In this special post Rinat Shayakhmetov, grandson of the first Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan Zhumabay Shayakhmetov and himself a researcher of Soviet Kazakhstan, presents a narrative history of his uncle Noel Shayakhmetov, one of Kazakhstan’s first scientists working in the field of physical anthropology. Based on his own oral history interviews, archival resources from letters to photos, and museum materials, R. Shayakhmetov presents a personalized account of foundational figures in the field of skull reconstruction in the 20th century, and provides a rare and valuable resource and reflection on the development of this field in Soviet Central Asia (i). In its consideration of the projects, priorities, and lineages of learning in the academy, this piece also speaks to the broader use of physical anthropology in the ideological construction of nationality, cultural memorialization, and the framework of scientific history itself in the FSU (ii; cf Anderson and Arzyutov 2016; Ssorin-Chaikov 2019).
(i) A Russian version of this article was published at Tengrinews: https://mix.tn.kz/mixnews/kazahskiy-uchenyiy-vosstanavlival-cherepu-litsa-nashih-375792/ The full text of the English version presented here was prepared by Rinat Shayakhmetov and published with his permission. All images are also used with his permission.
(ii) We encourage our readers to consider such biographic histories alongside other recently publicized archival materials of the academy such as the expedition notes of Muhiddin Faizulloev in Tajikistan, compiled and translated at Heidelberg University (https://faizulloev.freizo.org/).
David G. Anderson and Dmitry V. Arzyutov. 2016. “The Construction of Soviet Ethnography and ‘The Peoples of Siberia’ in History and Anthropology 27 (2): 183-2019. https://doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2016.1140159
Ssorin-Chaikov, Nikolai. 2019. “Reassembling history and anthropology in Russian anthropology: part 1” in Social Anthropology 27 (1). DOI: 10.1111/1469-8676.12628
R. SHAYAKHMETHOV: KAZAKH ANTHROPOLOGY: FIRST STEPS
In the late 1960’s, an idea was floating in Kazakhstan to commission a gallery of portrait sculptures of prominent figures in Kazakh history, made according to the face-from-the-skull [sic] reconstruction method, pioneered by Professor Mikhail Gerasimov[i] and widely discussed at that time not only in the academic community but also by the public at large.
Saim Balmukhanov, Director of the Oncology and Radiology Research Institute under the Ministry of Health of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (Kazakh SSR) and a true Renaissance man, was the driving force behind the whole idea. He suggested that the project should start with the reconstruction of the image of Makhambet Utemisov (Otemisuly),[ii] a revered poet-turned-rebel (1804-1846), whose burial site had been discovered in the late 1950s by academician Kazhim Zhumaliev and poet Tair Zharokov, following years of painstaking search for its actual location.
In 1965, Saim Balmukhanov met with Noel Shayakhmetov, a forensic expert, anthropologist and one of Professor Gerasimov’s apprentices, and offered him a job at the Oncology and Radiology Research Institute, with a possibility to pursue his passion for anthropology.
The offer was so tempting that Noel Shayakhmetov took it immediately. Later, he would call the period that followed the happiest and most productive years of his life. Hooked on anthropology since his years in the medical school, he now had a job one could only dream of.
As Noel Shayahmetov recalls in his book “Through the Darkness of Ages” (A Portrait from the Skull),” published in 1969 in Alma-Ata, “in the fall of 1950, I bought an unusual book from a book stand at one of the railway stations on my way home from Moscow. It was about great men of the past. Page after page, it revived the sounds of sword blades clashing, deposed rulers moaning before breathing last gasp, sails flapping in the wind, ship’s cannons blasting, thousands of horses galloping, with ancient towns and villages perishing under their hooves.” Back then, he was a second-year student of the department of general medicine of the Alma-Ata Medical Institute.
The book, titled “Fundamentals of the face-from-the skull reconstruction method” and published in 1949, was written by Mikhail Gerasimov, a renowned anthropologist, archaeologist, sculptor, doctor of historical sciences, winner of the USSR State Prize, founder and head of the world’s only laboratory of plastic anthropological facial reconstruction at the Institute of Ethnography of the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences.
