NUR-SULTAN – In 1960, the idea of four Soviet writers traveling to the United States to spend a month across the country, meeting officials, artists and writers would seem like a miracle, but in the age of so- saying Khrushchev Thaw, a time of rapprochement and growing optimism, this idea became reality thanks to a cultural exchange agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States. One of these four writers was Mukhtar Auezov, by far one of the greatest Kazakh writers of the 20th century, and for whom the trip to the United States was tragically the last trip of his life.
While most of Auezov’s works have been translated into other languages, “Impressions of America” has never been translated into Russian or any other language. A special edition of Auezov’s travel notes presented August 24 in Almaty makes this rather forgotten journey accessible to the English-speaking world.
Washington DC, New York, California, Arizona and Boston – this was the itinerary of the group which, in addition to Auezov, also included Stepan Shchipachev, Leonid Leonov and Ukrainian writer Oles Honchar. Auezov writes in his essay that it is a “duty to share all that I have seen and heard this month while traveling through a country”.
The trial, however, was not meant to be completed – a year after that trip, Auezov died at the age of 61 during surgery. His travel notes only cover Washington and New York.
“Sixty years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union realized that cultural ties can foster better understanding between our nations. It was during this time that Mukhtar Auezov became one of the participants in one of the first cultural exchange programs between the United States and the Soviet Union. Along with four other authors, he went to America not only to learn more about life across the ocean, but also to dispel myths about those who lived behind the so-called Iron Curtain,” said said US Consul General in Almaty Caroline Savage at a presentation Aug. 24.
The initiative to translate the essay and publish it belongs to Dennis Keen, a native of California and a specialist in Central Asia, a specialist in Kazakh history, culture and language. In 2021, he approached the director of the Auezov House Museum, Diyar Kunayev, and the American diplomatic mission in Kazakhstan with this idea.
“This project began, oddly enough, two years ago when I decided to subscribe to journals.com, a large archive of American newspapers. I was curious to know what American newspapers had to say about Kazakhstan over the years and if they wrote about famous Kazakhs. I typed in ‘Mukhtar Auezov’ and was shocked by what I found – Mukhtar Auezov on the front page of The Fresno Bee daily in my hometown,” Keen said.
After analyzing the newspaper’s archives, Keen produced an essay providing insight into Auezov’s journey beyond Washington and New York, which he posted on his blog.
The group began their journey in Washington DC via New York’s Idlewild Airport (now JFK). Impressed by the size of the airport, Auezov wrote the name “Idlewild” sounds like “aidyn auyl”, Kazakh for “glassy village”.
In addition to official receptions in Washington DC, the group also visited the United States Capitol, where they heard a hearing on a civil rights bill, spoke at a press conference, visited the Library of Congress and the Shakespeare Library and enjoyed the contemporary art section. at the National Gallery.
“There was one thing in the discussion that was worth noting. American readers don’t seem to know that in the Soviet Union there are multiple literary traditions that arose within different cultures, written in different languages. Not only that, we noticed that except for a handful of examples of Russian Soviet literature, they know nothing about most of our writers or our greatest works,” Auezov wrote about a press conference they gave to 15 journalists in Washington DC.
The writer dwells on the diversity of architectural styles in the city, the density of government buildings and its particularly impressive greenery.
“Washington is overrun with trees and greenery,” he wrote. “After exploring Washington, we realized it was very different from New York. Washington is truly magnificent in its own way.
“Unlike any other city in the world” – this is how Auezov described New York. And, “full of bustling life, countless brightly colored cars”.
Traveling to the city by train made the delegation’s schedule busy. They socialized with American intellectuals and writers, visited the Empire State Building and the New York Stock Exchange, attended performances at the Broadway Theater, and went to Music Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts.
Auezov looks quite frankly at American culture in his writings. It challenges the values promoted by the American entertainment industry. “What we have seen, what we can’t help but feel, is that modern American society, from its outward appearance to its technology, to its wealth, has turned out to be a real evil that is in teaching a young generation nothing but savagery, aggression and a capacity for violence because what we have seen is not just in one movie, not just in a few cinemas, but in all cities large and small,” he wrote.
Among their most vivid memories of New York, he wrote, were meeting at the 21 Club with top editors and influential reporters from The Saturday Review, The New York Times, members of the PEN club, and members of the Authors Leagues of America.
Of all the people the group met, meeting American poet and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg, who visited the Soviet Union in 1959, was the fondest memory, he wrote.
“Among the American people, he is someone we can look up to as a reliable, trusted friend of the Fatherland, and listening to his long stories is something we will always hold dear,” Auezov wrote.
“Impressions of America” has not yet gone on sale, but in honor of the writer’s 125th birthday, the book can be read for free on the Kitap.kz mobile app until the end of September. The Auezov House Museum also plans to give copies to its visitors.