New East Digital Archive

Lines of resistance: Kazakhstan’s poets face the aftermath of protest

18 February 2022
Text: Assiya Issemberdiyeva

Kazakhstan’s January protests spread quickly. On 2 January, there was a rally against the spiking prices of liquefied gas in the western town of Zhanaozen. By 3 and 4 January, protests had spread across the country. By 5 January, the demonstrations took a violent turn, with Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, descending into chaos as the police turned on protesters. As a result, at least 227 people, including 16 police officers, were killed. Another 9,900 demonstrators were arrested, leading to widespread reports of torture.

Kazakhstan’s young creatives, and particularly its poets, were at the forefront of these protests. Poets Almas Temirbay, Quanysh Ospan, and Mergen Toqsanbay from the northern city of Kokshetau joined with other activists to make a video statement supporting demonstrators in Zhanaozen on 3 January. Their calls were not heard. The trio was detained on 8 January for “sparking civic unrest”; only high-level appeals ensured their release.

Almaty-based poet Fayzulla Töltay, along with his literary confreres Tilek Rysbek, Abzal Suleimen, and Aslan Quanyshuly, also shot a solidarity video on 4 January, featuring the same slogan. He was detained on the same day.

“I didn’t want to see people of Zhanaozen being killed like [they were during similar protests] in 2011. Then I could do nothing, I had been a kid,” says Töltay, now 25. He had travelled to the Almaty arena to join the demonstrations at 18:30, joining a crowd of roughly 500. When four units of Kazakhstan’s special police branch, the SOBR, arrived an hour later, Töltay was among the first to be taken to a police office. There he witnessed police brutality firsthand: a young man’s face was cracked from a heavy blow, another man’s kidneys failed. Töltay himself was in a police cell with nine other men, and watched as newcomers arrived already battered. He was released after two days, but the firing of guns, blows on human flesh, and the pointed shoes of an officer kicking protesters were etched in his memory. The experience has been a reckoning. “We [in Kazakhstan] are reared in the classic tradition. We believe in hero-figures like Mandela and Gandhi. But in a postmodern world, it is unlikely for such personalities to emerge,” he says. “Societies are saturated by simulacrum; there is no place for such concepts as truth or justice. Not only in Kazakhstan – in the whole world.” Töltay later poured his anguish into his poem “Blue Walls.” “We are like aruaqs [the spirit of ancestors] / having wrapped the flag around our shoulders / Are circling around a fellow’s body / put to death in the Republic Square”.

Like Töltay, many of Kazakhstan’s artists are only now starting to express these feelings of despair. Another poet, Tanagoz Tolkynkyzy, was among dozens of writers to publish an open letter supporting Zhanaozen’s protesters. Later, she posted a trenchant critique of the president on Facebook. The post caught the attention of her employers, who asked her to explain her actions. Tolkynkyzy refused. While the writer is currently on sick leave until early March, she says she will not be surprised if she loses her job, despite a lack of cause. “Censoring employees’ social media accounts is ridiculous,” she says. “The day [that the Kazakhstani president gave] the order to ‘shoot to kill’, fog closed in Almaty, and we have been shrouded in it ever since. It’s not clear what will come of it. Ordinary people hold no reins to check policymakers. We are reduced to a phantom.”

For now, artists are supporting one another through social media, often by sharing work. In February, playwright and writer Annas Bagdat released an online performance which showed his skin marked as if burnt by an iron — a response to accounts from detained protesters or their relatives that detainees had been burnt by the security services. Many of Kazakhstan’s young creatives have worn iron-burnt clothes on the street as an act of protest and resistance.

Bagdat hopes that this act of sharing will not only help Kazakhstan heal after January’s crackdown, but from past traumas too. He believes that the silence that followed the Zhanaozen massacre in 2011 meant that many Kazakhstanis — and young intellectuals in particular — felt compelled to speak up in 2022. But events unfolded so rapidly that society struggled to process or respond to what unravelled on their streets. Bagdat hopes that his poems and performances, and the poems of his counterparts, will help people who do not know how to express their anguish.

“The social and economic problems are just what floats on the surface,” he says. “The real reason behind the strike this year is shared trauma lingering since the crackdown of Zhanaozen rally in 2011. Having witnessed gunfire and bloodshed again in January, I couldn’t sit still. Remaining silent in such circumstances equals to falling in with injustice. If I fell into silence, I would be adding up to the communal trauma.”

The Calvert Journal is publishing three poems by Kazakhstani writers, reflecting on January’s protests and subsequent violence.

