Chokan Valikhanov

Chokan Valikhanov (1835-1865)

Chokan Chingisovich Valihanov (his full name Mohammed – Hanafiya, the nickname was given by his mother) was a great-grandson of the renowned Ablai Khan. Valikhanov was the first Kazakh to receive a first-class European education. Due to the tuberculosis he pass awaya before he reached the age of 30.


Valikhanov was born in 1835 in the present-day Kostanai Region in a prominent family. His grandfather, Vali Khan, was a grandson of the Kazakh ruler Ablai Khan. He was sent in 1847 to study at the Omsk Cadet School, as his father had done, and served thereafter as an officer in the Russian army, including as adjutant to the governor-general. This work involved travels around Kazakhstan, which he combined with scientific and ethnographic activity. He befriended Dostoevsky during the latter’s exile in Semipalatinsk and sought out other intellectuals. He took part in expeditions to Lake Alakol, the Tian Shan and Lake Issyk Kul.

Valikhanov spent the next couple of years as a member of a diplomatic and fact-finding mission in Semirechye on numerous trips, which took him as far as Issyk Kul, Kuldzha, and Kashgar. He collected valuable information, wrote, commented, and drew. On one of his travels, he met the famous Russian explorer Semyonov, later known as Semyonov Tienshansky. Thanks to the latter’s influence, Valikhanov’s work came to the attention of people in Moscow and St Petersburg. Valikhanov was given recognition, became an ordinary member of the Russian Geographical Society, and was allowed to present the voluminous results of his research in St Petersburg. He was awarded the Order of Saint Vladimir for his scientific work. He stayed in St Petersburg for more than a year, dedicating himself exclusively to scientific activity and cooperating in the design of a map of Central Asia and Eastern Turkestan.


In 1857 was accepted into the Russian Geographical Society, with a recommendation from Pyotr Semyonov-Tianshansky. His research works included studies of Kazakh culture, shamanism and nomadism, he translated part of the great Kyrgyzepic poem Manas into Russian and set down the lyrical Kazakh epic Kozy-Korpesh and Bayan-Sulu.

There was another side to the travels of many adventurous military officers and scientists of the Great Game period, both British and Russian, and some of Valikhanov’s expeditions also had an intelligence-gathering dimension. It was clearly an advantage for the Russian authorities to be able to turn to members of a Russified central Asian elite for covert missions, their Asiatic appearance and knowledge of the language and culture of the region made them ideal choices. 

The most ancient and steady roots of the Kazakh mentality have found reflection in a number of his researches, in particular, in clauses “Traces of shamanism in Kirghiz (Kazakhs)” and “About Moslem in the steppe”. Living for two years in Petersburg, Chokan worked in the general staff on the preparation for the edition of the map of Asia, he participated in editions of works of Russian geographical society. Here Chokan published the works devoted to history and culture of Central Asia and the foreign East; among them researches “Kirghiz” (Kazakhs), “Traces of shamanism in Kirghiz”, “About Kirghiz nomads’ camp” and others that contains the huge material about history, ethnographies of Kazakhs, their life, customs and culture. He wrote the national epic poem “Kozy-Korpesh and the Bayan-Sulu”. 

Valikhanov’s expedition to Kashgaria in 1858-1859, for example, resulted in learned work published in the journal of the Russian Geographical Society but was also about obtaining political intelligence on a region in which Russia was strongly interested. But he seems to have become frustrated at Russia’s colonial ambitions and devoted himself increasingly to his scientific works. 


He retired to a remote corner of Semirechye. Here in the last year of his life, he cherished the thought of setting up a Turkestan liberation movement but was unable to make this scheme materialize. He died in 1865 near Altyn Emel in the present-day Almaty Region. In honor of the 150-anniversary there was constructed the memorial complex.

Page updated 20.1.2021

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