To any student of classic Russian literature, it often feels as though Russian literary canon stopped after the transition to the Soviet era. However, there are many great Soviet literary works which exist in undeserved obscurity. Chingiz Aitmatov’s The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is just as important as Western novels, like Orwell’s 1984, in reflecting the contemporary political and social climate while also illuminating surprising insights on today’s world.
Aitmatov’s story is set at a railway junction on the steppe in Kazakhstan. Like a Soviet As I Lay Dying, the plot is centered around a journey for a burial. The story is told from the perspective of a railway worker named Burannyi Yedigei, who is remembering his life with his late friend Kazangap, while he walks with the funeral procession to an ancient desert cemetery. He remembers the Soviet period and the clashes between agents of the regime and the local politics of the region. These external forces intertwine with his own personal struggle of love and friendship on the crucible of the steppe. Yedigei’s narrative is intercut with scenes from a jointly run space station between the Soviets and the USA, which has been contacted by beings from another galaxy. Rockets launch to investigate from a site not far from Yedigei’s junction, and the rockets’ fires are visible in the sky.
The story includes elements of historical fiction, science fiction, and ancient Kazak legend. The broad temporal and thematic expanse reflects the diversity of the Soviet Union east of Moscow, as well as the political climate and its effects far from Western Europe. Aitmatov is prophetic in his writing regarding political authoritarianism, isolationism, and cultural memory regarding today’s relations between the East and the West.