On Folklore Archives and Heritage Claims: the Manas Epic in Kyrgyzstan

In: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
Svetlana Jacquesson Excellent Researcher, Sinophone Borderlands—Interaction at the Edges, Palacky University Olomouc

Search for other papers by Svetlana Jacquesson in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access


In this article I focus on the importance of folklore archives in staking heritage claims and in disputes over cultural “ownership.” I use as a case study the Manas epic which is shared by post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan and China’s Kyrgyz minority. By analyzing the actors who took part in the transcription of the epic, the conditions under which these transcriptions were conducted, and the results they yielded, I show how, in the case of Kyrgyzstan, turning the epic from an oral tradition into a literary monument that could be claimed as national heritage was a long story of suffering and coercion, aspirations for reward and recognition, disaccords between holders of official authority and subordinates, and never-ending personal conflicts, all under the constantly looming threat of political repression. I contrast the uses of collections of transcripts under Soviet rule and in the post-independence period which overlapped with the UNESCO-driven heritage rush worldwide. I argue that while under Soviet rule the transcripts of the epic were “raw data” which editors, translators and scholars could bend according to their needs or their expertise, after independence these transcripts have been used both as a means of authenticating the epic and claiming it as heritage. I conceptualize this process as the “transvaluation” of folklore archives, or a process in which transcripts were turned into valuable historical artefacts by downplaying the agencies involved in their production and the circumstances under which it took place.


The Manas epic was brought to the attention of the scholarly community in the second half of the 19th century by an imperial army officer, Shokan Valikhanov (1935-1865), and a Russian linguist considered as the father of Turkic studies, Vasilii Radlov (1837-1918). If Radlov enjoys wide recognition still today for the first publication and translation of some of the stories of the epic— and the inspiration his work provided for the consecutive formulation of the oral formulaic theory of Milman Parry—Valikhanov can legitimately pride himself in coining a description of the epic as “an encyclopedic collection of all Kirghiz myths, tales, and legends”1 that has resisted the wear and tear of time and is still a favorite and widely used catchphrase. While Valikhanov and Radlov wrote down only samples from the epic collected on the territory of present-day Kyrgyzstan, in its subsequent transcriptions, some of which will be discussed further in this article, the epic took the shape of a relatively steady collection of heroic and romantic stories organized around the characters of Manas, his son Semetey and his grandson Seytek.2 In contrast to other Turkic epics that may be shared by several ethnic groups or nations, the Manas epic is popular only among the Kyrgyz and the national elite of Soviet Kyrgyzstan claimed it as “cultural heritage that had come down from the distant past and that could not but aspire to a place of honor in the golden fund of world literature” as early as 1935 (Stenogramma 1935: 16).

The 2009 inscription of the Manas epic on UNESCO list of intangible heritage by China on behalf of its Kyrgyz minority3 provoked a public outcry in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan that was followed by a debate between specialists on the “ownership” of the epic.4 In staking their rival claims against UNESCO nomination, Kyrgyzstani specialists boasted about the great many epic performers who were living or had lived in their country and about the transcripts of nearly 80 versions of the epic that were stored in the archives of the Institute of Language and Literature at the National Academy of Sciences in Bishkek. They had to acknowledge, though, that only the transcripts of two of these versions—those of Sagïmbay Orozbakov (1867-1930) and Sayakbay Karalaev (1894-1971)5—were being published unabridged at the time of China’s 2009 nomination and that after the death of Sayakbay Karalaev, Kyrgyzstan failed to promote another bard as a national icon.

While following these debates I was puzzled by a contradiction: China inscribed the epic on the list of intangible heritage defined by the 2003 UNESCO Convention as “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants.”6 This convention, according to scholars of critical heritage studies, had as a goal to withdraw the support from professional folklorists and folklore institutions involved in the documentation and study of “endangered” traditions and instead sustain these traditions by supporting their carriers (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004). Yet in the 2009 debate over the “ownership” of the Manas epic Kyrgyzstani specialists foregrounded the extensive collection of transcripts kept in the archive and the impressive amount of epic verses written down from the mouths of Sagïmbay and Sayakbay rather than the epic as a living tradition.7

Few if any studies explore how the epic was collected from the bards or how the oral performances of two bards were turned into transcripts upon which the various publications of the epic rest. Though the body of scholarship on the epic is huge, one cannot but notice that it has been produced nearly entirely by Kyrgyz scholars, is dominated by textual analyses of various inspirations, and is also quite repetitive.8 International scholars have joined the research on the epic late and they have either dived into the edition, translation and comments of separate stories of the epic, with a preference for those recorded in the 19th century,9 or they have investigated how the Manas epic and its eponymous hero have been instrumentalized by Soviet and post-Soviet nation-building policies.10

In all of the existing studies, the transcriptions of the epic and the relationship between old and new publications and the transcripts preserved in the archive have been taken for granted.11 Yet, little can be taken for granted when thousands and thousands of verse lines are composed and written down with the clear ambition to weave these lines into the canvas of a national literary monument. The difficulty is compounded when the transcribing enterprises—carried out in Kyrgyzstan in 1922-1926 and 1936-1947—unfold over relatively long periods of time in an environment rife with contradicting or competing political agendas. Or when in the struggles over national or international recognition specialists probe the size of a published version or the legitimacy of the bard from whom it was transcribed.

Taking advantage of the impressive amount of sources in Kyrgyz on the epic in particular and on the cultural construction of the Kyrgyz republic in general that have been published since independence both in print and online, in this article I focus on the actors and institutions involved in the transcription of the epic and in the subsequent conservation and use of these transcripts in Soviet and post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. My goal in undertaking this analysis is twofold. First, I want to draw attention to home-grown folklore activities and the resulting collections of folklore materials as a crucial aspect of nation building under Soviet rule that seems to have largely escaped scholarly attention hitherto. And, second, based on the example of the Manas epic, I want to further problematize a process induced by the global rush for intangible heritage that I refer to as the “transvaluation” of folklore archives. In pursuing this goal, I do not concern myself with the content of the epic which, as I have mentioned above, is the topic of a huge amount of studies. Instead, I focus on the actors behind the production of the transcripts, their conservation and publication.

With regard to home-grown folklore activities, all of the existing studies on the creation of Soviet nations in Central Asia focus on the enormous enterprise of describing and labelling physical or racial types, mores and customs, and languages started under imperial rule and concluded by the Soviet regime. This enormous enterprise though represents only one modality of folklore collection conducted by states and empires all over the world in the name of good governance.12 Yet side by side with this policy-oriented modality of folklore collection, there is what scholars largely agree to describe as a home-grown romantic modality. This modality is conducted in the name of saving or salvaging “treasured heritage” that is believed to be disappearing and it includes most notably the collection of oral lore in the vernacular-cum-national languages (Dundes 1985, Foley 2002). While the sources on this kind of activity under Russian imperial rule may be few, there is a wealth of them on the early Soviet period. Thus, for instance, while the language policies of the Soviet regime have been amply discussed by scholars, many of the existing analyses seem to have missed altogether the fact that in Central Asia the designs of national languages were inseparable from vast campaigns for the collection of local oral lore which mobilized every literate teacher and student in the region in the early 1920s.13 If in some regions the collection of local oral lore sought to attenuate the translocal written tradition in Chaghatay, in regions like present-day Kyrgyzstan and parts of Kazakhstan, it was expected to remedy to the lack of local written sources, and thus the lack of local sources on language, culture or history. The first transcription of the Manas epic was conducted within such a context—a scarce-resource cultural environment in the understanding of Gramsci14—and as I will discuss below the context did impact the transcripts.

Whether governance-style or nationalist-style, folklore collections are rarely innocent. The descriptions of disappearing or living mores and customs and the transcripts of oral lore they enclose are the outcome of complex interactions between official institutions, collectors, and folklore bearers. In the case of the Manas epic, the transcribing enterprise was one long story of suffering and coercion, aspirations for reward and recognition, disaccords between holders of official authority and subordinates and never-ending personal conflicts, all under the constantly looming threat of political repression. Between 1922 and 1926, a whole tale of the epic—the Manas tale—was re-transcribed as one among other possible folklore sources for coining a “national language.” A second transcription, this time of the entire epic, was undertaken between 1936 and 1947 because the 1922-1926 version proved larded with pan-Turkic and religious references, and therefore unsuitable for Soviet national or cultural projects. The second transcription though was again unsatisfactory because local scholars working on the publication of the epic claimed that the poetic qualities of the different tales were unequal and that the transcription contained extensive repetitions. Thereafter a third and fourth attempts to record the epic were undertaken by writing it down again (1952) and by sound taping it (1968). By that time, the collection of transcripts of the epic was impressive in size but somehow disappointing in quality.

