Abai and Zhambyl:

The Reconstruction and Decolonisation of National Past in Soviet and Post-Soviet Kazakhstan

Assiya Issemberdiyeva
This article examines the portrayal of Kazakh historical figures in Soviet and post-Soviet cinema, focusing on four films about two iconic Kazakh poets – Abai Qunanbaiuly and Zhambyl Zhabaev. The study draws on archival material and textual analysis to provide valuable insights into the process of constructing Soviet, Marxist-Orientalist historical narratives in The Songs of Abai (1945) and Zhambyl (1953). In the example of films Abai (1995) and The Youth of Zhambyl (1996), it examines how Kazakhstan sought to decolonise and reclaim its identity by breaking free from the Soviet-era Orientalist gaze.
Abai Qunanbaiuly, Zhambyl Zhabaev, Auezov, Kazakhstan, Kazakh cinema, Soviet film, Soviet Orientalism, Decolonisation, historical film, biopic.


Abai : A Prolonged Production

Abai: Construction and Reconstruction

Abai in the Independence Era

Zhambyl: from Folklore to Propaganda

The Youth of Zhambyl, the Youth of Kazakhstan





Suggested Citation


The Soviet propaganda apparatus canonised certain individuals, ranging from Lenin and Pushkin throughout the Union to figures like Abai or Khamza “in lower national orbits,” all in the name of legitimising Soviet power (Smith 1997: 673). This practice was established during the Stalinist era and propagated myths of these (re)usable pasts and personalities through the “imperial knowledge machine.” Notably, the realms of film and literature played instrumental roles in this endeavour. Historical biographical films, in particular, overshadowed other cinematic genres during the Stalinist period (Belodubrovskaya 2011: 30), primarily due to their immense importance in managing the past. Evgeny Dobrenko (2008: 1, 8) demonstrated that such films were “institutions for the production of history” rather than reflections of original history. However, many discussions about Soviet biopics have primarily focused on Russian films, overlooking how central politics influenced peripheral, national screens (Dobrenko 2008, Graham 2010, Belodubrovskaya 2011). Consequently, insufficient attention has been given to the epistemic violence committed against non-Russian peoples’, including Central Asians’ memory and the colonial management of their identity-building figures. This paper aims to contribute to an analysis of the construction of a usable past in Soviet Kazakhstan, as well as the efforts to decolonise such a past in contemporary Kazakhstan, by examining four films about Abai Qunanbaiuly and Zhambyl Zhabaev.

Abai Qunanbaiuly (1845-1904) and Zhambyl Zhabaev (1846-1945) became cornerstones of the Kazakh identity during the Soviet Union, while some alternative voices were silenced (Campbell 2017: 93). These two poets, although contemporaries, experienced contrasting destinies. Abai pioneered the written poetry in Kazakhstan, whereas Zhambyl carried forward the age-old oral poetic traditions. Abai’s identity-forming works primarily targeted the Kazakh audience, and he passed away long before the revolution, while Zhambyl’s poetry from the 1930s onward became synonymous with intense Stalinist propaganda and was widely promoted across the Soviet Union. Within the confines of the Soviet Orientalist framework (Kemper 2010: 476), writer Mukhtar Auezov reintroduced Abai, while a cohort of writers at the Writers’ Union of Kazakhstan worked to align Zhambyl’s persona with the Soviet environment (Batyr 2021). Abai was constructed as a follower of Pushkin and progressive Russian thought, while Zhambyl – as an avid promoter of the Soviet state. Symbolically, Abai anderi / Pesni Abaia / The Songs of Abai (Grigorii Roshal’, 1946, USSR), sometimes regarded as the first Kazakh film (Nogerbek 2013: 66), became the first feature of the Almaty Studio (now Qazaqfilm), whereas Zhambyl / Dzhambul (Efim Dzigan, 1953, USSR) was the first Kazakh coloured film.1 Both of these films were conceived before the war, and subject to heavy ideological scrutiny for their “correct” Orientalist depiction of Kazakhs, ultimately completed as post-war productions.

