Collecting beetles in Zhanaozen: Kazakhstan’s hidden tragedy


Yrysbek Dabei and his novel ‘Qoniz’ PHOTO/Author

Ten years ago, Kazakhstan’s western region of Mangystau was swept by a series of oil workers’ strikes. The mobilisation lasted for more than six months and, at its peak in summer 2011, several thousand workers were involved. The epicentre was Zhanaozen, a city of 150,000 built in the 1960s next to Uzen’, a now-ageing oilfield that was once the country’s largest.

Throughout 2011, labour relations worsened to the extent that the resulting slump in production started to show on company balance sheets. On 16 December, the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence, clashes erupted between the authorities and striking workers. At least 16 civilians died and hundreds were wounded by police fire. Three dozen workers, union leaders and protesters were sentenced for the violence, while the authorities barred any independent investigation of the events, which the former UK prime minister Tony Blair later helped spin internationally.

The Kazakh writer Yrysbek Dabei sought to capture these events in a novel, ‘Qonyz’ (“the beetle”). Born in China’s Altai region, Dabei moved to Kazakhstan in 2001, publishing collections of poems and essays alongside his work as a journalist. ‘Qonyz’, Dabei’s second novel, revolves around oil workers and the environment of slow and subtle violence that structures their lives in Zhanaozen. Realism is mixed with motifs and characters drawn from Kazakh folklore, placing what became known simply as “the events” within a longer history.

In this interview, the author shares his literary influences, his motivations for writing about Zhanaozen – and what lies behind the novel’s title.

How and when did you decide to write about Zhanaozen?

Zhanaozen is the most dramatic event since Kazakhstan’s independence thirty years ago. As a philologist and writer I read foreign literature, where authors often depict the tragedies that their respective societies face. In Kazakh literature we do not have a school or tradition of writing about these themes. When I read Chines? writers, however, major tragedies are explored in fiction – despite censorship, which is also common in Kazakhstan. These considerations made me think a lot about the Zhanaozen tragedy and encouraged me to write a novel about it.

You mentioned literary inspirations: what do you like reading?

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