You write me that you love me. I will tell you without ceremony that I have fallen in love with you. Never, to anybody, not even to my own brother, have I felt such attraction as I do to you, and God knows how this has come about. One could say much in explanation, but why should I praise you! And you will believe in my sincerity even without proof, my dear Vali-khan, and even if one were to write ten books on this theme, one would write nothing: feeling and attraction are inexplicable.
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1856, Semipalatinsk
Chokan Chingisov Valikhanov (Kazakh: Шоқан Шыңғысұлы Уәлиханұлы, Shoqan Shynghysuly Walikhanuly; Russian: Чокан Чингисович Валиханов), born Muhammed Qanafiya (1835-1865) was a Kazakh scholar, ethnographer, historian, compiler of Manas, and participant in the Great Game. Regarded as the father of modern Kazakh historiography and ethnography, the Kazakh Academy of Sciences is named after him.
Chokan Valikhanov was descended from Chingis Khan - by way of several iconic Chingissids - Shayban Khan (c. 1270, son of Jochi and grandson of Chingis, whose other Turcko-Mongol descendants became Persianized, in time calling themselves Shaybani Uzbeks); Urus (Russian) Khan, eighth Khan of the Golden Horde (c. 1370); Jani Beg Khan, instrumental in splitting the Kazakh-Khanate from the Golden Horde (c. 1470); Kuchum Khan of Sibir (c. 1570), the last khan of the Khanate of Sibir, whose attempt to spread Islam and cross-border-raids were vigorously opposed by the Russian Tsar; and Ablai Khan (defeater of Dzunghars and founder of the modern Kazakh nation, c. 1770.)
Chokan's grandfather Vali was descended from Kuchum Khan. Tsar Alexander I had created an estate for Vali Khan in Kazakhstan, where the first European-style house to be inhabited by a Kazakh khan was built. Vali Khan's wife (i.e. Chokan's grandmother) was the even more formidable Aighanym (Queen-mother), a most astute stateswoman, who corresponded with ladies of the Russian aristocracy, advocated with the Russian colonizing powers first for her son and then for her grandson, and carved out a role for the old nobility of the desolate steppe within the imperial dispensation handed down by the Tsar from St. Petersburg. Chokan's father, named Chingis in memory of the distant Mongol ancestor, was awarded, during his life, six appointments as senior Sultan of Kushmurun okrug (county), a term as chief Kazakh advisor to the frontier board, a promotion to Colonel, and a separate term as senior Sultan in the Kokshetau okrug. Chingis Valikhanov was one of the first Kazakhs to learn Russian. Chokan was the first Kazakh to enter the Russian intelligentsia, befriending prominent thinkers like Petr 'Tien-Shan' Semenov and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
As a young boy, Chokan was enrolled in a village school, where he was encouraged to zhety zhurttyn tilin bilu (learn the languages of seven peoples) - Kazakh, Chaghatai, Arabic, Persian, Mongol, Uighur and Russian. He learnt herding and falconry, lived in a yurt, went on long excursions in the steppe during summers, and practiced Islam "in a Kazakh way" (i.e. mixed with Tengriism.)
The Russian colonial experiment desired to create a class of Russified Kazakhs. To this end, Chokan was allowed entry into the Siberian Cadet Corps Institute in Omsk in 1847, the first Kazakh to get an university education. He was a fine student, and attracted the interest of orientalist scholars on the one hand, and recruiters for military intelligence on the other. He befriended Dostoevsky, in exile in Siberia and Kazakhstan. When Chokan left the Institute in 1853 - he was not allowed to graduate since the last year of military coursework was not permissible for inorodets (foreigners) - he had imbibed everything that was available in the form of higher education at the Russian frontier.
Grigorii Potanin, the future explorer of inner Asia, ethnolinguist and botanist, was a friend made in Omsk. The two decided to go on to St. Petersburg - Chokan to enroll in the Eastern Studies Department, Grigorii in Natural Science. At some point in their lives, they would travel to explore the territories that their Russian education had taught them to think of as a terra-incognita. Potanin wrote:
"before the time of his travels he [Valikhanov] would study the philology of Eastern Tribes, and I would establish a collection for the Petersburg Botanical Gardens and for the Zoological museum of the Academy of Sciences. He in his plans would go far away; at the time the border with China was still closed to Europeans, and could only possibly be crossed on an incognito journey. He therefore thought of going under cover of some kind of disguise ..."