In the early years of Independence, Kazakh filmmakers set out to remake films on these key figures. Abai (Ardaq Amirqulov, 1995, Kazakhstan) and Zhambyldyn zhastyq shagy / Iunost’ Dzhambula / The Youth of Zhambyl (Qanymbek Qasymbekov, 1996, Kazakhstan) were among the first films to receive funding from an independent Kazakhstani budget (Amirqulov 2023). All four films were made during state commemoration campaigns, within a tradition established by the Soviet Union. However, when considering the contrasting colonial and postcolonial contexts of their production, the treatment of history, class, and national identity differed, as these films were expected to define and redefine not only Abai and Zhambyl but also the Kazakh nation as a whole. They indicated Kazakhstan’s intent to continue shaping these figures as identity-defining characters and marked the country’s initial efforts to reframe the past. Later, particularly in the 2000s, Kazakhstan promoted historical films in a bid to both decolonise the public consciousness and to legitimise the statehood. The cinema rediscovered silenced voices from the past, including Alash intellectuals and steppe elites such as Kenesary and Qunanbai, while some Bolshevik heroes like Amangeldi were deprioritised.2 In Kazakhstan, therefore, much like in other post-Soviet countries, certain cultural strategies from the Soviet era persist. Simultaneously, these countries endeavour to dismantle the colonial restrictions imposed on their national memory, and to subject the figures promoted during the Soviet era to critical re-evaluation, even though these efforts may sometimes be insufficient. These multifaceted processes are shared experiences in the nation-building practices of numerous post-Soviet societies.

In this paper, I apply a postcolonial lens, drawing on the scholarship which views the Soviet Union as a colonial empire (Sahni 1997, Thompson 2000, Abashin 2014, Dubuisson 2017, Tlostanova 2018, Koptaladze 2019), as well as more recent decolonial approaches (Kassymbekova, Chokobaeva 2021, Kassymbekova, Marat 2022). I will situate the two Soviet films within the tradition of Soviet screen Orientalism, thus drawing on the research which uses Edward Said’s (1979) concept of Orientalism in terms of the representation of Central Asia (Smith 1997, Payne 2001, Sarkisova 2003, Drieu 2018). In my comparative analysis of Soviet and post-Soviet interpretations of Abai and Zhambyl, I pay close attention to how these films treat certain topics, including references to Russian culture. As this paper demonstrates, pre-revolutionary Kazakhstan was construed by Soviet filmmakers as the inferior, primitive other who could only be rescued via Russian and Soviet enlightenment, much in the tradition of the Western Orientalism (Said 1979: 2). Thus, the Soviet films defined Kazakhs only in relation to Russians and the Soviet state, while the post-Soviet films strived for more cultural authenticity and excluded references to Russia altogether. The paper, therefore, analyses the means of stereotyping Kazakhs during the Soviet era on the one hand, and attempts to break free from Soviet categories in the 1990s on the other.

If the goal of decolonisation is to reverse the impacts of colonialism and confront its consequences, the initial stride in this direction involves recognising and examining Soviet colonialism and understanding the ways in which it manifested itself. The term “Soviet colonialism” in this study denotes complex interrelationships among various entities, including the Committee for Cinematography under the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR (Film Committee) headed by Ivan Bol’shakov, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakh SSR (Communist Party of Kazakhstan) led by Nikolai Skvortsov, the Council of People’s Commissars of Kazakh SSR (Kazakh Sovnarkom) headed by Nurtas Ondasynov, the Central United Studio (TsOKS) managed by Mikhail Tikhonov, along with individual screenwriters and directors: relocated Muscovites and Leningraders as well as native Kazakhs. Each of these institutions and individuals had their own agendas and did not necessarily receive direct commands from Stalin (Belodubrovskaya 2011). However, under Stalin’s leadership, the Soviet system created circumstances in which everyone was compelled to think and act in a certain way. Therefore, Soviet colonisation was executed by all these actors, with some less willing to convey or acknowledge native peoples’ interests than others.

I intend to examine in detail the wartime inception of The Songs of Abai and Zhambyl from a film production perspective, something that no scholar has explored previously. This analysis aims to understand how policies influenced and shaped these films’ narratives. I draw on archival material from the Archive of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan (APRK) and the Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan (TsGARK), the majority of which remains unexplored in academia, making this the inaugural endeavour to reconstruct the process of planning, numerous rewritings, and production nuances involved in the creation of these films. I draw upon publications in the Soviet press and existing scholarship to assess the nuances of their reception. Unable to locate archival material pertaining to the later films, Abai and The Youth of Zhambyl, I employed a comparative textual analysis and relied on Kazakh press publications and interviewed the filmmaker Ardaq Amirqulov for my research. I also examined narratives surrounding Abai’s figure, including Auezov’s (1979a, b, c: 307-382) novel Abai Zholy / The Path of Abai and his play “Abai” to compare them with the film texts. I engaged with recent Russian and Western research on Zhambyl (Bogdanov et al. 2013), as well as his pre-1936 image in Kazakhstan (Seifullin 1932, Smanov 2018). Therefore, below is an attempt to analyse how these films interacted with each other and with broader narratives concerning the poets and the Kazakh identity.

