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Azamat Altay, Pioneering Kyrgyz Service Broadcaster, Remembers The Early Days

Azamat Altay, former Kyrgyz Service Director (left) at Radio Liberty’s 50th Anniversary | Prague, June 5, 2003

RFE/RL began airing programs in the Kyrgyz language from its offices in Munich on March 18, 1953. Azamat Altay was a pioneer of these early broadcasts, which created the foundation for the Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk. He was interviewed in 2004 by current Kyrgyz Service Director Venera Djumataeva. The interview has been edited from its original Kyrgyz for English-speaking audiences.

Radio Azattyk: Azamat Altay, tell me how you came to Radio Azattyk in 1953?

Azamat Altay: In 1949, I moved to Germany from France. I had lived in France since 1946. In those days, the journal The Turkeli was being published. I became the editor of the 5th or 6th issue of this magazine. In order to deliver this anti-Communist magazine to our people, we published it in the thousands and tried to send it to them, but of course, delivering the magazine to our people was impossible. At that time, the U.S. Congress created Radio Liberty, which represented an alternative to our efforts to reach the people in print. In 1953, I had a conversation with several Central Asian figures who helped introduce me.

Radio Azattyk: What programs did you prepare for Radio Azattyk and what issues did you pay attention to at that time?

Azamat Altay: We paid a lot of attention to anti-Soviet actions. We wrote about what communism brought us and how our people lived under the system, their dispossession during collectivization, how authorities robbed rich Kyrgyz and exiled them, and how the children of the rich were sent into exile. Listeners wrote letters to us. One is from Ukraine, the second is from Siberia. The letter from Ukraine contained lines about the suffering of Kyrgyz girls: “We fell into deep thought/To which even a dove will not reach.”

Radio Azattyk: How did you find out about people dissatisfied with the Soviet regime?

Azamat Altay: I myself saw the people who were against the Soviet regime. I saw them in the songs they sang while grinding wheat. “Lenin is our father/We are grinding wheat/While doing it/We are dying of hunger,” they sang. Instead of feeding the people, the state took the wheat away from them. That was during 1933 - 1934. During collectivization, the people’s livestock was taken and transferred to collective farms. I well remember how my father cried at that time. In order not to give their cattle to collective farms in the 1930s, people slaughtered it, and the meat would then decay and became fodder for carrion birds. Those who refused to give up their cattle were dispossessed and sent into exile. I saw these actions with my own eyes.

Radio Azattyk: You have said previously that in the 1950s and 1960s you received letters from people living in Kyrgyzstan that were secretly transmitted to you.

Azamat Altay: Once we received a long letter about how the Kyrgyz language and the Kyrgyz people themselves were being Russified. I don’t know how it got to us. Later we received 4 or 5 letters with the same content from other listeners. One listener wrote, “We like your radio programs, but when you broadcast, it’s late at night here, so we’d ask you to change the broadcast time.”

Azamat Altay in Munich, 1980s.
Azamat Altay in Munich, 1980s.

Radio Azattyk: How long did you work for Radio Azattyk?

Azamat Altay: I worked for the Service in Munich from 1953 to 1956. Later, in the first days after arriving in America, I had no job, and so I wrote and sent reports once a week. I did not lose my connection with Azattyk. In 1979, after Kyrgyz Program Editor Tolomush Zhakyp fell ill, I was approached by RFE/RL’s general editor, who said, “You started Radio Azattyk…and if you don’t come and continue the program, there is a threat that the Kyrgyz programs may be discontinued.” I decided then that since I started Azattyk, I should not let it fade. I quit a good job in the book collection department at Columbia University and returned to Munich in 1979, 23 years after leaving it, and started working as an assistant to Tolomush...

Radio Azattyk: Please tell us about any memorable radio programs and important events.

Azamat Altay: In the 1950s, we released many programs about events taking place in Kyrgyzstan. For example, in 1952, a conference held on the Manas epic brought us a lot of topics. This was very ambitious work. Later in 1958, we talked about the books of Kasym Tynystanov, about the fact that he published the first newspaper in Kyrgyzstan. In 1928, he also published the magazine Towards A New Culture, but he was forgotten among the people. I found this magazine in the New York Public Library and made photocopies. They, too, were lost.

Later there was a Kyrgyz literary critic Miskene Tanin kyzy. When I mentioned her at a meeting with reporters in Bishkek, it turned out that no one knew her. Miskene Tanin kyzy wrote a story entitled Ripened Orphans. I translated it into the Latin alphabet, and we distributed it to those who visited from Turkic countries. I think no one ever read it. This is very regrettable.

In the years after I returned to Germany, boxers would come from Kyrgyzstan and visit us. One sat between me and Tolomush and said: “To see heroes like you is a great honor for me.” In 1967 I went to Montreal where the days of Kyrgyzstan were being celebrated. There I met the head of the Kyrgyzstan Sports Committee, who praised us. He said, “Azamat, I listen to your shortwave broadcasts, climbing to the very top of the mountain. You are doing such a great job!” When I asked him to introduce me to other Kyrgyzstanis who came there with him, he replied that he was afraid that he might then be summoned for questioning about where we had met. Other stories we covered were about the rejection by the Kyrgyz of their own successful compatriots, tribalism, and the division between south and north. This is all harmful to the Kyrgyz people and Kyrgyz culture.