Issue 59 (2018)

Rustem Abdrashev: The Kazakh Khanate: The Diamond Sword (Kazakhskoe Khanstvo: Almaznyi mech, 2016)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2018

almazny mechRustem Abdrashev’s cinematic history lesson about the founding of the Kazakh Khanate opens with a statement that the idea came directly from Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. His words follow this announcement. “The independence of Kazakhstan has not been written on a blank slate. It has ancient traditions. We have to look deeply into the past in order to understand the present and see the shape of the future.”

These declarations require a slight geopolitical digression, for The Diamond Sword is a direct response to statements made by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The film, for those brave enough to look deeply into the past as narrated across 135 minutes, thus serves as both a form of international relations and an attempt to foster a renewed sense of domestic patriotism.

In August 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Seliger National Youth Forum to answer questions posed by college students. A student from the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia asked him about “the growth of nationalistic sentiments in Kazakhstan” and worried that the situation in that country might “follow the Ukrainian scenario,” particularly if Nazarbayev were “to leave his post.” In response, Putin declared the Kazakh President to be “our closest strategic ally and partner,” while adding that his counterpart “was alive and well, thank God, and has no intention of resigning.” Putin dubbed Nazarbayev “the wisest leader in the post-Soviet space” because “he has performed a unique feat: he has created a state on a territory where there has never been a state.” “The Kazakhs,” Putin continued, “never had a state of their own and he created it. In this sense, he is a unique person on the post-Soviet space and in Kazakhstan” (“Seliger National Youth Forum”).

almazny mechThese comments, needless to say, did not go down well in Kazakhstan. In response to Putin’s backhanded compliment, Nazarbayev ordered policies aimed at strengthening sovereignty and promoting patriotism (Laruelle 2015: 8-9). In October 2014, the Kazakh President announced that the following year would mark the 550th anniversary of the Kazakh state, establishing the 1465 creation of the Kazakh Khanate as the nation’s birthday. Nazarbayev stated that the union that created the Khanate “may not have been a state in the modern understanding of this term, in the current borders,” but “the foundation was laid then (quoted in Ibid., 9).” He also allocated a massive budget to help promote these patriotic projects, aimed, as Marlene Laruelle has perceptively noted, in fusing the idea of “serene sovereignty” with Kazakhstan’s “distinctive brand” in the international arena.

One of the most heavily-promoted products of this patriotic campaign was hiring Kazakh director Rustem Abdrashev to film a 10-part television series on the founding of the Kazakh Khanate. Part of the series would also be released as a feature-length film so that this sovereign branding could reach as wide a domestic audience as possible (as well as the Kremlin). The cost of the series and film was estimated to be 2 billion tenge (approximately $6m), with reports in the Kazakh press that a quarter of this figure came through crowdsourcing, making The Diamond Sword a true “people’s film.”

almazny mechOn September 11 2015, the day set aside for the 550th birthday celebrations, Nazarbayev declared that Soviet history had deliberately erased the “names of our Khans and famous warriors.” The creation of a new, independent Kazakhstan in 1991 had allowed for their names to be learned once more: “The spirits of our brave ancestors, who left a vast homeland to their descendants, has since then inspired a major patriotic revival among our people, especially the younger generation, and filled their hearts with a sense of pride for their national history.” The lessons of the Khanate and its founders, Nazarbayev stated, proved that “the roots of our nationhood lie deep” (quoted in Seitzhan 2015).

The premiere of The Diamond Sword took place on 16 December 2016—the 25th anniversary of Kazakh independence. Afterwards, various government, business, and cultural luminaries declared it a triumph, noting particularly that such films were “necessary for Kazakh youth” to learn that they too had a deep history. The President himself professed afterwards that “the deeper you put the roots of the tree, the better it can withstand any storm” (quoted in Alkhabaev).

almazny mechThe roots, at least those discovered by Abdrashev and Nazarbayev, are not that hard for the viewer to find and to interpret. The ultimate union that will produce the first Kazakh state, one between two sultans, Kerey and Janibek, is made obvious right away, making the narrative plodding and at times painful to watch. This history lesson is punctuated by three extended, bloody battle scenes that are almost comical in their attempts to look like Game of Thrones.

