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Kyrgyzstan: Chingiz Aitmatov, A Modern Hero, Dies

By Tynchtykbek Tchoroev and Bruce Pannier Chingiz Aitmatov in January (AFP) Kyrgyz author and former diplomat Chingiz Aitmatov, whose mythical novels and stories were widely acclaimed in the former Soviet Union, has died at a clinic in Nuremberg in southern Germany. He was 79.

He had suffered lung and kidney failure after falling ill three weeks ago while on a film set.

On May 16, Aitmatov was in the central Russian city of Kazan, where a Russian film crew was making a film based upon his novel and a documentary about his life, when he complained of feeling ill. He was quickly rushed to a local hospital, and two days later flown out to a hospital in Germany.

Aitmatov's condition was reported to be serious but stable until June 10. That morning, Kyrgyz Culture Minister Sultan Rayev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the writer's health had significantly worsened, but few expected that this was the last day for the man who was regarded as the conscience of his nation.

Aitmatov's works have been translated into more than 170 languages and UNESCO said he was among the world's most read contemporary authors. Some of Aitmatov's books have been made into films in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Turkey.

'An Author Of World Significance'

Among his many fans was former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (Aitmatov also was one of his advisers during the perestroika era.) On learning the news of Aitmatov's death, Gorbachev called the writer "my great friend" and said, "a person has passed away who was close to us all."

Former Russian President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Aitmatov's passing a "great and irreplaceable loss for all of us," adding that Aitmatov "will remain in our memories" as a "great writer, thinker, and humanitarian." New Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also expressed his condolences.

Academician Abdyldajan Akmataliev, a scholar of literature and the director of the center for the study of "Manas," a Kyrgyz epic heroic poem, at Kyrgyzstan's Academy of Sciences, describes Aitmatov as "an author of world significance."

The Ataturk Culture, Language, and History High Agency of Turkey set up a special committee earlier this year to nominate Aitmatov for the Nobel Prize in literature. Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertugrul Gunai recently said that representatives of culture ministries from Turkic-speaking countries and regions, including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and also representatives from Russia's republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, planned to forward Aitmatov's candidacy.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul was among the first world leaders to respond to the news of Aitmatov's death. He said it was a "loss not only for Turkic countries, but for the whole world." Gul went on to say Aitmatov's contribution to literature and to the 20th century would "be remembered with warmth and respect."

Writer For All Nations

Aitmatov was the son of a Kyrgyz father and Tatar mother, but his writing transcended ethnic barriers to the point where all Central Asians considered him "their" writer, and indeed, citizens of the Soviet Union came to consider him "their" writer as well. His books were popular for truthfully describing life in the Soviet Union, but were sufficiently tempered to avoid being considered outright criticism of the Soviet authorities.

Aitmatov with his daughter, Shirin, in 1975

In his book "The Day Lasts More Than 100 Years," Aitmatov coined the term "mankurt." The book explored the feelings of a Kazakh man who was torn between the traditions of his people and the efforts of the Soviet government to create a "Soviet person." A "mankurt" was a Central Asian who had opted for being the "Soviet person," and the term was adopted and used derisively by Central Asians.

Well-known Uzbek writer and political dissident Muhammad Solih tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that Aitmatov's death was a great loss for the Turkic-speaking people. "He was one of the great writers in the Turkic-speaking world," he says. "He was a thinker, philosopher, and a great symbol of the Turkic world." Solih says Aitmatov embodied "the honor and dignity of al the Turkic world in the 20th century. He was one of the greatest geniuses of the Turkic literary world, I would say."

Representatives of other minorities of the former Soviet Union, such as Nivkhis, Tajiks, and others, would say the same. Russians also regard him as "their" writer because Aitmatov wrote in both Kyrgyz and Russian and his novels are taught as modern Russian literature in Russia's secondary schools.

Representing Kyrgyzstan

For years, Aitmatov preserved his good image and politicians of all stripes in his native Kyrgyzstan sought his public support, hoping to tap into Aitmatov's popularity. He was one of the main intellectuals who endorsed the Kyrgyz language's status in the 1980s, when few schools were teaching in Kyrgyz in Bishkek (formerly Frunze), the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

He was also good for Kyrgyzstan's image, drawing positive attention to the small Central Asian country similar to the kind of publicity that former Czech President Vaclav Havel earned for his country. His intellectual gathering, the famous Issyk-Kul (Yssykkol) Forum founded in 1986, was credited as being a major breakthrough in creating a dialogue between intellectuals of the West and the Soviet Union.

After independence in 1991, Aitmatov also served as Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to European countries (Belgium/Netherlands/Luxembourg and France), UNESCO, the European Union, and NATO. Works by Aitmatov have received numerous awards, including Soviet-era accolades like the Order of Lenin, the Gold Olive Branch of the Mediterranean Culture Research Center, the Academy Award of the Japanese Institute of Oriental Philosophy, and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. He was also an academician of the Kyrgyz National Academy (1974) and the Hero of Kyrgyzstan (1997).

Aitmatov's father, Torokul Aitmatov, one of the first Soviet-period national officials in Kyrgyzstan, was executed by the Stalin regime in 1938 on charges of being an enemy of the people and a pan-Turkist. His body, along with those of other Kyrgyz intellectuals and leaders, were recovered only after the Soviet collapse and the Ata-Beyit (Father's Graveyard) memorial complex to the victims of Stalinism was erected near Bishkek in 1992 to inter them. The name Ata-Beyit was given by Chingiz Aitmatov, who was one of the first Kyrgyz writers to openly expose the Stalinist purge in the 1980s.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service interviewed the renowned Kyrgyz writer on his 79th birthday on December 12, 2007, while he was still serving as ambassador to Brussels. He praised the role of RFE/RL for the Soviet and post-Soviet societies, saying that "we could not live without listening daily" to RFE/RL in the 1980s. Aitmatov encouraged RFE/RL and other media and democratic institutions to continue their work. "Democracy cannot be built at once, cannot be developed overnight," he said. "Democracy has to be in motion, as a stream, all the time."

For Aitmatov, mankind's main achievements were spiritual. As he put it in August 2006, during a meeting with Kyrgyz writers, poets, and journalists in Bishkek, "Whatever the economic or industrial achievements are, in the end any achievements will be measured by culture and spirituality."

Aitmatov leaves behind a wife, three sons, and a daughter.

The Kyrgyz people say that two heroes made their nation world-known: one is the epic hero of "Manas," the other is Chingiz Aitmatov. They will say their last goodbye to this great son on June 14, when Aitmatov will be buried with his father in the Ata-Beyit memorial cemetery he helped found. The Kyrgyz government has declared June 14 a day of mourning in his honor, and a special state commission has been established to organize his funeral.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Uzbek services contributed to this feature