oDR: Interview

Collecting beetles in Zhanaozen: Kazakhstan’s hidden tragedy

An interview with novelist Yrysbek Dabei, who wants his country to confront a mass killing of striking workers in 2011

Maurizio Totaro
7 May 2021, 5.00am
Yrysbek Dabei and his novel 'Qoniz'
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Source: Author

Ten years ago, Kazakhstan’s western region of Mangystau was swept by a series of oil workers’ strikes. The mobilisation lasted for more than six months and, at its peak in summer 2011, several thousand workers were involved. The epicentre was Zhanaozen, a city of 150,000 built in the 1960s next to Uzen’, a now-ageing oilfield that was once the country’s largest.

Throughout 2011, labour relations worsened to the extent that the resulting slump in production started to show on company balance sheets. On 16 December, the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence, clashes erupted between the authorities and striking workers. At least 16 civilians died and hundreds were wounded by police fire. Three dozen workers, union leaders and protesters were sentenced for the violence, while the authorities barred any independent investigation of the events, which the former UK prime minister Tony Blair later helped spin internationally.

The Kazakh writer Yrysbek Dabei sought to capture these events in a novel, ‘Qonyz’ (“the beetle”). Born in China’s Altai region, Dabei moved to Kazakhstan in 2001, publishing collections of poems and essays alongside his work as a journalist. ‘Qonyz’, Dabei’s second novel, revolves around oil workers and the environment of slow and subtle violence that structures their lives in Zhanaozen. Realism is mixed with motifs and characters drawn from Kazakh folklore, placing what became known simply as “the events” within a longer history.

In this interview, the author shares his literary influences, his motivations for writing about Zhanaozen - and what lies behind the novel’s title.

How and when did you decide to write about Zhanaozen?

Zhanaozen is the most dramatic event since Kazakhstan’s independence thirty years ago. As a philologist and writer I read foreign literature, where authors often depict the tragedies that their respective societies face. In Kazakh literature we do not have a school or tradition of writing about these themes. When I read Chinesе writers, however, major tragedies are explored in fiction – despite censorship, which is also common in Kazakhstan. These considerations made me think a lot about the Zhanaozen tragedy and encouraged me to write a novel about it.

You mentioned literary inspirations: what do you like reading?

Like many writers of my generation, I have read 20th century classics by writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ernest Hemingway. Among more recent writers, I find the Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, Orhan Pamuk, Khalid Hosseini, and the Tibetan writer Alai inspiring. The latter I find particularly close to me, as he writes about the colonisation of Tibet and about the atrocities and violence committed against Tibetans.

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December 2011: Residents of Almaty, Kazakhstan, protest in reaction to police brutality in Zhanaozen | (c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

‘Qonyz’, however, is not a documentary novel. One of the elements that distinguishes it from typical social prose is the influence of western Kazakhstan’s style of zhyr [a genre of epic poetry performed in declamatory-recitative style], to show the specificity of the region. I have used the local zhyr, ‘Kokmoinaqtyn Uiri’, also known as ‘The Fate of Adai’, which narrates the period between the Soviet confiscation [of livestock] in the early 1930s and the repressions of 1937.

I think parallels can be drawn between those repressions and this, more contemporary, bloody event.

The central characters of your novel are obviously oil workers, and you pay particular attention to their bodies. You vividly describe your characters as intoxicated, crippled and, finally, shot.

Yes, it was definitely a difficult part of the writing. I visited Mangystau several times while writing this novel. I met an oil worker who had lost 5cm of his hip bone, and people who had lost an eye or the upper part of the mouth, or whose cheekbone was gone. I talked to the activists who have suffered the most. I had read about the events in the newspapers and on the internet before going to Mangystau. However, it was completely different when I met these people in person.

For example, I met Maqsat Dosmagambetov, who suffered a lot [as a consequence of his imprisonment] before he passed away two years ago. We were standing on the shore of the Caspian Sea and while we were talking, I was burning from the inside.