Transvaluation as a concept has been first used to denote the recovery or revival of “the obsolete, the mistaken, the outmoded, the dead, and the defunct” in the process of heritage making (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004). I suggest that as a concept transvaluation may also be mobilized analytically to problematize the “unbreakable chain” between “authentic” oral lore and written records or transcripts. This “unbreakable chain” dates back to the birth of folklore collecting. Abrahams (1993) discusses the case of Joseph Ritson, the most “garrulous” critic of the editing and revising methods of Bishop Thomas Percy, the compiler of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). For Ritson, the authenticity of “the scarce evidence of the past” could be proved only “by rendering the manuscript in as complete a form as possible, without revising the words of the transcriber, thus remaining as close as possible to the singer from whom the song was recorded.” No matter how disappointing transcripts preserved in folklore archives may be, and no matter the peculiar circumstances under which they may have been produced, the authentication of the epic as a literary monument and the defense of the Manas epic tradition against China’s encroachment is pursued by publications that valorize these transcripts and turn them into historical artefacts.

In unfolding my analysis I adopt a loosely chronological storyline in an attempt to foreground the continuities and changes in the transcribing enterprise and the challenges posed by the simultaneous promotion of two different bards as national icons. I pay equal attention to the actors who took part in the transcription process, the conditions under which it was conducted, the results it yielded and what we know of the subsequent valorizations of these results. In the conclusion, I offer some insights into the early Soviet mass folklore collection in Kyrgyzstan that smacked of “functionalist nationalism” in place of the more conventional “romantic nationalism” and I dwell on the relationship between archives, transvaluation, and heritage as exemplified in the making of the Manas epic. Throughout my analysis I will keep referring to the works of Samar Musaev,15 so much so that were he alive I would have humbly asked him to be co-authors. This sadly not being possible, I hope that he would have been pleased to see discussed in this article some of the issues that have kept him busy over so many years.

1 Sagïmbay: Four Years of Poverty and Perseverance (1922-1926)

In 1921 Kayum Miftakov (1882-1949)—the Tatar director of a Kyrgyz school in Törtkul, on the southern shore of lake Issyk-kul—attended a performance of the Manas epic by Sagïmbay.16 Miftakov was a sympathizer of the Pan-Turkic movement17 and the leader of a recently established school group for the collection of folklore. Sagïmbay was a well-known bard who made a living by performing stories from the epic or any other genre of poetic lore that might appeal to an audience. At the time of the first encounter between Miftakov and Sagïmbay, the Kyrgyz were still recovering from the disasters brought about by the 1916 revolt against the general conscription into the Russian imperial army. Sagïmbay himself was one of those Kyrgyz who escaped the suppression of the revolt by crossing the border into China. The dire poverty Sagïmbay lived in upon his return in 1917 may well explain why he accepted Miftakov’s proposal. As the story goes, at that first encounter, Sagïmbay hardly had any time to spare for Miftakov since he had to return the borrowed horse he was riding to his owner. Sagïmbay nevertheless agreed to be recorded by Miftakov and promised him to commit to the task the following year.

Miftakov took Sagïmbay at his word and the Törtkul group for the collection of folklore raised some funding to allow the travel of Miftakov and one of his students—Saparbay Sooronbaev—to the Narïn Region in 1922. The recording of the epic started around May-June when Ïbrayïm Abdïrakhmanov (1888-1967) and Chaki Kaptagay-uulu, two teachers from Atbashï, a high-mountain valley close to the border with China, joined Miftakov and Sooronbaev. From May to November 1922, Abdïrakhmanov and Sooronbaev followed the bard and recorded the epic during live performances. They worked simultaneously and produced two transcripts, not least because one of them was promised to the deputy head of the district authorities of Narïn—Ibray Toychinov (1901-1938)18—in exchange for his authorization and support for the expedition (Musaev 1995a: 37). As for Miftakov, after making sure that Abdïrakhmanov and Sooronbaev could cope with the task, he traveled around the Narïn Region with Kaptagay-uulu and pursued the collection of other oral lore on his own.

After the first six months, Miftakov and Sooronbaev returned to their teaching duties. For the next four years, Abdïrakhmanov and Sagïmbay were quite a lot on their own, both financially and intellectually. With the help of Toychinov they were accommodated by Abdïlda Jaanbay-uulu in Atbashï. In exchange, Abdïlda—known as a manap (wealthy leader)—was exempted from paying taxes (Musaev 1995a: 38). While the bard and the scribe did spend their winters in Atbashï, as soon as the weather warmed up, they were on the move: the rewards received by Sagïmbay for his performances were their only income. From there on, there was only one transcript of the epic produced. It is most probably during the winter transcribing sessions that Sagïmbay had most leisure for improvisation: he felt like weaving into the Manas epic fancy stories of foreign lands and people, Ilya Muromets and Napoleon included, and lengthy religious reflections. His complaints (arïz) about the poor conditions in which his family lived and in which the recording was conducted were dutifully transcribed by Abdïrakhmanov.

2 The Drudgery of Transcribing the Epic

The 1922 recording started with three scribes, one of whom was a student of Miftakov while the two others were recruited upon the orders of Toychinov. While Musaev (1995b: 8-9) states that little is known about Sooronbaev, Miftakov’s student, and that he most probably perished during World War II, Munduk Mamïrov, one of the first home-grown Manas scholars, asserts that in 1959 he met Sooronbaev in On-Archa (Narïn Region) and recorded Sooronbaev’s memories of the 1922 expedition (Mamïrov 1959: 1-2). What Sooronbaev remembered was that he found the work difficult, used to cry with despair and asked on several occasions to be relieved of his writing duty. Miftakov therefore spent quite some time lecturing him on the importance of the task and the service they were rendering to “writing the history of Kyrgyz literature” though Sooronbaev, as quoted by Mamïrov, was not convinced. Surprisingly, in 1959 Sooronbaev denied being involved in the recording of Sagïmbay’s Manas; he did not even remember who Abdïrakhmanov was, nor was he capable of providing any worthy information about Sagïmbay. If Sooronbaev was frank in his discussion with Mamïrov, then the attribution to him of a 682-page, 22 × 16 cm sized transcript of the epic is incorrect (Musaev 1995b: 7).

Of the two other scribes, Chaki Kaptagay-uulu, in the evaluation of Miftakov himself, lacked the necessary writing skills and was lazy, so he was eventually assigned to the collection of minor samples of folklore (Tokombaeva 1991: 23). Even Abdïrakhmanov, the scribe whose writing skills were greatly admired by Miftakov, initially found the transcription a real chore and tried on several occasions to break free. And though he eventually stayed it seems that as soon as Miftakov left, he did not hesitate to accept any help offered. Musaev notes for instance that both field transcripts from 1922 bear the handwriting of several different scribes. Moreover, the help of outsiders is much more substantial in Abdïrakhmanov’s transcript than in the transcript attributed to Sooronbaev (Musaev 1995b: 7). After the departure of Miftakov and Sooronbaev in November 1922, Abdïrakhmanov continued to let others help so much that some transcripts—kept currently in the archives in the shape of several-hundred-page-long volumes of bound notebooks19—were produced by as many as ten different scribes (Musaev 1995c: 5; 1997: 5-6). The identities of these scribes are unknown. Musaev suggests that they joined Abdïrakhmanov and Sagïmbay at their winter quarters in Atbashï and volunteered their help. Though Abdïrakhmanov is still nowadays credited with saving Sagïmbay’s Manas by transcribing it, he acts in fact as a collector who occasionally takes on the task of transcription but who is much more involved in the supervision and control of transcripts produced and, as I will discuss next, copied, disseminated, and preserved.

3 The Multiplication of Written Records of the Epic

Abdïrakhmanov seems to have been quite relaxed not only with accepting help but also with giving away his transcripts or copies of them as well as allowing other people to copy for themselves the transcribed stories of the epic. There is evidence that handwritten stories from Sagïmbay’s Manas started circulating during or shortly after the transcribing session. For instance, Balbay Mamay—an avid collector of folklore among China’s Kyrgyz and the elder brother of Jusup Mamay, China’s most famous performer of the Manas epic—acquired a written record of Sagïmbay’s Manas from a native of Atbashï. Though in his memoirs Jusup Mamay does not indicate when the written record was acquired, he notes that in 1931 a group of Kyrgyz, led by Abdïlda Jaanbay-uulu, fleed the collectivization on the Soviet side and arrived in Kara Bulak, the native place of Jusup and Balbay (Mamay 1994: 9). It can hardly be a coincidence that Abdïlda was also the person who was providing shelter and food for Sagïmbay and Abdïrakhmanov in 1922-1926. The manuscript record that reached China may very well had been offered by Abdïrakhmanov as a courtesy to their host. This copy of Sagïmbay’s Manas was reportedly burned by a local official in 1938 (ibid.) Musaev himself remembers that around 1934 his father who lived close to nowadays Narïn town used to read in the evening either for himself or to the family from a notebook containing parts of Sagïmbay’s Manas in hand writing. This notebook was lost when Musaev’s father died (Musaev 1992: 83). Abdïrakhmanov thus continued an age-long tradition of transmission of literary lore in which the value of a text was not in its uniqueness—existing as a single sample—and in which the original narrative—or the field record in this case—was no more valuable than the copies produced concurrently or consecutively.