The first act of filling in the historical details to Nazarbayev’s proclamation, and with it the revelation of Kazakh dynastic roots, comes in the opening minutes. In a brief scene from 1465, we witness the “Great Migration” on the steppe that will produce a new nation. We meet the two leaders who will bring it about, Kerey and Janibek, identified as descendants of the White Horde and Genghis Khan. These details, and all subsequent ones, come through a narrator, making the film seem even more like a high school history lesson.

 almazny mechWith dynastic legitimacy established, the narrative turns to 1457. We are plunged into the first of three violent, chaotic battle scenes, complete with blood splattering, heads cleaved from their bodies, and limbs chopped off. Kerey, who survives this conflict between competing tribes, wonders why his allies did not come help and worries they have lost too many brave men in this opening skirmish. These sentiments are shared by Janibek: both sultans have lost sons in this meaningless battle. As a result, they have lost faith in the Khan. With a truce established, the two sultans then visit a destroyed village. An old woman asks them why they pillaged their ancestral, ancient lands. An old man recalls Janibek’s father and grandfather and how they ruled wisely, imploring him to bring those times back to the steppe. Unity is needed between like-minded sultans.

We then meet the chief villain, Khan Abu’l-Khayr Shaybani. His city is full of cock fighting, dog fighting, slave trading, and “shameful paganism” (as the two new allies conclude). Abu’l-Khayr’s domain, in other words, is what results when nomads settle, when they do not have the true Islamic faith, and when decadence has replaced true leadership. The Khan openly worries about the “most dangerous” of his vassals, “the leopards Kerey and Janibek.” Thus, he already identifies the two as one, as united, as a distinct people. Abu’l-Khayr, we are told, became master of the Great Steppe in part through nefarious means, in part because he took for his fourth wife a woman, Raiba, from Samarkand and therefore “entered into the family of Tamerlane.” His roots, in other words, are superficial.

almazny mechTo kill off the nascent nation-formation of Kerey and Janibek, Abu’l-Khayr conspires to have the two killed on a hunt. The plot backfires, and the Khan is nearly eaten by an escaped lion (a gift from the Shah of Persia). His Golden Sword of Genghis Khan, from which he derives his legitimacy, does not save him. In one of the most ridiculous scenes (shot, naturally, in slow-mo), Janibek arrives just in time and kills the lion with an extraordinarily well-aimed and well-thrown spear. After a nod into the grasslands from Abu’l-Khayr, Janibek is then shot with an assassin’s arrow. He survives because Raiba had given him her ancestor’s Koran, which he had kept just over his heart. Kerey shoots the assassin, but as Janibek interrogates him, Abu’l-Khayr kills him before he can reveal who hired him. In this and subsequent scenes, Abu’l-Khayr and his sons are depicted as crude and buffoonish. They rule through fear, while Kerey and Janibek want peace for their people. In case you missed the obvious points, the narrator intones: “the Kazakhs, independent and free like wild deer on the steppes had no wish to endure this yoke.”

almazny mechThe two sultans and their sons help to build a coalition: their peoples, now referred to as “the Kazakhs”, unite around their shared hatred for Abu’l-Khayr and his allies and around the charismatic leadership of the two sultans. The Kazakh nation, in other words, is created from above and from below. To make this clear, Kerey and Janibek call a Grand Assembly of the Kazakhs and a Privy Council of Tribal Elders in 1458, declaring the need “to liberate the steppe from this oppression.” The narrator again provides the history lesson: “The fate of the nation was decided that night, but the road to freedom is hard for both a khan and a commoner.” They embark on a Great Migration to lay claim to their own Promised Land and to unite other nomads. When we jump ahead to 1465, with the migration still ongoing, and we learn the message that will provide this unity: “We must be united to revive the White Horde and raise the banner of the Kazakh Khanate. Clans and tribes, join the Great Migration! Unite into one Kazakh nation!”

