A Big German in the Steppe or an expedition of German naturalist Alfred Brehm to Kazakhstan

A Big German in the Steppe or an expedition of German naturalist Alfred Brehm to Kazakhstan


Alfred Brehm’s essay about Kazakh steppes and its habitats can be categorized as the most poetical creation of this genre of literature.

I have already told you about AlexanderHumboldt’s trip to Kazakhstan in 1829, the greatest German geographer. Inspring 1876 one more famous German naturalist visited the steppe, the author ofzoological bestseller “Animal’s Life”, Alfred Brehm.

Period of changes in the steppe

In a half century period great changes had happened in that part of the Central Asia. All parts of the land were joined to the Russian Empire’s territory, and travelling across the steppe became no longer an extreme experience, turning into a routine trip along the postal road, through the stops and stations with inns and horse changing points. However, in European perception, these places still remained unexplored and exotic and, therefore, were very attractive for using budgets and taking activities  both of these were required in considerable amounts. Establishment of simple infrastructure couldn’t shorten huge distance between destinations; the steppe climate with its challenging continental character and unpredictable behaviour hadn’t changed either. The trip of Germans across Kazakhstan was named as an expedition. In fact, that was that. However, the nature of the trip could be categorized as fully-fletched science tourism.

Companions and fellow travellers

Alfred Brehm (1829-1884) wasn’t the only participant (although, the most significant of all) of the expedition supported by the Bremen Geographical Community and created under the patronage of the earl Carl von Waldburg-Zeil-Trauchburg. The earl, a man of science, was educated in the Forestry and Agricultural Academy as well as in Leipzig University and, in the course of education, he was collecting herbarium and showed himself as a leader.

The official chief of the expedition was considered to be Otto Finsch (1839-1917), one more distinct German zoologist who was popular for his long time studies on parrots in the Pacific Islands. The expedition was sponsored by famous Russian merchant, a patron of arts, Alexander Sibiryakov: he gave away 20,000 deutsche marks.

Additionally, the expedition was accompanied by a high-ranking regional historian and explorer of the Inner Asia Vladimir Poltoratskiy, a governor of Semipalatinsk region at that time. With his spouse Lyubov Poltoratskaya, who was also famous in science circles for her works in geography and ethnography, Vladimir accompanied Germans within the boundaries of his region.

The Route. Only Steppe around us.

On the territory of Kazakhstan the route was lying within two regions of that time – Semipalatinskaya and Semirechenskaya: Altay Mountains, Zaisan Lake, Tarbagatay Mountains, Alakol Lake, Dzungarian Alatau Mountains. Brehm didn’t travel farther than Lepsinsk area.

The most part of the road passed through the steppe. But at closer look the steppe didn’t look as a monotonous landscape at all, as it may seem when living in Germany. Comparing images of the steppe, that Brehm had seen in Kazakhstan, with landscapes in his motherland he wrote: “It would be unfair to say that the steppe is lack of attractive and even majestic landscapes. Northern Germany is much more dull and monotonous than the steppe… Flora of the steppe is very rich with its species, much richer, than it is generally appreciated; and than I myself thought ,until I have faced the reality.” It is worth mentioning that Germans were very lucky in terms of the season – spring in the steppe admires even local people, nothing to say about foreign guests. “Spring might seem to be more beautiful in tropical countries, however, nowhere else, but in the steppe, spring has such great charming effect, when it alone exceeds summer, autumn and winter influence. Together with flora spring awakens steppe animals… A few animal species that are typical to the steppe appear in great numbers and attract one’s attention.”

The naturalists were also lucky with the epoch of their expedition. At the end of XIX century the nature of Kazakhstan was considerably richer and full of various species. Here is the observation made by the author of “Animal’s Life”: “When we were passing by between Zaisan Lake and Altay Mountains on 3 June 1876, we met no less than 15 kulans in one morning”. So there is a good reason why within short period of time the expedition acquired significant collection of mammals, amphibians (150 samples), and fish (400 samples). Especially, birds – 560 bird’s carcasses were taken away to Germany. Moreover, the scientists caught thousands of insects, lots of minerals, mountain rock samples, dry plants, and even Kazakh household items. All these items were exposed at numerous exhibitions arranged by the naturalists upon their return to Germany, and later became a part of the collections of many European museums (perhaps, some items are still there now!)

Brehm about Kazakh people: “Favourable impression on impartial observer”

Charmed by free life of nomads, Alfred Brehm constantly distracted himself from his observations in the nature by turning his attention to people. This is confirmed by his notes that, perhaps, are valuable not with precious scientific observations but with bright descriptions of Kazakh’s life in Semipalatinskaya and Semirechenskaya regions. Here are several fragments from Brehm’s descriptions of Kazakhs who at that time, mistakenly, called themselves as Kyrgyzs:

“Kyrgyzs are true nation of horsemen – it is hard to imagine them without a horse; they are growing up with foals and each of them live with their own horse for the whole life until the horse dies.”

“A Kyrgyz huntsman possesses courage and endurance. He demonstrates great ability not only in horse riding but also in the art of lying in wait and stalking the game.”

“A Kyrgyz man appreciates headwork much more above physical. His quick and lively mind constantly requires mental food; he likes not only simple but also challenging activities of various types…”

“It is easy to understand why such nation respects singers and story tellers. In this sense, all of them are equal around each other: rich and poor, high-ranked and ordinary, educated and uneducated people. Their sonorous language, rigid though, is incredibly expressive.”

“Consciousness of power and agility, smartness in horse riding and hunting, poetical talent and quickness of mind in general, feeling of self-sufficiency and freedom presented by the steppe – all these make a Kyrgyz man behave confidently and with dignity.”

“That’s why he makes a favourable impression on an impartial observer, especially, when one gets to know him closer. I have experienced that myself, and the same opinion was expressed by Russians who have got long-time relationships with Kyrgyzs.”

Kazakhs about Brehm: “A huge nose!”

It is rarely when we have an opportunity to learn opposite view – what do main characters think about the author of these travel sketches? How do locals see travellers? In case with Brehm there is a possibility to slightly fill this gap in; this is what Vladimir Proskurin, a famous Kazakhstani historian who now lives in Germany, had wrote: “In memory of local people a German hunter remained as “Ulken Nemes” (“A Big German”) or “Zor Muryn” (“A Big Nose”). Brehm liked translating “steppe rhapsodies ” in his own manner, he was also reading “Faust” in front of village habitats…

Brehm’s nose made a great impression not only on locals – this is how Ivan Slovtsov, a historian from Omsk region at that time, described it: “A huge man of 37 years old with straight hair slicked back, as a young vicar, and cut in a circle, with a big, even huge nose; a vibrant, vigorous, funny guy who jokes a lot…”

Why they all are so obsessed with the nose?

Instead of epilogue. Soul transformation

Alfred Brehm’s essay about Kazakh steppes and its habitats can be categorized as the most poetical creation of this genre of literature. It is interesting that these enthusiastic and romantic notes were written by a man who never possessed humanism, political correctness, and complementarity. It is enough to recall his first trip, to Sudan, where young German travelled with his favourite whip made out of rhino’s skin and he liked to use it as an argument in his conversations with Africans.

But… Let by-gones be by-gones! Proper travels are important with their effect – every time when people return home, they feel themselves renewed and changed, equipped with new knowledge and expertise, having a transformed soul. If one doesn’t benefit in this way, then it can’t be called a travel, but just a waste of time, energy and money!

Animal’s Life
Animal’s Life

Add your photo

Choose one or more photo