Letter From Tashkent
Playwright and poet. whose novel on the Siege of Stalingrad, DAYS AND NIGHTS, was a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1945, KONSTANTIN SIMONOV has been living in Tashkent for the past two years, and in answer to an inquiry from the Atlantic Editor, he tells here the reasons why.
BY KONSTANTIN SIMONOV
February 2, 1960
DEAR MR. WEEKS,
Last summer, when we were gathered around my table, talking with you and your colleagues during your visit in Moscow at the invitation of our Writers’ Union, I promised to contribute an article to the special issue of your magazine on Soviet arts. As I recall, we agreed that the best way to write it would be in the form of an open letter addressed to you as editor; that it would be written from Tashkent, where I have spent most of the last two years; and that the letter should explain why I am writing to you from Tashkent.
And so, dear Mr. Editor, here is a personal, detailed answer to your friendly question. Outside — I am going to look at the thermometer — it is two degrees below zero. Yesterday it snowed and rained; today it’s only snowing. Yet just last Sunday I was walking around Tashkent without an overcoat.
Tashkent’s weather is capricious; the temperature jumps around at will. But in the long run, hardly a day goes by without some sun, which even in winter beats down from the sky like a stick. In general, I like the short winter here. My two daughters also like it; they don’t mind at all having to wear a fur coat and mittens going out in the morning when there is hope that toward midday, if the weather clears, they will be able to wear a sweater instead.
The house where I live was built two years ago; my neighbor and I are its first tenants. From my study on the second floor I can see the wide, paved street, with trolleys, buses, and cars streaming by. Directly across the street there is a huge new printing press, which is already overloaded with work. The publishing firms in Tashkent are putting out an increasing number of books, both in Russian and in Uzbek; and in the summer, when the orders for textbooks pour in and the output is increased by approximately a million copies, the manuscripts begin to pile up on top of each other. I live in what is called the “old city.” In the past, Tashkent was divided into the old, Asiatic section and the new, Russian section. Today this old, Asiatic part of the city offers an interesting spectacle. The widest thoroughfares were built right through it for many kilometers; along some of them, there are modern houses ranged on one side, and on the other side, on the very edge of the pavement, splashing out like ocean surf are the brick walls and fences of the old, Asiatic cottages and shacks.
Our street, which is called Polygraphicheskaya because of the printing press on it, was cut through only a few years ago, and the opposite side of it has been entirely built up with new houses. But on our side, things are far from crowded. From the window of my study can be seen the old city, with all the disorder and confusion which the passage of time has brought into it: the small adobe houses, with brand-new brick cottages squeezed in between them; the streets, covered with asphalt but still twisting, like a snake which has forgotten which end is its head and which its tail. The layer of asphalt is calculated to hold ten-ton trucks, yet the streets are just barely wide enough for two mules to get by each other. (By the way, the usual resolution was recently passed for the final eviction of mules from the city limits of Tashkent, but among the older muleteers there are those who say that in all their lives they have never read of any such decree, and I’m afraid that if they leave the city now, it is only with the hope of returning at the first opportunity).
In the courtyards of some of the houses stand the tandirs — round earthen ovens for baking Uzbek pancakes; in other courtyards (and sometimes even in the same ones) there are red balloons holding the artificial gas we now need for our stoves. It has been promised that natural gas will be piped to Tashkent from Bukhara in the spring. In Samarkand last fall I watched the solemn lighting of a gas torch near the tomb of Tamerlane. At the present time the gas is piped right through the Gate of Tamerlane, a narrow gorge between Samarkand and Tashkent; according to legend, the iron gate of Tamerlane used to hang here, closing the entrance to his Samarkand domain. This summer or autumn the workers will begin layinggas lines to the old city courtyards, and then the red balloons will disappear.
In the villages of the Ferghana Valley you can now see a curious spectacle. The temporary gas lines run along the streets, through the clay rural fences. Gas pipes with faucets at the end are led straight through the air into the courtyards, to the ancient tandirs, where the pancakes are baked. Ordinarily the women use the traditional fuel of the desert, saksaul, to bake these pancakes; but even the old crones say that the pancakes come out none the worse when gas is used.
