Interview with Chingiz Aitmatov


German to English:John Bergeron  2007

The Gift of the Russian Language

Chingiz Aitmatov secured his place in world literature four decades ago with his novelette "Jamila". Tobias Asmuth interviewed the Kyrgyz author and diplomat on his latest novel, Central Asia's common cultural roots, the new Islam, and the gift of the Russian language

Chingiz Aitmatov: "Uzbekistan will find it bitterly painful to turn away from Russian" | Chingiz Aitmatov secured his place in world literature four decades ago with his novelette "Jamila," which tells the story of a young Kyrgyz woman who, during the Second World War, falls in love with a wounded soldier, abandoning her husband fighting at the front.

The Kyrgyz author is regarded as the voice of his country. It should therefore come as no surprise that, since 1995, he has represented Kyrgyzstan as its ambassador to France, Belgium, NATO, and the European Union in Brussels.

Your latest novel, "The Snow Leopard," tells the tale of a merciless hunt for the invincible leopard Jaa-Bar. The mountain world seems to have fallen into chaos.

Chingiz Aitmatov: Man's relations with nature are also becoming a problem in Kyrgyzstan, although only about 5 million people live in my country. We used to breed our animals, roamed on horseback through the mountains, and hunted with bows and arrows for our essentials. Today, tourists from Arabia fly through our mountains on helicopter and hunt down the last of the snow leopards with high tech rifles and precision sighting telescopes. Man is encroaching on nature with increasing brutality. We have to learn instead to cooperate with nature.

You are your country's ambassador to the European Union in Brussels. Is Europe a possible model for Central Asia?

Aitmatov: Absolutely. I attempt to make clear to the people of Central Asia that the European Union is an unbelievable achievement in the history of mankind. We should take advantage of its experience in Central Asia. Of course, this wouldn't be easy or quick to implement, especially since our economic and social situation can't be compared in the slightest to that of Europe. It will take a very long time, and this is why I am pleased that Europe has begun to increase its influence in Central Asia through development programs and cooperation efforts.

Is there, however, an awareness of a common history or even a common future in Central Asia?

Aitmatov: We cannot deny our common history, and this also results in common questions about the future. Our countries have been stamped, both positively and negatively, by Russia and the Soviet Union. China is our closest neighbor, but it remains foreign to us to this day. Perhaps the situation will change in the coming years. Our perceptions are heavily "Europeanized," particularly though our Soviet experience. We all regarded ourselves as Soviet people – we lived in this system. What is left are memories and the roads ...

... the roads?

Aitmatov: Certainly. As is the case with all colonial misadventures, one has to recognize that Moscow contributed enormously to the development of our countries. For decades, funds from Moscow flowed to pay for our roads, railways, airports, cities, and factories.

How important is Russia today?

Aitmatov: Central Asia continues to orient itself towards the West. And from our perspective, this not only means Europe, but also, primarily, Russia. In any case, Russia remains a very close friend of Kyrgyzstan. It has endowed us with many gifts, and perhaps the most valuable is the Russian language.

You are an author and you write in Russian. It is not surprising that you see things in this way. Yet, in Uzbekistan, for example, the Russian language is being suppressed. Authorities have replaced the Cyrillic with the Latin alphabet.

Aitmatov: Uzbekistan will find it bitterly painful to turn away from Russian. The Russian language is the most useful legacy of our history. The language is not a barrier, but rather a bridge. We should continue to spread the use of the Russian language, and not suppress it, as it functions as the Lingua Franca of Central Asia. If one introduces the Latin alphabet, that doesn't mean that the Cyrillic alphabet should be done away with. They should both be used – as instruments of cooperation.

Kyrgyzstan is divided into a Russian influenced north and a more Islamic south. What role will Islam play in the future?

Aitmatov: In Soviet times, religion only survived in the niches of everyday life. Today, Islam in Kyrgyzstan has reawakened. Personally, the religion remains something foreign to me, as I grew up in an atheist state, but I respect religions as preservers of human truths. At the same time, I don't believe that a stronger role for Islam in our society would lead to a division of Kyrgyzstan, as many observers are pleased in claiming.

You therefore have no fears of Islamic tendencies?

Aitmatov: Islamism can lead to problems in many countries if there is no progress in improving the situation of the population, especially in terms of the economy. That is where we should concentrate our efforts.

You have lived for the past 16 years in Europe. Don't you miss the mountains and the steppes of your homeland?

Aitmatov: I recall a story from my youth. I used to work as a correspondent in Kyrgyzstan for a Soviet news agency. I got a phone call from Moscow telling me that a well-known journalist from India wanted to visit Kyrgyzstan and that I should accompany him. So, I drove to the airport to pick him up. He got out of the plane and immediately saw the mountains on the horizon. He was quite impressed and asked me, "Why are the mountains so white up there?" I told him it was snow. "What is snow?" I attempted to explain that it is very cold at high altitudes and that there the rain turns to snow. "Oh, that is beautiful. I wish I could take a handful back home with me," said my Indian colleague. "That would be difficult," I laughed.

Of course Europe has its charms, beautiful landscapes, and many things that we don't have, especially comforts. But now, living here in Brussels, I can sometimes understand the Indian journalist quite well. I would also like to have a handful of snow from our mountains.

Interview by Tobias Asmuth

© 2007

Chingiz Aitmatov was born in 1928 in the village of Sheker in Kyrgyzstan's Talas Valley. After studying animal husbandry, he first worked at a collective farm, before attending the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow in the 1950s. With his novelette "Jamila" (1958) – which Louis Aragon described as the world's most beautiful love story – he achieved international fame overnight. After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the author also became active in the cultural-political sphere.

In 1986, he founded the Issyk Kul Forum, a conference, named after the Kyrgyz mountain lake, that invited scientists, academics, and artists from around the world. At the end of 1989, Aitmatov became an advisor to Gorbachev and, in 1990, the Ambassador of the Soviet Union to Luxembourg. Since 1995, he has been the ambassador of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan to France, Belgium, NATO, and the European Union in Brussels. This year, his new novel "The Snow Leopard" has appeared.

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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