In 1980, Chingiz Aitmatov dedicated his essential novel, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (? ?????? ???? ?????? ????), 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.”
In 1938, on the orders of Joseph Stalin, 137 Kyrgyz—the crème de la crème of the nation’s intelligentsia, including artists, writers, lawyers, nationalists, dissidents, and the entire Central Committee of the Kyrgyz Communist Party, were taken from a prison in the city of Frunze (as Bishkek was then known), brutally murdered, and thrown in a pit near the mountain village of Chon Tash. In 1991 the pit was excavated and the remains and personal effects of 137 persons were removed and reburied. Among them were the remains and personal effects of Törökul Aitmatov. The Kyrgyz constructed a moving memorial at the site, which they named Ata Beyit, “the resting place of the fathers.”
What transpired in Chon Tash occurred dozens of times across the vast frozen expanse of the Soviet Union, part of the policy that historians have come to call “decapitation,” the systematic murder of intellectuals and political leaders because of Stalin’s fear—part paranoid delusion and part real—that they would present some threat to him. Stalin’s object in dealing with the “nationalities” was to leave them leaderless and docile, and he was prepared to reach to the most brutal tools to achieve this.
In his novel, Aitmatov turns to the ancient Turkic legend of the mankurt. The head of a man taken prisoner is shaved and the moistened skin of a camel is applied to it. He is then sent into the desert, where the drying of the skin produces horrible torture. If the prisoner survives, his personality is destroyed by the process, and with it any recollection of the past. He is reduced to subservience to his master. The mankurt may look outwardly like a human being, but he is not. Aitmatov’s message, which struggled to escape censorship, was plain: this was what Stalin had done to Central Asia. And for Aitmatov, the lost memory was never more poignantly presented than in the fate of his father, a fate he learned only after the Soviet Union fell and the truth could be told.
Saturday was a brilliant autumn day in the foothills of the Alatoo Range of the Celestial Mountains. I traveled to Chon Tash to visit the memorial, ringed with blood-red roses, still in bloom after the season’s first snowfall. I went to pay respects to Chingiz Aitmatov, who died in June of last year leaving instructions that he be buried alongside his father at the site of that Stalinist act of terror. The sun shone with special intensity and the sky was cloudless. The willow birch trees had not yet released their golden leaves. A brook rustled in the valley below, and stately tall cypress-shaped pine trees could be seen on the hills above. A group of military cadets were there for an oath-taking ceremony held directly above the ground from which the remains had been excavated, and the message of the setting was clear to all: don’t forget the great wrong that can occur when the power of the state is wielded brutally and the spirit of the law is disrespected.
The crimes of the old regime were on exhibition to those swearing an oath to uphold the new order. In the museum at the site the possessions of many of the victims were displayed with some biographical details. Documents from the archives of the NKVD/KGB showed the trappings of legal formalism that accompanied the brutal deeds, every murder judicially authorized with a sentence stamped and sealed. The execution of the sentence was scrupulously documented. And on one wall was a simple display that spoke powerfully: a portrait of Stalin, and below it a skull, resting on stones taken from the pit.
In America today, the name and image of Stalin are invoked heavily by fringe critics of Barack Obama. The critics disagree with his policies on health care and see in it the basis for increasing power of the state. The role the state will play in the healthcare system is a legitimate political issue on which well-informed citizens can have different views. But the comparison to Stalin makes clear that these critics really have no inkling of who Joseph Stalin was, what he did, and why his name lives in special infamy at hallowed spots like the pit at Chon Tash. This frivolous use of his name and image cheapens our nation’s political dialogue, and it is also a mark of disrespect to his victims. And it points to the fundamental crisis of which Aitmatov wrote so powerfully: the failure to know the past, to be informed by it, and to distill guidance from it. The age of the mankurt, alas, has not passed.