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Chingiz Aitmatov's Lifelong Journey Toward Eternity

Chingiz Aitmatov
Chingiz Aitmatov
This week marks the culmination of a yearlong celebration in Kyrgyzstan of the writer and thinker Chingiz Aitmatov, who died on June 10, a few months short of his 80th birthday.

Aitmatov is revered for building a bridge between the world of traditional Kyrgyz folklore and modern Eurasian literature. His writings illuminate the challenges that faced the peoples of the Soviet Union both before and after its demise, and his own life is an integral part of that broader turbulent pattern.

He was born on December 12, 1928, and brought up in the village of Sheker in the Talas region of northern Kyrgyzstan. He studied in Jambul (in present-day Kazakhstan), Frunze (now Bishkek), and Moscow. He witnessed Josef Stalin's purges of the 1930s firsthand: his father Torokul, a prominent political figure, was arrested in 1937 and executed the following year as an alleged enemy of the people and counterrevolutionary.

It was only after Kyrgyzstan became independent that Torokul Aitmatov's remains were found, together with those of other prominent intellectuals and politicians. He was given a state funeral in August 1992. Chyngyz Aitmatov named the new cemetery near Bishkek for victims of Stalinism "Ata Beyit," or "The Graveyard Of Our Fathers."

Some superficial critics of Aitmatov argue that he was simply serving the communist system. They point to the numerous honors and awards -- including the Order of Lenin and Hero of Socialist Labor -- that he received for his work.

But Aitmatov was equally respected outside the USSR: He received India's Jawaharlal Nehru award, and was named a member of the World Academy of Science and Arts and the European Academy of Science, Arts, and Literature. His works were translated into more than 170 languages and sold more than 60 million copies worldwide, showing that their appeal transcends communist ideology.

Changing From Within

Aitmatov can be compared with Voltaire, the 18th-century French Enlightenment writer who revolted against the old system while enjoying all the benefits it had to offer. The intellectual war against authoritarianism found expression not only in the works of openly dissident writers such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but in a milder and more sophisticated way in Aitmatov's novels.

As a student in the then-Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic, I could not find Solzhenitsyn's main works in public libraries. But we could and did discuss Aitmatov's easily available works relentlessly, deciphering the hidden meanings between the lines. How can anyone argue that the writings of exiled dissidents were the only effective weapon against totalitarianism when they remained unattainable to most readers?

The Czech writer and playwright Karel Capek coined the word "robot" to describe a machine that resembles a human being; Aitmatov resurrected the old Kyrgyz word "mankurt," meaning a robot-like human stripped of his intellect by a process of physical brainwashing imposed by a brutal, oriental tyranny.

Aitmatov in 1963
Defying the ideology of mature socialism that promoted and glorified the merger of the USSR's smaller ethnic groups with the Russian people as their only path to a "bright future," albeit one in which their sense of national identity was lost, Aitmatov wrote a novel about a Kazakh woman, Mother Naiman, who begs her "mankurt" son to remember his father's name, his ancestors, and his personal identity.

Aitmatov's famous predecessor Makhmud Kashghari, born near Lake Issyk-Kul in the 11th century, wrote a famous monograph on the Turkic languages (in Arabic), challenging the acknowledged supremacy of the Arabic language by likening Arabic and the Turkic languages to two horses galloping neck-and-neck.

Aitmatov repeated the same challenge in the 1980s, urging the Kirghiz Soviet authorities to treat the Kyrgyz language with dignity and to elevate its official position to that of Russian, which one communist leader in Kirghizia at the time described as "the second mother tongue" of the Kyrgyz people.

At that time, because of the emphasis placed on the "leading role" of the Russian language, there were only a few schools in Frunze with instruction in Kyrgyz. But on September 23, 1989, at the height of Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's famous "perestroika," the Kyrgyz language was declared the sole state language of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic, with Russian downgraded to the status of the lingua franca in a multiethnic society.

Hero To Kyrgyz Nation

Some of Aitmatov's early works from the 1950s, written in Kyrgyz, incurred harsh condemnation from his enemies. One of his critics lambasted his early love story "Jamiyla" -- which the French poet Louis Aragon described as "the world's most beautiful love story" -- arguing that it was immoral to praise the heroine, who fell in love with someone else while her husband was courageously fighting Nazi Germany during World War II.

Aitmatov's subsequent decision to write in Russian undoubtedly furthered his career. So too did his willingness to promote the Soviet authorities' slant on specific developments. In 1977, two years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, he published an article entitled "There Is No Alternate To Helsinki," in which he affirmed: "We are changing the world, and the world is changing us."

In October 1986, Aitmatov founded the famous Issyk-Kul Forum, which brought intellectuals from the Soviet bloc and the West together at a lakeside resort to discuss major global challenges face to face. He served as an adviser to Gorbachev during the perestroika years, and after Kyrgyzstan became independent as Kyrgyz ambassador to UNESCO, EU, NATO, and the Benelux countries.

In 1989, I was part of a group of young Kyrgyz historians that organized to challenge official Soviet historiography. We appealed to Aitmatov, at that time chairman of the Union of Writers of Kirghizia, and to his deputy, the poet Asan Jakshylykov, to allow us to hold the founding conference of our Young Kyrgyz Historians Association in the conference hall of the Union of Writers. And despite increasing pressure from the central authorities, they said yes, and thereby contributed to the emergence of a new generation of Kyrgyz historians.

Throughout his life, Aitmatov preserved his love for his fellow men, and for nature and the animal world. His last novel, titled "When The Mountains Fall Down: The Eternal Bride," was written in 2005 as a final appeal to his people to preserve the beauty of the Celestial Mountains (Tengir-Too in Kyrgyz, Tian-Shan in Chinese), which the Kyrgyz have traditionally regarded as sacred. The two heroes of the novel, a journalist named Arsen Samanchin and an indigenous snow leopard (Jaa Bars), both become victims of international poaching in a tale of the perils of the greedy and careless exploitation of the environment.

Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev (Chorotegin) is the director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL