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The Jerk Who Captured Kazakhstan

Even when larded with traditional humor and Dan Brown-like historical fantasies, political satire can be a chancy game in the land of Strategy 2030.

by Dariya Tsyrenzhapova 30 July 2012

This article is part of an occasional series on satire in the former Soviet Union.

 

ALMATY | The president of Kazakhstan has a simple, but effective remedy to stop politicians embezzling money from national development programs.

“During the [economic] crisis, you will be accountable for every tenge,” Nursultan Nazarbaev said in May on a visit to the northern city of Zhambyl. He warned, "Those who steal money: we will rip your head off.”

Nazarbaev’s notorious remark surely sparked a keen sense of déjà vu for the many Kazakh readers who made the country’s first novel of political satire, Legenda ะพ Nomenclatura (Legend of The Nomenclatura), a best seller in 2009.

Unlike real-life politicians, their fictional prototype in the novel has nothing to lose. He is already headless. The name given him by co-authors Dossym Satpaev and Yerbol Zhumagulov, Baskaida, means “Where’s the head?” and his family name, Sumelekov, means “jerk.”

Newspaper cartoonist Vladimir Kadyrbaev, who illustrated the book, said his aim was to ridicule stupidity regardless of political affiliation.

“My only desire is to expel jerks from politics,” he said.

Sumelekov is a typical example of "homo cabineticus," a greedy, power-hungry corruptionist. Satpaev and Zhumagulov’s portrait of him is a biting, grotesque parody on modern statecraft. It’s a mosaic of collective social ills, embodied in a contemporary anti-hero.

 

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What he is, as the book begins, is a species of office plankton at MORGUE, or the Ministry for General State Development in full. Sumelekov climbs the career ladder all the way to the minister’s chair, always in pursuit of his ultimate dream: he yearns to possess The Nomenclatura, an ancient manuscript that contains the mysteries of maintaining endless power.

The Nomenclatura was in the possession of the Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors. Genghis Khan owned it, as did the Knights Templar. The American intelligence services hunted for it, and Soviet leaders from Lenin and Stalin to Brezhnev, Khrushchev, and their successors, hid it away from the eyes, and more importantly, the hands of the other side.

Masons spent the last 300 years searching fruitlessly The Nomenclatura, until they finally traced it to Kazakhstan, where they lost the trail.

But Sumelekov is not a worthy candidate to possess the manuscript, either. The novel suggests it has been lost in outer space, along with the country's first satellite, KazSrat-1 – a bald allusion to the infamous KazSat-1, which died in 2008, two years after its launch.

 

If Sumelekov is the archetype of the faithless public servant, other characters may remind readers of some of the current crop of Kazakhstani political leadership.

Satpaev is certain that readers catch the gist.

"Meanwhile, it's better to stay away from the limelight," he said, laughing. "Those who didn't find themselves mentioned in the book gave a true sigh of relief."

The authors say the book’s success took them by surprise. The country’s largest bookstore chain, Meloman, where the book topped the best-seller list three years ago, still asks for additional copies from time to time. But there will be no more, Satpaev said, unless it's a brand-new account of Baskaida Sumelekov's adventures.

Satpaev, 37, is a prominent independent political analyst. Writer and film director Zhumagulov, 30, is a former political reporter for the national weekly Svoboda Slova. There he was better known under the pseudonym Rzhu Nemogulov, which he derived from a Russian phrase meaning "laughing to death."

For Satpaev and Zhumagulov, Nomenclatura was an experiment, a risky attempt to pursue something edgy and new in a country where political satire seems virtually impossible.

"It's a genre for the brave," Zhumagulov said, though he added that, "Criticisms per se aren't forbidden unless they breach a certain taboo."


"Say, if a political satire were centered just around Mr. President and his family, it would be suppressed without ever reaching the top-ranking officials," Satpaev explained. For his part, he said, satire is for "the young and ambitious, who have nothing to lose. For folks like us."

