"Geographical feat" by Chokan Valikhanov
Chokan Valikhanov was the son, grandson and great-grandson of the Kazakh khans. Russian citizenship was taken by his grandfather Vali. After his death, as a sign of deep respect, the emperor of the Russian Empire Alexander I ordered the khan's widow to build the first European house in the Kazakh steppe. In this house in 1835 Chokan was born.
Firmly deciding to give their son a good education, his parents assigned him to the Omsk Cadet Corps. This educational institution in the second half of the 40s of the XIX century was the best in Western Siberia. Teaching here was imbued with educational and emancipatory ideas.
Particularly distinguished was the young artillery captain, class inspector, who led the educational process, Ivan Vikentievich Zhdan-Pushkin, who was closely associated with a number of families of the exiled Decembrists and with the Petrashevists.
“He was a wonderful, noble teacher. We owed our upbringing to him,” Grigory Nikolaevich Potanin, a well-known scientist and traveler, Chokan’s friend, later wrote. – Thanks to the composition of the teachers, we left the building with a great interest in public affairs. Even at school, we thought about how we would serve progress. Love for progress was included in our love for the motherland. Zhdan-Pushkin wanted love for the motherland to be the guiding idea in our future life, and love for Russia really became the religion of our heart.
The ideological and cultural environment, the attentive attitude of teachers and comrades contributed to the rapid development of a gifted boy. Chokan drew wonderfully, read a lot and fruitfully, often visited the houses of the local intelligentsia. On Sundays and holidays, when the cadets spent their free time outside the classrooms, he was invited by one of the teachers or local officials. So, he often visited the historian Gonsevsky, was a constant and welcome guest in the house of the head of the regional department of the Siberian Kirghiz Karl Kazimirovich Gutkovsky, who introduced Chokan to Petrashevist Durov.
Chokan already had political ideas when for his comrades, including me, it was still a closed book. “He was already an adult, while we, older than him, were, in comparison with him, still boys. His superiority in knowledge was unceasingly revealed. As if involuntarily, for his comrades, including me, he was “a window to Europe,” recalled Potanin.
His early ideas about moral principles and honor created for him an indisputable authority in the Omsk Cadet Corps. Every now and then the question was heard: “Chokan, what should a noble person do in this case?”.
In the field of knowledge, Valikhanov's aspirations were also determined early. He was interested in the study of unknown lands, the study of the life and customs of the peoples inhabiting them. One of Chokan’s comrades in the cadet corps recalled how one day on the banks of the Irtysh, beyond which endless distances began, Chokan told his friends about his dream of becoming a traveler, penetrating this steppe to its southern borders, where “the farthest east, where mysterious China begins ”, discover unknown lands and tell the world about them.
By the end of his stay in the corps, Chokan began to prepare in detail for his future mission. He read descriptions of travels in the Kirghiz steppe and Turkestan, studied the history of the East. Together with Potanin, he read a description of the journey of the German encyclopedist, naturalist and traveler, who was in the Russian service of Pallas, who explored the southeastern outskirts of Russia at the end of the 18th century. According to Potanin, “From the pages of this book, Chokan smelled of the aroma of wormwood and steppe flowers of the Ural steppes; it seemed to him that he heard the cries of gulls, ducks, geese flying over the Urals”.
But the path to the realization of a dream, to real travel was not easy. In 1853, the eighteen-year-old cornet Chokan Valikhanov graduated from the Omsk Cadet Corps and received the position of adjutant to the Governor-General of Western Siberia. The career of an official, the provincial society were deeply unsympathetic to a young man striving for in-depth knowledge and scientific travel. He had plans to go to St. Petersburg, where he continued his education at the oriental faculty of the university, but for now he read a lot and scrupulously, deeper falling in love with the history of the East. Grigory Nikolaevich Potanin shared the aspirations of his friend, but could not begin to implement them. “As a Cossack, I had to pull the strap of a Cossack officer for twenty-five years and did not dare to think about either a university or a trip to Central Asia,” he wrote.
Valikhanov's situation was better, although he was also bound by his service and, to a certain extent, by his family, could not freely control his fate. The young man was looking for advice from Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, with whom he has developed friendly relations. Chokan's acquaintance with Dostoevsky took place in 1854, immediately after the writer's release from the Omsk convict prison. Fyodor Mikhailovich was exhausted by five years of hard labor, ill, behind him was the path of a harsh struggle for social justice. Chokan, at the age of 19, was just about to enter into life, with a fiery desire for noble deeds. This desire of the young man, his purity and high human ideals attracted Dostoevsky. Their acquaintance very quickly grew into a strong friendship. After the Omsk prison, Fedor Mikhailovich was sent as a private to the Siberian linear battalion in the city of Semipalatinsk. Dostoevsky advised Valikhanov to ask his superiors for a year's leave to travel home and to obtain permission from his father to continue his education.
“Isn’t it a great goal, isn’t it a sacred thing to be almost the first of your people who would explain in Russia what the steppe is, its significance and your people in relation to Russia, and at the same time serve your homeland. Fate has made you a most excellent person, giving you both soul and heart. I love you so much that I dreamed about you and about your fate for whole days. Of course, in my dreams I arranged and cherished your fate. But among the dreams there was one reality: that you were the first of your tribe to achieve a European education. This case alone is amazing, and the consciousness of it involuntarily imposes obligations on you. Here is another piece of advice: think less and dream, and do more: at least start with something, at least do something”
The opportunity to “start somewhere” soon presented itself to Valikhanov. Since the mid-50s of the XIX century, the Semirechensk Cossacks and the Tien Shan Kirghiz became part of the Russian Empire. The first military-scientific expeditions went to the area of Semirechye and Issyk-Kul. Valikhanov was accepted into their composition. He was instructed to promote the establishment of trade relations, the collection of topographic information, but his personal task was to study the life and way of life of the peoples of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. The result of these trips was the first serious research of the young scientist "Traditions and legends of the Great Kirghiz-Kaisak horde", "Kyrgyz genealogy", "Historical legends about the batyrs of the 18th century and others. Especially valuable were his travel diaries, which record all the details of the journey along Semirechye and the banks of Issyk-Kul.
