National Heroes Get a Postmodern Makeover in Kazakhstan's #Selfie Statue Scandal

Abai Kunanbaev and Yevgeny Mikhaelis (photo by Elena Kazakovtseva for

Kazakhstani national heroes Abai Kunanbaev and Yevgeny Mikhaelis as never seen before and – probably – never to be seen again (photo by Elena Kazakovtseva for

The well-known proverb “haste makes waste” perfectly sums up the short-lived life [ru] of a monument dedicated to two intellectuals associated with Kazakhstan – poet and philosopher Abai Kunanbaev [ru] and geologist and natural scientist Yevgeny Mikhaelis [ru]. A pair of Kazakhstani artists, Vladimir Samoilov and Evgeny Nepyanov worked on the statue depicting the duo for a total of 20 days. Their monument, erected June 23 in the the provincial Kazakh city of Oskemen, was then ignominiously removed like litter from the sidewalk within 24 hours as it proved a subject of jokes and disgust in the city and online.

Abai Kunanbaev, a Kazakh great from the time of the Russian empire (Wiki image)

Abai Kunanbaev, a Kazakh philosopher, poet and composer from the time of the Russian empire (Wiki image)

The most popular complaints of Oskemen residents and Kazakh internet users focused on the fact that Kunanbaev – regarded as the founder of modern Kazakh literature – resembled a dwarf, while Mikhaelis appeared to be taking a “selfie” with a concrete-cast smart phone.. 

The removal of the statue represents a humiliating climbdown local authorities, who spoke proudly [ru] at the official opening of the monument on June 23, in preparation for celebrations of Astana Day – the day of the Kazakh capital, Astana – on July 6. 

In comments picked up by Kazakh media, Oskemen's akim, or city leader, Temirbek Kazymdzhanov, announced [ru]:

Этот памятник не только олицетворение дружбы, но и символ просвещения.

This monument of Abai and Mikhaelis is not only the externalization of friendship, but it is also a symbol of enlightenment.

However, the population of Oskemen did not support the akim’s view, while Kazakh Internet users openly mocked the statue, directing their sarcasm in particular towards the misshapen object (intended as a book) in Mikhaelis’ left hand: 

Михаэлис демонстрирует Абаю возможности своего нового смартфона.

It seems that Mikhaelis is showing Abai the capabilities of his new smartphone.

A citizen of Oskemen, Dilshat, commenting under an article about the hapless monument published on said [ru]::

Это памятник Samsung Galaxy S4.

This monument is dedicated to the Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone.

Another reader agreed::

Реально , мне на первый взгляд показалось реклама инстаграмма, как селфится.

Indeed, when I first looked at this monument, I thought this was a pure advertisement for Instagram, as it seems that Mikhaelis and Abai are taking a selfie [Editor's note: The verb “Selfitsya”, or “to do a selfie” is a perfect example of how English cyber-slang has infiltrated Russian].

But while some viewed the statue as a light-hearted cock-up, others insisted on the moral duty to be respectful to those that contributed to the development of Kazakh nationhood. An anonymous user of the Tengrinews comment platform observed [ru]: 

Даже по фото видно, что это памятник не великим людям, а инопланетянам головастикам или бездарности лжеваятелей ворюг. Просто нужно показательно расследовать и наказать реальным сроком. Это оскорбление.

The photo demonstrates that the monument is dedicated not to great people, but to tadpole-like aliens or those waste-of-skin sculptors themselves. This case should be investigated publically, and those who are guilty [of the erection of this monument] should be punished. It is an insult.

As soon as the decision was taken to remove the statue, the blame game began. One of the two sculptors, Vladimir Samoilov said [ru] the municipal government of Oskemen had rushed the project along:

Я задумал эту вещь очень давно, – говорит Владимир Самойлов, – так как в нашем городе не хватает дани памяти выдающимся землякам. Даже о том что Абай бывал здесь, и для чего, мало кто знает. Власти идею поддержали, и поначалу срок заказа был до сентября, до дня города. На воплощение такой глубокой задумки нужно много времени, три месяца бы вполне хватило. Но внезапно заказчик – городской акимат – изменил срок до 20 дней. Мы очень торопились, и что получилось – то получилось. Нам самим не совсем понятна склонность к приурочиванию сдачи объектов к какой-то дате, но таковы были условия.

I conceived the idea of erecting this monument a long time ago, as our city lacks a memorial for outstanding people. Not many people know that Abai lived here and what he has done for the country. The local authorities supported the idea, and initially the sculpture was due to be completed by the end of September. The embodiment of such a profound idea needed a lot of time, but three months would have probably been enough for us to construct the sculpture. But suddenly the customer – the city administration – changed the deadline, and we had to create the sculpture in 20 days. We were in a hurry, and eventually, this is how the sculpture ended up. We do not really understand the point of orienting the opening of monuments to specific dates, but this emerged as one of the main conditions.

Meanwhile, deputy akim of Oskemen, Vladimir Golovatyuk used a classic piece of Soviet-speak to put distance [ru] between the monumment and the municipality:

В установленном памятнике Абаю Кунанбаеву и Евгению Михаэлису выявлены отклонения от согласованного варианта. В кратчайшие сроки разработчики памятника устранят несоответствия.

The monument dedicated to Abai Kunanbaev and Evgeny Mikhaelis had deviations from the agreed-upon version. In the near future the statue's developers will eliminate all inconsistencies.

The idea of combining two great men in a single monument – one ethnic Kazakh, one ethnic Russian – was certainly not a bad one, especially in a part of the country with a big ethnic Russian population not far from the border with Russia itself.

According to a recent Eurasianet article penned by Kazakhstan-based journalist Joanna Lillis: “Separatist sentiment in the industrial northeast [where Oskemen is located] created a headache for [Kazakh president-for-life] Nazarbayev in the 1990s – and Oskemen was once a hotbed of intrigue, with 13 pro-Russian conspirators jailed over a separatist plot in 2000.” While the dynamics of the region have since changed somewhat as standards of living have risen dramatically in oil-rich Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev has been known to use heavy symbolism to help preserve ethnic harmony in the diverse Central Asian state. 

In this case, it seems that bad craftmanship foiled good intentions. 

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