COMING back to the old city, what is most noticeable is the foliage. Each clay courtyard in the old city is full of vegetation that clambers to escape. There are grapes, apricots, peaches, and just as much plant life as can possibly grow. This isn’t so evident now, in the winter; only a thick forest of bare twigs sticks out above the roofs, half covered with snow. But in March all will be pink with blossoms. In April it will be green, and in July the clay courtyards will seem ready to burst from the pressure of the foliage.
Our family could not resist the temptation to add to the vegetation all around us. Behind our house is a small vacant area enclosed with a brick fence. Here we planted trees: two pear trees, two cherry, three peach, two apricot, two lilac bushes, twenty rosebushes; these are the perennials. Very quick to take root here in the south, too, are the annuals, such as the castor-oil plant and the sunflowers. Our courtyard was green by June, and on one tree there were actually fifteen apricots (my wife tells me that I am exaggerating, as usual.)
Also in our courtyard, as in many others in the old city, there is a small concrete pool, or as they say here, a khauz. The people of Tashkent love water; in hot weather they’re always able to find a spot which is either on or near the water, and in that cooler spot they drink their tea and cook pilaf. They manage to sit so that if there is a breeze, it will blow on them.
And so we dug one of these khauzes for ourselves in the courtyard, laid the bricks and poured the cement. But inasmuch as my younger daughter is rather undisciplined, the khauz had to be made shallow. When we first began, I had her sit down on the ground and I measured with a tape the distance from the ground to her chin, so that when the khauz was finished she wouldn’t be able to swallow water even in a sitting position. We dug the khauz according to this measurement. Since that time, she has grown taller and taller, and now I suppose we can make it ten centimeters deeper.
I hope that what I am saying helps to answer your question. Apart from everything else, I like living here because, even though I generally spend a number of hours at my desk and do a lot of traveling, I still have time to busy myself with such things as this khauz and the apricots. Not exactly momentous preoccupations, of course; but when a man cannot take time out for such trivialities, he loses his capacity to enjoy life.
I must stop now. This evening I have to attend the commemoration ot the centennial of the birth of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. The tickets are on my desk in front of me, printed in two languages, Uzbek and Russian. The ceremony will be held in the two languages; both Uzbek and Russian writers and actors are going to appear. Speeches on television will also be bilingual. Now, more than ever, when the centennial is close at hand, Chekhov’s works are being read and performed frequently, both in Uzbek and in Russian. The day before yesterday, Uncle Vanya was broadcast from the theater, in the Uzbek language. Of all the Russian classics, Chekhov is probably the most popular here. The Uzbek people have a keen, subtle sense of humor, and Chekhov’s astute wit finds immediate response in Uzbekistan. His popularity is not limited to the intelligentsia in the cities; he is appreciated in the villages as well. One of the most gifted Uzbek prose writers of our day, Abdulla Kakhkhar, considers himself a disciple of Chekhov, and in fact he is. The Chekhovian strain, as it appears throughout Kakhkhar’s stories, has lately become a fundamental part of Uzbek literature. Kakhkhar will speak today at the Chekhov celebration. 1 don’t know whether his address will be in Uzbek or in Russian; he writes only in Uzbek, but he speaks in both Uzbek and Russian and has an excellent command of both languages.
TO CONTINUE. I did not get to the Chekhov celebration after all. I had an engagement made long ago which I forgot all about. The man I had arranged to see showed up, and I spent the whole evening talking with him. His name is Alexei Stepanovich S—and he is an engineer at a plant which makes textile machinery. His plant in Tashkent at the moment is exporting its machines to some fifteen nations in Asia, Africa, and Europe. In the various books about Turkistan written by czarist officials at the beginning of this century, the future — even the remote future — of all Central Asia was pictured only as a colonial future, and the only question was whether colonial politics should be handled with more progressive or more conservative methods. The last book I glanced through was by one Likoshin, Half a Life in Turkistan: Essays on the Customs of the Native Inhabitants, published in Petrograd in January, 1917. Not one of the fifty chapters in this volume was devoted to the future industrial developments. The author’s eyes would have popped out if he had been told that forty years later textile machinery made in Tashkent would be exported to Prague and Dresden.
