although he was inspired by Kazakh folklore (as well as Russian and Persian literature) he railed against the core values of Kazakh clan-based society: nepotism and keeping up appearances.
Shakarim and the founders of Alash Orda befell the same fate: these early modern thinkers now find themselves celebrated in the same room as the president of a society that distrusts everything they stood for: intelligence, democratic ideals and critical thinking.