In the autumn of 1857, Pyotr Petrovich Semenov returned to Omsk from another important expedition. He was a thirty-year-old, but already well-known geographer and traveler who explored the Tien Shan. Behind the Tien Shan mountains was located a very little-known country at that time - Kashgaria. Of the Europeans, only two visited this remote area of the earth: in the 13th century - Marco Polo and at the beginning of the 18th century - the monk Gaes. In 1857, the German traveler and explorer of Central Asia, Adolf Schlagintveit, went there, but his fate was unknown at that time.
Unable to penetrate into this mysterious country, engulfed at that time by internecine war, P.P. Semenov decided to offer this expedition to Chokan Valikhanov, whom he had known since his first visit to Omsk in 1856. He suggested the idea of Valikhanov's business trip in Kyrgyz clothes with a trade caravan to Kashgar. The study of Kashgaria was of interest not only to scientists, but also to the Russian tsarist government. Petr Petrovich Semenov's proposal was accepted. In view of the complexity of the forthcoming expedition, it was decided to give it the appearance of a trading caravan. The brave and enterprising merchant Musabai became the leader of the caravan. In Kashgaria, he had the reputation of an honest merchant. Valikhanov, under the name of Alimbay, a relative of Musabay, became an assistant to the caravan-basha. Chokan had to take off his officer's uniform, shave his head and put on a dressing gown and a turban. Few knew the secret of Alimbay, but even this was quite dangerous: the discovery of a Russian officer threatened him with imminent death. In total, there were about fifty clerks and servants in the caravan.
In June 1858, the trade caravan set off. In one of the villages where the merchants launched barter trade, there was a Kirghiz who was previously familiar to Chokan. Fearing exposure, Valikhanov had to pretend to be sick and not leave the yurt for twenty days. But the main dangers awaited travelers in the Kashgar lands, where there was a constant struggle for power privileges, and gangs of robbers robbed the roads. The caravan endured more than one armed battle until it reached Kashgaria.
Arriving in Kashgaria, the caravan carried on a brisk trade with the local population for several months. During this time, Chokan managed to collect a lot of material about this country, its culture, the way of life and traditions of its people. During a six-month stay in Kashgar, Valikhanov became well acquainted with the local nobility and other residents. He managed to collect important information about the population, villages and roads of the "country of six cities" (Altyshahar), as the Uighurs called Kashgaria. The researcher also recorded data on the climate and nature of the country, its economy.
He established the details of the death in Kashgar of Adolf Schlagintveit, who, by order of the ruler of Kashgar, was beheaded at the city wall. Diaries and other documents of the German researcher could not be found. The message about his death, brought to Europe by Valikhanov, excited the entire scientific community. The geographers of that time knew at what price one sometimes had to pay for new discoveries. No wonder the "Bulletin of the Geographical Society" often placed obituaries about the dead or missing. The more important and relevant became the discovery of Kashgaria by Valikhanov, called in the scientific world "a remarkable geographical feat."
The expedition returned in July 1859, about which Governor-General Gasfort immediately sent a dispatch to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Empire. Somewhat later, sending Valikhanov's report to St. Petersburg, he wrote:
“So diverse, relating to almost all branches of science and government, information was compiled by a young man who had recently completed his education in the Siberian Cadet Corps. For the collection of these materials, one had to spend a long time, undergoing all the hardships and even the fear of death. This information, announced in print, would have gained him honorable fame, flattering for noble ambition”
Chokan Valikhanov received honorary and well-deserved fame. His work on Kashgaria was a success not only among Russian scientists. It was published in English in 1863. Chokan's other work, Essays on Dzungaria, was also very popular. In St. Petersburg, where Valikhanov lived, everywhere, and especially in the democratic circles of the capital, he met with a warm and cordial welcome. Attending lectures at the eastern faculty of the university, classes in libraries, meetings in the Geographical Society, of which he became a member, and finally acquaintance and friendship with the best people of his time - all this made the short period of Chokan Valikhanov’s life in St. Petersburg (1860-1861) one of the most fruitful.
An indelible impression was made on him by his acquaintance with N.G. Chernyshevsky. Valikhanov called Nikolai Gavrilovich "this is our friend", who knows well the life of not only the Russian people. Valikhanov also noted that after a conversation with Chernyshevsky, he became stronger in the idea that to be with Russia is to follow the path of enlightenment. The advanced aspirations of Ch. Valikhanov to unite the Kazakhs with the Russian people have found their embodiment in the fraternal union of our peoples today.
In St. Petersburg, the state of health of a young but already well-known scientist deteriorated sharply. Intense scientific work had an effect. It was a payment for the "geographical feat" that Valikhanov accomplished while studying the mysterious country - Kashgaria. Returning to his native steppes, he continued to get sick and did not live long. Chokan Valikhanov died at the age of thirty. His life was short, but unusually eventful and multifaceted. He left fundamental works on ethnography, history, and literature. Enlightenment ideas of Chokan Valikhanov were further developed in the works of Ibrai Altynsarin, Abai Kunanbaev and other prominent sons of the Kazakh people.