“Those were times when speaking the truth had serious consequences.”

Kazakh writer Qazhygumar Shabdan.

The following is a translation of a Radio Azattyq article that came out in 2010, talking about the life of the late writer Qazhygumar Shabdan, half of which was spent in prison. The article also includes an interview with Qazhygumar’s friend and poet, Almas Ahmetbek. Qazhygumar passed away in 2011 in Tacheng (Tarbagatai), while under house arrest. Some additional photos and elements not present in the original have also been embedded.

The name of Kazakh writer Qazhygumar Shabdan, residing in China, became known in Kazakhstan thanks to his books. His comrade-in-arms, Almas Ahmetbek, shares some of the interesting stories from Qazhygumar’s life in an interview with Radio Azattyq.


Qazhygumar Shabdan was born in 1925 in the township of Tansyq, now part of the East Kazakhstan Region. During the famine of the 1930s, his parents took their children and fled to China’s Dorbiljin region. In 1944, while studying in the city of Urumqi, Qazhygumar Shabdan was accused by the Chinese authorities of participating in an ethnic-minority uprising and sent to prison. That became the first of the prisons in which he would end up spending half of his life. Even now, he remains under house arrest.

After being freed in 1952, Qazhygumar Shabdan would first become editor-in-chief of the Odaq [“Union”] magazine, and then of Shugyla [“Radiance”]. In 1958, following his participation in the leftist movement, he was sentenced once more and would spend 22 years in the notorious Tarim camp, in the Taklamakan Desert. In 1980, Qazhygumar Shabdan was freed again, but only for 6 years.

A photo of irrigation work at the Tarim camp (present-day Shayar Prison), 1965.

On December 30, 1986, Qazhygumar Shabdan was once again arrested, for the third time in his life. He was accused of creating the ethnic liberation party “Umit” [“Hope”], of having links to underground organizations in Kazakhstan, and of espionage.

The rights organization Amnesty International, headquarted in London, recognized Qazhygumar Shabdan as a prisoner of conscience and called on the relevant Chinese organizations to carry out an objective investigation and hold an open trial. Qazhygumar would be sentenced to 15 years, serving his sentence at the No. 1 Prison in Urumqi.

Six tomes of writer Qazhygumar Shabdan’s novel Qylmys (“Crime”).

Qazhygumar Shabdan is currently residing in Chuguchak [Tacheng City]. His six-tome novel Qylmys (“Crime”) came out in Kazakhstan last year, for which he was nominated for a Kazakhstan State Prize.


Radio Azattyq: Mr. Ahmetbek, could you please tell us about Qazhygumar Shabdan? As you knew him.

Almas Ahmetbek: In China, I used to work in the cultural sphere. When I was working at the Tarbagatai literary magazine in Chuguchak, Qazhygumar Shabdan had just come out of prison, having spent 22 long years in the Tarim camp. At that time, this man had not only voided his criminal status, but had also been completely rehabilitated. It was a short period during which Qazhygumar Shabdan was in favor with the Chinese government.

Back then, we considered ourselves a pléiade of young talent in the cultural and literature spheres. We were fans of Qazhygumar Shabdan and would often try to stick close to him. As such, there were 4-5 years of his life in which we also played a role.

Qazhygumar is a very simple person. He is punctual and attentive, to himself and to his life. He dresses in clean clothes, and even when smoking makes sure to do it all with great care.

Not a single Kazakh who came to Shaueshek [Tacheng City] could leave without paying a courtesy visit to Qazhygumar Shabdan. At that time, he would receive tens of people each day. He’d give each of them 10-15 minutes, listening to them and then conveying his wishes. These conversations would always involve tea.

Qazhygumar Shabdan’s wife is named Bakash. She gave him a daughter, Zhainar, who now lives in Almaty. She was born in the years when Qazhygumar enjoyed a short period of freedom.

Currently, Qazhygumar is alive and well, and is 85 years old. His novel, Qylmys, saw the light of day in Kazakhstan and immediately caught people’s attention. When that happened, those who had seen him or spent some time with him couldn’t stop talking about him. God willing, Qazhygumar too will return to Kazakhstan. That is something I hope for.

Poet Almas Ahmetbek. March 9, 2010, Almaty.


Radio Azattyq: Mr. Ahmetbek, Kazakh readers don’t know what Qazhygumar Shabdan is like in daily life and what personal qualities he has.

Almas Ahmetbek: His character is that of someone who can’t sit still. There are many people who possess the negative quality of hypocrisy, with the writer and journalist intelligentsia in particular having many hypocrites. And yet Qazhygumar cannot stand hypocrisy. He’s an honest and modest person, who talks to everyone as an equal. When hypocrites come to him, however, he becomes stern and strict.

