When Manas was … persona non grata …

February 26th, 2015 Sections: Epics, Folklore, Soviet Union, Who's Who
Manas - from the series of Lithographs  by Theodore Hertzen

Manas – from the series of Lithographs by Theodore Hertzen

Manas is the hero of the Kyrgyz Epic Saga … and many consider that is fundamental to understanding how the Kyrgyz see themselves.

Some years ago I was told something about the epic by someone that I would call a “secular Kyrgyz”, (by which I mean a “Russified Kyrgyz”  … someone who had been born and brought up – as it happens, in Northern Kyrgyszstan – surrounded by Russians and Russian culture; who had gone to Russian school and who spoke Russian as if it was his “mother tongue” – and although he knew Kyrgyz, he admitted to having a poor command of the language.  Some of the more Nationalistic Kyrgyz might want to use the term mankurt, which is a sort of slang term, (and a term of abuse), for someone who has gone so far as to forget his “roots”.

I think, however, that this would have been unfair.  For example, he spoke with passion about the epic … and told me with a great sense of hurt national pride that for most of the Soviet period that it had been banned and not performed.

Now, at the time, I found that hard to believe, and as I couldn’t find any evidence of an actual ban, I asked around.  Whilst some people seemed to echo the assertion, others denied that it had ever been forbidden … and yet others said that although it may not have been actually prohibited – it certainly wasn’t encouraged.

This came to mind when I was preparing the postcard about Uncle Joe – The Man Of Steel.

I was also reminded of an earlier postcard about the Creation of the Kyrgyz Republic in 1924.  It always me as odd how at one moment, it was deemed important to cultivate allies and so the nationalities and Islam are encouraged … only to have all that support withdrawn in a complete volte face.  The Orthodox Church also experienced a seesaw relationship with the authorities – at one time banned and believers “persecuted” only to be reconciled in the 1940s when the support of the faithful was deemed valuable as part of the war effort – but, maybe that’s too simplified a view of what happened.

As it happens, earlier this month there was an interesting article on this theme published in the Slovo Kyrgyzstan newspaper with the intriguing title The Manas Epic and Soviet Realities.  It’s in Russian and after a brief introduction, it reprints an article by the translator and writer Semyon Lipkin and which was originally published in a magazine Spark in 1989: Bukharin, Stalin and Manas.

The Article is in Russian, but fascinating … written with humour and forbearance, providing an insight into the vicissitudes of the complex difficulties encountered whilst working on translating the epic into Russian … .

Nikolai Bukharin, (1888-1933)

Nikolai Bukharin, (1888-1938)

For the record: Let me assume that Stalin needs no further introduction, (although he is not a central character in the story narrated in the article, his influence over events is ever present), and to direct you to few older postcards for background about Manas (The Manas EpicThe Manas Epic storyline, and The forty companions).

Bukharin on the other hand is less well known: so here’s his story in a nutshell:

He was born in Moscow, the son of two schoolteachers, on 9 October 1888.  At 17 he joined the workers’ cause during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and, the following year, became a member of the Bolshevik Party. Like many of his radical colleagues, he was arrested at regular intervals and in 1910 fled into exile … living at various times in Vienna, Zurich, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Krakow, (where he met Lenin, and began working for the party newspaper, Pravda – Truth). In 1916, he moved to New York where he met up with another leading revolutionary, Leon Trotsky.

According to Lenin’s last will and Testament, he was the ‘Favourite of the whole party’, although he was an intellectual.

Following the Revolution in 1917, he returned to Moscow and was elected to the Central Committee of the Party, even though he disagreed with Lenin on “surrendering”  to the Germans preferring to transform the conflict into a Pan-European revolution.

His career continued to prosper, (for example, he became the editor of the Party paper Izvestia – News), even though he was sometimes at odds with Stalin.  In the end, however, he was accused of plotting to kill Stalin, arrested and after a period of incarceration in the Lubyanka Prison, subjected to an eleven day show trial, eventually being convicted and executed.

 Lipkin tells how he was involved, in the 1930’s, in a project to produce a modern translation of the epic – in particular of the central episode, Chon Kazat – The Long March on Beijing … consisting of some 30,000 lines of verse.

It was obviously quite a long task but, “slowly but surely”, progress was made with the help of some of the greatest manaschi of the day collected together in Moscow.

Eventually, it was decided that there was only so much that could be done in Moscow.  Actually, he tells us, the relocation was just as much to do with neutralizing the opposition to the project that had emerged, ironically, in Kyrgyzstan.  The epic was considered by some to be the creation of some bey feudal lords, bourgeois nationalists and potential revolutionaries  – opponents of Soviet Power.

So, two of the translators boarded a train and took a seven day journey from Moscow to Almaty .. before completing the journey to Frunze (Bishkek), and a Government guest house some 40 kilometers from the capital.

It was at their first breakfast that they met Bukharin … he was a fellow guest at the lodge, in Kyrgyzstan to take advantage of the local hunting.  He was fascinated by the project, wanted to know more about the Iliad of the Nomads and so arranged for a “poetry evening” where they could present parts of their translation … asking questions and commenting on the work.

Apparently, in the discussion he referred to Marx and his theories about the mythologies of the world being the basis of true Great Art, so Lipkin and the others regaled him with some stories over Dinner.  The poetry reading itself took place in the Billiard with everyone seated around the table.

Bukharin was particularly interested to references in the text to Dance … which brought Baylay Isakeev, (the Party Chairman), to his feet in order to give a demonstration performance.

This experience led Bukharin to declare that Izvestia should publish a page about Manas, which he followed up on and the article subsequently appeared.

The details of that evening were to be features in the subsequent denunciation of some of those present leading to some of them being sent to the Gulags … and others to suffer a more drastic fate.  Somehow, however, Lipkin escapes the worst excesses of the purges … although he is arraigned before the Central Committee of  the Writers’ Union.

The translation was finished before this future denouement unfolded, and was sent to the publishers … who, conscious of the allegations of “nationalism” and the winds of change, decided to file it.  (At least they filed it – and didn’t destroy it – so that it was still available for publication at a later date.)

Freed from the rigours of translation, Lipkin wnet on to write a novel, Manas Magnanimous, based on elements drawn from the epic … which was to be translated and published in several Eastern Europen countries.

Mind you, that brought him allegation from Frunze, that he was trying to usurp the authorship of the epic … becoming the “Russian Manaschi” – leading to his dismissal from several posts that he held.

Despite all this approbation, it wasn’t all bad news – Maldybaev, Vazlov and Fere,  for example, were able to write and produce an opera drawing on the epic, which was performed at the Bolshoi Theater in the Decade of Kyrgyz Culture..

It wasn’t just Manas that was to be subject to such “hostile whirlwinds” … similar treatment was handed out to Dede Korkut from Azerbaijan, Dzhangar of the Kalmyks,  Idegei from the Tatars,   and Alpamysh from Uzbekistan.

The fact that he had worked on several of these … did not exactly help Lipkin’s cause during his indictment before the Writers’ Union.  Fortunately, however, he was able to produce several documents, (signed by, amongst others, Stalin himself), which helped to defray the charges.


Lipkin and his widow, the poet Inna Lisnyanskaya

Lipkin and his widow, the poet Inna Lisnyanskaya

Lipkin is actually quite an interesting character in his own right … and having survived the excesses of the purges and serving during the war, he went on to make further considerable contributions to literature in the Soviet Union … and beyond … right up until his death in 2003.



Comment closed.