Zhumagulov said the book had its origins in his occasional early-evening tea-talks in a friend's kitchen.

"Although we don't see ourselves as ideal writers, we still aimed for an ideal reader who takes a chance at exploring literary allusions," he said, chuckling.

On Kazakhstan's leading blog platform, ct.kz, a commenter nicknamed "Yozz" wrote, "The book might not grab international audiences since it's just about Kazakhs, for Kazakhs and those who boil in this oriental porridge."

Like Yozz, many took the novel as a straight-up ironic comment on contemporary Kazakhstan, but Zhumagulov sees Nomenclatura more as a universal bureaucratic saga with no clear ethnic markers attached.

END OF THE STORY


Legend of The Nomenclatura sold out four months after its release in May 2009. Twice as many copies were sold in the political capital, Astana, as in the largest city, Almaty, Satpaev said. The 35 copies he has stashed at home for friends are all that's left from the initial printing of 5,000.

On the eve of this year’s National Defenders’ Day celebrations in February (a Soviet holiday that is still observed, unofficially), Satpaev said an employee of a national phone company called him to ask for 15 copies, saying, "Please let our agashkas [bosses] read it.” It was a plea he could not refuse.

Nomenclatura, like most good satire, reflects not just on the country’s politics but also on the society that spawned it.


For Zhumagulov, politics is only “a façade.” Nomenclatura explores what's hidden behind the curtain, he says. It casts a sidelong glance at Kazakh’s salient social and cultural peculiarities.

In one sense, the book carries on a strain of folk humor, as when Kazakhs joke that “Argentina” derives from their tribe, Argyn; or that “Brazil” comes from a Kazakh phrase “biraz el,” meaning “several lands." Zhumagulov recited a passage from the book where this trait is reprised, and mocked:

“In times past, Khan Irelan reached your land and happened to spend a night there. At crack of dawn, he took down his yurts and headed back home, away from your fogs that keep a nomad from seeing how the sun meets the land in the rays of the rising sun. From then on, these lands have been called, Bir tan – ‘one morning,’ or ‘Britain.’

"But this is not the end of the story. Several people from Khan Irelan's tribe stayed on. Perhaps they overslept when their fellows left. Our scientists are stilil investigating. But it's already a known fact that the Irish are descended from the ‘Irelans.’ "

Aside from quirky humor, Satpaev and Zhumagulov’s novel lays bare a few of the contradictions in contemporary Kazakh society.

"This is a country of dual standards," Satpaev said. "What people think and what they say are two different things. All they care about is how to live comfortably here and now."

Sumelekov is more than just an enemy of the nation. He is the killer of time, Satpaev said, that irreplaceable resource for every state that seeks its place in the sun.

While time is ticking, the glorious future is always in view, if only as a gleaming mirage. According to Nazarbaev’s grand plan, “Strategy 2030,” that future is due to arrive within 18 years.

Talking of the wonderful future, Sumelekov’s politician uncle spouts phrases in some cases identical to those used by Nazarbaev’s coterie:

"Kazakhstan in 2030 must make it into the world's 50 most competitive economies with 30 groundbreaking projects and seven cluster fields developed in place. Take 10 stabs at fighting corruption and make 10 simple steps to bridge the gap between rich and poor."

However, the countdown clock has a faulty mechanism. Time seems to be frozen.

"For someone who values time, this clock would be worthless," says a character in the book. "But for the nomenklatura, which would rather kill someone else's time, it is the epitome of power and supremacy." Some of the nomenklatura kill time searching for The Nomenclatura.

“Sad to say, but we might not live until 2030," Zhumagulov said with a sigh.

"What I could say, I already have," he said. "I've been a journalist for 10 years, and for the last five, I was a clown. It's my job to make people laugh. I'm tired. I've run out of words.” Using a term for demons, Zhumagulov said, “How much longer can I go on criticizing shaitans?"
Dariya Tsyrenzhapova is a journalist in Almaty.
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