Vienna, January 6 – Olzhas Suleymenov, the Kazakh author of a book that some have helped lead to the rise of perestroika and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, says that he welcomes its translation into Ukrainian because Ukrainians will understand that book’s argument about the close ties between the Slavic and Turkic peoples at the time of Kievan Rus’.
Speaking in Kyiv on the occasion of the appearance of the Ukrainian translation of “Az i Ya,” a 1975 book that sparked controversy in the Soviet Union because of its argument that the author of “The Tale of the Host of Igor” knew both a Turkic and a Slavic language, Suleymenov said Ukrainians are well-placed to understand his point (kstnews.kz/index.php?a=2394).
Suleymenov, one of Kazakhstan’s most distinguished intellectuals, recalled the problems he faced when he published that book in Soviet times. “It seems to me,” he said in Kyiv, that the Tale reflects the complex bilingual culture of the 12th century. But in the 19th century,” he continued, Russian scholars, who were “monolingual,” did not understand the Tale’s ‘Turkisms.”
His 1975 book, Suleymenov continued, angered many Russian nationalist scholars. The case, which led to the book’s suppression, “even reached the Central Committee of the CPSU,” but there, the Kazakh writer said, Leonid Brezhnev supported him, by saying that “there was nothing especially harmful in the book.”
But the Kazakh writer added that he was not certain Brezhnev had in fact read the book “all the way through.” In any case, he noted, the Soviet leader “was not able to convince [ideologist Mikhail] Suslov, and the latter continued to exclude it from library collections, and it some places, [the 1975 edition] was even burned.”
Now, more than 30 years later, most of his critics have come around to his point of view, or at least see it as a possible position. The book has been republished in Kazakhstan, and several editions have appeared in the Russian Federation and Turkey, but despite some efforts, it has not appeared in English, French or Japanese, Suleymenov said.
The publication of a Ukrainian translation is “especially important,” he continued because Kyiv was the center of Kievan Rus, and Ukrainians understand intuitively the complex interrelationships between Slavic and Turkic cultures, ties that some Russian writers in the past and even now go out of their way to ignore or even deny.
In an interview taken by Yuliya Kim in Kyiv that appears in today’s “Kostanayskiye novosti,” Suleymenov rejects the suggestion that his book played a key role in the demise of the Soviet Union. “I never wanted that” to happen, he insisted, and “I would not want my book to be considered in that way.”
In other comments, Suleymenov said that some censorship, of the tsarist rather than the Stalinist kind, is not an entirely bad thing as it eliminates from public discussion some things that should not be discussed and forces writers to search for new ways of expressing themselves, a process that can be useful.
“In our [Soviet] time,” he continued, there were five ‘no’s’ – there was to be no propaganda of violence, pornography, religion, war, and anti-Sovietism. Now, anti-Sovietism and certain other prohibitions have already become not relevant, but several of the ‘no’s’ from this list could be accepted.”
The Kazakh writer said he is concerned about “the crisis of the book,” the result of the Internet and other electronic forms of communication which are redirecting young people away from the printed word. That is especially dangerous in places like Kazakhstan where “written culture appeared relatively not long ago. Losing it [now] would be a catastrophe.”
Asked about the Terror Famine of 1932-33, Suleymenov said that “it is impermissible to privatize [that] tragedy.” Ukrainians were not the only people who suffered: “Kazakhs, for example then also lost a very great deal – at a minimum a third of the people [of that nation] died at that time.”
And in a comment on the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine, Suleymenov said that he has come to the conclusion that “the regular change of the powers that be and frequent elections are good for an established society with a well-functioning economy. But in the transition period, which we all are living through, stability is very important.”
In a final comment, Suleymenov said that “the Eastern Slavs and the Kazakhs have a very similar mentality. Our history has made this possible, as we have lived together for centuries. … We understand in a similar fashion good and evil.” And that commonality should allow us, he said, to avoid clashes and “help resolve common problems.”