Two months ago I gave a talk in the club assembly hall of this plant. The hall was not especially warm or commodious, but on that day it was all right with me, because all six hundred seats were occupied. The people came at the end of an eight-hour day; they were very tired, and they wore overcoats and jackets because it was raining and the club, as I saia, was cold. Nevertheless, for about two hours they listened, first to poetry readings, and then to the account of my literary work and of the work other writers are doing. At the end they sent up notes asking questions about everything. Now, I want to point out that I am not too brilliant a raconteur; at any rate, I haven’t the gift of inspiring enthusiasm in an audience. This is not a huge, standard Moscow plant with an established tradition of inviting various literary and artistic celebrities. It is a Tashkent enterprise of average size, and yet six hundred working people after a hard day came into a cold, uncomfortable barracks, which they kept cursing under their breaths, for the sake of listening to and questioning writers. To me this is gratifying, and I am pleased for the men of my profession.
I told them about the novel I was working on, which deals with the fighting on the outskirts of Moscow in 1941, a very dismal year for us. During the discussion period which followed, several of the older workers told me in no uncertain terms that to write about 1941 at the front was to do only half the job. In their opinion, writers should write, and write without delay, while the participants are still alive, about the summer and autumn of 1941, when the whole industry of the Ukraine and the west and south of Russia was transported, under the very noses of the Germans, in conditions of incredible hardship and deprivation, to the east — to the Volga, the Urals, to Siberia, and here, to Central Asia. Without this, they said, we would never have seen victory. I agreed that they were right, and I tried to get off with a joke at my own expense: it was too late, I said, to make substantial changes in my novel; it was almost finished. I added that I write mostly about what I have seen with my own eyes, and during the war I was not in the rear. This brought the reply that there would be nothing wrong with my finding out about what I hadn’t seen with my own eyes.
AFTERWARDS, when the novel was finished and I had come to that pleasant pause when one task had been completed and another had not yet begun, I suddenly thought: And what if those boys at the plant were right that evening? Even though I am planning to write my next novel about the front also, still, it might be a good idea to have a long and detailed talk with the people who transported the whole industry from the west to the cast in the summer and autumn of 1941; the people who somehow managed to manufacture weapons only twenty, thirty, fifty days after the raw materials had been unloaded. With these thoughts, I went to the trade union committee at the plant, and I haven’t been out of the place for three weeks. But I still have a list of about thirty people whose stories remain to be taken down.
Alexei Stepanovich S —, who visited me last evening, turned out to be just the man to help me in my work. He was one of those who dismantled a factory on the shore of the Sea of Azov when the Germans were just outside the city; he transported the equipment via the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, and the Kara Kum Desert to Tashkent and turned over to the military superintendent die factory’s first war output on the fortieth day after arriving in Tashkent. Before the war, this factory had manufactured mowing and harvesting machines. His retentive memory held a hundred names and details.
Among many other things, he told me this story. He had long since evacuated his family, and the last machine was finally loaded. An hour before leaving, he stopped in at his empty apartment. The Germans were on the outskirts of the town, but the central heating was working and everything in the apartment was bright, clean — and unbearably stuffy. And in this brand-new, clean apartment which the young engineer had only recently obtained and furnished, in its polished floors and its stuffy air, there was a feeling of something so irrevocable that, without making use of the ten minutes which he had left, without even picking up the things he had come back for, he ran outside and empty-handed went through the deserted town to his last shipment of machines at the freight station.
I will not attempt to describe for you in this letter his feelings. But from the way he told me about it, from the expression on his face, I think I would know how to picture, if I ever have to, this last visit to an abandoned home. Of course, this is not the first time I have heard such stories, but the fact is that you listen to a hundred stories and you experience only the hundred and first.
HERE in Central Asia I have spent much of my time traveling, and when I am through with my interviews at the plant, I intend to start going places again.
My recent trips have taken me by car through Samarkand to ancient Bukhara, where there are a hundred-odd old Muslim schools. Around Bukhara there are four hundred billion cubic meters of newly discovered gas. Then I flew to ancient Khiva, where the last local feudal khanate was finally liquidated as late as the 1920s. From there I went to the autonomous republic of KaraKalpak, situated in the northwest of Uzbekistan; and from its capital, the neat little white town of Nukus (which not too long ago wasn’t even on the map), I continued to travel by plane and automobile to still more remote spots.