At St. Petersburg, Valikhanov also built on something that his grandmother Aighanym had instilled in him as a child - love of Kazakh folklore, legend and song. He steered himself towards ethnography - and part of his legacy rests on collecting for the first time the oral tradition of the Kyrghyz epic Manas, which he wrote was a kind of
"encyclopedia, a collection of all the stories, tales, traditions, of all the geographical, religious, intellectual ideas and moral concepts of a people ..."
Chokan Valikhanov's first expedition (1855-56) was an exploration of the Kazakh Kyrghyz border, around Kolsay Lake and Issyk-Kul. This was a major military undertaking, under the command of the Colonel who governed Trans-Ili, to secure the submission of the Bugus Kyrghyz; and also a scientific one, where Chokan came in.
Below: sketch by Valikhanov of Kyrghyz man, 1856.
We find Chokan's tone when he describes coming upon the mazar (gravestone) of Kozy-Korpesh.
It was nighttime. At 10 versts, before arriving at picket number 4, stands the grave of Kozy-Korpesh, famous in Kirghiz (i.e. Kazakh; in Valikhanov's time, Kazakh was not used for Central Asian peoples to prevent confusion with Cossacks; and the term Kirghiz was used wholesale to describe Turko-Mongol steppe dwellers, while the Uzbek city dwellers of Samarkand and Bukhara were called Sarts.) poetry. We had studied the poem well and certainly wanted to take a look at the grave. At the time of our exit from [picket] number 2, we had to cross through the Kizil'kueskii picket at night. But we wanted to be there by morning so that we could drink tea at the grave. It is nice to drink tea on the trail, at especially at the ruins, at ancient graves. Its nice to think about the past, and worry about the present.
(Kozy Korpesh and Bayan Sulu are the Romeo and Juliet of the steppe - their story is known from Russia to Mongolia - even Pushkin composed a lyrical poem on the couple. Two friends, Sarybay and Karabay swore to marry their children. Sarybay died during hunting before the birth of his son Kozy. When they met, Kozy and Karybay's daughter Bayan fell in love, but as time passed the perfidious Karabay changed his plans. He promised his daughter to the local dzhigit (trick-equestrian) Kodar who once rescued Karabay’s flocks. Kodar tries to break the love triangle by killing Kozy. Bayan resorts to cunning to revenge her lover. She promises to marry Kodar if he digs a well with spring water. Kodar starts work, as the well gets deeper, Bayan helps lower him by letting down her plaits, Kodar digs holding on to the hair of the girl. Unexpectedly, Bayan shears off her plaits and Kodar falls to his doom. Revenged, Bayan sees no reason to live and stabs herself with a dagger on the grave of Kozy Korpesh. April 15 is celebrated as Kozy-Korpesh/Bayan-Sulu day, i.e. Lovers' Day, in Kazakhstan.)
The account of the journey to the Tien Shan lakes, wistful and laden with folk-tales from the steppe, served notice on the Russian establishment that if the subaltern could speak, he also listen - gather military intelligence - by passing unimpeded as a local. It was decided that Valikhanov would be sent to a secret mission to Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan. The Russians saw Chinese Turkestan as a potential colony, given the Hui (Xinjiang Muslims) insurrections against the Qing dynasty, the rise of the British in India, and the cultural proximity of the peoples of Kashgar to the pacified Kazakh and Kyrghyz tribes. To many Muslims of Central Asia (and this feeling continues to the present day), compared to Chinese policy of seeking capitulation, the Russian policy advocated a willingness to bend to local tradition, dating back to the tolerance of Catherine the Great. So wrote Peter Tien-shanskii Semenov of Valikhanov:
He was the only one at the time under the command of the Governor-General who could be send in Kirghiz national costume to Kashgar, and could, through his high degree of intellectual development and talents, collect for information for Russia of the utmost value not only about the contemporary state of Kashgar, but all of Altyshar [6 towns of the Kashi region] ..."
