Rubbing shoulders with the great Kazakh sultans and khans


One of Thomas Atkinson’s best-known lithographic illustrations (above), which appears as the frontispiece of his book Oriental and Western Siberia, is a portrait of a man he calls Sultan Souk. ‘Sultan Souk and his family’ has always intrigued me. He sits cross-legged in his yourt, surrounded by three women – presumably his wives – and another kinsman who is standing. Across his legs he caresses a Russian military sabre and around his neck hangs a large gold medallion bearing a portrait. Around him are the accoutrements of wealth – a fine-looking cooking pot with animal finials, a samovar for making tea and any number of fine carpets and textiles. All those present are wearing fine striped khalats beneath their cloaks. Both men wear silken kamarbands and small tubeteika round caps.

The portrait was one of many that Atkinson composed during the journey that he and Lucy made to the Zhetysu region of what is now eastern Kazakhstan. They stayed at the isolated Russian military outpost of Kopal – where their son Alatau was born – from September 1848-June 1849, before slowly making their way back to Barnaul in southern Siberia, which they reached in September that year. Atkinson’s portraits of  the prominent Kazakhs he met now represent the only characterisations of a generation of Kazakh leaders whose likenesses would otherwise be unknown.

So who was Sultan Souk? Atkinson does not mince his words: “A greater robber could not be found in the Steppe and though at this time, being eighty years of age, he could not join in the barantas, many were planned by him. On another occasion, when I was staying at his aoul some Kazakhs came from the middle horde to beg of him to give up their wives and children, who had been carried off by his banditti — they formed part of his share of the plunder — but the old scoundrel would not restore one. He received a pension from the Russian emperor, sold his country, and deceived his imperial majesty.[i]

Atkinson adds that the sultan sat for a portrait and insisted on wearing “a scarlet coat, a gold medal and a sabre, sent him by Alexander the First, of which he was wonderfully proud.” He also mentions that he was vain: “In one of his barantas, a battle-axe had cut his nose and rendered it crooked; and when I was sketching him, he desired me not to copy his present nose, but put in a proper one, or the emperor  would discover his plundering habits.”

Lucy Atkinson also wrote about the old sultan in her book Recollections of Tartar Steppes. She mentions numerous visits by him to their small house at Kopal in the spring of 1849, when  their child Alatau was just a few months old:
The fine weather is a relief to everybody; it also brings visitors from the Kazakhs. Amongst the most frequent is old Sultan Souk. Many an hour does he pass in our rooms, and one of the great attractions is a small travelling looking-glass. He goes into my bed-room, where it hangs against the wall, and stands for an hour or more, making all kinds of grimaces, and laughing loudly; it is probably the first time he ever saw his own face. He sadly wished to persuade me to present it to him; he coaxed me out of a pair of scissors, and took them to his armourer, who made others from them – the first that were ever manufactured in the steppe. They were given to the Baron, who promised them to me, but, learning that we thought them a curiosity, he retracted, I presume, for I never received them. Another attraction for the old gentleman was the child; indeed, Kazakhs came from far and near to see him; one Sultan sent a follower of his a distance of 200 versts for some smoked mutton for the child to eat when he was six weeks old.”

By 1849, of course, Tsar Alexander was dead, but the atmosphere on the Kazakh steppe was tense and the Russian Tsars were no less interested in what was happening there. Two years before, Russian troops had made their way south from Siberia to establish a series of military posts – including Kopal – along the border with China, to the east. And the reason they timed their arrival for 1847 was that the previous year one of their most serious adversaries, Kenisary Kasymov, regarded by some as khan of all the Kazakhs, had been killed by Kirghiz tribesmen, bringing to an end a two-decade insurgency against the Russians. Kenisary is today seen as a hero in modern-day Kazakhstan, regarded as the last Kazakh tribesman to hold out against the Russians.

Khan Kenesary
Statue of Kenesary in Nursultan.

Kenisary was khan of the Middle Horde, whose members lived in the north-eastern regions of the Great Steppe. He was also distantly related to Chokan Walikhanov, regarded by many as the first Western-trained Kazakh intellectual. He continued a struggle started by his brother in the 1820s to oust Russians from the steppe. Whether he was a modernizer or a traditionalist is hotly debated, but he undoubtedly made it very difficult for the Russians to complete their project of subduing the steppes and settling the regions with agricultural peasant farmers from southern Russia.

In this context, Atkinson’s painting of Sultan Souk, has a greater significance. What I have established is that Sultan Souk was actually Sultan Siuk Ablaikhanov, a sultan of the Great Horde, son of the hero Ablai Khan and actually an uncle of Kenisary – who was Ablai Khan’s grandson – although with a very different political outlook. In 1831, as Kenesary’s brother was leading an insurrection against the Russians, Siuk had asked the Governor-General of Western Siberia to create an okrug – a jointly-administered territory – on his lands and to bring in Cossacks to pacify recalcitrant Kazakhs. This opened up Lake Balkash and large parts of the Djungar Alatau to Russian exploration. Other tribal groups from the Great Horde followed Siuk in accepting Russian rule. And it was precisely because he was regarded as pro-Russian that in 1846 Kenesary had come to Siuk and demanded that he join him in his struggle against the Russians. In doing so he was acting as head of the Middle Horde, seeking support from the Great Horde. But the old man had refused, despite threats by Kenesary to destroy all Siuk’s aouls.