Kara-Kalpak is only a part of Uzbekistan, which in turn is only a small part of Central Asia; but even within Kara-Kalpak the distances are considerable. On the border of Kara-Kalpak and Turkmenia I visited the famous ruins of KunyaUrgench, deep in the desert. In these sands a recent archaeological expedition led by the academician Tolstov found the remnants of the lost kingdom of Khorezm. These explorations are going on right now, and close beside the minarets and ruins of Kunya-Urgench, thrusting out of the sand, the expedition’s jeeps grumble and roar.
At another time I flew from Nukus to the northwest. My ultimate destination was the Aral Sea, where fishermen and muskrat hunters live on the island of Muinak. For a whole hour, under the wing, stretches the boundless delta of the AmuDarya River, with its overgrowth of rushes, its watery roads and paths and tracks; with fishermen’s and hunters’ boats here and there in the flooded spots; with reeds five meters high. There is such an abundance of fish, birds, and wildlife that inveterate hunters and fishermen fly here all the way from European Russia. Around this district they say that the Amu-Darya Delta is twice as large as the delta of the Volga, and larger even than the Nile Delta. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of these assertions, but I can assure you that this is a sight well worth seeing.
The fishermen on Muinak catch perch, pickerel, bream, carp, and the celebrated Aral barbel. There are smokehouses on the spot, where the fish are dried and cured; and a visitor can hardly refrain from carrying away a couple of these monsters, almost a meter long, dried to tenderness. In the airport at Tashkent, without even listening to the public address system, you can tell when a plane has arrived from the Aral Sea: the passengers carry long rolls of wrapping paper out of which stick fishtails. These are the Aral barbels. At the Tashkent airport they joke about the passengers from this flight: “The barbels have landed!”
In addition to fish, they catch muskrat on Muinak — the little American animal which has become so well acclimatized to the Amu-Darya Delta. I was on Muinak in the middle of October, right at the height of the muskrat season, when for an entire branch of national industry in charge of hunting there remained in the office a total of two men: the warehouse man and the bookkeeper. All the others, including the manager and his assistant, had gone to their favorite spots in the coastal reeds; scattered over a hundred kilometers in one direction from the center of industry and a hundred kilometers in the other direction, they were trapping muskrat. I myself spent several days riding through the rushes in a launch and a motorboat, from one muskrat trap to another. At the peak of the muskrat season there are more than a thousand men hunting here at one time. But all this is spread out over such a vast area that it’s not so simple to find your way from one hunter to another, from tent to tent. Even the man who was running our motorboat, who knew every waterway through these rushes like the palm of his hand, got lost once, and we spent half a day going around in circles near the hunter we were looking for. Two or three times we heard human voices but were sidetracked and lost our way again. At last our common sense won out over our pride; we were reduced to firing rifle shots to signal our whereabouts.
My next trip was to Turkmenia. First I was in the north, in Tashauz, on the northern edge of the Kara Kum Desert. At the end of November, when we were there, there was a good solid frost; the climate in those regions is severe.
Then, flying over the central Kara Kum, we made our way to the capital of Turkmenia, sunny Ashkhabad, at this time still green with foliage. From there, together with the chairman of a kolkhoz [collective farm], we went back to the Kara Kum, to the cattle breeders of this kolkhoz. We rode through the sands in jeeps, got stuck here and there, but finally got ourselves out. In order to reach the nearest flocks of sheep, it took us all day by jeep; to reach the more distant flocks, it took a full day and night; and two days and nights to reach the most distant flocks.
After the terrible earthquake of 1948, Ashkhabad was completely rebuilt. Now it is the newest, and in my opinion the most bewitching, of all Central Asian capitals. It has extended far beyond its former city limits; the small houses of the chairman and many members of the kolkhoz have become part of the ever-expanding city. The market gardens of the kolkhoz, which provide all Ashkhabad with vegetables, are right outside the city. The large, completely modern aviary, with tens of thousands of birds, is about twenty kilometers from the city. And the outlying flocks of sheep belonging to the kolkhoz are three hundred and even four hundred kilometers away.
