NUR-SULTAN – In 1960, the idea of four Soviet writers traveling to the United States to spend a month traversing the country, meeting public officials, artists, and writers would seem like a miracle, but in the era of the so-called Khrushchev Thaw, a period of rapprochement and rising optimism, this idea became a reality thanks to a cultural exchange agreement between the Soviet Union and the US. One of these four writers was Mukhtar Auezov, by far one of the greatest Kazakh writers of the 20th century, and for whom, the journey to the US was tragically the last journey of his lifetime.
While most of Auezov’s works were translated into other languages, “Impressions of America” was never translated into Russian or any other language. A special edition of Auezov’s travel notes presented on Aug. 24 in Almaty makes this quite forgotten journey available to the English-speaking world.
Washington D.C., New York, California, Arizona and Boston – this was the itinerary for the group, which besides Auezov, also included Stepan Shchipachev, Leonid Leonov and the Ukrainian writer Oles Honchar. Auezov writes in his essay that it is a “duty to share all that I have seen and heard that month while traveling around a country.”
The essay, however, was not destined to be completed – a year after this journey, 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 understood that cultural ties can foster better understanding between our nations. It was at that 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. Together with four other authors, he took to America not only to learn about life on the other side of the ocean but also to dispel myths about those who lived behind the so-called Iron Curtain,” said U.S. Consul General in Almaty Caroline Savage at an Aug. 24 presentation.
The initiative to translate the essay and publish it belongs to Dennis Keen, a California native and Central Asia specialist with expertise in Kazakh history, culture, and language. In 2021, he approached Auezov House Museum Director Diyar Kunayev and the U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Kazakhstan with this idea.
“This project started, strangely enough, two years ago when I decided to purchase a subscription to newspapers.com, a large archive of American newspapers. I was curious about what American newspapers had to say about Kazakhstan over the years and whether they wrote about famous Kazakhs. I typed in ‘Mukhtar Auezov’ and I was shocked by what I found – Mukhtar Auezov on the front page of The Fresno Bee daily newspaper in my hometown,” said Keen.
After analyzing the newspaper archives, Keen produced an essay providing an overview of Auezov’s journey beyond Washington and New York, which he published on his blog.
The group began their journey in Washington D.C connecting through New York’s Idlewild airport (current JFK). Impressed with the airport’s size, Auezov wrote the name “Idlewild” sounds like “aidyn auyl,” Kazakh for “glassy village.”
Aside from the official receptions in Washington D.C, the group also visited the U.S. Capitol, where they heard a hearing on a civil rights bill, spoke at a press conference, toured the Library of Congress and the Shakespeare Library, and enjoyed the contemporary art section in the National Gallery.
“There was one thing from the discussion that was worth noting. American readers don’t seem to know that in the Soviet Union, there are multiple literary traditions that have arisen within different cultures, written in different languages. Not only that, we noticed that except for a handful of examples of Russian Soviet literature, they don’t know anything about most of our writers or our greatest works,” wrote Auezov about a press conference they gave to 15 journalists in Washington D.C.
The writer dwells on the diversity of architectural styles in the city, densely packed government buildings, and it’s particularly impressive greenery.
“Washington is overgrown with trees and greenery,” he wrote. “Having explored Washington, we realized it is markedly different from New York. Washington is really beautiful in its own way.”
“Unlike any other city in the world” – that is how Auezov described New York. And, “full of bustling life, countless brightly colored cars.”
Traveling to the city by train, the delegation’s schedule was packed. They socialized with American intellectuals and writers, visited the Empire State Building and New York Stock Exchange, watched performances at Broadway Theater, and went to Music Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts.
Auezov looks pretty frankly at American culture in his writing. He questions the values that the American entertainment industry has promoted. “What we’ve seen, what we can’t help but feel, is that modern American society, from its outward appearance to its technology, to its wealth, revealed to be a true evil that is on its way to 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 theaters, but in every city big and small,” he wrote.
Among their most vivid memories from New York, he wrote, was their meeting at the 21 Club attended by top editors and influential journalists from The Saturday Review, New York Times, members of the PEN club, and members of the Authors Leagues of America.
Of all the people the group met, the meeting with American poet and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg, who visited the Soviet Union in 1959, was the best memory, he wrote.
“Among the American people, he’s somebody we can consider a reliable trusted friend of the motherland, and listening to his long stories is something we will always hold dear,” wrote Auezov.
The “Impressions of America” has not yet gone on sale, but in honor of the 125th anniversary of the writer, 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.