August 10 marks birthday of Kazakh poet and philosopher Abai Kunanbaev


Abai Kunanbaev is one of the most prominent figures in the Kazakh culture and literature. He was a poet, composer and philosopher. Abai is also remembered as the founding father of the written Kazakh culture and an acclaimed cultural reformer. The 175th anniversary of his birthday, August 10, will be widely celebrated in Kazakhstan in 2020.

Abai Kunanbaev was born on August 10, 1845 in Chingis-Tau (now Karaul) in a renowned family of clan rulers and judges. His father Qunanbai was an elected district elder, a brutal but fair person. His mother Ulzhan, Qunanbai’s second wife, was a talented storyteller. Ulzhan and his grandmother Zere affectionately called him “Abai”, meaning “careful, thoughtful”, and this nickname stuck for the rest of his life.

Abai was home-schooled in his early childhood, but he was later sent to a madrasah in Semei where he also attended a Russian school. After school, Abai started working in judicial and public service. But at the age of 28 he decided to distance from political activities and pursue self-education.

Abai wrote around 170 poems and authored 56 adapted translations as well as philosophical treatises, including his major work The Book of Words. In his poems written between 1882 and 1886, Abai turned his attention to social and moral issues facing Kazakh people in the 19thcentury. He ruthlessly scourged antagonism between the people and the ruling elite, protested against inter-clan feuds, and criticized vanity, feudal mores and spiritual poverty of society.

In the mid 1970s Abai resumed the study of the Russian language and classics. He spent a lot of time in Semei, a 19thcentury center of Tsarist Russia’s political exile, where he interacted with Russian political exiles. Among them were ethnographer Yevgeniy Mikhaelis, member of the Russian Duma Nifont Dolgopolov, and Polish revolutionary Severin Gross who shaped Abai’s political views. They helped Abai to better understand Russian literature and arts and introduced him to European authors, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, George Byron and others.

Abai’s spiritual and physical health was shattered by premature deaths of his sons, Abdrakhman and Magauya. He refused to receive treatment and died at the age of 59 and was buried in the Zhidebai valley. Today Abai’s burial place is a national park and a site of pilgrimage for many people who revere his works and legacy.