Chingiz Aitmatov, Who Wrote of Life in U.S.S.R., Is Dead at 79

Published: June 15, 2008
Chingiz Aitmatov, a Communist writer whose novels and plays before the collapse of the Soviet Union gave a voice to the people of the remote Soviet republic of Kyrgyz, and who later became a diplomat and a friend and adviser to the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, died on Tuesday in Nuremberg, Germany. He was 79 and lived in Bishkek, the capital of what is now Kyrgyzstan.

The cause was pneumonia, Lucien Leitess, the head of Mr. Aitmatov’s German publisher, told The Associated Press.

Long a prominent figure in literary and political circles in Russia as well as in Kyrgyzstan, Mr. Aitmatov, who wrote both in the Kyrgyz language and in Russian, was a hybrid in the former Soviet Union, a party member who nonetheless revealed the restlessness beneath the serene surface of Soviet life under socialism. Drawing on the realistic details of life in the villages of Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous remote province with China to its immediate east and south, and especially on the regional folklore, he wrote, if not allegorically or symbolically, then allusively about the wages of life in a society dominated by collective thought.

His first notable work, a short story called “Jamila,” for instance, depicts an emergent love affair between a troubled loner and the title character, a soldier’s wife whose husband is away at war, as they work together on a collective farm to produce grain for the army. Narrated by a young boy, the soldier’s younger brother, the story not only glorifies the love and the couple’s escape from their stultifying village but also gives a portrait of an artist as a young man. Inspired by their love, the young narrator determines to be a painter.

His other major works include a play, “The Ascent of Mt. Fuji,” about a discordant reunion of schoolmates that echoes with the guilt of Stalinist-era survivors, and “The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years,” a novella that conjures up a joint space mission between two superpowers, ostensibly the Unites States and the Soviet Union.

“He wrote about the Soviet Union when nothing was coming out of the Soviet Union,” said Iraj Bashiri, a professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in literature from Central Asia, Iraq and Afghanistan. “He was critical in a very sly way. And not only didn’t they prevent him from writing, they understood him as a realist and admired him.”

Chingiz (pronounced CHING-ghizz) Aitmatov was born the village of Sheker Tallaskoi on Dec. 12, 1928. His father was a party official in the Kyrgyz Republic who ran afoul of Stalinists; he was charged, according to a biography compiled by Mr. Bashiri, with bourgeois nationalism and executed; his body, in a mass grave, was not discovered until decades later.

As a young man, Mr. Aitmatov worked as a shepherd and as a wheat harvester, but also as a correspondent for Pravda, the party newspaper, and a tax collector. He graduated from the Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow. Later, he became politically influential, at one point serving as Soviet ambassador to Luxembourg. A supporter of perestroika, he was an adviser to Mr. Gorbachev. His death elicited condolences to the family and public encomiums for his work from President Dmitri A. Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin.

Mr. Aitmatov is survived by his wife, Maria; a brother, Ilgez; a sister, Roza; a daughter; and three sons, one of whom, Askar Aitmatov, was foreign minister of Kyrgyzstan from 2002 to 2005.

Mr. Aitmatov was “a writer of the entire Russian-speaking world,” Mr. Gorbachev told the Interfax news agency earlier this week. “A man who was close to all of us has gone.”

Sara Rhodin contributed reporting.

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