It took Noel Shayakhmetov several years, however, to pluck up his courage and come to see Professor Gerasimov in his lab in order to confide in him his dream of becoming an anthropologist, influenced by Professor’s book that Noel would always carry with him. That meeting took place in 1957. By that time, he had already gained some experience as a forensic expert. That year, he came to Moscow to spend some time with his father, who was recovering from a major surgery. Zhumabay Shayahmetov, who had headed Kazakhstan in 1946-1954 as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and had chaired one of the chambers of the Soviet parliament (Council of Nationalities of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR), lived in Moscow, after his retirement, with his wife Maryam and younger son Targyn.
Mikhail Gerasimov received Noel well and asked him what he was doing. “I’m a forensic expert,” was the answer. “Very well,” said Gerasimov, “criminologists and forensic experts were the first to recognize my method when I conducted check tests at the Lefortovo morgue in Moscow in 1940-1941.”
That was how Noel Shayahmetov became a student of Mikhail Gerasimov, followed by years of apprenticeship and collaboration with the well-known researcher, which lasted until Professor’s death in 1970. “Every year, for nearly 14 years, I would come to Moscow to see Gerasimov. He was an incredibly open, patient and amiable man, a true intellectual,” recalled Noel. In memory of his mentor, Noel kept in his library Professor’s book titled “Forensic Facial Reconstruction,” published in1955, with an inscription “To Noel Shayakhmetov with wishes of further success in the field of facial reconstruction. Mikhail Gerasimov, 29 December 1958.”
Following in footsteps of his teacher and under his direct supervision, Noel Shayahmetov completed his first assignments for the criminal investigation department, restoring skulls of missing people. He passed his “final exam” as Gerasimov’s student in 1961 with an anthropological reconstruction of an ancient Uysun (Wusun), currently on display at the Presidential Cultural Centre in Astana. After that, he performed facial reconstruction of Bolatbek Omarov, one of the first members of the young pioneer movement who had died at the hands of opponents of the Soviet regime, and of some other personalities.
“Gerasimov wanted us to realize that ‘facial reconstruction’ was not an artistic but a documental facial visualization of a person, the closest possible approximation to his/her appearance. Defending his method, he had to overcome skepticism of peers and the public. Criminologists, however, were the ones who immediately accepted and used ‘Gerasimov method’, and it passed the test of everyday practice,” recalled Noel Shayakhmetov.
During that period, he pursued his interests in anthropology while working as a forensic expert first in Alma-Ata (now Almaty), then in Aktyubinsk (now Aktobe) as head of the regional bureau of forensic medical examination, and then again in Alma-Ata, seeking a balance between his passion and his main job, which allowed him to at least support his wife and two children.
By joining Balmukhanov’s Oncology and Radiology Research Institute, Noel managed to strike that balance, and so he enthusiastically plunged himself into exciting work, travelling across Kazakhstan as a member of numerous expeditions composed of researchers, historians and anthropologists.
“On Professor Balmukhanov’s recommendation, it was decided to start the work with the reconstruction of the sculptural portrait of a talented Kazakh poet (Kaz: akhyn) Makhambet Utemisov,” writes Noel Shayakhmetov in his book.
Since to conduct the search for and then excavate the poet’s burial site one needed permission from the authorities, Noel decided to ask for a meeting with Dinmukhamed Kunayev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of Communist Party of Kazakhstan, whom he knew since 1942, when he was a still boy. That year, at the age of 30, Kunayev was transferred from Leninogorsk, where he was director of the flagship Ridder mine, to the capital Alma-Ata, where he was elevated to the post of Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (Council of Ministers), on the recommendation of Zhumabay Shayakhmetov, at that time Second Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, responsible, among other things, for human resources development in the country.
Dinmukhamed Kunayev received Noel Shayakhmetov warmly and supported the project. He gave instructions to prepare relevant letters to the Ministry of Culture and to the Guryev (now Atyrau) Regional Party Committee.
