Jeffrey Lilley 7/11/08


Chinghiz Aitmatov, a writer who rose from humble roots in Soviet Central Asia to become a standard-bearer for freedom and independence, was laid to rest in his native country of Kyrgyzstan in June. Some Kyrgyz have likened the impact of his passing on their Central Asian nation to Russia’s loss of Lev Tolstoy in the early 20th century.

Unfortunately for Kyrgyzstan, given the destitute situation with the arts today, another Aitmatov is not likely to appear for a long time.

Aitmatov was six months short of his 80th birthday when he succumbed to pneumonia in Germany on June 10. He was born in 1928 in the Soviet republic of Kirghizia and raised by his mother after his father, a respected Communist official, disappeared amid the Stalinist purges.

Aitmatov was branded as a son of an "enemy of the people" and denied entrance to university on account of his ‘dirty’ past. With many opportunities shut off, Aitmatov resolved to become a writer. Living on the fringes of Soviet society, he carved out an unusual literary license. Moscow accepted him because he was a minority writer who had advanced under the Kremlin’s policy of promoting the titular nationalities of the Soviet republics.

A Communist Party member himself, Aitmatov commended the Soviet leadership for bringing modern civilization -- electricity, running water and, importantly, literacy -- to a region of nomads. In return for his public expressions of fealty to the Soviet system, he was handsomely rewarded. He rose to high positions in the Soviet literary establishment, serving as a head of the Kyrgyz Film Union and editor of the popular Soviet journal Inostrannaya Literatura. Along with those positions came perks -- such as access to foreign literature, dachas and trips to government sanatoriums.

But like his nomadic forefathers, he retained a free spirit, and his writings subtly challenged Soviet orthodoxy. He stretched the limits of Socialist Realism, shunning conventional sugary sweet themes for more complicated topics. At the outset of his writing career, he chronicled Kyrgyz village life during the difficult period of World War II and its aftermath. His breakthrough work, a short story called Jamilya, came out in the late 1950s. Its hero was a young Kyrgyz woman who broke tradition by deserting her husband who was serving at the front for a rootless veteran she had fallen in love with.

Starting in the 1970s, Aitmatov tackled taboo subjects like the Stalinist purges, freedom of expression and disregard for the environment. His first novel, entitled The Day Lasts Longer Than a Century, was published in 1980. It centered on the obstacles a Kazakh man encounters when he tries to bury his best friend according to Muslim custom. In the book Aitmatov popularized the term "mankurt" for a person who loses touch with his traditions, a stab at the Soviet system which was trying to create a Soviet man in place of the cultures and traditions of its constituent republics.

Some say Aitmatov outsmarted Communist censors by using Central Asian myths in such a way that they couldn’t see that he was poking holes in carefully crafted Soviet reality. His screened yet scathing critiques made him one of the country’s most popular writers in the 1980s.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev took Aitmatov on as an advisor during the heady years of perestroika. He relied on Aitmatov to give him accurate information about Central Asia, which, like much of the rest of the Soviet Union, was bubbling up with a collective desire for change. With Gorbachev’s permission, in the late 1980s, Aitmatov encouraged the opening of his native land, which had been closed to foreigners because of its border with China. At Kyrgyzstan’s mountain Lake Issyk-Kul, he organized gatherings of intellectuals and writers from around the world, including Arthur Miller, Alvin Tofler, Claude Simon and James Baldwin.

When Gorbachev asked one day about the complicated situation in Central Asia, Aitmatov answered with a grim fable about a king who was pondering whether or not to grant liberties to his subjects. The king is told that his newly freed citizens, instead of feeling grateful, will only demand more, including his overthrow. Aitmatov’s message was that Gorbachev had to come to terms with the bitter irony of his predicament -- that he would have to sacrifice his position for the greater good of society. Aitmatov was prophetic, as just a few years later the Soviet Union collapsed, giving birth to 15 independent countries, including Kyrgyzstan.

Back home on the smaller stage of independent Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyz politicians asked Aitmatov to become the country’s first president in 1990, and some students even went on a hunger strike to convince him. But he refused all entreaties, saying that his calling was writing, not politics.

But Aitmatov’s presence loomed large over Kyrgyz politics. He basically anointed the country’s first president Askar Akayev when he recommended the young physicist in place of himself, and he served as Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to the Benelux countries for the past 15 years.

The post-Soviet years have been difficult, and Kyrgyzstan is still struggling to build viable political and economic systems. The arts have been hit especially hard. No longer are writers and artists supported by the state. Instead, they have to make their own way in the market economy, searching for sponsors to underwrite print runs. The kiosks of Bishkek, filled with novels during Soviet times, are chock full of tabloid papers today.

In a speech last year to Kyrgyzstan’s intellectual elite, Aitmatov himself mourned the loss of the good old days. "However bad and totalitarian the system was," he said, "it worked smoothly to allow the cultural sphere to function. Not like today when culture is thrown to the whims of fate."

A journalist writing about the speech noted that it was all easy to say for Aitmatov: he was living in Brussels and well-off because of proceeds from sales of millions of his books around the world while workers at the Kyrgyz State Opera House scraped by making $100 a month.

Though revered on the whole by Kyrgyz citizens, Aitmatov in recent years had come to be regarded scornfully by some politicians and journalists for what they saw as him selfishly deserting the country for Europe when his moral authority was sorely needed at home.

"Let people reproach me for not being here for past 15 years," he told me. "It was my fate to be away. No one called me to come."

A professional colleague of Aitmatov’s told me last year that Aitmatov’s latest novel When the Mountains Fall -- about a Soviet-trained journalist foundering in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan -- was in part autobiographical. "People and the times have changed," the colleague said. "People are not so interested in him now. Chinghiz suffers from this."

Aitmatov was buried next to the grave of his father, whose bones were finally located in 1991 in an execution pit outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. Once branded a son of the enemy of the people, Aitmatov was hailed as the nation’s moral conscience. Even politicians and journalists had to salute him for his remarkable life and the impact he had on their small country.


Editor’s Note: Jeff Lilley lived in Kyrgyzstan from 2004-2007 where he directed the office of the International Republican Institute, a US-funded NGO that supports the development of political parties and responsible government around the world.


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