A still from Annas Bagdat's online performance, mimicking the injuries sustained by protesters

A still from Annas Bagdat's online performance, mimicking the injuries sustained by protesters

The Square

Written by Annas Bagdat, translated by Assiya Issemberdiyeva

The Square.

Footprints covered with red hoarfrost.

They are being cleaned

By someone, following some orders.

Power in one hand,

The Sun in another though they hold,

They can’t erase

The footprints covered with red hoarfrost.

The Square is our chests (home to our souls),

Full of grief and dolour.

Sobs turn into trauma –

The footprints covered with red hoarfrost.

The Qańtar nips at our souls,[1]

Only soundless scream,

And silent mourning can ever melt it

While we grieve,

Placing our palms into our chests.

The footprints covered with red hoarfrost.

[1] Qańtar – January, here the January unrest in Kazakhstan.

The Burden

Written by Tanagoz Tolkynkyzy, translated by Patricia McCarthy

My heart is weighed down by a word.

My most precious hopes have deceived me.

And now no one can steal from me

because there is nothing left to be lost.

When a real sorrow eats into your soul,

you keep yourself to yourself, all alone.

True happiness and a meaning to life

are found only when all is lost.

My heart is weighed down by a word.

This single pain eats my heart out

until it is hollow, and I have nothing

to regret in taking my leave.

This is life’s reality, my dear.

Blue walls

Written by Fayzulla Töltay, translated by Assiya Issemberdiyeva

…After a few hours

as if in Van Gogh’s ‘Prisoners’ Round’,

We started circling around

in a police cell painted blue,

Dreading the sound of shoes

Approaching in the hallway: ‘Tok…’ ‘Tok…’[1]

The blue walls

reminded us of the blue flag;

not the one hung in lofty Ak Orda walls.[2]

Of the one flown in the Square,[3]

They reminded us.

We are like aruaqs[4]

having wrapped the flag around our shoulders,

Are circling around a fellow’s body

put to death in the Republic Square.

The footsteps in the hallway are drawing closer

With resounding ‘Tok…’ ‘Tok…’

I don’t remember how long we circled,

our eyes glued to the floor,

Stepping over mountain summits that have been shrunk,

Wearing the Moon around our necks

Like aruaqs wrapped in a flag,

We circled,

We circled,

We circled –

Taking no notice

of the centre, where looking like a phantom,

As if imprisoned within a whip’s trace,

Reminding of the cell grid we are in,

Stood Kökmoinaq.[5]

We thought he was a detainee

from the adjacent cell:

we couldn’t tell the difference between his neighing and

the detainee’s scream.

Kökmoinaq neighs,

The detainee screams,

Kökmoinaq screams,

The detainee neighs.

The footsteps in the hallway are drawing closer

With resounding ‘Tok…’ ‘Tok…’

Blue walls,

As the sound of shoes draws nearer,

Cease to be the blue flag,

And turn into whirlpool.

We are drowning,

The flag wrapped around our shoulders.

The Sun’s not in the sky,

The eagle’s not there either,

Every single thing is sinking.

From the torture in the adjacent cell,

From the bullet on the street,

How do we save you, Kökmoinaq?

How do we rescue you

From the flag-coloured grave?

The footsteps in the hallway are drawing closer

With resounding ‘Tok…’ ‘Tok…’

Then, with our last hope

We sprinkled the sinking Sun

Into Kökmoinaq’s hooves,

And gave him eagle’s wings.

Soar up to the sky, Kökmoinaq!

You have golden hooves,

Giant wings,

Now you are free, Kökmoinaq!

Soar up, don’t look down.

Just a little later,

The flag-coloured grave will be deluged.

Our bloated corpses will float in water.

Will float on the blue flag’s surface, our corpses.

Our blood – to the Sun,

Our bones – to the eagle,

The whip’s trace – turn to the ornament in the flag, Kökmoinaq.

Tomorrow, in the fantasised promised land

The Future will wave us as a flag, Kökmoinaq.

Soar up, don’t look down!

Soar up to the sky!

The footsteps in the corridor are drawing closer

With resounding ‘Tok…’ ‘Tok…’




[1] Allusion to President Tokayev’s surname.

[2] Ak Orda – Residency of the President of Kazakhstan.

[3] Republic Square or Independence Square – the major square in Almaty used for public events, including protests.

[4] Aruaq – spirit of ancestors or of deceased people in general.

[5] Kökmoinaq – a special breed of Kazakh (Adai) horse.

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