ALPAMYSH AND CENTRAL ASIAN IDENTITY UNDER RUSSIAN RULE

By H.B.Paksoy. Hartford, Connecticut. Association for the Advancement of Central Asian Research Monograph Series. 1989. 171 pages plus Appendix of 40 pages. Paper. No price given.

Reviewed by Dariusz Cichocki

Dastan, a central Asian genre, is one of the literary forms through which people express their pride of belonging to a tribe, a family, or a nation, and through which they reveal their deepest feelings. In this study, H.B. Paksoy presents the Alpamysh, or one of the most prominent dastans known throught central Asia among the Turkic-speaking peoples. The author's purpose is to emphasize its role and recall its history within the period of tsarist Russian and Soviet Russian domination of central Asia.

At the beginning, Paksoy defines the functions of the Alpamysh as compared to the general ones of the genre of dastan. He states that "Alpamysh is shared by Central Asians across the continent and knowledge of this dastan is an inseparable part of identity and national pride." (p.1) The author holds the view that all Turkic peoples across the continent identify themselves as one nation. This view developed in Turkey and it is a popular one. However, recent events in central Asia indicate that the problem is more complex. The Turkic republics of the former USSR seem inclined either to become separate national states or stay in the "community of independent states." On the basis of the fact that there are many common motifs in the Turkic dastans (pp. 9-10), Paksoy states that Turkic languages are "mutually intelligible linguistic dialects." He concludes that the central Asians are far more conscious of their cultural and linguistic unity than has been suggested by the Russians who use the terminology of "separate languages" and "separate nations."

Here again a clarification is in order. While the common features are undoubtedly there and the linguistic links are strong, they are not so strong as to define the Kazakh and the Khirghiz as dialects. At present, there are so many lexical, morphologic and semantic differences between the two that they should be regarded as languages rather than dialects.

In relation to the position and function of dastans as indicators of links between the Turkic peoples of central Asia, there appears the problem of Pan-Turanism, or a tendency to create one Turkic state throughout western and central Asia. Paksoy attempts to explain the origin and ideology of Pan-Turanism by linking it with the British and Russian politics and Vambery's activities as an intelligence agent. However, it again needs to be pointed out that the main stronghold of and source of scholarship on Pan-Turanism is Turkey.

Subsequently, the author presents "Attempts to Destroy and to Save Alpamysh - Phase 1" (Chapter 2). Here he speaks of the reprisals of tsarist Russians against the nomadic people of Turkestan but gives us no details. Due to the lack of details, an uninformed reader may come to the conclusion that nineteenth-century tsarist policy in central Asia was similar to the policies of the European governments against national minorities. That would be a wrong conclusion, for tsarist policy was much harsher than that of a typical European power.

Paksoy emphasizes Divay's contribution to the dastan research but does not mention the non-Turkic scholars who worked on Turkic literatures at that time, such as Radlov, Katanov and Kotvitch.

Although his work is dedicated to the "saviors" of the Alpamysh dastan, the author gives us only a cursory idea of problems which they encountered while attempting to collect and publish the epos. Chapters 2 and 4 deal with these matters but they present a very faint outline of the conditions in which these people worked, of the atmosphere of denunciations, suspicion and police interrogations which were the reality especially during the Soviet period. One would have expected to find in this book not only information about the attempts by the local and central Soviet authorities to destroy Alpamysh, but also information about the mechanisms of destruction. I expected a description of the struggle of those in the cultural institutions who tried to save the dastan, who collected its variants and published them if only in fragments. I also expected the author to characterize and document the motives of the Soviet authorities in their attempts to obliterate this literary genre. Finally, I expected an evaluation of various scholars and their researches into the dastan.

Paksoy has chosen another way. He describes all the variants of the dastan published in the Soviet Union (Chapter 4) and compares them to each other. So we learn about Barchin Gl (Alpamysh's wife), about the date of birth of Chobar (Alpamysh's beloved horse), about the question of how the Alpamysh dastan is similar to the Bamsi Beyrek dastan, and about various variants of the Alpamysh as recited by different bahshis. There is a hint in Chapter 4 that that Hadi Zarif's version of the Alpamysh (published jointly with Viktor Zhirmunskii in 1947) is the most correct version so far. Paksoy also draws our attention to the fact that Divay's version of the Alpamysh is more adequate than Fazil's because it contains the liberation motif, whereas Fazil's comprises only the love motif, one that the Soviet authorities found easier to tolerate. This has not been elaborated upon, and evidence is missing. All in all, such a presentation of details is useful for comparative studies but it obscures the declared purpose of this work.

Paksoys most welcome contribution consists in translating into English and carefully annotating one of the most interesting and original versions of the Alpamysh, an influential central Asian epos. The book also contains a rich bibliography. But much work remains to be done on the documentation and interpretation of central Asian identity under Russian rule.

Dariusz Cichocki is a specialist in Turkic affairs at the University of Warsaw.


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