Jeffrey Lilley on Kyrgyzstan's 2 Cold War Heroes
Image Credit: Catherine Putz

Jeffrey Lilley on Kyrgyzstan's 2 Cold War Heroes


The stories of Chingiz Aitmatov and Azamat Altay are best told together, a herculean task which Jeffrey B. Lilley’s Have The Mountain’s Fallen? Two Journeys of Loss and Redemption in the Cold War manages deftly.

The two Kyrgyz men, both born in the 1920s in Soviet Kirghizia, went on to live on opposite sides of the Cold War. Their story — because it is, in essence, a single story — is that of Kyrgyzstan itself, replete with tragedy and sacrifice, hope and triumph. “Their story is the story of a captive people’s aspiration for freedom,” Lilley says.

In an interview with The Diplomat, Lilley explains who Aitmatov and Altay were and why their stories matter for modern Kyrgyzstan.

For our readers who may not be familiar with them, in brief, can you describe who Chingiz Aitmatov and Azamat Altay were?

Both Chingiz Aitmatov and Azamat Altay were village boys born in a remote corner of the Soviet Union. Yet they grew up to exert a powerful influence on history, particularly the history of the Cold War and the future of their people, the Kyrgyz. I call my book a tale of the Cold War from the other side, that is from inside the Soviet Union.

Writer Chingiz Aitmatov and radio broadcaster Azamat Altay resisted Soviet authoritarianism. They led the struggle for a spiritual awakening and cultural and linguistic revival for the Kyrgyz people, one using the written word and the other his voice. Their story is the story of a captive people’s aspiration for freedom.

Both Aitmatov and Altay were born in Soviet Kirghizia in the 1920s, but fate sent them on divergent paths. Aitmatov struggled against Soviet dictatorship from the inside, writing cleverly crafted short stories and novels, while Altay fought the USSR from the outside as a broadcaster for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty. Yet even as they sat on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, their lives were joined by a common mission to preserve the Kyrgyz people’s history, language, and culture. Both men are regarded as heroes in today’s independent Kyrgyzstan, the freest country in Central Asia.

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