In July 1966, Saim Balmukhanov phoned Khairzhan Abisatov, head of the surgical department of the Oncology and Radiology Research Institute, who was then at the head of the expedition to the Guryev region, investigating the causes of the incidence of esophageal cancer among residents of the area, and told him that Noel Shayahmetov was coming to excavate Makhambet’s burial site, with all required official authorizations.
With the excavation plan drawn up and the project’s goals and objectives set, Noel Shayakhmetov presented them at a closed meeting of the Bureau of Inder District Party Committee.
The first expedition was a success, and the remains of the poet were taken first to Guryev, then to Alma-Ata, and from there to Moscow. “I continued my work on the sculptural portrait in the laboratory of plastic reconstruction of the Institute of Ethnography of the USSR Academy of Sciences Moscow, under the guidance of Doctor of Historical Sciences Mikhail Gerasimov. Supervising my work on the portrait sculpture, Mikhail Mikhailovich was very demanding and constantly reminded me of the great responsibility that the researcher assumes when offering a portrait reproduced from the skull of a historical figure,” recalled Noel Shayahmetov in his book.
While visiting the Museum of Local History of the Atyrau Region, I came across a document titled “Verbatim report of the meeting on the work of N. Shayakhmetov (portrait sculpture of Makhambet Utemisov), held at the Institute of History and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the Kazakh SSR, Alma-Ata. 3 July 1967. Chaired by: Academician A. Kh. Margulan.” Below is an extract from the report:
“Chairperson: Let me begin our meeting. We have one item on the agenda: a documental portrait of Kazakh poet Makhambet Utemisov, reconstructed according to the method of M.M. Gerasimov. We have in Kazakhstan a young and talented student of Professor Mikhail Gerasimov. His name is Noel Shayahmetov. He has studied under Professor Mikhail Gerasimov for the past few years. In addition to the reconstruction of the historical portrait of Makhambet, Noel Shayahmetov has thoroughly studied the history of the uprising, led by Isatai and Makhambet. He talked to elders familiar with historical traditions of Kazakhs of the western part of the country, recorded and researched all the events related to the fate of Makhambet Utemisov and tales about his life and heroic deeds. Sifting through this wealth of knowledge, Noel Shayahmetov has come up with an interesting synthesis, which is of tremendous importance for the cultural life of Kazakhstan.”
Summarizing the results of the expedition, Noel Shayahmetov wrote his book “Through the Darkness of Ages and dedicated it to his father Zhumabay Shayakhmetov. Later, he himself would even serve as a prototype of sculptor/anthropologist Khamit, the protagonist of a short story “The Skull,” written by a well-known Kazakh writer Tolen Abdikov.
In 1967, the appointment of Ilyas Omarov as Minister of Culture of Kazakhstan gave a new impetus to the efforts to create a gallery of sculpture portraits of Kazakhstan’s great men.
During that period, burial sites of some prominent historical figures were identified and excavated: Kurmangazy Sagyrbaev in 1967, Kozy-Korpesh and Bayan-Sulu in 1968 (the grave, however, contained nothing but an artfully embroidered saddle), Koblandy Batyr in 1969.
According Saim Balmukhanov, the burial place of great warrior Koblandy-Batyr was known to Malik Gabdullin, a legendary Second World War hero and later a researcher, who wrtote a Ph.D thesis after the war on the Koblandy Batyr epic. His burial site was found in 1969 in the Kobda District near Zhirenkop.
The chairman of the executive committee of the Aktobe region was very helpful, providing the researchers with housing, food and a biplane for aerial mapping. The warrior’s burial site was seriously damaged in different periods in the country’s history, including during the development of so called “virgin lands”. When the grave was opened, it contained the remains of several men and horses. A complex but exciting work was under way to put together different pieces of a puzzle.
Unfortunately, the passing away, on 19 July 1970, of Minister Ilyas Omarov, who supported the researchers, followed by the death of Mikhail Gerasimov two days later, became a game changer. Balmukhanov and Shayakhmetov started to run into problems and, as a result, the project was effectively suspended.
Under the circumstances, the portrait sculpture of the great Kazakh composer Kurmangazy was not completed in the manner that had been planned, and an anthropological reconstruction of Koblandy-Batyr was not even started. In 1971, Noel Shayakhmetov left for Moscow, where, until his retirement in 2009, he worked in the Blokhin Oncology Center of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.