An important moment in this nation-building comes when the Kazakhs reach the borders of Moghulistan, which had broken away from the Khan a century earlier and established a khanate north of the Tian Shan Mountains. Kerey and Janibek reach a mutual agreement with its leader, Khan Yessen-Buga. The two sides agree to recognize the other’s sovereignty and defend each other if attacked by Abu’l-Khayr or his ally, Uz-Temir, the chief of the Oiraty. The two Kazakhs then prove their word is good when they defend Moghulistan against Uz-Temir’s warriors, largely through the bravery of both men and women warriors (yes, the Kazakhs are that unified).

almazny mechThere are a couple of martyrs to this new nation, more slow-mo battles sequences with hands and heads flying, new tribes joining the Kazakh cause, and, after Yessen-Buga’s death and a subsequent tearing up of the treaty between the two nations, the formal declaration of the Kazakh Khanate with Kerey named Khan. Abu’l-Khayr proves to be as nasty a father as he is a Khan, but by the end he has grudgingly accepted the fact of Kazakh existence, declaring that “Kazakhs” can never set foot on his land again and forbidding trade or contact with this new nation. We are told that for the Kazakhs “this is not the last time we will have to fight for our children and our loved ones,” but that the new khanate means the Kazakhs have “now reached and created their promised land where peace, equality, and freedom reign.” “That’s it [Vot tak],” the narrator declares at the end.

The end credits bring this national mythmaking project full circle, for the narrator concludes that the previous 135 minutes have been “a gift from Nursultan Nazarbayev.” “As foretold,” we are once more instructed, “the Kazakhs became a nation worthy of their great history and 25 years ago they regained their independence. And today the Kazakh Nation under their Great Leader Nursultan Nazarbayev has again gained the world’s attention.”

At the film’s official premiere, the Kazakh politician Byrganym Aitimova stated that she found herself in tears after the film’s reminder about “the sources of our national freedom.” She went on to state that “young people should watch this film carefully because it shows how [our freedom] was not easy, when other khanates, other tribes did not want to see the Kazakhs independent and free. I see in this an analogy with the situation 25 years ago, with Kazakhstan, when we wanted to leave the Soviet structure. And today we must protect and strengthen our statehood—in this I see the main idea of this historical film” (quoted in “Fil’m ‘Almaznyi mech’” 2016). Vot tak indeed.

Stephen M. Norris
University of Miami (OH)

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Works Cited

Alkhabaev, Shoka. 2016. “Igra prestolov po-kazakhski: kinoepopeia ‘Almaznyi mech’ vyidet v prokat 5 ianvaria” Tengri News 30 December.

“Fil’m ‘Almaznyi mech’ – o gosudarstvennosti i nezavisimosti Kazakhstana” 2016. 17 December.

Laruelle, Marlene. 2015. “Kazakhstan’s Posture in the Eurasian Union: In Search of Serene Sovereignty.” Russian Analytical Digest No. 165 (17 March): 7-10.

Seitzhan, Galiaskar. 2015. “Let Our Ancestors Inspire Us, Nazarbayev Says On 550th Anniversary of Kazakh Khanate.” The Astana Times 14 September.

Seliger National Youth Forum

The Kazakh Khanate: The Diamond Sword, Kazakhstan, 2016
135 minutes, color
Director: Rustem Abdrashev
Scriptwriters: Smagul Elubai, Timur Zhaksylykov, Rustem Abdrashev
Cinematographers: Sapar Koichumanov, Aleksandr Plotnikov, Andrei Maslov
Music: Abilkaiyr Zharasqan
Editor: Galymzhan Sanbaev
Cast: Doskhan Zholzhaksynov, Kayrat Kemalov, Erkebulan Daiyrov, Isbek Abdilmazhinov, Ayan Otepbergen, Meirgat Amangeldin, Niyaz Shaisultanov
Producer: Arman Asenov

Rustem Abdrashev: The Kazakh Khanate: The Diamond Sword (Kazakhskoe Khanstvo: Almaznyi mech, 2016)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2018

Updated: 2018