Abai: A Prolonged Production

Scholars often gloss over the inception years of Kazakh cinema which coincided with the wartime evacuation of Mosfil’m and Lenfil’m to Almaty to unite with the newly formed Almaty Studio at TsOKS. “At the end of the Second World War TsOKS was disbanded, and while the majority returned to their homes, a portion of film crew and equipment remained, along with the invaluable transfer of experience” writes Gulnara Abikeyeva (2018: 225). However, a closer look at the archives presents a more complex picture, in which Kazakh-themed films were subject to constant negotiations between local authorities and the Soviet film administration, often leading to cancellations and delays.

The Songs of Abai was planned by Kazakh ideologues before the war. On April 4, 1940 Kazakh officials considered Abai by Mukhtar Auezov to be included in 1941 production plans along with Zhambyl by Abdilda Tazhibaev, Qyz Zhibek by Gabit Musirepov, Baluan Sholaq by Sabit Muqanov, and others. The completion date was set for July 1, 1941 (APRK 708/4-1/1364/25). Five months later, the list was reduced to two: Abai and Zhambyl (APRK 708/4-1/855/54). In January 1941, a decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan on “further development of film network and film art in the Kazakh SSR” reiterated their inclusion in the Film Committee’s plans (APRK 708/5-1/1356/18-23).

In March and June 1941, Nurtas Ondasynov, a chair of the Kazakh Sovnarkom, discussed with Ivan Bol’shakov, the head of the Film Committee, the establishment of a Kazakh studio (Fomin 2005: 273, Pozner 2018: 33, Ivanov 2017). The plans, however, changed drastically due to the German invasion. On July 28, 1941, Bol’shakov decided to send Lenfil’m to Almaty, and the studio departed in August (Pozner 2018: 33). Meanwhile, on September 12, 1941, the Kazakh Sovnarkom passed a resolution N762, calling for the establishment of the Almaty Studio (APRK 708/5-1/1359/199). It appeared that local authorities’ longstanding hopes were about to be realised with Lenfil’m bringing in essential professionals and equipment for the new studio to function. The resolution contained paragraphs prioritising Kazakh-themed films. Additionally, Mosfil’m also departed for Almaty on October 14. Bol’shakov, perhaps to maintain total control over the studios despite the enthusiasm of Kazakh officials, organised TsOKS on November 17, 1941, uniting Mosfil’m, Lenfil’m, and Almaty Studios (APRK 708/506/16). One of Bol’shakov’s trusted film managers Mikhail Tikhonov was appointed as its director (TsGARK 1708/1/5/1). From that point on, the entire evacuation (1941-1944) was marked by tensions between local authorities and the central Film Committee. Kazakh-themed films were continuously included in the studio’s plans as per local officials’ persistent requests, but very rarely realised or even taken seriously. Already in 1942, a Kazakhstan-appointed Deputy Director of TsOKS Sergali Tolybekov reported that the studio chiefs did not view the plan for Kazakh-themed films seriously, regarding it as “fantastical and alien” to the studio’s needs (APRK 708/61/56/11). In such a context, Abai was continuously postponed.

In 1942, the film featured in the TsOKS plans for 1943 (APRK 708/6-1/566/12, APRK 708/6/568/22). On April 13, 1943, TsOKS reported to local authorities that the Film Committee had approved the screenplay for production in recognition of Abai’s centenary. “The screenplay portrays Abai as a fighter against obscurantism (mrakobesie) and xenophobia,” reads the report, emphasising the “profound connections of kinship that unite Russian and Kazakh cultures” (APRK 708/7-1/708/107). From this initial comment, it became evident that the film needed to focus on Russian and Kazakh interactions. The screenplay had to be first approved at TsOKS, then by the top official in Kazakhstan, Skvortsov, and ultimately, the Film Committee. Thus, only after a year of endless changes, in June 1944, the final script was approved (TsGARK 1708/1/49/8).