Later, Noel Shayakhmetov was blamed for keeping, for too long, in his possession the remains of Kurmangazy, Koplandy and Makhambet Utemisov, although, in April 1968, Noel was going to deliver Makhambet’s remains to Guriev, after the completion of the reconstruction and the casting of the bust, as evidenced by his letter to Saden Bissenov, who at that time headed the Museum of Local History of the Atyrau Region. That letter, kept in the museum’s archives, reads as follows:
“Alma-Ata, 14 April 1968
Today, they have signed my travel authorization. I will fly to you on 23 April and bring Makhambet with me. I kindly ask you to just stay there and wait for me. I will bring all the documents needed for your bookkeeping office. I count on your assistance and cooperation. After my meeting with you, I’m going to take a flight first to Orenburg and then to Kazan, hoping that I might find in the archives of those cities some documents on Kurmangazy. I have decided to make a half-length sculpture of Kurmangazy, playing a dombra. For that, in addition to the face, the hands would have to be reconstructed as well. To identify the right posture for the future sculpture, I asked the movie studio to assign a camera man to shoot performances by dombra player Kenen Azerbaev. He lives not far from Alma-Ata, in the Kurday area. Hale and hearty, despite being in his eighties, he is still playing his dombra. His physical appearance is close to that of Kurmangazy. I hope that the elder will not object and will agree to sit as a model. Also, to complete his image, I’m thinking of making plaster casts of his hands. To this end, I want to make casts of the hands of all leading dombra players, in particular of Eskaraev, and, of course, of Akhmet Zhubanov. For this project, I need a dombra typical of Western Kazakhstan. Would it be possible to borrow one through you, for a few months? I guarantee its return. It is important that Kurmangazy’s dombra and clothing were reflective of the time. It would be better yet if one could find a dombra that is ninety years old. Attention to all these details is important to create a truthful image. According to my estimates, this work will take some six months. It is possible, however, that changes will have to be made due to various circumstances and as time goes by. We’ll have to see. The editors of the book about Makhambet have returned the manuscript with their comments concerning mainly the history of establishment of the zhuzs (Kazakh hordes), the Bökey Khanate and the uprising itself. That’s the way things are. Dear Saden, once again, I ask you to pick me and Makhambet up at the airport and not to go anywhere. Best regards to all your staff.
In fact, “various circumstances” and “time” did necessitate changes to these plans. The remains of the poet were not brought to Guryev. The Ministry of Culture informed Noel that the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan was planning to build a pantheon on top of the Kok-Tobe mountain in Alma-Ata. Until 1974, the remains of Makhambet Utemisov, Kurmangazy and Koblandy-Batyr were, indeed, stored in Noel Shayakhmetov’s apartment in Alma-Ata and, before that, in our family’s home in the same city, because the pantheon project was put on hold and no one knew what to do next.
The Museum of Local History of the Atyrau Region displays an “Affidavit of excavation and creation of a sculptural portrait of Makhambet Utemisov”, signed by its Director Saden Bissenov and two other museum staffers on 14 October 1975. In particular, it says that “in December 1974, the remains of the poet were taken from Alma-Ata by the Director of the Guryev Regional Museum Saden Bissenov. On 14 October 1975, the remains of Makhambet Utemisov were delivered to the Inder district, through M. Eleuov, head of the Inder district department of culture, for a reburial”. That document contains an attachment titled “Act of Delivery and Acceptance”, signed in Guriev on 28 July 1976. It reads as follows:
“We, the undersigned, comrade S. Bisenov, Director of the Regional Museum of Local History, comrade S. Izmailov, Museum’s Chief Curator and Major G. Arystanov, Chief of the Operations Division of the Headquarters of the Regional Department of the Interior Ministry, have drawn up the following act:
As instructed by the Regional Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, the Regional Museum, represented by comrade S. Bisenov and comrade S. Izmailov, hands over and the Regional Interior Department, represented by comrade G. Arystanov, accepts for temporary storage in the Regional Interior Department:
- Bone remains, including the skull, of Makhambet Utemisov (all bones).
