Deeper Than Oil: Under The Gaze of a Kazakh Poet

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently at Moscow’s week-old opposition camp, the gathering of anti-Putin activists that sprang up overnight in the center of the capital, under the gaze of a 19th century Kazakh poet philosopher named Abai Kunanbayev (born Qunanbaiuli).

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently at Moscow’s week-old opposition camp, the gathering of anti-Putin activists that sprang up overnight in the center of the capital, under the gaze of a 19th century Kazakh poet philosopher named Abai Kunanbayev (born Qunanbaiuli).

Or, rather, a statue of the poet-philosopher unveiled – ironically enough - by President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2006 in a leafy square near the Kazakh Embassy.

But anyone looking for symbolism in the location of Russia’s first Occupy camp will be disappointed. The site is entirely coincidental, protesters settling here after three days of leading police on a chase across Moscow in the wake of Putin’s inauguration for a third presidential term on May 7.

Kazakhs were up in arms after opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny instructed his followers to join him at a statue of “some unknown Kazakh” during the protests, and the anti-corruption activist later apologized on Twitter. “Abai really was a cool guy,” he said, supplying a link to Kunanbayev’s Wikipedia page.

Abai Kunanbayev has united us," said protest leader Ilya Yashin. "He is a freedom-loving poet."

Abai, whose name means “careful” in Kazakh, was born into a family of rich herders in 1845 and owed his education to Russians exiled by the tsar for their defense of a pro-democracy activist sentenced to death.

As well as works of poetry and philosophy, he also translated a host of Russian and European authors into Kazakh, including Russia’s own national poet, Alexander Pushkin, and Lord Byron.

And activists have been spending their time at the camp reading Kunanbayev’s works, vying with each other to find lines they consider the most appropriate to their situation. Couplets like, for example, “Good flows away quickly, but evil is at all times eternal.”

The #OccupyAbai Twitter tag has become one of the most popular in the Russian internet since the camp was set up, and leaflets and stickers bearing the Kazakh poet’s enigmatic features have been stuck up all over the camp in recent days.

Last week, on my first visit to the camp, a bewildered Kazakh woman wandered up to activists and asked, “What are you all doing here, next to our poet’s statue?”

Kunanbayev’s canon of work holds a place of honor in his native Kazakhstan, with streets, universities and even a city named after him. And here he was, surrounded by a bunch of scruffy protesters. The Kazakh woman looked offended on behalf of her national poet.

A middle-aged activist tried her best to explain what was going on.

“He’s become, well, the unofficial symbol of our anti-Putin movement,” she said, blushing ever so slightly.

“Do you even know anything about him?” asked the Kazakh woman. “What’s he got to do with your movement?”

“Nothing, although we all kind of like him now,” the activist said. A brief political debate later, the Kazakh woman strode off, shaking her head.

The writer theme continued at the camp on May 13, when around a dozen leading Russian literary figures led some 10,000 people on a thinly disguised protest march to Occupy Abai.

That’s right – some 10,000 people. Russians have always respected their writers (even sometimes while exterminating them), and Sunday’s march was yet more proof of that. Of course, the UK and Russian political scenes aren’t exactly comparable, but the march still got me wondering – what British writer would enjoy enough respect to be able to lead a similar rally? Somehow, I can’t imagine Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling pulling off something similar. Unless it was a rally of teenagers and slightly dim-witted adults protesting against some evil wizard, or something, that is. As for U.S. writers, I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess. Cormac McCarthy? Ray Bradbury?

There were a lot of children at Sunday’s march, as there have been at the camp and the protests in general. It’s become a cliché to see a young mother clutching her child in swaddling as she marches through central Moscow against Putin. I well understand the power of the image of a child at a political demonstration, but I can’t say I approve of it. First off, it’s kind of dangerous. And why would you deliberately put a child in a dangerous situation? Secondly, it seems slightly authoritarian – who are the parents to decide their children’s political views for them? After all, the child might be a future Putin supporter and look back on their forced participation in the protests with horror.

And, after all, isn’t freedom of choice what the protesters are fighting for?

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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