4 Official Pressures and Abuse of Power

In November 1924, Abdïrakhmanov and Sagïmbay were summoned by the Kyrgyz Academic Commission (KAC) in Tashkent. The commission was one among several “national” commissions established under the Ministry of Education—or People’s Commissariat of Education—of the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (1918-1924). Though its main task was the eradication of illiteracy by adapting the Arabic script to the Kyrgyz language and developing school textbooks and curricula, the commission—chaired by Ishenaalï Arabaev (1882-1933)20 with Kasïm Tïnïstanov (1901-1938)21 as deputy—also sponsored the collection of oral lore and was known for having published several instruction articles on how to conduct it properly (Ibraimov 2008). Its interest in the epic was therefore manifold: as a sample of Kyrgyz folklore, as an item for a future publication, and as a lexicon or encyclopedia of Kyrgyz culture and history.

While Abdïrakhmanov reached Tashkent, Sagïmbay did not show up at the meeting. Once back to Bishkek, in January 1925, Abdïrakhmanov found him at the marketplace where two groups were competing to become his patrons. Eventually, Sagïmbay accepted both invitations. Having secured some material support for his family, Sagïmbay got back to the recording of the epic with Abdïrakhmanov (Musaev 1995a: 41-42).

In March 1925, Abdïrakhmanov and Sagïmbay took the road to Tashkent together, in the hope of receiving from the KAC some recognition as well as some reward for their work. The meeting was disappointing. The attending officials—Arabaev, Tïnïstanov, Toychinov and others—were not interested in the bard or his performance, they were obsessed with the written record of the epic because of their publishing ambitions. Their criticisms focused on the language—too “Uzbek-like.”22 The meeting ended with the head of the Commission threatening the bard and the scribe to send them to court if they did not complete the recording quickly (Musaev 1995a: 41). Sagïmbay, according to the testimony of Abdïrakhmanov, was deeply affected by the harsh attitude of the official authorities. He hastily brought the Manas tale to an end and in August 1926 the bard and the scribe parted ways to never meet again. At the time of separation, Sagïmbay was “losing his mind” because of a sickness of the nerves. Between 1926 and his death in 1930, he was harassed by the local Soviet authorities who made him pay exorbitant taxes and ridiculed his polygamy (Musaev 1995a: 43-44).

5 Scattering and Recovering Transcripts during the 1930s

Sagïmbay died on the eve of a turbulent decade. In Kyrgyzstan as in the rest of the Soviet Union the 1930s are remembered for the successive waves of political repression that do not spare the promoters of the epic, easily branded as bourgeois-nationalists. Yet, during the same period, a project to publish parts of the epic in Kyrgyz and Russian took shape as well as a Manas Epic Publishing Committee charged with the task of turning Sagïmbay’s transcripts into a literary monument (Protokol 78, 1935).

It is Stalin’s letter to the historical journal Proletarskaya Revolyutsiya in October 1931 that impelled local party officials to scrutinize the epic. The letter in a nutshell was denouncing the pollution of Soviet scholarship with alien theories (e.g. Trotskyist) and as Barber (1976: 23) notes “hardly any sphere of intellectual activity was spared close political scrutiny.” In March 1932, a resolution of the Kyrgyz Oblast Party Committee mentioned Tïnïstanov by name for his “counter-revolutionary” and “bourgeois-nationalist” ideas and for his, and others’, “idealization of the so-called folklore in which the interests of enemy classes were praised” (Protokol 46, 1932). After a party meeting at which Tïnïstanov not only repented but also denounced others’ (Bolponova 2011: 90-102), he was spared, and furthermore given the floor at a conference on the Manas epic held in December 1935. In his speech, Tïnïstanov defended the epic as “the only heritage from the past the Kyrgyz could claim” and as “a source on the life and history of the Kyrgyz and of Central Asia” (Stenogramma 1935: 16, 20).23

Between 1931 and 1937 the members of the Manas Epic Publishing Committee kept themselves busy with combing through the transcripts of Sagïmbay’s Manas in quest of stories proving the value of the epic as heritage and as a historical source under Soviet rule. At that time the slowly growing collection of folklore records—referred to as the Manuscript Fund—including Sagïmbay’s Manas was kept at the Institute of Cultural Construction.24 It is only due to the efforts of Miftakov and Abdïrakhmanov that the transcripts of Sagïmbay’s Manas were saved from being scattered among various editors or translators and from disappearing in the political purges of the 1930s alongside with those who were in the process of using them.

Arabaev, for instance, as the head of the KAC kept for himself the 1922 volume of transcripts he received from Toychinov, and it was Arabaev’s wife who handed the volume to the Manuscript Fund in 1937, four years after the death of her husband (Musaev 1995a: 37). Regarding the same event, Miftakov claims that when Abdïrakhmanov recognized the volume, he took it away from the wife and refused her any reward (Tokombaeva 1991: 21-22). Again Miftakov points out that he himself had to visit the house of Tokchoro Joldoshev—the second Minister of Education of Soviet Kyrgyzstan (1933-1935) and the head of the then Manas Epic Publishing Committee—and recover two volumes of transcripts from Sagïmbay’s Manas (Tokombaeva 1991: 74). Joldoshev was arrested in 1935 and shot in 1937 and the visit of Miftakov most probably took place after the arrest.

Other records were lost forever. Thus, the first 20 to 60 pages—containing the biography of Sagïmbay as told by the bard himself and as written down by Miftakov—in the 1922 field transcript attributed to Abdïrakhmanov are missing (Musaev 1995a: 58-59). Again, regarding the two identical transcripts produced during the teamwork in 1922, the Abdïrakhmanov transcript is short of some 14,605 lines, corresponding to an entire story and an entire notebook (Musaev 1995b: 6-7, 380). Musaev emphasizes that there is no official note or any explanation by Abdïrakhmanov (or any other staff member of the Manuscript Fund) about the loss or lack of this transcript. He is certain that the notebook existed because by the time it disappeared, its content was already transliterated in Latin by Abdïrakhmanov himself.25 Musaev suggests that the missing notebook may have been in the hands of Tïnïstanov and that it was lost after Tïnïstanov’s arrest and death in 1938.

6 Scribe, Collector, Custodian, Editor

After this first hectic period and its tragic closure, the dust finally settled in the Manuscript Fund. The efforts to publish the epic continued but there was rarely a return to the written records in the Arabic script until the appointment of Musaev in 1965. Instead the work conducted by those who disappeared in the purges—including a transliteration of some of the major stories of the epic into the Latin script—was either recycled or revised. As a junior staff member Abdïrakhmanov was left alone in the Manuscript Fund and he acted as its custodian until his retirement in 1960.

This 25-year-long custodianship rendered the collection of written records of Sagïmbay’s Manas quite unconventional. I have already mentioned Abdïrakhmanov’s willingness to accept help during the field transcription. Hence, written records of the epic that are claimed by Abdïrakhmanov and identified as his work are in fact not his; nor do these multi-hand transcripts contain any indication as to the identities of their producers. I also noted that even while the transcription of the epic was underway or shortly after, the amount of written records of the epic multiplied without any way to distinguish between transcripts and copies. Abdïrakhmanov continued to copy the transcripts of the epic or allowed other people to do the same while working in the Manuscript Fund and the distinction between transcripts and copies faded even further (Musaev 2006: 7). Or, as Musaev suggests, “field transcripts” may well have been either given away or destroyed and replaced by copies produced later.

There is a bitter remark in Abdïrakhmanov’s memoirs that may explain other initiatives he undertook while overseeing the Manuscript Fund. The remark reads: “Sagïmbay died in May 1930. At that time, while working at the research institute26 and doing whatever they wanted, Tïnïstanov, Shabdanov27 and Karasaev were inspecting all the written records (of Sagïmbay’s Manas) collected by Arabaev. They dumped these records without ever seizing the opportunity to invite Sagïmbay and discuss the records with him” (Abdïrakhmanov 1992: 70). This remark should be read in the light of both Abdïrakhmanov’s unpleasant experience with the KAC in 1925 and the fact that in 1930, Kuseyin (Huseyin) Karasaev,28 a fresh graduate from the Leningrad Institute of Oriental Studies, authored an article claiming that the Manas tale as written down from Sagïmbay was worthless for publication and that without corrections, additions and abridgements there was no way for these transcripts to satisfy the call of the new times, i.e. inspire and educate a socialist nation.29 Shortly after, with the support of Tïnïstanov as Minister of Education, Karasaev launched the promotion of a new epic performer, Sayakbay Karalaev.