By the time the Atkinsons met the sultan, he was clearly in favour with the Russians, Kopal being on his territory. Thomas describes how the commander of the fort at Kopal, Captain Abakumov, organised a great gathering of tribal leaders there on 1 March 1849 to discuss the boundary between the Great and the Middle hordes. The lack of an agreed boundary meant that there were constant barimtas (raids) by one group against the other.

Defensive ditch around the Russian bastion at Kopal

The chiefs arrived on the appointed day, along with their mullahs and elders – in all over 100 men. There was no building large enough to hold the multitude, so they met in the open. The Russian administrators of the steppes arrived from Ayagus and others came from the tribes of the Middle Horde. Captain Abakumov started off proceedings with a display of artillery fire, which terrified many of the guests, exactly as it had been designed to do so. A Russian official informed all those present that the governor-General of Western Siberia, Prince Gortchakov, had sent a despatch recommending that the sultans and chiefs agree a boundary to stop all the feuds and plundering. He added that the negotiations should be conducted in a polite manner.

Sultan Siuk was the first to talk, saying that he had considered the Prince’s suggestions and was willing to adopt them, but that the boundary line was paramount. Thomas Atkinson reported his speech thus: “The boundary to which I shall consent is the Ac-Sou, including the shores of Lake Balkash. If the Middle Horde agree to this, it is well, if not the chiefs will maintain their right and seize every man and animal found on the pastures.[ii] It was an uncompromising message.

The Russian official tried to get Siuk to modify his claim, suggesting that the border between the two hordes should be the River Bean, with the land to the West belonging to the Great Horde. Siuk studied the map presented by the Russian, but was not impressed: “I cannot understand this paper, nor why you have marked the Bean and call that the boundary. It may remain so on the paper, but I will have the pastures to the Ac-Sou. The Prince has ordered the Lepsou, the Ac-sou and the Bean to be placed where he pleased on this paper. He may have them so, but I order the boundary to be on the Ac-Sou, nor shall it be changed. If the Middle Horde do not consent to this, they shall soon see some of my people on the Lepsou.

A chief from the Middle Horde replied, saying they would not change their position either and threatening to kill anyone from the Great Horde they found on their territory. With that the meeting broke up for the day. Discussions on the following days and weeks did not lead to a breakthrough and by the end of the month the Russian officials were tired and fed up; the tribal leaders, all much embittered, separated more disunited than ever before.

Atkinson, however, had not finished, either with Siuk or with Kenesary. He devotes almost 60 pages of his second book, Travels in the Region of the Upper and Lower Amoor, to detailing the adventure-filled story of Siuk’s doomed attempt to marry Ai Khanym, the daughter of Sultan Djanghir Khan, one of the leaders of the Kirghiz tribes in the mountains, with whom Siuk’s father wanted to form a pact, . The story ends in disaster, with Djangir Khan going back on his word and trying to marry off his daughter to the Khan of Badakhshan and Siuk eloping with her, only for her to be killed by a tiger in the mountains.

As for Kenesary, during the Atkinsons’ departure from the Djungar Alatau region in the summer of 1849 they took on an old guide who knew the mountains well. The old man said he had once belonged to what Atkinson called “a band of robbers,” commanded by the great ‘Kinsara’ i.e. Kenisary. In this characterisation, Atkinson is following the opinion of the Russians – and possibly the Kazakhs of the Great Horde. He goes on to say that the Kazakhs “quailed as he led on his wild bands; even the Russians, on the frontiers, dreaded his marauding expeditions. He had been the scourge of all the tribes, whom he often plundered, carrying off their camels, hordes, men, women and children.

High up in the Djungar Alatau Mountains, amongst the headwaters of the Bascan River, the guide even located one of Kenisary’s old camping grounds: “This was the place on which Kinsara had lived and held his daring associates in subjection. My guide told me that no one of the band ever dared to disobey his orders, as doing so would have been certain death. He had acquired unbounded power over the minds of his followers, by his indomitable courage. If a desperate attack had to be made against fearful odds, he led the van, and was ever first in the fight, shouting his war-cry with uplifted battle-axe and plunging his fiery steed into the thickest of the battle. This gave confidence to his men, and was the secret of his success; but the Kazakhs thought he was in league with Shaitan and that no steel could touch him.[iii]

The guide told Atkinson that Kenisary had 300 men with him, including escaped Chinese convicts from the Ili Valley. He led him to the very spot where Kenesary had lived: “This was sacred ground to him, and his eye moistened as we turned away from the spot. We visited several other places which he examined with intense interest and then came to the spot where his yourt had stood. There were black ashes of his own hearth; he looked at these for a few minutes and then led the way to the eastward. As he strode along he often looked back, evidently lingering affectionately over a locality that had called up many pleasant recollections.

We can see from these events that Thomas and Lucy Atkinson were in the Great Steppe at a time of turmoil, as the last resistance to the Russian incursions crumbled. The Atkinsons’ many meetings with Sultan Siuk, a prominent leader of the Great Horde, Thomas’ presence at the great gathering of tribal leaders in March 1849 and the visit to the mountains with a former companion of Kenisary, leader of the Middle Horde and the last great resistance hero of the Kazakhs, shows that they were in the thick of great historical events.

[i] T. W Atkinson, Oriental and Western Siberia, Hurst & Blackett, London, 1858, p568,

[ii] T. W. Atkinson, Travels in the Region of the Upper and Lower Amoor, Hurst & Blackett, London, 1860, p176.

[iii] Ibid., p223

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