If history was a man, his eyes would have stored countless feats of incredible sacrifice into his memory. He would have stood tirelessly to witness the sacrifices made by Jesus Christ and then thousands of
years later the sacrifices made by Avdiy Kallistratov and Boston Urkunchiev. In Chingiz Aitmatov’s The Place of the Skull, these three characters never meet, but they are all caught in the same tempest of human morality. Aitmatov delivers his unique hybrid Christian and Kyrgyz message to the bereft Soviet people, utilizing the characters Boston, Jesus, and Avdiy as his vehicle, in order to expose and reform the national moral problems that were previously concealed in the post-Stalinist era.
Chingiz Aitmatov was well versed in both Kyrgyz and Russian history and culture. In 1928, Aitmatov was born in Kyrgyzstan. He was raised in a large extended family, where he was educated, most notably by his grandmother, in the ways of his native Kyrgyz culture. His grandmother made him attend many local ceremonies and instilled in him the Kyrgyz’s love and respect of their land. As his grandparents gave him his education in his native cultural background, his parents gave him an education in Russian literature and culture. Aitmatov was not only bilingual, but quite learned in his own native and Russian culture. While explaining Aitmatov’s early history and success, one critic says “Chingiz Aitmatov achieved literary success in large part due to his ability to keep one foot in his own minority culture and the other in the ruling Soviet one,” (Haber 109). This fact helped to pave the way to his unique success as an author in touch with both the Russian populace’s moral failings and his own native land’s dilemmas.
Aitmatov attempts to coincide with one of Gorbachev’s Perestroika reforms; a movement in the direction of capitalization. Boston Urkunchiev, a man who appears as the main character in the last third of the story, is the voice of this movement. His very name, the name of an American city, implies capitalism. Boston is envied by the local shepherds, especially Bazarbai Noigutov, for his productive farm and his voice in the local party. Good luck was not the key to his success, however, as he is the hardest of the workers on the state farm and produces the most to turn over to the government. All of the local workers, though assigned by the government, want to work on his farm. Boston and his workers produce the most and receive bonus pay, setting them apart yet again.
Boston believes vaguely in capitalism and thought that man should reap the rewards of his labor. When discussing this issue with a friend he asks, “What sort of guest is going to break his back on someone else’s land?” (254). He attempts to claim the land for himself and his team so that work would be more efficient and more productive. He is met with cold opposition in the form of the Party Organizer Kochorbayev, who tells him that the claim is counter-intuitive to socialism and that the land belongs to the state and not the individual. While attempting to circumvent this man and the ideals he represents, Boston meets with the Director Ibraim Chotbaevich, an old friend. He tells him of the problems he has faced and of his plan to remedy the situation, but the director remains passive. The director has tried to make a change before, but doesn’t want to “stick my neck out again: I’ve learnt my lesson,” (254), a theme that all three of Aitmatov’s heroes face. Boston’s capitalist ideas clash with authorities, but as he practices the notion of more work more pay in his own life, his farm excels. His affinity for capitalism is not the only difference he shares with the shepherds around him.
In Boston Aitmatov created not only a voice to broach capitalistic ideals, but a moral pillar as well. Boston’s opposite and nemesis, Bazarbai, is representative of the ethics Aitmatov attempts to dissolve. In his greed Bazarbai takes advantage of inexperienced visitors for easy money, robs a she-wolf’s lair, and beats his wife. These problems all stem from his alcoholism. He takes the naïve visitors’ money and steals the she-wolf’s cubs in order to fund his addiction. That leads him to beat his wife when she complains of his failings, which are themselves spawned by his laziness and alcohol abuse. Aitmatov does not only highlight the problem, but also produces the solution.
Boston represents the answer to the problems plaguing Bazarbai and the people of many other Soviet nations. He does not drink, the reason never being explicitly cited, but assumed that the trappings of alcohol are counter productive and a gateway to moral problems. Boston never abused wither of his wives, but instead communicated and respected her. He attempted to recover the cubs from Bazarbai in order to appease the spirit of the restless wolves. This nature respecting motif is one that ties back to Aitmatov’s own history in the Kyrgyz culture taught to him by his grandparents. These themes of morality and love of nature are expressed in Aitmatov’s other characters, though in different degrees.