It may well be in an attempt to improve them that Abdïrakhmanov recopied entire volumes of written records of Sagïmbay’s Manas. Musaev (2014: 7-13) discusses at length two such volumes allegedly containing field transcripts from 1924 and 1926 to note that the Arabic script is so clean and accurate—with all the necessary diacritics in order to capture the Kyrgyz pronunciation—that in this particular case there is no doubt that the volumes contain copies produced by Abdïrakhmanov himself and substituted for the field transcripts, the latter being missing. Musaev also emphasizes that these two volumes show many instances of substantial interventions by Abdïrakhmanov—with words replaced in order to Kyrgyzize the language and entire lines being deleted or inserted to purge any religious or pan-Turkic references. As importantly, in the case of the second volume, Musaev notes that there are pages torn away as well as indications that the volume was re-bound and notebooks containing side stories inserted.

Some of these copy-and-improve activities may be related to the publishing projects of Abdïrakhmanov himself.30 But these activities may as well be a manifestation of Abdïrakhmanov’s hurt pride—after all, the people who criticized Sagïmbay’s transcripts also criticized his work—or of his desire to save Sagïmbay’s Manas by stripping it of pan-Turkic and pan-Islamic motifs. Eventually, in the early 1950s, Abdïrakhmanov wrote down his own version of a Soviet-friendly or “modern” epic in a pure Kyrgyz language that he bestowed to the Manuscript Fund (Sarïpbekov 1995, Musaev 1995d: 489).

7 Saving the Last Great Epic Performer from China (1931)

One year after the death of Sagïmbay and one year after the publication of his article questioning the worth of the existing transcripts of the epic, Karasaev was asked by the KAC to record another sample of the epic. He undertook a trip to the Issyk-kul Region to discover that there were not so many skilled bards and that most of the active ones, among them Sayakbay, were known for performing only the Semetey tale. When Karasaev finally got in touch with Sayakbay—and had him initially assessed by a group of elders listening to the epic and enjoying a feast of freshly cooked mutton—he had to overcome a first major hurdle: the local Soviet authorities refused to let loose their surveillance of Sayakbay since he spoke ill of the brand-new collectivization campaign and was suspected of planning an escape to China. Karasaev succeeded in taking Sayakbay to Bishkek by claiming that Sayakbay was “the last of the great epic performers” and by promising to the local authorities that Sayakbay would not only be watched closely but also “re-educated.” Once in Bishkek, Karasaev had to face a second hurdle. Though Sayakbay’s performance at an “ethnographic evening” held at Karasaev’s house was highly appraised by a group of outstanding representatives of the Kyrgyz intelligentsia at that time, Sayakbay did not please some high officials in Bishkek; moreover, for his “discovery” of Sayakbay, Karasaev, in his own words, was treated by these same officials as a “mad dog” (Karasaev 1994: 64-65). Thereafter, Karasaev was relegated to a teaching position in the south of the country while Sayakbay was sent back to the countryside accompanied by Junush Ïrïsov. It was Ïrïsov—a fresh graduate from the Tashkent Kirghiz-Kazakh Pedagogical Institute and a short-term staff member of the first newspaper in Kyrgyz language, Erkin Too—who produced a first transcript from Sayakbay’s epic repertoire. This first transcript was kept for a long time in the private archives of Karasaev (ibid.).

8 Transcribing and Re-Transcribing (1936-1952)

The second session of transcribing the epic from Sayakbay started after Tïnïstanov’s 1935 defense of the epic and lasted until 1947. In 1935 Sayakbay was not only brought back to Bishkek, he was also given a position at the national Philharmonic Theater where he was employed until 1954. One year later, in 1936 Ïrïsov wrote down 48,872 lines from the Semetey tale in the Latin script (Jaynakova 2013: 11). The transcript was then continued by Abdïrakhmanov and Kerim Jumabaev. Besides completing the Semetey tale and producing the first notebook of transcripts from the Manas tale, Jumabaev was also a member of the Manas Epic Publishing Committee and was expected to write the introduction to the first publication (Jaynakova 2013: 11-12; Protokol 299, 1937; Stenogramma 1937). Starting on 24 March 1936, Abdïrakhmanov produced seven notebooks of transcripts from the Semetey tale alone. He did not summon Sayakbay to the then Institute of Kyrgyz Language and Writing; instead he followed him in his frequent travels between the capital and his home region, i.e. the southern shore of lake Issyk-kul. The transcripts in notebooks one to four were produced in Frunze, at the famous “Writers’ Living Quarters” on Sovetskaya Street where Sayakbay had a one-room flat. The family of a certain Nurmambet Japïl-uulu in Dolonotu (Issyk-kul Region) hosted Abdïrakhmanov and Sayakbay while they worked on notebook five. Sayakbay then stayed with his younger brother in Balïkchï (Issyk-kul Region) and recited the content of notebooks six and seven (Jaynakova 2013: 11-12). The transcription of the Semetey tale ended in 1940 and yielded 316,157 lines. The same three scribes carried out the transcription of the Manas tale: amounting to some 84, 513 lines, it was launched in 1936 and completed by the end of 1937 (Musaev 1984: 11). At that point, Ïrïsov (1904-1937) and Jumabaev fell victim to the political purges. As with the transcripts of Sagïmbay’s Manas, Abdïrakhmanov had to recover the 1936 transcript in the Latin script by Ïrïsov from the bereaved family of Jumabaev (Jaynakova 2013: 11-12).

The transcription of the Seytek tale (84,697 lines) was carried out between 1940 and 1947—with a long break for the bard joined the army ranks during World War II—by Raisa Kïdïrbaeva and Jekshenaalï Bekbaev. In his memoirs Bekbaev (1994) describes the modus operandi of transcribing the tale in the summer of 1945: Sayakbay recites a story for 4-5 minutes and then stops; he walks around the room while Bekbaev writes, asks him to read the last lines written down and then continues. This was a happy period for Sayakbay: he started his day with a glass or two of bozo31 at a bozokana (bozo-shop) where he met other outstanding citizens of the capital and was updated on local news and gossip; during the breaks, he relaxed by sharing with the scribe stories and anecdotes; and in the evenings, he played ordo—a local version of the chess game—with the other employees of the Philharmonic Theater.

The circumstances were quite different in 1952 when the second transcription of Sayakbay’s epic was undertaken in the months preceding a five-day-long all-Union conference (6-10 June) on the “folk-ness” (narodnost’ in Russian, eldüülük in Kyrgyz) of the Manas epic. Beneath the thick layers of Soviet rhetoric, the participants in this conference were in fact trying to establish, first, whether the epic was a piece of oral lore popular among “the folk” or whether it was the “invention” of the two bards—Sagïmbay and Sayakbay—and of those who had transcribed the epic from them; and, second, whether there was a truly “folk content” of the epic that could be separated from the individual accretions of the two bards and the transcribers. Given that on the eve of the conference the only transcripts available were those of Sagïmbay and Sayakbay, transcribing teams were hurriedly sent to every corner of Kyrgyzstan to collect more versions of the epic. It is within this context that it was also decided to re-transcribe the epic of Sayakbay (Musaev 1995d: 489). The outcome of the 1952 transcribing session was a “short” version; it is unclear whether the reason for this was that the bard was asked to abbreviate it, in the hope of a rapid publication, or because he decided of his own volition to give an abbreviated rendering. Musaev (1994: 85) who attended a one-hour recording session, left it unhappy because he heard Sayakbay improvising inhabited or scared by the spirit of communism.

9 Begging for Recognition

Other testimonies for the 1950s indicate that Sayakbay felt deeply affected by the fact that the ever-ongoing publication and translation projects seemed to privilege Sagïmbay’s Manas. While he may have been illiterate, not at ease with the lifestyle of the capital and bound by the folks back home, Sayakbay seems to have been very touchy about recognition, both pecuniary and artistic. Musaev (1994: 84) notes that in 1951 when he was first introduced in person to Sayakbay in the street, Sayakbay seized the occasion to thank him profusely for including “his stories” in a “book” and for the remuneration he had received thanks to Musaev’s choice. Kïdïrbaeva, one of the transcribers of the Seytek tale and a junior research fellow at the Institute of Kyrgyz Language and Literature, remembers that in the 1950s Sayakbay came frequently to the institute and, together with Abdïrakhmanov, helped the editors working on the only publication of the entire epic to appear during the Soviet period (Kïdïrbaeva 1994: 81). Known as the kurama—“comprehensive” or “representative”—edition, the four volumes that appeared in 1959 and 1960 were a Soviet-style demonstration of the “folk-ness” of the Manas epic. The four volumes did not correspond to any individual transcript; they contained, allegedly, the best rendering of each story of the epic extracted from the transcripts of seven bards, Sagïmbay and Sayakbay included (Sagïnov 1995a). The role of Sayakbay and Abdïrakhmanov during the preparation of the four volumes for publication was simply to help the editors—who themselves were well-known James-Macpherson-minded poets ready to overwrite the transcripts for the sake of restoring the folk-ness of the epic—patch the stories in the right order. It was during this “cooperation” that some “career-minded scholars,” according to Kïdïrbaeva, made Sayakbay really unhappy by disadvantageously comparing his 1936-1947 transcripts to those of Sagïmbay. Kïdïrbaeva also notes that Sayakbay had to put up with the “anonymization” of his transcripts in the kurama edition and with the lack of acknowledgement of his contribution to its preparation.