By the way, when I asked the chairman of this kolkhoz what his former occupation was, it turned out that he had been employed by the Academy of Sciences. Educated to be an economist, he was for a long time a scientist in the Institute of Economics. Then he became tired of theorizing and turned to practice; this is his eighth year as chairman of the kolkhoz, which has grown meanwhile into a very large farm. There are only about twenty workers with a university education in the kolkhoz — agronomists, zoologists, veterinarians, and doctors. This does not include teachers in the five schools scattered over the vast territory of the kolkhoz.
I spent a great deal of time during all these travels talking with many different kinds of people — with agronomists and kolkhoz chairmen, with bookkeepers and accountants, with shepherds and zoologists, with rural schoolteachers and doctors, with fishermen and workers in the canned goods and cotton factories, with chauffeurs and excavators, with drivers of cotton harvesting machines, and with bricklayers building houses in the middle of the steppes, where the nearest roofed house is sometimes dozens of kilometers away. I wrote down some of these talks in notebooks; others I retained in my memory; some were not worth preserving at all. Let’s not exaggerate — not all of these trips were equally interesting, not every interview was fruitful. But the overall picture of the country which emerged after such journeys, the picture of its life — vigorous, tempestuous, fraught with hardship and struggle — cannot come to the writer by reading newspapers at home.
There is no doubt that we are really progressing, that important things are being done; but in order for us, as writers, to get the feel of it, we must see it with our own eyes, we must hear it repeatedly in firsthand reports. We must listen not only to the stories of the people but to their arguments among themselves, preferably eavesdropping during those hours and minutes when they are unaware of our presence.
I won’t try to tell you how interesting all this is. I will simply say that without all this my life would have been dull indeed.
WHEN I left Moscow, I intended to remain in Tashkent for a year and a half or two years, but I’ll have to stay here a few months longer because the projects connected with my work and my travels through Central Asia did not fit into the time which I originally thought would be sufficient. My wife is a professional art critic; during our years in Tashkent, she has been working at the Institute of Art of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences. This summer she will finish gathering materials for a book about Central Asian ceramics, which she plans to write next autumn.
By the way, the art of ceramics has attracted me, too. There are wonderful native ceramics in Uzbekistan, and the more I travel, the more interested I am. (I am even thinking of including in my travels this spring a special trip to see potters at work in the remote corners of Uzbekistan which I have not yet visited.) It’s not that I was especially interested in antiques; I traveled only to villages where the potters still make, as of old, their lyagani for pilaf, kosi for Uzbek soup, and shurpi, bowls for green tea. Now our apartment in Tashkent is cluttered with specimens of these artifacts. When this was all gathered together — and the collection is still far from complete — I rejoiced over my riches (in the artistic sense, of course; these clay plates cost only a few rubles each). Probably I too will write about these plates, cups, and bowls; not a book, because I’m not a specialist, but an article, illustrated with photographs for documentation, in some magazine with a large circulation, so as to reach a lot of people.
The folk art of ceramics here in Central Asia is in urgent need of attention and support. Many old masters of the craft have no apprentices; others do not have satisfactory paint; some live so far away from the urban centers that samples of their work go no farther than their own villages. Many of them are occupied with other things and practice their art only in leisure time. There are other ceramists whose kilns have fallen to pieces, but they are in doubt about whether to build new ones, because the shops are full of porcelain and there is no immediate demand for pottery wares. This fine craft ought to be supported, just as rug weaving is supported here in Central Asia, or as the craft of wooden and clay homemade toys and other wonderful arts are supported in Russia.
I have experienced a certain sense of satisfaction from the gathering of this collection, partly because it may help me to persuade other people to do likewise, but even more because I became acquainted with some little-known but remarkable artists; I saw them at work, drank green tea with them in their homes, and talked with them about their art. I repeat, they make very beautiful plates — simply amazing. My only regret is that I can’t enclose a specimen in this letter; it would be more eloquent than any words.
And so, in the autumn I expect to return to Moscow, and for a year, probably, I’ll be digging into the war archives. Without this research I couldn’t even think of sitting down to that war novel I’m planning to write.
