BISHKEK (Reuters) - More than 20,000 mourners paid last respects to Kyrgyz writer and statesman Chingiz Aitmatov on Saturday as the country buried the intellectual who helped bring in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms.
Aitmatov, who died in Germany on Tuesday at the age of 79, lay in state for several hours in Bishkek’s State Philharmonic Hall before being buried next to his father in a memorial complex 20 km (13 miles) from the capital.
Kyrgyzstan declared Saturday a day of national mourning. Men, women and children queued for three hours in temperatures nearing 40 degrees Celsius to file past Aitmatov’s open coffin, draped in the red-and-yellow flag of the Central Asian nation.
Many then joined the funeral procession on foot.
“Even in death he has his own greatness,” said literature teacher Vera Malneva.
Born in a tiny Kyrgyz village in 1928, Aitmatov won a number of literary awards during the Soviet era and also became a senior Soviet and Kyrgyz diplomat.
Among his best known works were “Jamilia”, “The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years” and “The White Steamer”. His novels often interwove popular myths and folktales to create allegorical themes populated with down-to-earth characters.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said Aitmatov had left a “deep impression” on world and national culture.
“He also made an invaluable contribution to strengthening friendships between peoples of the world,” Bakiyev said in comments broadcast on national and Russian television.
“Through the works of the great writer, the world got to know the inner world of the Kyrgyz people and their rich, cultural heritage.”
Aitmatov’s father was a victim of one of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s purges. He was executed in 1938 as an “enemy of the people” after being found guilty of “bourgeois nationalism”.
Aitmatov’s wish was to be buried next to his father at the Ata-Beyit memorial complex, where victims of Stalin’s purges are commemorated.
Aitmatov’s career as a diplomat began after he embraced Gorbachev’s “perestroika” campaign of new political thinking in the mid-1980s. In the dying days of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev appointed Aitmatov Soviet ambassador to Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg.
After the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, Aitmatov served as Kyrgyzstan’s envoy to the Benelux, France, NATO and UNESCO.
“Chingiz Aitmatov is no longer with us, but his wise words will always remain,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Saturday.
The Ataturk Culture, Language and History High Agency of Turkey set up a special committee earlier this year to nominate Aitmatov, of Turkic descent, for the Nobel prize in literature.
His native Kyrgyzstan had declared 2008 “The Year of Aitmatov”.
Last month the writer was rushed to a German clinic with acute kidney failure.
Additional reporting and writing by Robin Paxton in Moscow