The situation did not improve when in 1965 Musaev was appointed head of the Manas Studies Department: Musaev dedicated most of his career to the editing and publishing of Sagïmbay’s Manas. Musaev himself admits that Sayakbay perceived him as a patron and promoter of Sagïmbay and that he thus bore him a grudge. The tense relations between Musaev and Sayakbay accounted, at least partially, for the disappointing quality of the 1968 tape recording. Though Musaev (1994: 87-88) secured enough funding for the sound taping to be “performance-friendly”—which is to say, conducted at Sayakbay’s native place and with his friends or co-villagers as audience—the bard performed all the three tales of the epic but in a very concise manner. In the estimation of Musaev the sound taped performance amounted to 10 percent of the 1936-1947 transcripts. The collectors were desperate, and the bard was unhappy when his performance was being judged against the transcripts.

10 Showcasing the Bard and the Epic, Deploring the Transcripts

Notwithstanding these efforts—three different recording sessions conducted at different times and with the use of different media—there seems to be a widely shared dissatisfaction with the various records of Sayakbay’s epic. Leaving aside the stories which Sayakbay knew well and performed regularly in public and in which each word is in its place, the transcripts of the other stories of the epic contain verses that are clumsy, and occasionally incoherent or incomplete, and a lot of repetitions, to the extent that the 1936-1947 transcripts are “unpublishable as they are” (Musaev 1984: 21; Saliev 1994: 26). Musaev (1984: 18) suggests that Sayakbay had never performed all the tales of the epic in public; he elaborated and versified many of the stories during the transcribing process, henceforth the abundant repetitions. These repetitions however can also have very simple explanations unrelated to training or experience. On the one hand, as I have mentioned above, Sayakbay was frequently compared openly or covertly with Sagïmbay; the repetitions therefore may result from Sayakbay’s desire to outdo his predecessor, at least by the size of the epic. On the other hand, since he was rewarded in proportion to the amount of verses written down, the repetitions may also have offered him an easy way to increase his income.32 Finally, the Soviet folklorization of Sayakbay and his epic—with both being briefly showcased at various official events—may have increased the renown of Sayakbay but may have also reduced his improvisation skills to several popular stories.

11 Patrons of Sagïmbay Against Patrons of Sayakbay

In their studies of national epics under Soviet rule both Bennigsen (1975) and Prior (2000) foreground the confrontation between nationally-minded defenders and Soviet-minded detractors with an emphasis on the ways in which the identities of defenders and detractors defy neat Soviet categories. Neither author, however, discusses the fact that the defenders of national epics may very well disagree on the most appropriate national version, or on the question of which bard should be turned into a national icon.

This kind of disagreement among the patrons of the Manas epic dates back at least to the early 1930s, which is to say the moment when the transcription of Sagïmbay’s Manas was completed and that of Sayakbay was just about to start. I have already mentioned that according to Karasaev in 1931 Sayakbay was sent back to the countryside because some “high level officials” strongly disapproved of him. Another piece of evidence from the same period is a 1936 report by Miftakov in which he claims that “while performing the Manas epic (Sayakbay) spoils it and shreds it to pieces (Manastï buzup jarïp aytkan).” In the same report Miftakov complains that every official supported an epic performer from his native place or from his clan and asserts that it was because of this “clannish mindset” (uruuchulduk) that many talented performers of the epic were being ignored (Tokombaeva 1991: 75-76). More research is needed in order to reveal the identity of these high officials and how they opposed the promotion of Sayakbay, or how native places or clan identities shaped the support or the rejection of an epic performer as a national icon. The “clannish mindset” Miftakov refers to has been used ever since the establishment of Soviet rule as an easy and frequently effective way to persecute local activists or slur opponents or rivals. Be this as it may, this first manifestation of clannish or localist lobbying for or against a bard must have come to an end with the nearly total extermination of the local elite in the late 1930s.

The lobbying was rekindled in the mid-1960s and it marred the work on the transcripts throughout the late Soviet period. Musaev points at Tügölbay Sïdïkbekov (1912-1997)—a writer who is often praised as the patriarch of modern Kyrgyz literature—as the official who reintroduced the accusations of localism or tribalism in the promotion of the epic as a national heritage. Soon after his appointment as head of the Manas Studies Department in 1965, Musaev and his team prepared an ambitious program to produce fully academic editions of the transcripts of both bards. In this program Sagïmbay’s Manas was to be prepared first both because it was transcribed first and because it was “artistically superior” and “more appreciated” (Musaev 1994: 99). This argument was waved away by Sïdïkbekov who claimed—as reported by Musaev (ibid.)—that the publication of the epic could not be left to “young boys who had just shown up and who distorted the epic as they pleased,” before adding that jerdeshchilik (localism) and tuuganchïlïk (nepotism) should not be allowed to mire an enterprise as important as the publication of the epic. For Sïdïkbekov, there was no reason to let Sagïmbay, who was not only dead but whose transcripts were furthermore religion-rotten and larded with pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic ideas, outshine a living Soviet bard like Sayakbay.

Though Musaev’s choice was supported both by the team of the Manas Studies Department and by most members of the Manas Epic Publishing Committee, Sïdïkbekov launched a fully-fledged campaign against Sagïmbay’s Manas.33 This campaign, according to Musaev, led to a landslide of reports sent from Frunze to Moscow accusing Musaev of preparing for publication Sagïmbay’s “reactionary” Manas epic; frequent special commissions investigating the denunciations; and the obligation for Musaev to provide written explanations on every such occasion (Musaev 1994: 102-103).

Another outburst of passions around the better version of the epic took place in 1987. Its main protagonists were Chingiz Aytmatov (1928-2008)—the only all-Union and then world-famous Kyrgyz writer—and Aalï Tokombaev (1904-1988), the most prolific and most long-lived writer of Soviet Kyrgyzstan. At that time, Tokombaev stepped up against the publication of Sagïmbay’s Manas because of its “nationalist and imperialist pathos”, claims with which Aytmatov as the then head of the Manas Epic Publishing Committee disagreed. While Aytmatov enjoyed some public support, Tokombaev was backed not only by the local Soviet authorities but also by partners in Moscow who flooded all-union newspapers such as Izvestiya and Komsomolskaya Gazeta with articles thrashing both the epic and Aytmatov. The confrontation had no winner: while Aytmatov had to step down from his duties and took refuge in Gorbachev’s Moscow, in the last year of his life Tokombaev faced public scorn over his attacks on both the epic and Aytmatov (Ibraimov 2015, Akmatova 2019: 30-33).

The attempts to impose one version of the epic over another spilled into the independence period and are still ongoing today. Suffice it to mention here that when in 1995 Musaev and Abdïldajan Akmataliev, the then director of the Institute of Language and Literature, took the initiative to restore Aytmatov’s name as a member of the Manas Epic Publishing Committee on the title page of the second volume of the full academic edition of Sagïmbay’s Manas, the Institute was closed, Akmataliev was dismissed while Musaev and all the other employees were denied access to the institute and had their salaries cut by two thirds. It was because of the 1995 international pageant dedicated to the 1000th anniversary of the epic that the Institute was reopened and its staff reemployed (Akmataliev 2014). As recently as 2017, Omor Sooronov (2017), the current supervisor of the Manuscript Fund, complained that the entire body of scholarship on the epic had been flawed by the rivalries between “patrons of Sagïmbay” (Sagïmbaychïl) and “patrons of Sayakbay” (Sayakbaychïl) to the extent that few if any scholars had attempted to explore the rest of the transcripts of the epic amounting to nearly 80 versions accumulated over a period of 70 years.


In this article I have explored the relationships between folklore archives and heritage claims and the tensions inherent in such relationships. In the case of the Manas epic, for instance, the epic continues to symbolize an oral tradition embodied by bards but it is also a heritage objectified in publications and transcripts; for a long period of time, the huge and poorly kept collection of transcripts did not easily accommodate the desire to establish a reference text that fixed the value and worth of the epic as the literary monument of a Soviet nation; and, last but not least, through time the transcripts were put to distinct and occasionally opposite uses to be eventually accorded a crucial role in both authenticating the epic as a literary monument and reclaiming it as a national heritage in a global world.

