Chingiz Aitmatov was one of those writers in the old Soviet Union who illustrated, especially to Western observers, that there was much more to Soviet letters than two warring factions: talented dissidents and conformist hacks. In many ways he was a splendid advertisement for the Soviet system in its post-Stalinist phase.
Here was a writer from Kirghizia (now Kyrgyzstan) – a land that had been given its own written language courtesy of Soviet policy – who could show through stories set in his native mountains and steppes what a rich and diverse culture the Soviet Union had to offer. At the same time, at his best, he could address head-on many of the artistic, political and even psychological problems that Stalinism had bequeathed to the Soviet peoples. His first stories were written in his native Kirghiz and translated into Russian. Later he was to do his own translations into Russian and eventually write in Russian himself.
In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Aitmatov developed a modus vivendi with the Soviet establishment, while at the same time attempting to count the terrible cost of the Stalin years (his own father had been executed in 1938) and urging liberal reform. Face to Face (1957) raises the controversial issue of wartime desertion and simultaneously overturns the stereotyped view of the subjugated Muslim woman. Jamilia, also published in the late 1950s, was hailed by Louis Aragon as "the most splendid love story in the world".
Arguably, Aitmatov's greatest works are the short novels Farewell, Gulsary! (1966) and The White Steamship (1970). The first of these is a heartbreaking account of the waste and destruction – human, material and psychological – wrought by Stalin's collectivisation of agriculture. It is all the more poignant for being told through the character of a horse. The second novel culminates in the suicide of a young boy, unable to come to terms with the immorality and brutality of his father's generation. He lives on his grandfather's accounts of ancient Kirghiz legends, notably that of the "horned mother-deer" who will one day return to save the land.
Aitmatov had a special talent for blending harsh reality and fantasy, for magical realism of a kind, and the achievement is all the more arresting if one bears in mind the official aesthetic dogma of the day, Socialist Realism, with its insistence on clear cut pro-Soviet moralising and flesh-and-blood characters.
The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (1980) saw the writer attempt a much longer work, which with only partial success managed to unite ancient legend, actuality and science fiction. The publication of "The Execution Block" (translated as The Place of the Skull) in 1986, right at the beginning of the Gorbachev reforms, could be seen very much as a novel of its time, tackling as it did the problems of religious faith, drug abuse among the young and environmental destruction.
Aitmatov was the recipient of numerous prizes in the Soviet Union and he always played an active part in public life. From 1971 to 1990 he was a member of the Central Committee of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic; from 1966 to 1989 he was a Deputy to the Supreme Soviet; he also held many key editorial posts. Like several other very prominent Soviet writers, he became increasing involved with public life, national and international, as Communism crumbled: he was a Member of the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991; and a member of Gorbachev's Presidential Council, 1990-91. In the 1990s he held ambassadorial posts in the Benelux countries.
Despite these duties he was still able to continue his literary activity. He amended and complemented his earlier fiction and also produced a new novel, The Mark of Cassandra, in 1994.
He was a prolific and engaged writer who did an enormous amount to place his small country on the cultural map. Though critics have been less enthusiastic about his later, longer works and some might argue that he was overly adept at "working the system" in the Communist era, his lasting artistic achievements are undeniable.
Chingiz Torekulovich Aitmatov, writer and diplomat: born Sheker, Soviet Union 12 December 1928; Soviet (then Russian) ambassador to Luxembourg 1990-94, to Belgium 1992-94; married 1974 Maria Urmatova (three sons, one daughter); died Nuremberg, Germany 10 June 2008.