As to where I will start on my novel and where I will finish it and what sort of life I’ll be leading while I am working on it, my wife and I will think about this a year or a year and a half from now. I may even go to Siberia or to the Far East, where I will be able to carry out my old projects and at the same time discover new things, as it has happened here in Tashkent.
By the way, I finished up the most important parts of my last war novel right here in Tashkent, between travels, in the midst of various preoccupations which seemingly did not have the slightest relation to the novel, but I think it was precisely these travels and these preoccupations which helped me to finish it. This book is about the incredible losses and unequaled self-sacrifice of the people during the first year of the war. The title is The Living and the Dead. In order to explain the meaning of the cause for which the dead have fallen, it is very important to know what the living are doing now, when (thank God) there is peace on earth; it is very important to be convinced that the dead were not sacrificed in vain. I am not an amateur painter of battle pictures; descriptions of war, in themselves, have little interest for me. I am troubled by the question: What were we defending with such violence and determination? And in order to answer this question, for myself above all, it is important to live among people and preoccupations (in Central Asia, for example) which have no direct relation to literature but which bear the most direct relation to the answer to this question.
If someday I look back and add up the total of my life in Tashkent, I shall recall not only that I completed a novel, or wrote two books of essays, or translated from the Uzbek language a very fine short story, which I never would have thought of translating had I not traveled through Uzbek kishlaks [villages], where its action took place. I shall go over the nearly two thousand pages of notes taken down since I have been in Tashkent, recording my conversations with various interesting people, the majority of whom I never would have met had I been sitting all these years in my Moscow apartment. In addition, I shall recall many fleeting scenes and sensations, sunsets and dawns, crossings of rivers and deserts, the friendly impromptu snacks, the nights spent under the stars. At first glance this does not fall into the category of an account. But only at first glance.
THIS letter could be endless, yet I must stop somewhere. So, since you are something of a fisherman vourself, and even went fishing in Tashkent with my friends, I will end my letter with a lyrical reminiscence of fish.
It happened during my first six months here, early in June, 1958. We were riding in two jeeps through the southern Kara Kum Desert, along the route of the first stage of the South Kara Kum Canal, at that time still unfinished. Our vehicles jounced over the sandy humps as if we were riding on Bactrian camels and were being bounced back and forth every second from one hump to the other. Only the saksaul protruded from the sand, and the high, white, bloodless poisonous mushrooms, which stood up like candles. It was so hot that even the lizards did not creep out into the sun.
And then finally, around six o’clock, we reached the water. All the time we had been going toward it; ahead of us the water had already been released into the canal. It flowed in slowly and then receded about forty kilometers. And there, where the water had passed through a few days before, little lakes had formed among the sandy hills. They were drying up at the catastrophic rate of half a meter a day, but some fish managed to swim into these little lakes from the Amu-Darya. We got out of our jeeps and proceeded to fish. Within an hour we caught, believe it or not, two full bags. After packing them away in our jeeps, we drove on. We pitched camp on a large sand dune and made several pails of fish chowder over an open fire. It was getting dark; the heat suddenly abated; and with great relish we drank the hot chowder out of glass compote jars. The fish, taken out of the chowder to be eaten later, lay steaming on sheaves of plywood — we had nothing else to put it on.
That night we must have been the first people to eat fish in the very center of the Kara Kum Desert. The sky was full of stars, absolute silence reigned, and the night was unbelievably cold after the heat that had tormented us during the day. In the morning, when first the sand and then the sky began to flush pink, the hill where we had spent the night was encircled by hesitant fox tracks, aimed not so much at us as at the fish left over after our meal.
When I return to Moscow, I shall recall many things, especially evenings such as this one in the desert. Such memories have a certain significance, too.
Our mutual friend Hamid Gulyam, with whom you went fishing in Tashkent, sends you his regards.
My wife has read the foregoing, and as usual says that I wrote much too much, but she subscribes in essence to what I had to say and also asks to be remembered to you.
My older daughter is downstairs, cramming for a test on French verbs, and she is making so much noise that I can hear her voice through the floor.
My younger daughter is walking and ruminating in the courtyard around the pool and poking a wooden shovel at the thin ice frozen to stillness on the surface of the water. The weather has been cold all morning.
I shake your hand.
Translated by Gail L. McGovern.