The tension between the epic as an oral tradition embodied by bards and as a heritage objectified in transcripts and publications dates back to the very project of having it transcribed. The project took shape at a moment when the leaders of the newly formed Kyrgyz Autonomous Oblast were desperately fighting for recognition within the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. All the existing evidence indicates that the members of the Kyrgyz Academic Commission were interested neither in the bard himself—as the 1925 Tashkent encounter shows—nor in maintaining the oral tradition. Just on the opposite, in fact: they cared only for the transcripts, and the opportunities these transcripts offered for linguistic, lexicographic or literary experiments quite independent of the bard. Suffice it to mention here that no publication of the epic misses the occasion to foreground the richness and originality of the Kyrgyz language by dedicating pages and pages to lists of rare words, archaisms, place names, or other lexicographic curiosities.

As mentioned in the introduction, the mass campaigns for folklore collection deployed all around Central Asia in the first years of Soviet rule are critically understudied—particularly as compared, for instance, with the same type of activities in Europe. Though the value of more thorough comparisons is undeniable, this is a project that I leave to be undertaken in the future. But even a short exploration of the folklore collection campaign in early Soviet Kyrgyzstan is sufficient to identify some specific features that do not fit the romantic nationalism framework with which folklore collection campaigns elsewhere are associated. Romantic nationalists salvaged treasured heritage from disappearance. Though the heritage may be subject to various manipulations, it was treasured because it was a relic of the past. The logics and agencies in the case of the Manas epic under Soviet rule seem different and may be better conceptualized as “functionalist nationalism.” The salvage discourse was there, more clearly articulated in the case of Sayakbay, but the transcripts produced were never valued as relics of the past, or as historical artefacts. On the contrary, it is as relics of the past that they were a source of much frustration. These transcripts were expected to be something more than mere relics, they were expected to serve the present needs of a young Soviet socialist nation. It is these expectations—whether concerned with putting flesh on the bones of a national language in the process of being codified or with providing the building bricks for a national literary monument—and the agencies they fostered that I suggest the concept of “functionalist nationalism” captures well.

Though at some point in the mid-1930s the idea of the epic as a lexicon of Kyrgyz language and culture was superseded by the idea of the epic as a literary monument, this did not bring back the bards, or a support for the oral tradition. In the spirit of functionalist nationalism, the transcription of the epic from Sayakbay was undertaken in an attempt to obtain a better (publishable) version rather than to fix for posterity the individual repertoire of an outstanding bard. It is also worth noticing that, in contrast to his predecessor, Sayakbay’s performing skills benefitted from what one can call a multi-media archiving: not only transcripts but also sound taping, two movies featuring the bard, and a spate of recorded TV and radio performances. Yet, if we judge by the time, efforts, and means invested in one publication project after another, the transcripts that served the cause of the epic as a literary monument seemed much more important than the other media used to record the epic as a living tradition.

As I have mentioned above, the ideological, scholarly or financial difficulties with publishing the existing transcripts dawned on the patrons of the epic quite early. In the Soviet period these difficulties were resolved in the spirit of functionalist nationalism: transcripts were there to be dismissed, abridged, recomposed, rewritten or overwritten in the name of turning the epic into a literary monument as exemplified in the Soviet “representative” edition in four volume. The project to give a second life to the transcripts—and the bards—in academic editions took shape in the mid-1960s and was partially fulfilled in the 1980s by distinguishing between Sagïmbay’s and Sayakbay’s versions instead of merging selected stories from each of them into a “representation of the epic.” However, it was only after independence that the individual transcripts became truly important—or they were fully transvalued—as a means to authenticate the epic, both as a literary monument and as an oral tradition. This authentication implied first and foremost the rejection of the doctored Soviet editions. It consisted in showing that what was published corresponded to the transcripts kept in the Manuscript Fund. The transvaluation of the transcripts was twofold: first, they were no longer “raw data” with which editors experimented; instead, they were raised to the rank of historical artifacts worthy of being published untouched. Second, the modalities of their production—or the archived transcripts as the outcome of the concurring or competing agencies of bards, scribes, collectors, conservators, and officials—was downplayed in an attempt to turn the transcripts into trustworthy evidence of the power and longevity of the epic tradition.

It is on purpose that I have dedicated some space to describing in detail the transcription process and the subsequent handling of the transcripts. These transcripts, after all, were crucial in authenticating the epic. Yet, there are major caveats to their use in such a way. As I have demonstrated—leaning on the important work conducted by Samar Musaev—transcripts are eventful artefacts: they reflect as much the skills of the scribes as of the bards, they may be given away and replaced by cleaner copies, and at least some are lost. When the epic as a literary monument or an oral tradition is bound to these transcripts, it is no less a representation than the Soviet four-volume comprehensive edition, though it is a representation of a different kind: it tells of the vicissitudes of textual transmissions rather than of editorial interferences.

Throughout my exploration of the making of the epic, I was struck by the instances of coercion and even bullying exercised against Sagïmbay and Sayakbay. Though both of them were reportedly eager to see their epics published, the promise of a publication may have been a meagre reward for the deprivations suffered by Sagïmbay and his family, for the lack of respect demonstrated by the officials, or the threat of being sent to court. As for Sayakbay, it is difficult to imagine that the political persecutions and the never-ending frictions among those involved in the promotion of the epic left him unscathed; neither did the unfavorable comparisons to Sagïmbay, or the feeling of being unacknowledged by the most authoritative publication projects at that time. If the bards suffered, so did the scribes, with those appointed to the task crying with despair, wanting to break free, or delegating the transcribing duty to whoever was willing to take a try. It is only fair to notice that scholars and officials, too, were not spared: from the first generation that was nearly entirely exterminated during the purges to the next ones when a bad choice could lead to being reprimanded, dismissed from work, or removed from office.

Not that these concurring or competing agencies in the making of the epic are unknown or banned from discussion among Kyrgyzstani scholars or by the public; on the contrary, every now and then they become topics of heated debates in the pages of the local news media. But such knowledge and discussions seem incompatible with pride in heritage and heritage claims. In the ways in which intangible heritage claims are spelt out and recognized currently, more often than not history and heritage part ways since intangible heritage claims can rarely do without the transvaluation of folklore archives—but this very transvaluation entails the erasure of the history of these archives, or the modalities of their constitution.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the transvaluation of the Manas epic transcripts ran parallel to the final phase of folklore-related discussions at UNESCO and the adoption of the ICH Convention. In 2009, one year before his death, Musaev was deeply upset by UNESCO’s approval of China’s nomination of the Manas epic and he lamented Kyrgyzstan’s failure to have had the complete Manas of Sagïmbay published “on time.” In the years that followed, all financial difficulties were overcome and the last four volumes of Sagïmbay’s transcripts appeared in 2014. There followed Sayakbay’s Manas in four volumes (2015) and his Semetey in six volumes (2017) as well as no less than 25 volumes (2019) containing all transcripts of the epic in the custody of the Manuscript Fund, including Abdïrakhmanov’s version of the epic in two volumes. This is no more turning the epic into a literary monument; this is claiming it as heritage, at UNESCO, against China and in the eyes of the whole world.


I am deeply obliged to Paolo Sartori for the interest he has shown in my research and for his support during the preparation of this article. I also extend my gratitude to Thomas Welsford for his insightful comments on previous drafts and for his help with straightening up arguments and language. Thanks are due also to three JESHO anonymous readers for astute comments. The research for this article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund Project ‘Sinophone Borderlands—Interaction at the Edges’ CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_ 019/0000791.


  • Abakirov, K. 2016. Manastanuu iliminin kalïptanïshï jana önügüshü. Ürümchü: Shinjan Manas izildöö borboru.

  • Abdïrakmanov, Ï. 1992. Uluu manaschïnïn ömürü. In Uluu manaschï Sagïmbay, edited by K. Jusupov, Bishkek: Ala-Too: 59-72.

  • Abrahams, R. 1993. Phantoms of Romantic Nationalism in Folkloristics. The Journal of American Folklore 106/419: 3-37.

  • Akmataliev, A. 2014. Egemendüülüktün Manasï jana epostu jan düynösündö jatka aytkan Samar agay. Kïrgïz Tuusu Online, 26 August. Available at

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Akmatova, V. 2015. Totalitarizm mezgilindegi Manas eposunun publikatsiyaloonun tarïkhïnan (20-30jj.) Vestnik Issyk-kul’skogo Universiteta, 39. Available at

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Akmatova, V. 2019. Epos “Manas” i idejnaya bor’ba v kyrgyzskoj literature (20 vek). Avtoreferat dissertatsii na soiskanie uchenoi stepeni doktora filologicheskikh nauk. Bishkek.

  • Barber, J. 1976. Stalin’s Letter to the Editors of Proletarskaya Revolyutsiya. Soviet Studies, 28/1: 21-41.

