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Valikhanov and Dostoyevsky: Dwellers of the Steppe
by Osvaldo Rocha
2015-07-02 10:12:25
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dost01_400During his infamous Siberian exile, Fyodor Dostoyevsky made one of his most singular friends, Chokan Valikhanov, an extremely clever young man that would later become the father of historiography and ethnography in his homeland of Kazakhstan. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Valikhanov’s death, the explorer and scholar of the vast, unknown plains of Central Asia and author of a pioneering survey on the oral traditions and epic poetry of his people.

It was in 1854 when Dostoyevsky first met Valikhanov, then a 19-year-old boy from the Omsk Cadet School. They met again after Dostoyevsky moved to Semipalatinsk, in northeast Kazakhstan, and ultimately started a correspondence given their mutual interests and admiration. Even though he suffered a number of tribulations throughout his stay in Kazakhstan after his release, mainly due to his poor health and his married life with Maria Isaeva, Dostoyevsky became really interested in Kazakh history and archaeology and believed that Russians should appreciate and understand the steppe.

Valikhanov was also responsible for encouraging Dostoyevsky into Arabic poetry and Central Asian culture. The Russian author even explored Islam while he lived in Semipalatinsk, but the young Kazakh was critic of Islam, as he had received a traditional but secular education in Kazakhstan and also had access to a Russian education. He was convinced of the benefits of Westernization but became equally dissatisfied with the attitude of Russians towards his people. He might have found out that most of them did not share the interest of his mentor and colleague, geographer Pyotr Semyonov.

Semyonov was president of the Russian Geographical Society for 40 years and was already acquainted with Dostoyevsky from his time in St. Petersburg. Valikhanov was admitted in the Society in 1857 after completing an expedition to Issyk-kul and Kulja. Shortly after, the Governor-General of Western Siberia suggested that Valikhanov lead another expedition to the remote oasis of Kashgar in Chinese Central Asia, where the Uyghurs had started violent revolts against the Manchus. The famous expedition was carried out in 1958 with a caravan of 43 men, 101 camels and 65 horses. The mission allowed Valikhanov to carefully document geographical features as well as customs, languages and all kinds of objects, all of which dragged greater attention from the capital of the Russian Empire.

The fame granted by the expedition helped Valikhanov join the intellectual life of St. Petersburg once he arrived there, but his brilliant future was overshadowed in the spring of 1861, as he became seriously ill with tuberculosis and left the city to settle again in the steppe. Dostoyevsky’s celebrated novel about his imprisonment, The House of the Dead, was published the same year. In the following years, Valikhanov compiled materials on Kazakh judicial practices and worked as a negotiator to avoid violence in the campaign of Colonel Cherniaev to conquer Central Asia.

It was also during this time when Dostoyevsky traveled to Western Europe, gambled and lost his money, and was widowed. Valikhanov married the sister of Sultan Tezek and maintained correspondence with General Kolpakovski, military governor of Semipalatinsk oblast, during his last months. He could not reach the age of 30, yet he lived enough to build the foundations of old Kazakh culture and be remembered up to our days. The Kazakh Academy of Sciences is named after him and a statue of Valikhanov and Dostoyevsky in the city of Semey, Kazakhstan, near the local Dostoyevsky museum, survives as a symbol of their friendship.

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