A novel with strong Christian overtones is causing quite a stir in the Soviet Union, partly because Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is the controversial author’s biggest fan.
Chingiz Aitmatov, a native of the Soviet Asian republic of Kirghizia, is one of the USSR’s best-known writers, and Gorbachev says he has read nearly every word the author has penned. His most recent novel, The Place of the Skull (published in English in the U.S. in April of this year), is a searing attack on drugs, the destruction of wildlife, and the stupidity of Communist Party officials in the countryside. The numerous criticisms of communist dogma throughout the book would have surely been censored prior to Gorbachev’s glasnost policies.
In the novel, the main character Avdiy Kalistratov infiltrates a gang of marijuana smugglers and attempts to convert them to God. But he is later enlisted to work for local authorities on the steppes of Kazakhstan and is brutalized by the savagely cruel Ober Kandalov – who bears striking resemblance to Joseph Stalin. When Avdiy attempts to speak to his comrades about God, he is crucified on a saxaul tree.
Prior to his torture, Avdiy has a dream about the confrontation between Pilate and Jesus Christ on the terrace of Herod’s Palace. In a fanciful retelling of the encounter, Jesus explains to Pilate that all men – including Caesar – are accountable to God. The narrative makes powerful assertions about the limits of political power which are quite revolutionary for Soviet audiences. In the following brief excerpt, Jesus questions Rome’s authority and Pilate becomes indignant:
“There is nothing higher than the power of Rome. I hope that is what you meant to say?”
“That is what you think, Governor.”
“That is what clever men have always thought,” Pilate corrected him condescendingly. “That is why they say that Caesar is not a god, but God is like Caesar. Convince me that is not so, if you are so sure of yourself. Are you sure that Caesar is less than God?”
“He is mortal”
“Obviously. But while he is alive and well, is there God above Caesar for men?”
“There is, Roman Governor, if you choose another dimension of being.”
“Enough!” cried the Procurator. “We’re wasting time.”
When the literary monthly Novny Mir published The Place of the Skull in two installments in 1986, the magazine’s print run of 427,000 sold out immediately, and millions of copies of the book have been sold in the Soviet Union. It is safe to suggest that the Soviet people are drawing their own conclusions from the novel about the limitations of their own government’s controls over their lives and freedoms.