Friday, September 24, 2021

Kazakh Authorities Confiscate Paper in which Suleymenov Argues for Calling the Southern Capital Alma-Ata and Not Almaty

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Sept. 22 – Olzhas Suleymenov, a Kazakh linguist and writer who gained international fame and notoriety for his 1975 book Az i Ya that suggested the Lay of the Host of Igor had Turkic roots, an argument that led to the confiscation of his book and its further dissemination through quasi-samizdat channels, has again suffered a similar fate.

            In an interview published two days ago in Vecherny Almaty, the writer argued for going back to the older name, Alma-Ata, rather than continuing to use Almaty. The city was called Alma-Ata between 1921 when it replaced the Russian name Verny and 1993 when its current name was imposed.

            The entire issue of the newspaper in which Suleymenov’s interview was published was confiscated because his argument touched two extremely sensitive issues as far as the Kazakh authorities are concerned ( and

            On the one hand, the Kazakh writer who was born in 1936 in Alma-Ata says that the suffix used in Almaty is Chinese in origin and thus foreign to the Turkic nature of the Kazakh nation. That argument simultaneously threatens to infuriate the Chinese and to add new impetus to the growth of Kazakh nationalism, something both the Kazakh authorities and Russia fear.

            And on the other hand, his words raise the issue of renaming toponyms in Kazakhstan more generally, a sensitive issue involving not only the possible renaming of historically ethnic Russian names in the north but also the renaming of the new capital of Astana Nur-Sultan in honor of the first president of independent Kazakhstan.

            The authorities may have thought that by confiscating the issue of the paper they would slow the spread of debates on these issues. But they are wrong not only because this action calls more attention to Suleymenov’s words than doing nothing would have but also because in the age of the Internet, nothing is ever completely lost.

            The complete text of the interview is still available on Google cache (

            And so, almost a half century after people passed around photocopies of Suleymenov’s controversial Az i Ya, they will now be looking at something online that the powers that be of today don’t want them to see but can’t effectively block from spreading in this new way. 

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