Footsteps of Valikhanov

Portrait of Valikhanov by I.A. Kordovskii, St. Petersburg.
Valikhanov and Dostoyevsky, Photograph, 1859.
Mausoleum of Valikhanov, Drawn by GN Natonin.

"The Meteor Flash"

In 1860, Chokan Valikhanov’s family, then headed by Chingis Valkihan, had achieved a status unprecedented by Kazakhs. His father’s military career by then included six appointments as senior Sultan of Kushmurun okrug, a term as chief Kazakh advisor to the frontier board, promotion to Colonel, and a separate term as senior Sultan in the Kokchetav okrug. In regards to Chingis’ accomplishments by the early 1860s, Valikhanov scholar Kermit E. McKenzie wrote, “One could justly expect that an even greater future lay before Valikhanov.”

Based on his achievements in various disciplines of expedition, publication, science, and political favor, by the youthful age of twenty-five ChokanValikhanov had become a Kazakh national hero. However, in the spring of 1861 he became seriously ill with tuberculosis and had to leave St. Petersburg after his appointment to the Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1860. He returned to his native land in hopes of restoring his health. He never returned to St. Petersburg. After he returned to the steppe, frequent relapses in his health stymied many attempts to further advance his brilliant career. Chokan wrote to his friend Fyodor Dostoyevsky in early 1862 indicating that he intended to return to St. Petersburg in both October and December of 1861, but was unable to do so. On another occasion Valikhanov mentioned the possibility of pursuing a Russian consul appointment in Kashgar, or possibly campaigning for senior Sultan like his father. The letters to Dostoyevsky noted that however frustrated he was about being hindered by poor health, Chokan remained passionately interested in the advancement of his career. In 1862, he ran for senior Sultan and won the popular vote, but he was never confirmed by Governor-General Diugamel on the pretense that Chokan’s health was not adequate for the position.

Chokan embarked on a government-funded mission to collect materials on Kazakh judicial practices in 1863. This job, assigned to him by Diugamel, led to the “Memorandum on the Judicial Reform.” In 1864, Chokan assisted with the move of Colonel M.G. Cherniaev’s forces west from the fortress of Vornoe, located in the east of the Kazakh steppe. Chernaiev advanced towards the Kokandian resistance, planning to attack the fort at Aulie-Ata. Chokan pleaded for negotiations between the opposing forces, but to no avail. There ensued a violent siege of Aulie-Ata and a victory for Cherniaev’s forces. Chokan left Chernaiev after the events at Aulie-Ata and headed back to the fortress at Vornoe. From there he moved into the village (aul) of Sultan Tezek, located in Semirechie, north of the Vornoe and Ili River. Although Chokan left Chernaiev’s forces, the Colonel later wrote a letter of recommendation for Chokan’s promotion to the rank of rotmistr.

Chokan spent his last remaining months in the village of Sultan Tezek, eventually marrying Tezek’s sister, Aisary, who remains somewhat of an unknown figure in history. During this time, letters of correspondence to General Kolpakovskii, military governor of Smipalatinsk oblast, dated between November 1864 through February 1865, addressed Muslim revolts and rebel activity in nearby Kuldja. Kolpakovskii held such esteem for Chokan that he offered Chokan a position in his administration once his health was restored.

This unfortunately never came to be. Chokan Valikhanov died on April 10, 1865 at the age of 29. He was buried in Kochen-Togan near the village of the Sultan Tezek. The tragic shortness of Valikhanov’s life leaves many unanswered questions regarding his capacity for further greatness. There appears to be little doubt that he never realized his full potential, and his latest contacts with Dostoyevsky asserted his continued desire to explore and work towards a mutual understanding between native peoples and the vastly expansive imperialism of the nineteenth century. N.I. Veselovskii, who in 1904 edited an early (and incomplete) edition of Valikhanov’s works, compared Valikhanov’s short, brilliant life to a “meteor flashing across the field of oriental studies,” a metaphor later repeated by many other authors. One hundred and seventy-five years after his death, his visage appears on Kazakh currency and academic institutions, and there are many statues of him. He is a national hero of Kazakhstan and continues to inspire academics worldwide.