  • Baytanaev, B. 2014. A. A. Divaev: ocherk zhizni i deyatel’nosti. Shïmkent-Almatï.

  • Bekbaev, J. 1994. Sayakbayga katchï bolgom. In Alp manaschïnïn alban elesi, edited by O. Ismailov and A. Akmataliev. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 141-147.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bennigsen, A. 1975. The Crisis of the Turkic National Epics, 1951-1952: Local Nationalism or Internationalism? Canadian Slavonic Papers 17/2-3: 463-474.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Berkov, P. and Sagïdova, E. 1961. Bibliograficheskii ukazatel’ literatury o “Manase.” In Kirgizskii geroicheskii epos “Manas”. Edited by M. Bogdanova, V. Zhirmunskii, and A. Petrosian. Moskva: Nauka: 298-377.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bolponova, A. 2011. K. Tynystanov: uchennyj i gosudarstvennyj deyatel’ Kyrgyzstana. Karakol: IGU.

  • Dundes, A. 1985. Nationalistic Inferiority Complexes and the Fabrication of Fakelore: a Reconsideration of Ossian, the Kinder- und Hausmärchen, the Kalevala, and Paul Bunyan. Journal of Folklore Research 22/1: 5-18.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Edgar, A. 2006. Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

  • Foley, J. M. 2002. Macpherson’s Ossian: Trying to Hit a Moving Target. The Journal of American Folklore 115/455: 99-106.

  • Hafstein, V. 2007. Claiming Culture: Intangible Heritage Inc., Folklore©, Traditional Knowledge™ In Prädikat HERITAGE. Wertschöpfungen aus kulturellen Ressourcen, edited by D. Hemme et al. Wien: Lit: 75-100.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hatto, A. 1977. The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy-Khan (Kökötöydün Ašı): a Kirghiz Epic Poem. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Hatto, A. 1990. The Manas of Wilhelm Radloff. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

  • Hirsch, F. 2005. Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

  • Ibraimov, K. 2008. El adabiyatïn jïynoo. Nauka i Novye Tekhnologii 3-4:124-128.

  • Ibraimov, O. 2015. O bytve titanov: Tokombaev vs Aytmatov. Belyj Parus Online, 1 June. Available at:

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jacquesson, S. 2020. Claiming Heritage: the Manas Epic between China and Kyrgyzstan. Central Asian Survey 39/3: 324-339.

  • Jaynakova, A. 2010. Bash söz. In Manas: S. Karalaevtin variantï boyuncha, edited by A. Jaynakova and A. Akmataliev. Bishkek: Turar: 9-15.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jaynakova, A. 2013. Kirish söz. In Semetey: 1-kitep. Sayakbay Karalaevtin variantï boyuncha, edited by A. Akmataliev. Bishkek: Turar: 3-22.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Karasaev, K. 1994. Manaschï Sayakbay Karala uulu tabïshïm, manaschï Sayakbaydï Frunzege alïp kelishim. In Alp manaschïnïn alban elesi, edited by O. Ismailov and A. Akmataliev. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 59-65.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kïdïrbaeva, R. 1994. Sayakbaydïn köönörbös murasï. In Alp manaschïnïn alban elesi, edited by O. Ismailov and A. Akmataliev. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 77-82.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. 2004. Intangible heritage as metacultural production. Museum International 56/1-2: 52-64.

  • Mamay, J. 1994. Men Manastï kanday aytïp kaldïm. In Manas eposu jönündö, edited by J. Mamay et al. Bishkek: Sham: 5-12.

  • Mamïrov, M. 1959. Manaschïlardïn ömür bayandar. Mss 52, Manuscript Fund, Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic. Available at:

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Musaev, S. 1984. Chong manaschï Sayakbay Karalaev jana al aytkan variant. In Manas: epos. S. Karalaevdin variyantï boyuncha. 1-tom. Frunze: Kïrgïzstan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Musaev, S. 1994. Chong manaschïlardïn akïrkïsï. In: Alp manaschïnïn alban elesi, edited by O. Ismailov and A. Akmataliev. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 82-105.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Musaev, S. 1995a. Manaschï, katchï, tüp nuska. In: Manas. Sagïmbay Orozbakovdun variantï boyuncha akademiyalïk basïlïsh. 1-kitep. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 24-75.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Musaev, S. 1995b. Kirishüü orduna. In: Manas. Sagïmbay Orozbakovdun variantï boyuncha akademiyalïk basïlïsh. 2-kitep. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 5-15.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Musaev, S. 1995c. Kirishüü orduna. In: Manas. Sagïmbay Orozbakovdun variantï boyuncha akademiyalïk basïlïsh. 3-kitep. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 5-8.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Musaev, S, 1995d. Konferentsiya (1952). In Manas Entsiklopediya: birinchi tom, edited by Ch. Aytmatov et al. Bishkek: Kïrgïz entsiklopediyasïnïn bashkï redaktsiyasï: 488-510.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Musaev, S. 1997. Kirishüü orduna. In: Manas. Sagïmbay Orozbakovdun variantï boyuncha akademiyalïk basïlïsh. 4-kitep. Bishkek: Sham: 5-14.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Musaev, S. 2006. Kirishüü orduna. In: Manas. Sagïmbay Orozbakovdun variantï boyuncha akademiyalïk basïlïsh. 5-kitep. Bishkek: Sham: 5-16.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Musaev, S. 2014. Kirishüü orduna. In: Manas. Sagïmbay Orozbakovdun variantï boyuncha akademiyalïk basïlïsh. 8-9 kitep. Bishkek: Sham: 5-9.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Prior, D. 2000. Patron, Party, Patrimony: Notes on the Cultural History of the Kirghiz Epic Tradition. Bloomington, In.: Papers on Inner Asia.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Prior, D. 2006. The Semetey of Kenje Kara: a Kirghiz Epic Performance on Phonograph. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

  • Protokol 299, 1937. Iz protokola 299 zasedaniya byuro Kirobkoma VKP(b). In Sud’ba eposa Manasa posle Oktyabrya: sbornik dokumentov, edited by S. Jumaliev. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 23-24.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Protokol 46, 1932. Iz protokola 46 zasedaniya sekretariyata Kir. OK VKP(b). In Sud’ba eposa Manasa posle Oktyabrya: sbornik dokumentov, edited by S. Jumaliev. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 6-8.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Protokol 78, 1935. Iz protokola 78 zasedaniya byuro Kirgizskogo Obkoma VKP(b). In Sud’ba eposa Manasa posle Oktyabrya: sbornik dokumentov, edited by S. Jumaliev. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 12.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sagïnov, J. 1995a. Manas: kurama variyantï. In Manas Entsiklopediya: birinchi tom, edited by Ch. Aytmatov et al. Bishkek: Kïrgïz entsiklopediyasïnïn bashkï redaktsiyasï: 659.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sagïnov, J. 1995b. Manas seriyasï. In Manas Entsiklopediya: birinchi tom, edited by Ch. Aytmatov et al. Bishkek: Kïrgïz entsiklopediyasïnïn bashkï redaktsiyasï: 676-677.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Saliev, A. 1994. Manas jana Sayakbay. In Alp manaschïnïn alban elesi, edited by O. Ismailov and A. Akmataliev. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 23-47.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sarïpbekov, R. 1995. Ïbïrayïm Abdïrakman uulu. In Manas Entsiklopediya: ekinchii tom, edited by Ch. Aytmatov et al. Bishkek: Kïrgïz entsiklopediyasïnïn bashkï redaktsiyasï: 558-563.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sïdïkbekov, T. 1982. Mezgil sabaktarï. Frunze: Kïrgïzstan.

  • Sooronov, O. 2017. Ilim kurmandïktï talap kïlat. Azattyk Online, 9 May. Available at:

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stenogramma 1935. Izvlechenie iz stenogrammy soveshchaniya po Manasu 27-28 dekabrya 1935 g., g. Frunze. In Sud’ba eposa Manasa posle Oktyabrya: sbornik dokumentov, edited by S. Jumaliev. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 13-23.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stenogramma 1937. Iz stenograficheskogo otcheta i pervogo syezda Kommunisticheskoj partii (bol’shevikov) Kirgizii. In Sud’ba eposa Manasa posle Oktyabrya: sbornik dokumentov, edited by S. Jumaliev. Bishkek: Kïrgïzstan: 24.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tokombaeva, A. 1991. Kayum Miftakov 1892-1948. Frunze: Ilim.

  • van der Heide, N. 2008. Spirited Performance: the Manas Epic and Society in Kyrgyzstan. Amsterdam: Rozenberg.

  • Wachtel, A. 2013. Kyrgyzstan between Democratization and Ethnic Intolerance. Nationalities Papers 41/6: 971-986.

  • Wachtel, A. 2016. A Tale of Two Heroes: Kyrgyzstan in Search of National Role Models. Region 5/1: 1-16.