From 1953 on, Qazhygumar Shabdan would find himself at the mercy of the political machine more than once. Despite the suffering and torture, he didn’t accept a single accusation. He was put in prison without any evidence whatsoever. Even the sturdiest people failed to withstand the prison sufferings, turning to all sorts of crime. Qazhygumar withstood it all and came out of there completely clean.

Radio Azattyq: Mr. Ahmetbek, could you share some interesting stories from when you and Qazhygumar Shabdan traveled together?

Almas Ahmetbek: Once there was an aitys between aqyns from the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, in a small place in Ili called Tanbaly. Aqyn delegations from three of the prefecture’s regions all came. The aqyns there were separated into factions too. There were 18 of us from Chuguchak. Qazhygumar was the most authoritative one among us.

Towards the end of this event, Qazhygumar Shabdan was given the floor. Speaking, he pointed out that the panel of judges had been unjust in its assessments. On behalf of the panel, he apologized to those participants who had performed very well but, owing to lack of objectivity from the judges, had received poor grades.

Later, when we got to the Ili region and checked into a hotel, a crowd of people formed in Qazhygumar’s room. They came to express their support, and discussed a variety of topics. There were similar meetings that took place at the Ili Pedagogical Institute.

Back then, the people saw Qazhygumar Shabdan as a man from nowhere, and he fit that role perfectly. He never lost face before the people.

Zhainar Qazhygumar, the daughter of writer Qazhygumar Shabdan, at a press conference following the release of the novel Qylmys. November 24, 2009, Almaty.


Radio Azattyq: Mr. Ahmetbek, why did Qazhygumar Shabdan have to spend half of his life in prison? What was his great crime?

Almas Ahmetbek: I’ve talked to him about this more than once. It was a time of political repression in China. If we allow ourselves, as an example, a short historical excursion, we’ll see that the 1937-1938 repressions in Kazakhstan were not without the participation of snitches and informants. In China, it was exactly the same. There were internal conflicts between representatives of the Uyghur and Kazakh intelligentsia, with envy giving birth to the same situation as was seen in Kazakhstan. That was why such people as Qazhygumar suffered. The majority of his life was spent inside prison walls.

In 1956, his new novel, Baqyt Zholynda (“On the Path to Happiness”), was released. A work of such magnitude was unprecedented back then, unseen in either the Chinese or Uyghur literatures. It was in Kazakh literature that such a work first appeared.

As he himself told me, the number of enemies that he had increased after the publication of this novel. He mentioned the names of a few Kazakh and Uyghur writers. These are writers that he mentions in Qylmys as well. Naturally, I know whom he’s talking about. It’s probably better that I don’t say their names, since their children are living in Kazakhstan.

These were the colleagues of Qazhygumar Shabdan that stood in his way, and essentially threw him into the great repression machine. Moreover, Qazhygumar himself was a very direct person, always speaking the truth. Those were times when speaking the truth had serious consequences.

A police ceremony at the old No. 1 Prison in Urumqi, where Qazhygumar Shabdan spent 15 years.

Radio Azattyq: Mr. Ahmetbek, we’ve asked those who often go to China about Qazhygumar Shabdan. They say that many are afraid to visit him or talk to him. How true is that?

Almas Ahmetbek: No one there is afraid to talk to him. Right now, he’s not receiving any social assistance, and is living off his wife’s pension. However, there are colleagues there who help him out when they can.

That said, there are also those who avoid him. These are usually government and Party officials.

Recognition Tweet from Kazakh activist Serikzhan Bilash.


Radio Azattyq: Mr. Ahmetbek, what do you know about the conditions of the house arrest under which he is currently?

Almas Ahmetbek: He was arrested on December 30, 1986. That same year, on December 16-17, there were the December events in Almaty. There were repressions simultaneously happening both here and there then. Qazhygumar was arrested two weeks after the December events. I went to their home immediately and asked what had happened, and was told that 6-7 people had come in military vehicles and taken him away. They took all of his manuscripts also.

He was later convicted of being a Soviet spy. I don’t believe this. Though the Soviet Union no longer exists, Qazhygumar is still being held under house arrest. He doesn’t write, and if he does won’t publish it. He also doesn’t talk to the media. It’s worrying.

I heard something that I think is true. They say that when the 85-year-old Qazhygumar goes out for a walk, there’s Chinese kids who help him get around. These children were part of a TV program, in which they talked about how they help the elderly from ethnic-minority groups. One journalist went to Qazhygumar and interviewed him.

Later, all that was shown in the news, which resulted in a stir among the local Kazakhs, who were shocked and asked: “How is this possible? They showed a criminal on TV.” There was quite an outcry. Things like that make you worry. Apart from that, there aren’t any difficulties in particular. The biggest issue is that Qazhygumar Shabdan is being forbidden from leaving for Kazakhstan and from publishing.

Radio Azattyq: Thank you for the interview, Mr. Ahmetbek.

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