Aitmatov expresses his Christian beliefs in his rendition of the conversation between Pilate and Jesus, before He went to Golgotha. During this conversation, Jesus tells Pilate that God’s greatest gift to man is the power of reason. With this gift, He tells Pilate, we should use our “will to live according to our understanding,” (141). He explains that with this understanding we exist to spiritually improve and to strive for perfection. Only through the struggle to reach the pinnacle of humanity do we find purpose. To reach Heaven, we must succeed on Judgment Day, which is not years in the future, but now, every day. In order to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, men must work each day according to their reason. The achievement of this goal relies on mankind himself. Pilate does not believe that man could be responsible for this and in disbelief says “If men could, by an act of will, bring closer or put off such an event, why then, they would be like gods,” to which Jesus agrees (142). Aitmatov says that man’s greatest quality, produced from the gift of reason, is akin to God’s greatest quality, which is forgiveness. In this way, men are like God.
The most similar divine quality that man shares with God, forgiveness, is the key to moving forward towards the perfection of existence. If man can but forgive himself and release the past, he may progress to perfection and the Kingdom of Heaven. Man needs but recognize this and reconcile what faults he possesses. Recognition and realization are where Aitmatov places himself in this scheme. The Place of the Skull is his instrument of recognition, a medium where he may identify the ills of society and aid in their remedy. In the story itself, there is a character that, inspired by Jesus’ message, mirrors Aitmatov’s own role and uncovers the problems facing Russian society.
Avdiy Kallistratov is a character who more clearly echoes Aitmatov’s own view on Christianity and the Kyrgyz belief system. Avdiy attended a seminary but was excommunicated due to his attempted reformation of Christian dogma. Avdiy disregarded the traditional view of God and adopted the idea of a contemporary God. In this theory he is “offering the human spirit liberation in the knowledge of God as the highest essence of it own being,” a view that contrasted greatly with that of his opponent and representative of the Church, Co-Ordinator Father Dimitry (71). For this view he was to be removed from the Church. Avdiy’s own vision of God parallels what Jesus preached in his conversation with Pilate, as this scene occurred during Avdiy’s pain-induced hallucination. The contemporary God theory is not the only characteristic that Avdiy shares with Jesus.
Avdiy and Jesus share both qualities of physicality and, more importantly, moral qualities that aid in the improvement of humanity. Two distinct physical traits they share are shoulder length hair and high foreheads. Just before Avdiy departs on the anasha collection, he takes work as a carpenter for a farmer. Apart from these simple similarities, the two share qualities of love and forgiveness. Ordained from God, Jesus sets out to reform the people and bring them closer to God. Avdiy forges a similar destiny for himself. When he leaves the Church, he knows he must spread Christ’s love in his own way. He attaches himself to the infamous drug smuggling ring because he know that there are youths their who were in desperate need of his message. Of the small group Avdiy he joins, he targets the sadly young and impressionable boy Lyonka. This boy was drawn by desperation to the drug running and Avdiy attempts the extract him from this life. He tells Lyonka and the other boy that he has come to save them and to prompt them to start “repenting before God and our fellow man,” to no avail (96). He encounters Grishan, the leader of the boy-smugglers. Just as Pilate offers Jesus a way out if just He relents, Grishan makes Avdiy the same offer. Both decline and refuse to betray the messages that they believed they were born to deliver. However, the situation end badly for Avdiy and he loses his opportunity to reform the smugglers. But this is not his last chance.
In Avdiy’s next opportunity to deliver God’s word to a desperate group of miscreants, Aitmatov combines his Kyrgyz and Christian moral beliefs. Avdiy joins ‘Ober’ Kandalov and his company on an expedition to the mountains. Promised work and distraction from a depressing matter, Avdiy readily agrees. He soon discovers that the work entail the horrific slaughter of the saigak, a mountain antelope. He is appalled by the massacring and demands that they stop. He implored the men committing the killings to end their destruction and turn to God, begging for forgiveness. He was met with the same resistance the drug smugglers had dealt him. He received a beating and was thrown, hands and feet bound, onto the carcasses of the antelope he had tried to protect. In this episode, Aitmatov combines all of the problems, barring capitalism, that his story addresses. In the fashion of the Kyrgyz he cries out against the slaughter of the antelope and in the Christian manner he preaches repentance and forgiveness to the killers. Not only are both of his messages denied, but he is mock-crucified to imitate Jesus, with whom the killers associate Avdiy. Even more, the men who punish Avdiy do so under the influence of alcohol, yet another aspect of Aitmatov’s reform.
The power and prestige of the government obstructs, directly and indirectly, all three of Aitmatov’s characters in their mission to restructure the world around them. Avdiy’s journalistic report concerning the underworld of anasha smuggling is not released. While he sees the exposure of the drug world as the first step in combating it, the paper he works for does not release its content to the public. The head of the paper, turning an ashamed cheek, fears that the critical content would invite the wrath of the government upon their heads. They fail to see that the publishing and the positive social effects it would have goes beyond their sake. They only think of themselves. Boston goes to the director of the farms, Ibraim Chotbaevich, to seek the land and reform he deems necessary for efficiency. Head lowered in shame, the director tell him that he had been punished already for attempting a change and would not risk another punishment. To this Boston replies “That’s just it, every man thinks of himself first and foremost,” (254). The message of God’s love and justice is thwarted by the Jewish hegemony and the ruling Roman power. Pilate, though sympathetic to Jesus’ words, cannot release Him and lose face. Power and the image it protects will always oppose criticism.