- Bone remains, including the skull, of Kurmangazy Sagyrbaev (without bones of inferior limbs and left ribs).
Bone remains are handed over packed in two separate metal boxes.
Handed over by: S. Bisenov and S. Izmailov
Accepted by: G. Arystanov”.
The reburial of Makhambet Utemisov took place only on 15 May 1983. In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the poet, a mazar (tomb) was built on the burial site, which later underwent reconstruction.
The remains of Koblandy Batyr had to stay in Noel’s possession for much longer because no institution wanted to take ownership of them and the project was put on hold, indefinitely, by the Ministry of Culture. Then events started to unfold dramatically: first, the perestroika, then the dismissal of Kunaev, followed by the accusation of the entire nation of nationalism (no one dared at that time even to mention national heroes and the project itself), the collapse of the Soviet Union, the raucous 1990s and the challenges of the transition period.
Years later, some researchers and journalists, trying to stir up heated polemics about the issue in an attempt to turn the public opinion against Noel Shayakhmetov, found him guilty of every sin that had a name, ignoring the fact that his project had not been a government program, that the official ideology had not encouraged digging too deep into the history of constituent Soviet republics and that the party leader Kunayev and Minister Omarov had known about all expeditions, as well as about all relevant circumstances. Pure enthusiasm and desire to find scientific evidence in support of certain facts of Kazakh history were the main drivers of the entire project.
Some people prefer to build up their careers not on their own accomplishments, through trials and errors, but on finding fault with those who dare to do something their way. Being a sensitive and tactful man, Noel chose not explain all the circumstances around the situation to people who knew little about the project.
It was only years later, when Kazakhstan was already an independent state, that, with assistance of Saim Balmukhanov, researchers Orazak and Ainagul Ismagulova, following extensive preparatory work, delivered the skull of Koblandy Batyr to Moscow to the Mikhail Gerasimov laboratory of plastic reconstruction, where in 2006 sculptors/anthropologists Tatiana Balueva (head of the laboratory) and Elizaveta Veselovskaya reconstructed the great warrior’s portrait. In 2007, an imposing mausoleum was built on his burial site.
It has to be mentioned here that, in 2002, when Noel Shayakhmetov again raised with the authorities the issue of an anthropological reconstruction of 10 Kazakh historical figures, starting with Koblandy, he got an official response from the Ministry of Culture (letter № 04/2020 dated 10 June 2002), explaining that the matter was too complicated and required a special resolution by the Government.
In a conversation with me, in 2005, Noel said, “Although I’m 74 years old, I’m full of energy and ideas. The legendary scholar Gerasimov had just a handful of followers. As for me, there is no one now with whom I could share my experience and skills that I have acquired. An objective face-from-the-skull reconstruction method is a combination of such disciplines as anatomy, anthropology, paleontology and archeology. The Gerasimov Method is a tool for understanding the processes behind the ethno genesis of the Kazakh nation. I wanted to establish a laboratory in Kazakhstan where I could carry out my work and mentor my students, future Kazakh anthropologists. I have a list of 10 legendary names. An anthropological reconstruction of our heroes would have provided historians with an information about their physical appearance, physiology, injuries and illnesses. This issue generates great interest in academic circles all around the world, yet here we sometimes prefer to mythologize our past .The life and death of Makhambet Utemisov is a case in point”.
As for the Kurmangazy project, the manuscript of a book on that expedition and the history of that reconstruction, together with photographs, X-rays, as well as anatomical and anthropological descriptions of the skeleton, was lost, unfortunately, when a journalist from Kazakhstan, whose name Noel could not recall, had borrowed it with a promise to translate and publish it in the Kazakh language. That manuscript was never returned.
In 2006, I had a chance to talk to Galina Lebedinskaya, a well-known anthropologist who had worked in the Gerasimov lab since its opening in 1950 and had become its head after the teacher’s death in 1970.[iii] According to her, “when Noel showed up in our lab, he was so young, so passionate and so terribly shy! Gerasimov liked him immediately and asked me to take care of him. I shared with Noel the results of my own work, especially those related to the mid-section of the face and the nose.”