Valikhanov 1861 as quoted in Prior 2000: 7.


In the discussion that follows I use “the epic” or “the Manas epic” to refer to all three parts, or “tales”: Manas, Semetey, Seytek. Each tale is built up of “stories” to which I refer occasionally.


Amounting to some 200,000 souls according to some recent estimations, China’s Kyrgyz minority is the by-product of the delimitation of the border between Tsarist Russia and the Qing empire in 1864. The ranks of China’s Kyrgyz were swollen by refugees from the Russian and later Soviet side of the border first after the repression of the 1916 revolt against the general conscription during World War I, and then at the start of the massive collectivization in the early 1930s.


For a detailed discussion of the actors and arguments advanced in this debate see Jacquesson 2020.


Both bards are introduced and amply discussed further in the article.



Though the issue of contemporary performers or practitioners of the epic was raised by both sides—not least because within the UNESCO framework the value of a heritage item is proportionate to the threat of “disappearance” this item is encountering (Hafstein 2007)—these performers and practitioners were discussed as mere “carriers” of a tradition that was authenticated solely by the amount and quality of previous transcripts.


Besides for purely philological analyses, the published versions of the epic are combed as sources on ancient customs and beliefs or toponyms as a way to map Kyrgyz ethnic history. These fields of study are reviewed in Berkov and Sadïkova 1961 and Abakirov 2016.


See for instance Hatto 1977 and 1990, or Prior 2006.


Prior 2000, van der Heide 2008, Wachtel 2013 and 2016, Jacquesson 2020.


Daniel Prior (2000) discusses the 19th-century transcriptions of the epic and the transcription of Sagïmbay’s Manas but in all three cases he focuses on the protagonists without entering into the details of the outcome of these interactions, in this particular publication at least.


In Central Asia this kind of folklore collection is most extensively discussed by Hirsch (2005) and Edgar (2006) with a spate of other minor contributions dispersed in monographs or articles.


In the case of early Soviet Kyrgyzstan see for instance Ibraimov 2008, for Kazakhstan Baytanaev 2004: 94-117.


Gramsci 1935 “Osservazioni sul folclore” as quoted in Noyes 2009.


Musaev (1927-2010) was born in 1927 in Atbashï, nowadays Kazïbek village; he was a graduate of the Kyrgyz Language and Literature Department of the State Pedagogic Institute where he also taught for some time. In 1965 he moved to the Institute of Language and Literature at the Academy of Sciences where he led the Manas Studies Department until 1988. In the introductions to the academic editions of Sagïmbay, published between 1995 and 2014, and Sayakbay, published between 1981 and 1991, Musaev offered ample information on the transcripts and—especially in the case of Sagïmbay—on how these transcripts were produced as well as on how they were conserved and used subsequently.


Musaev (1995a) offers one of the first and most extensive studies of Sagïmbay’s life and legacy.


Pan-Turkism was a political movement that emerged at the end of the 19th century and mobilized Muslim intellectuals from the Russian and Ottoman empires in an attempt to unite culturally and politically all Turkic people.


Toychinov himself was a native of the Atbashï region. Though he had a remarkable career in the early years of Soviet rule, in 1929, during his studies at the Sverdlov Communist University in Moscow, he received a “severe reprimand” from the Control Commission of the university “for concealing his social origin,” i.e. being the son of a wealthy person, or a class enemy. The reprimand may also be related to his article on “Kyrgyz literature: pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods” prepared for the Literary Encyclopedia (Moscow, 1929-1939, 11 volumes). Ten years later Toychinov was accused of nationalist-bourgeois behavior and died in prison.


For a more precise idea of what these volumes look like see, or


A promoter of the Jadid-style schools among Kyrgyz, Arabaev is best known as the author of the first Kyrgyz primer (Kïrgïz Alippesi, 1924). Between 1917 and 1925 he held various offices in the education branches of Soviet government in Tashkent. In 1926 he moved to Bishkek where he worked as a teacher and a researcher. In 1933 he was arrested as a bourgeois-nationalist and died in prison. In independent Kyrgyzstan, the State Pedagogical University, a school, and a house of culture in his native village in the Issyk-kul Region are named after him.


A writer and a politician, Tïnïstanov is known for his contribution to the development of Kyrgyz alphabets and orthography, both in the Arabic and Latin scripts, and as the first Minister of Education of Soviet Kyrgyzstan (1927-1930). His involvement with the promotion of the Manas epic will be discussed below.


Such concerns about the language of Sagïmbay’s Manas were related to the efforts to extract the Kyrgyz from the Turkestan ASSR and establish a Kyrgyz national republic with its “own” language, culture, and history. As for the “Uzbek-likeness” of the language of the transcripts, it is true that Sagïmbay was schooled by an Uzbek teacher for 3-4 winters and could read though not write (Abdïrakhmanov 1992: 61). What is more important is that the transcripts simply could not read “Kyrgyz-like” given that in producing them Abdïrakhmanov was not only dependent on the Arabic script but also on the writing habits of his time which imposed on the vernacular languages the orthographic and grammatic conventions of languages with established writing traditions, i.e. Chaghatay, Tatar, or Kazakh. Musaev (2006: 15) claims that in his transcripts Abdïrakhmanov was influenced by the writing conventions for Chaghatay. The criticisms of the KAC then were directed as much at the scribe as at the bard.


The description of the epic as “cultural heritage that had come down from the distant past and that could not but aspire to a place of honor in the golden fund of world literature” that I quote in the introduction also belongs to Tïnïstanov.


In 1936 the same institute was renamed Institute for the Study of Kyrgyz Language and Writing and then—with the establishment of the National Academy of Sciences in 1940—Institute of Kyrgyz Language, Literature and History within which a special department—the Manas Studies Department—conducted research on the epic. Throughout its existence, the Manuscript Fund has functioned either as an independent department within the Institute or as a subordinate unit to the Manas Studies Department. It can now be visited virtually at


The Latin script was in use between 1927 and 1940.


This is how Abdïrakhmanov refers to the Institute of Cultural Construction.


In 1926 Ajïyman Shabdanov (1905-1934) helped Miftakov produce the first register of the folklore materials in the custody of the KAC. Between 1928 and 1932 he was employed by the Institute of Cultural Construction where he served as an assistant to Tïnïstanov. He was first reprimanded for his “social origin”—as his surname suggests he was the grandson of Shabdan (1838-1912), the most powerful and wealthy leader in northern Kyrgyzstan in the late imperial period—and sent to teach among the Kyrgyz of Gorno-Badakhshan before being shot in 1934 for belonging to a counter revolutionary organization.


Karasaev (1901-1998) was spared during the 1930s political terror and after independence in 1991 he penned down several valuable memoirs on early Soviet Kyrgyzstan, see for instance his memoir book Huseyin Nama (2001).


Karasaev as quoted in Akmatova 2015. The article under the title “Manas” was published in the newspaper Kïzïl Kïrgïzstan on 27 May 1930. See also Karasaev 1994: 59.


Right after all high-level intellectuals and scholars involved in the first attempt to publish the epic either in Kyrgyz or in Russian disappeared during the purges in the second half of the 1930s, Abdïrakhmanov quietly published the so-called Manas Series (1940-1945), a collection of 11 booklets in the Latin script intended for a local audience and containing stories from the epic recorded from various bards, Sagïmbay included (Sagïnov 1995b).


Slightly alcoholic fermented beverage prepared from millet.


Bekbaev (1994: 146) reports a discussion with Sayakbay in 1945 during which Sayakbay complained that Aalï Tokombaev—promoted that same year “People’s Poet of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic”—was paid eight rubles per verse while he himself—as the bearer of the same award since 1939—received just one ruble per verse.


Though he does not provide exact references, Musaev (1994: 100) claims that a particularly inflaming article by Sïdïkbekov was republished in Sïdïkbekov’s collected works. The volume of Sïdïkbekov’s collected works I could access—Mezgil sabaktarï (The Lessons of Our Time) published in 1982—contains an undated two-page-long critical report on the editing and publishing activities of the Manas Studies Department. In the report Sïdïkbekov insisted that Sagïmbay’s Manas should be abridged and published in one volume and that there was no need “to check every word against the transcripts”, an enterprise which would amount, in Sïdïkbekov’s opinion, to “abusing Sagïmbay yet again.” Right after, he revolted against the newly appointed staff members of the Manas Studies Department and called for a boycott of their research plans (Sïdïkbekov 1982: 29). There is little doubt that the acerbic remark on checking every word against the transcripts was directed at Samar Musaev. In the full academic edition of Sagïmbay’s Manas (1995-2016) Musaev’s comments on the reading and interpretation of the transcripts take half of each 700-odd-page volume.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 548 0 0
Full Text Views 427 179 25
PDF Views & Downloads 665 239 15