Aitmatov’s own Place of the Skull, though released in 1986 during the Glasnost, was cause for political unease because of its content and purpose. One critic questions the openness of this era and reports that the Glasnost “was a political tool different from freedom of the press and that Gorbachev preached reform but betrayed liberal principals when they came into conflict with his political agenda” (Becker 200). This is what the Characters in Aitmatov’s story went up against. The leaders abandon their principals in order to maintain positive public status and to retain and cultivate power.
Aitmatov himself receives criticism concerning his message and its effectiveness. Many critics claim that he was simply in the right place at the right time, meaning the Glasnost’s diversity façade was in need of a poster boy. Chingiz Aitmatov’s success in relating to Russians while maintaining the connection he had with this native culture was rare. Gorbachev was in dire need of someone to glue together some of the nations within the Soviet Union, and Aitmatov fit the bill. Despite this criticism, Chingiz Aitmatov persevered.
His intention to expose and morally reform Russia did not go unnoticed. The blending of his native Kyrgyz culture and the Biblical references were effective in reaching into the hearts of some of the Russian people. Nina Kolesnikoff was impressed with the Biblical and Kyrgyz references and said that they were crucial in “Revealing the deeper meaning of present events and directing the reader’s attention to universal questions concerning the human condition and the purpose of life,” (Kolesnikoff 91-92). Regardless of his critics’ opinions either way, Aitmatov achieved at least part of his goal.
The story of the anasha drug runners was implemental to the author’s goals of recognition and reformation. Though the idea that Aitmatov helped morally guide the people to a better understanding of God and existence is disputable, the fact that his story made an impact on Russian lives is not. This is an article explaining the police and crime reports during the Glasnost under Gorbachev’s rule. It details the drug epidemic and the effect that Chingiz Aitmatov’s attention has on this problem:
The glasnost’ brought with it greater public preparedness to report crimes, which further increased the statistics. Perhaps the best case study is of drug abuse and drugs-related crime, given that the official figures for drug addiction had actually been falling, from 2700 registered addicts in 1980 to 2400 in 1984. Yet glasnost’, and in particular such keynote cultural events as the publication of Chingiz Aitmatov’s novel Plakha (The Place of the Skull) in 1986, led to their dramatic rise. By 1987 officials admitted to 123 000 drug abusers, including 46000 registered addicts; next year the figures were 131 000 and 50000, respectively; by 1990 they were 1 500 000 and 60,000, with an annual 25000-30000 drugs-related crimes. In part this increase reflected a genuine growth in the use of drugs, yet to a large extent it was a result both of greater official candour and, in the light of the new discussion of the issues, a new preparedness by addicts and users to register and seek help. But the population at large only really noticed the headline figures, especially since one product of the decades of censorship and mendacity was media lacking the experience and often the will to cover such taboo topics without sensationalism. (Galeotti 775)
Though Chingiz Aitmatov received criticism from all sides, he was still a major figure in Gorbachev’s Glasnost. His recognition and highlighting of taboo subjects like capitalism, drugs, and alcohol were both effective and prudent for the reformation of the Russian nation. The increase in drug reports are evidence of the impact that he made in the countries social understanding. With his unique cultural background mixed with his understanding of the Russian nation, Aitmatov began the reshaping of morality and understanding. In humanity’s journey towards its perfect existence in the Kingdom of Justice, he identified the moral dilemmas and supplied the reconciliatory remedy, establishing the first steps towards it achievement.
Aitmatov, Chingiz. The Place of the Skull. New York: Grove Press, 1989.
Becker, Jonathan. “Author Review.” Rev. of Glasnost: The Soviet Media in the First Phase of Perestroika, by Joseph Gibbs. Slavic ReviewVol. 60, No. 1 (Spring, 2001), 199-200.
Galeotti, Mark. “Perestroika, Perestrelka, Pereborka: Policing Russia in a Time of Change.” Europe-Asia Studies > Vol. 45, No. 5 (1993): 769-786.
Haber, Erika. The Myth of the Non-Russian. New York: Lexington Books, 2003.
Kolesnikoff, Nina. Myth in the Works of Chingiz Aitmatov. New York: University Press, 1999.