That was the moment when my residual doubts about writing the novel were dispelled: after witnessing the pain of the oil workers, it was unimaginably difficult to understand the trauma they had been experiencing in their own country at the hands of the police.

Maqsat Dosmagambetov

Maqsat Dosmagambetov was one of the most outspoken workers in Zhanaozen during the 2011 strike. In June that year, he also took part in a press conference in Moscow to raise awareness about the situation.

During the trial of 37 workers and their supporters in 2012, Dosmagambetov exposed the use of torture during pre-trial detention. Six months later he developed cancer, which he maintained was caused by trauma suffered in prison. His appeals to the prison administration for medical examinations went unanswered for two years, before he was diagnosed with a malignant facial tumour.

In the following four years, he underwent six operations in South Korea, thanks to the financial assistance of fellow oil workers. Dosmugambetov died on 29 September 2018. He was 36 years old.

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Your novel also goes beyond the events of 16 December 2011, describing the slow, everyday violence that characterises work in the oilfields and life in the city.

Indeed. The novel starts from the climax of the story, where we encounter the workers camping on the square during a hunger strike, being insulted by someone who throws a bone at them. Many readers expected the novel to continue from there to the shootings. But I wanted to pay attention to the reasons why the bloodshed happened in the first place. These are long-standing social problems concerning education, healthcare, and the security apparatus.

The Chinese novelist Mo Yan has a novel titled ‘The Garlic Ballads’ that develops in a similar way. It is about a revolt by Chinese garlic farmers in 1988. Mo Yan takes around ten pages to describe the revolt itself, but dedicates the rest of the novel to explore the larger social conditions which made the revolt happen. Similarly, in my novel I wished to explore the social conditions in Zhanaozen: why do workers steal oil from their workplace? Why can’t a woman who is due to give birth deliver her baby? Why is there no water and electricity, even when people are sitting on so much oil? Haven’t these things contributed to the unfolding of the tragedy?

Although ten years have passed, it’s still not an easy subject to discuss in public. How has the book been received in Zhanaozen and in Kazakhstan at large?

There has been a wide range of reactions, particularly from young people and on social media platforms. Many students of literature asked whether the book was based on real life events, and if we really live in this kind of country. Many were not even aware that it happened. Conversely, there was no discussion about the book in any of the official literary newspapers and journals, nor on any TV show. Two publishing houses rejected the novel, and it was only recently serialised by the literary journal Jalyn.

The first chapters of your novel were recently published in translation in the Russian journal Literratura. ‘Qonyz’, the novel’s title, carries a series of allusions. For instance, the saying qonyz terip ketu - literally “going to collect beetles” - figuratively means “begging for alms”. What else does the title suggest?

In Kazakh cultural understanding, collecting beetles is the worst condition someone could find oneself in. It is similar to that of a beggar.

There is also a Kazazh legend about a beetle who rolls cow dung. Once, a very poor man met a saint who could grant him a wish. When asked whether he wanted to become a man of wisdom or one of wealth, he chose the second, because he had spent his whole life in poverty.

The saint grants his wish, but warns that the man will be cursed if he exploits his workers when he becomes rich. After becoming rich, however, he forgets about his promises. He beats his servants and doesn’t pay them for their labour. When the saint appears and tries to change his mind, the man still refuses to share his wealth. At this point, he starts sinking into the earth, but he still refuses to change his mind. First his legs sink into the ground, then his waist. Then his shoulders reach ground level and lastly his head. All the same, he says he can not share his wealth with anyone else. Then, while he is disappearing into the earth, his nose starts bleeding. And from the blood – which is all that is left of him – a beetle appears. This beetle then goes around collecting dung no matter how big it grows: it digs some up in order to eat it in the future, but then forgets where it put it. This cycle continues its whole life. In this case, the beetle is a metaphor for a greedy man who exploits others.

It was and still is the same in Zhanaozen, where monopolists and certain families exploit ordinary people and accumulate wealth from their labour. It reached the point of having to shoot people for that purpose. They are like those beetles, rolling their own shit no matter whether they have enough of it or not.

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