Saturday, November 3, 2018

When Aitmatov Tried and Failed to Make ‘the Motherland’ Kyrgyz in the Republic Constitution

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 1 – Forty years ago, after the drafting of the 1978 Brezhnev Constitution, all the republics of the USSR had to draft new constitutions of their own. In most cases, the first and official version was prepared in Russian and only then was it translated into the language of the titular nationality.

            In Kyrgyzstan, Chingiz Aitmatov, the author of the immortal novel A Day Longer than an Age and the man who introduced the concept of mankurt to the world, was part of the seven-member team which oversaw the translation of the Russian version of the Kyrgyz constitution into Kyrgyz.

            His hitherto little-known role is recalled by Sakan Satybekov, then a junior scholar but later a judge in the republic’s Constitutional Court, who at the time served on the commission and thus is one of the few who can speak with authority about yet another aspect of Aitmatov’s remarkable creativity (

            Because Aitmatov was a frequent traveler, the group had to work around his schedule; but that was less important than the writer’s insistence that the Russian world Rodina be rendered in Kyrgyz as Meken.  He was supported by all except the editor of Sovettik Kyrgyzstan, who argued that Kyrgyz had used Rodina for 60 years and no translation was needed.

            The editor, Zhanybek. Tursunov, insisted on his point of view. To translate Rodina into Meken was in his view to depart from “the general line of the party” and thus was entirely impermissible. That was too much for Aitmatov, Satybekov says; and the writer took the floor to respond: “Why shouldn’t we share just this one thing with the rest of the world?”

            Torsunov did not respond, but he won in the end: the official Kyrgyz version of the constitution continued to use the Russian word Rodina and not the more accurate in national terms Meken.  Given Moscow’s russification policies “of everything and everyone” at that time, Satybekov says, “it couldn’t have been otherwise.”

            But it says something important about Aitmatov that he tried in this instance as in so many others to swim against the current and also about others that they didn’t or felt they had no choice but to go along with what Moscow wanted rather than what their own nation and its language required.    

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