The mission kicked off in 1857. Valikhanov first traveled to Verniy (Almaty) to scout out information from traveling herders about the situation in Kashgar. In 1858, he was able to attach himself to a trade caravan in Semirechye, disguised as a merchant named Alimbai. The caravan had 42 people, 101 camels, and 65 horses. They traveled through the Alatau, meeting up with Kashgari and Tatar merchants, although rumors of a Russian sympathizer in their ranks began to spread. Thanks to Valikhanov's ability to befriend the Muslim elders in the caravan, and invoke Allah with chapter and verse when needed, the needle of suspicion never pointed to him. They crossed over very treacherous mountain terrain and reached Kashgar in October 1858.
Valikhanov lived each day in fear of discovery followed by summary execution. He found the area under the sway of the Kokand Khanate of Ferghana, and trading if India, Persia, Afghanistan, Armenia. He quickly befriended the Kashgari aksakals (white-beards or elders), one of whom arranged for him to take as a temporary wife a local noble woman - a Kashgari custom that allowed the local administration to keep tabs on visitors; in the event, it was she who provided Valikhanov with useful information on the political situation.
(Below: Valikhanov's sketch of a Kashgari woman, 1859, from the Smithsonian.)
Rumors of a Russian spy increased. Mandarin sent by the Qing were increasingly anxious to quiz the merchants. One of the dialogs Valikhanov recounts runs thus:
... he came into the room wearing the outfit of a Chinese mandarin ... came close by ... approached [Valikhanov's traveling partner Naimanbai] too both his hands and asked:
'Oh, so here are our guests? Where are you from? Who are you? And which ones among you are from Andijan?'
'We're from Margelan [Ferghana Valley] and Tashkent.'
'How many are from Margelan?'
'[And from] Tashkent?'
'When did you leave from your homeland?'
'12 months [ago.]'
'For what reason did you come here.'
'Are you Muhammedans? Could one of you by any chance be Russian?'
'We have not seen a Russian in ten years.'
Valikhanov returned to Verniy in 1859, leaving behind his Kashgari 'wife.' He was not to marry again till late in his (short) life. In Verniy, Valikhanov found himself a celebrity, and his fame spread to all of Europe. Ill for many months after his travels, he wrote his accounts of travel and published his sketches. Handsome rewards, promotions, deputations to the imperial capital of St. Petersburg - all followed. Dostoevsky wrote:
Be the first of your people to interpret to Russia the steppe. its significance. and your people in their relation to Russia, and at the same time serve your homeland as its enlightened intercessor before the Russians. Remember you are the first Kirghiz [Kazak] to be educated in the European way. Fate has made you moreover a superlative human being, has given you both a soul and a heart ..."
In the spring of 1861, at the age of 26, Chokan Valikhanov became seriously ill with tuberculosis and had to leave St. Petersburg. He returned to his native steppe in hopes of restoring his health. He never returned to St. Petersburg. In 1862, he successfully ran for senior Sultan, but Governor-General Alexander Duhamel refused to confirm this position due to Valikhanov's ill health. He continued to collect Kazakh judicial practices, advise the Russians to go gently on Kazakh policy, even as he told his people to take the best from European civilization. Retiring to a village near Altyn-Emel, he married the local Sultan's daughter in the last years of his life.
During his last years, Valikhanov served tirelessly to defend the "oppressed peoples" of the steppe against increasingly muscular Russian colonization and encroachment. His particular concern was how to deliver the fruits of European enlightenment without destroying either the nomad's lifestyle or the syncretism of folk-Islam that the tribes had achieved. He was vocal in his assessment that heavy handed suppression of the nations of steppe and mountain would create openings for radical Islam, for which he used the word 'fanaticism.' In this sense Afghanistan is Chokan Valikhanov's vindication.
Chokan Valikhanov died of tuberculosis at 29, in 1865. There is a small museum dedicated to him on the road to Basshi in the village of Valikhanov, where he has his final resting place.
Valikhanov's brief life has been compared to a "meteor flashing" through the sky of Eurasian studies. We owe our understanding of Manas and the Central Asian folk tradition in large part due to his pioneering work. An excellent compilation of events in Valikhanov's life can be found in SCM Bailey's doctoral thesis at the Univ. of Hawaii, from which some of the material above is drawn.
After his death, Dostoevsky said to a visitor:
You see that big rosewood box? That was a present from my Siberian friend Chokan Valikhanov. It is very dear to me. In it I store my manuscripts, letters and those things that are dear to me in my memory.
Below, we pass the village of Valikhanov near Altyn Emel.