Physical anthropologist Galina Lebedinskaya, student of Gerasimov, headed the Laboratory of Plastic Reconstruction of the Institute of Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (now the Institute of Anthropology and Ethnology of the Russian Academy of Sciences) after Gerasimov’s death (image used with permission).
I had a chance to pay Lebedinskaya a visit at her Sretenka Street apartment in Moscow thanks to Saim Balmukhanov. Earlier he had shown me volume I of the National Encyclopedia of Kazakhstan, published in 2004. One of its entries, titled “Anthropology”, contained a factual error: the photo of the bust of an ancient Uysun, reconstructed by Noel Shayakhmetov, was captioned as “Bust of a Saka. Reconstruction by anthropologist G. Lebedinskaya.”
Saim Balmukhanov suggested that during my next visit to Moscow I should try to find Lebedinskaya and clarify the matter. I did just that: I called Galina Vyacheslavovna on the phone and introduced myself as Noel’s nephew. She kindly invited me to come to see her. At that time, she was 82. Her big Moscow apartment was filled with books and busts. In the living room, there was a large Rembrandtesque painting, depicting her working on a skull. That slim and dynamic woman of small stature with a keen and intelligent expression was a living legend, well known among anthropologists not only in the former Soviet republics but also in Europe, Asia and the United States. When I showed her a copy of page 230 of volume I of the Encyclopedia, she immediately said that, even though she had indeed worked on Sakas, that particular bust had been made by Noel. Then she asked her granddaughter, also an anthropologist, to copy her reconstruction works on a CD for me.
That was how I met Galina Lebedinskaya. “Physical anthropology is a discipline for enthusiasts, for those who have a passion for it,” she told me. “It is not for everyone. Every morning I would wake up feeling happy that I have that job.”
Later, I came to see her again. During our meetings, Galina Vyacheslavovna shared with me many interesting stories from her practice. The most memorable was the one about the start of their reconstruction work on Ivan the Terrible. “When we approached the table displaying the skeleton of the Czar, the lights suddenly went out and a gust of wind threw open the window. Even though we were all atheists, we could all feel that there was some mysticism to that!”
Noel Shayahmetov spoke highly of Galina Lebedinskaya. According to him, she was Professor Gerasimov’s most trusted assistant and his best student. She perfected his method, first, of graphic and then of sculptural reconstruction. She loved to study X-rays of Egyptian mummies that she would get from the British Museum, and then used them to make graphic reconstructions. During Noel’s visits to Moscow, she would show those pictures to him, since he was a radiologist at the Oncology and Radiology Research Institute, and they would spend hours discussing details of various projects. Perhaps, that explains the large number of X-rays he had at home, especially of Kurmangazy and Makhambet. He was writing books about them, working in the archives of Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan.
During our meetings, Noel Shayahmetov often recalled those happy years of quests and discoveries, hopes and disappointments. Before moving permanently to Moscow, he would come to see his elder brother Ravil (my father) and would tell us stories about the lives of Kazakh heroes. He would, for example, explain why Kurmangazy’s ribs had been so twisted and why Makhambet had limped and describe circumstances of his assassination.
In the newly independent Kazakhstan, the idea to create a gallery of great figures of its past has been revived. Ties with the Gerasimov laboratory of plastic reconstruction have been reestablished and Kazakh archaeologists and anthropologists are increasingly turning to it for advice and guidance.
The project to create sculptural portraits of outstanding historical figures of Kazakhstan, championed by Ilyas Omarov, Saim Balmukhanov, Khairzhan Abisatov, Noel Shayakhmetov and other enthusiasts, represents an initial step in the development of physical anthropology in Kazakhstan. Time will come when that experience will found invaluable and when the country will have an anthropology school of its own.
[i] On the work and legacy of Mikhail Gerasimov see Herbert Ullrich and Carl N. Stephan. 2016. “Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov’s Authentic Approach to Plastic Facial Reconstruction” in Anthropologie 54 (2): 97-107.