The Abai Center in Washington, D.C., supports Kazakh culture and cultural studies and aims to increases the American people’s awareness of—and interest in—various aspects of Kazakh culture. In May 2023 it partnered with JSC AltynAlmas on an essay contest for 7th– and 8th-grade students at Kazakh schools in the Aksu and Zholymbet districts of Akmola Region, Orta Deresin in the Karaganda Region, and Akbakai in the Zhambyl Region.
The essay’s subject was “Eternal Values in the Work of the Great Abai.” Sixty students participated in the competition; the authors of the best essays were awarded prizes on behalf of AltynAlmas and received letters of appreciation from His Excellency Yerzhan Ashikbayev, Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the USA. We have selected the most interesting quotes from the winning essays, which reflect on the wisdom of the great Abai.
Yerzhan Bolat, an 8th-grade student at Secondary School No. 1 in the village of Aksu, writes in his essay that “the great poet of Kazakh poetry, the great Abai, has eternal values that do not fade… His songs and words of exhortation are full of instruction.” Yerzhan expresses himself to be thrilled that “whichever of Abai’s poems we take, they are all full of precepts and moral teachings that make people think.” He goes on, “The great poet who sows the light of goodness and kindness in the hearts of each of us is an eternal personality, common not only to the Kazakh people, but to all mankind.”
“Whatever side of life we look at, we will find answers to many of the questions that concern us in Abai’s legacy,” Yerzhan writes, quoting Abai’s poem “Zhigitter, oiyn arzan, kulki qymbat.” He reminds men of Abai’s proverb “Be demanding, learn different arts, good manners, be friends with each other, don’t gossip about anyone.
In her essay, Karlygash Anuarkyzy, a 7th-grade student at Secondary School No. 2 in Aksu village, discusses the semantic and educational value of the works of Abai.
According to Karlygash, the importance of Abai’s works lies in their depth and thoughtfulness. Analyzing the values expressed in the works of Abai, Karlygash is in accord with her peer Yerzhan: “The works of the great Abai teach us to respect our elders, not to hurt anyone, to be human, to keep honor, to be polite and respect our parents.” According to Karlygash, Abai dreamed that “his people would enter the category of countries with advanced thinking and advanced culture and surpass them.”
Karlygash puts it this way: “He fought against laziness for this dream and wrote about it in the poem Gylym tappai maqtanba (Don’t be proud without gaining science). [He] urged the avoidance of five things: gossip, lying, pride, laziness, and wasting money needlessly. Whatever he does, he makes his readers think that human life will make great sense if at every step one focuses on doing right and is able to be satisfied with what one has.”
For Karlygash, Abai’s writings provide both instruction and a model for “honesty, decency, kindness, diligence, and an example in the pursuit of education.” She concludes, “I think that the values mentioned in the works of our Great Abai will forever remain in our memory and should be preserved forever.”
Yana Martynova, a 7th-grade student at Secondary School No. 2 in the village of Zholymbet, begins her essay with these verses of the great Abai:
“Choose wisely in your way:
If you are talented—be proud,
Be a brick in the wall you’re building.
The one who runs sees the way,
He who is catching up hastens to follow.
Will and reason lead both ways.
Justice is the light of the soul.”
She continues, “Today I will be writing about a great man who left a great literary and musical legacy to his descendants – Abai Kunanbaev. I first learned about him in my elementary school lessons. But it should be noted that while memorizing his poems, I did not go into their meaning. Already in the fifth grade, after reading his “Words of Edification,” I began to understand how relevant his words are to this day.”
Yana, like her peers, describes Abai as a great thinker, a proud representative of his people who holds the scales of wisdom in his hands, directing his words like arrows against evil. “This is how we, the generation of the twenty-first century, perceive, and deservedly so, Abai’s legacy,” Yana writes. Yana eloquently describes Abai’s best qualities as follows: “a great son of the boundless steppe,” he “embodied the best qualities of the Kazakh people and holds a special place in the history of all mankind.”
Yana goes on, “Abai spent his entire conscious life with a book in his hands: teaching himself and teaching others. His “Words of Edification” have long since become a reference work for many Kazakhstanis, regardless of education, religion or nationality. Rereading them, you realize and nod your head at the philosopher: yes, this is really true, despite the passage of several decades.” According to Yana, “Abai’s extraordinary poetic talent, clear mind, humanity, justice and love for the people—all these remarkable qualities made him an unusually popular man.”
Indeed, Abai has become so popular that his works have been translated into dozens of languages. Mukhtar Auezov’s epic novel Abai, which has been translated into 116 languages, has played a major role in raising Abai’s profile worldwide.
Yana also observes in her essay that Abai helped and advised “people oppressed by feudal lords, officials, people who found no justice anywhere,” as well as “receptive young people who gained knowledge from him and learned poetic skill.” Yana further notes an interesting fact: “Abai’s popularity was not liked by reactionaries, feudal lords, Russian officials-colonizers, and mullahs, who hated Abai for his democratic beliefs and enlightenment activities. They composed denunciations against him, calling him ‘a troublemaker among the people,’ ‘a restless violator of the customs, rights and regulations of fathers and grandfathers.’ In the end, after conducting a search in Abai’s village, the police forbade him to meet with Russian political exiles, and secret surveillance was established. All this caused stress for Abai. He was in despair, because at every step he faced the ugly vices of the patriarchal-feudal reality, social and moral oppression, the suffering and grief of the people.”
“The human heart cannot be indifferent to human suffering; it should push people to perform noble and good deeds,” Yana concludes.
Milana Syrgi, an 8th-grade student at Secondary School No. 1 in the Zholymbet district of Akmola Region, begins her essay with a poem by Abai:
Look deep into my soul and роndеr of my words:
То уоu I аm а puzzle, mу person and my verse,
My life has been a struggle
A thousand foes I braved,
Do not judge me too severely—
For you I paved the way.
She writes that Abai addressed this poem to the next generation, especially his compatriots:
“Abai addressed this vеrsе to the following generation, to his compatriots. Не саrriеd his poetry like а candle thгоugh the ignоrаnсе and illiteracy of his time; he discovered new horizons for Kazakh реорlе. There are no bounds to Abai’s mastery. His creativity concerns all aspects of human life; he influences people’s minds and feelings with his creativity.”
Milana also draws attention to the way in which Abai, in his poetry, reveals many human problems. His poems reflect the life, the worldview, the spirit, the mentality of the people—and this is the whole world of Abai. “I believe that Abai’s legacy is very useful. The works of the great poet do not lose their relevance today. Abai’s philosophy can always be a spiritual support for us, because in the center of his poetry is a man,” she writes.
In an account of Abai’s patriotic poems, she inspires the reader with the following statement: “It is very interesting to consider some eternal aspects of his poetry—friendship, patriotism, love. The great Kazakh poet Abai plays a special role in our understanding of the issues of human destiny.”
In their essays, students display deep knowledge of Kazakh cultural history. They express their feelings after reading his poetry and describe their fresh understanding of his wisdom.
While their essays are each unique, they are united by their common sense of Abai’s legacy, as well as by their love for and understanding of the work of the Kazakh philosopher, which has produced a shared culture that will color the pages of Kazakh folklore and history for centuries to come.