A Trip to Chon Tash

Ata-beyit Via Andrew Sullivan, Scott Horton in Harper's:

In 1980, Chingiz Aitmatov dedicated his essential novel, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (И дольше века длится день), to his father, whom he barely remembered. In this moving and powerful work, he presents a core theme: the dangers a society faces when it forgets its past, being subject instead to a counterfeit narrative designed to suit some political purpose. Such a society, Aitmatov argues, faces a bleak future. Battling the Soviet censors at every step, Aitmatov was presenting a critical view of the legacy of Soviet rule in Central Asia and his native Kyrgyzstan. But the novel shows how heavily the fate of his father hung over Aitmatov. A leading intellectual and advocate of nationalist ideas, though not an overt opponent of the Communists, Törökul Aitmatov had been arrested, transported to Moscow, and charged with “bourgeois nationalist” tendencies in 1937, when Chingiz was nine years old. The family was informed that he had been sentenced to prison camp “without right of correspondence,” meaning his family had no right to know of his whereabouts or seek to communicate with him. They feared the worst, but they had no way of knowing. The lack of certainty about his fate was a torment.

Then, late in 1991, something extraordinary happened. After the Soviet Union cracked and shattered in the wake of a failed putsch against President Mikhail Gorbachev, a woman appeared in a Bishkek police station with a riveting tale. “Is it safe now?” she asked. “Is Communism finally over?” Her father had been the custodian of a site in the foothills south of the capital since the 1930s, she explained. He had been sworn to absolute secrecy by the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB. He had faithfully (and fearfully) kept that secret. But on his deathbed, he confided it to his daughter. “When the terror is over, when it is finally safe, tell them about it.” He told her, “the people must know.”