Uzbek author Cho’lpon’s Equivocal Legacy and Its Importance in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan
This is a guest post from Christopher Fort, translator of Abdulhamid Sulaymon o’g’li Cho’lpon’s Night and Day. This November, Academic Studies Press will publish the first English translation of Cho’lpon’s Night, the first half of an unfinished dilogy whose intended second book, Day, was lost when Chol’pon was executed by Stalin’s secret police in 1938.
As August rolls into September, states across Eastern Europe and Eurasia commemorate some of the foundational dates for their post-Soviet societies. Just last week, the European Union observed its 10th annual Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. On September 1st, Uzbekistan, the most populous country of post-Soviet Central Asia, will celebrate its Independence Day and will, like European citizens this week, honor those executed in Stalin’s purges. For contemporary Uzbeks, the anti-imperialist nationalist intellectuals murdered from 1936 to 1938 are now a critical part of the national mythology. The vision of the Uzbek nation for which they lost their lives, Uzbek schools teach, has been realized by contemporary Uzbekistan. Arguably the most prominent member of that generation of Uzbek intellectuals was the poet, novelist, and dramatist Abdulhamid Sulaymon o’g’li Cho’lpon, whose 1934 novel, Night and Day, Academic Studies Press will shortly publish in my translation.
Stalinism undoubtedly robbed the Uzbek people and the world of an incredible talent at a young age—Cho’lpon was most likely 41 when Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, took his life—but it is because of Stalinism and Cho’lpon’s erasure from Soviet Uzbek life that the author is so interesting and enigmatic a figure today. The absence of information about his life and his oeuvre echoes across history and continues to affect how Uzbek audiences relate to the author. This absence provides opportunities for individuals to offer differentiated and heterogenous interpretations of the author’s biography, his art, and consequently, Uzbekistan’s past, present, and future.
Both Stalin and Soviet Uzbeks after Stalin’s death created and sustained this absence. After his death in 1938, Cho’lpon was not permitted to return to print or even be mentioned publicly for the duration of Stalin’s life. He was rehabilitated in 1956 with the beginning of Khrushchev’s Thaw, but he nevertheless remained a taboo figure for Soviet Uzbeks. His works were not reprinted during Khrushchev’s time in power. As the Thaw ended, Uzbek intellectuals in 1968 attempted to include a few of Cho’lpon’s poems in an anthology of Uzbek poetry, but the local Communist Party leadership quickly stopped publication. Rumors subsequently flooded the capital of Tashkent that the editor of the anthology killed himself to avoid repression. While that was untrue—the editor merely received a reprimand and remained very much alive—those rumors speak to Cho’lpon’s impermissibility throughout the Soviet period.
Because of this expurgation of Cho’lpon from Soviet public discourse, there are major disagreements about the most basic details of his biography. We have no information as to his date of birth, and sources disagree as to the year in which he was born. Most suggest 1897, but others have offered 1894 and 1898 as possible years. This scholarly disagreement developed into a nationwide dispute when Cho’lpon’s hometown of Andijon decided to hold the 120-year jubilee of his birth in 2017, while the Uzbekistan Writers’ Union, adhering to other sources, held off until 2018.
Similarly, thanks to Stalinism’s erasure of history, the country’s academics have never produced a complete collection of writings for Cho’lpon. That has led to fascinating discrepancies in how the poet has been interpreted. The Soviet Union poured vast resources into such endeavors for Uzbek socialist writers who, though they would never admit it, were influenced by Cho’lpon’s advances in Uzbek-language poetics. The socialist empire, of course, never brought itself to do the same for Cho’lpon, despite his importance to the canon. Contemporary Uzbekistan no longer invests in philology like its Soviet predecessor, and thus any scholar of Cho’lpon has to consult various collections and original 1920s and 1930s-era sources, many of which are incomplete, missing pages, or have names and words crossed out. Those absences naturally lead to interpretive disagreements. One of Cho’lpon’s more famous poems, a poem which serves as the epigraph for Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov’s recently translated The Devil’s Dance, appears with differing punctuation across various editions of Cho’lpon’s work. That difference in punctuation dramatically changes how one interprets the short poem. In one variant, we read the lyric persona as speaking, while in the other, we read the devil as speaking.
Most intriguingly, to this day we possess only the first half of Night and Day. Cho’lpon dubbed the novel I have translated as Night, and reportedly intended a sequel, Day. The absence of this sequel has given Uzbek scholars and the public considerable opportunity to speculate about Cho’lpon’s intentions. Some scholars have contended that Cho’lpon wrote everything he intended in Night and only spoke of a sequel in order to please Soviet observers. Others suggest that he, in fact, wrote a sequel, but the NKVD confiscated and destroyed it when they arrested him. Rumors in recent years have spoken of the possibility that the sequel somehow escaped the country and is somewhere hidden in Xinjiang. In my introduction to the translation, I pursue a new argument. I maintain that the absence of the second novel serendipitously conforms to Cho’lpon’s aesthetic intent. Throughout his mature poetic life, he pursued an aesthetic of inconclusiveness whereby his characters experience endless epiphanies and never arrive at finality. Like his characters’ development, his dilogy lacks a conclusion.
These inevitably heterogenous interpretations of Cho’lpon ultimately have meaning for Uzbekistan’s present and future. The current Uzbekistani state emphasizes Cho’lpon as a martyr now redeemed by the freedom of the post-Soviet present. Much like the Soviet state, Uzbekistan endeavors to create a single interpretation of Cho’lpon’s legacy, sponsoring jubilees and teaching his works in school. The state tells and retells his story in order to affirm itself and justify its existence. And yet, the current state cannot fully control how its citizens interpret Cho’lpon. Uzbeks may see him as affirming the current state, but they might also use interpretations of the author to critique the state’s policies as anti-democratic or anti-national. Because of the absences in Uzbekistan’s literary and historical record, Cho’lpon’s legacy will never be fully decided and always remain a matter of interpretation.
With my forthcoming translation, I bring this fascinating and mysterious artist to English-language audiences. Acquainted with the text and with the informational absences that characterize Uzbek 20th-century literature and history, English-language readers can join Uzbeks in their debates over Cho’lpon and Uzbekistan’s absence-riddled past. In so doing, they can participate in the discussion of what that past means for the country and region’s future.
Christopher Fort holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Michigan and an MA in Russian Area Studies from The Ohio State University. He is also the translator of Uzbek author Isajon Sulton’s The Eternal Wanderer.