Have the Mountains Fallen?: Two Journeys of Loss and Redemption in the Cold War

Have the Mountains Fallen?: Two Journeys of Loss and Redemption in the Cold War

by Jeffrey B. Lilley


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After surviving the blitzkrieg of World War II and escaping from two Nazi prison camps, Soviet soldier Azamat Altay was banished as a traitor from his native home land. Chinghiz Aitmatov became a hero of Kyrgyzstan, writing novels about the lives of everyday Soviet citizens but mourning a mystery that might never be solved. While both came from small villages in the beautiful mountainous countryside, they found themselves caught on opposite sides of the Cold War struggle between world superpowers. Altay became the voice of democracy on Radio Liberty, while Aitmatov rose through the ranks of Soviet politics. Yet just as they seemed to be pulled apart in the political turmoil, they found their lives intersecting in moving and surprising ways. Have the Mountains Fallen? traces the lives of these two men as they confronted the full threat and legacy of the Soviet empire. Through personal and intersecting narratives of loss, love, and longing for a homeland forever changed, a clearer picture emerges of the experience of the Cold War from the other side.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253032447
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 01/25/2018
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

After witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union as a journalist in the 1990s, Jeff Lilley moved to Central Asia in 2004. During a three-year posting in Kyrgyzstan, he read the works of Chinghiz Aitmatov, slept in yurts, drank fermented mare's milk, and hiked in the country's beautiful mountains. Over the next ten years, he worked in the field of democracy and governance support in Washington, DC, and the Middle East, returning to Kyrgyzstan in 2016 to lead a British-funded parliamentary support program. Lilley is the coauthor of China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage and Diplomacy.

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In June 1941 the Soviet conscript Azamat Altay found himself in the crosshairs of the Nazi blitzkrieg. His staff sergeant, a man named Belov, had been one of the first to fall when German forces rolled into Soviet-occupied Lithuania in the early morning hours of June 22. Ordered by his commanding officer to retrieve Belov's identification documents, Altay crawled on his belly across an exposed field. As bullets whizzed overhead, he pulled Belov's Komsomol membership card from his bloody clothes.

Groveling back to Soviet lines, Altay shielded himself with Belov's corpse on his back. He edged forward on the ground for what seemed like an eternity. When he arrived at the Soviet trenches, he discovered that his platoon had disintegrated under the German onslaught and that his commander had fled. When he gave Belov's card to his platoon leader, the man shrugged as if Altay had given him theater tickets: "Who needs this membership card now?" he asked in the din of war.

Altay's birth name was Kudaibergen Kojomberdiev, and as his nine-syllable name attested, he was not the average Soviet soldier. He was a Muslim from Kyrgyzia, a republic in the Asian part of the Soviet Union. His village in the foothills of the Ala-Too Mountains was just a few days' hike from the border with China. With Asian eyes, high cheekbones, and dark hair, he looked Mongolian, and it seemed that the indomitable spirit of Genghis Khan ran through his veins.

Over the following few years, Altay would suffer torture, starvation, and solitary confinement. He would escape from Nazi prisons three times and eventually make his way to the West to escape Joseph Stalin's barbarism.

* * *

Altay had arrived in Soviet-occupied Lithuania in September 1940, during a time of peace for the Soviet Union. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which in 1939 had divided up Poland and the Baltic nations between Germany and the Soviet Union, was holding steady. Stalin's gamble of pacifying Hitler while the Nazis battered France and England appeared to be paying off.

On his own as a young man, Altay soaked up the experience of being out of his landlocked native republic for the first time in his life. With more than three thousand miles separating European Lithuania from his home in Soviet Central Asia, he must have felt as if he had landed in another world.

In spite of not being able to communicate, Altay felt a natural affinity with his hosts. While Lithuanians were generally hostile to Soviet soldiers, whom they saw as occupiers, they welcomed the curious Altay, who asked questions about their daily life and history. It was Altay's first lesson that ethnic groups on the edges of the Soviet Empire had a natural bond.

Lithuanian farmers would invite him into their houses and feed him when he was on military training exercises with his platoon. Communicating with his hosts using hand gestures, Altay began to understand that many Lithuanians, far from feeling liberated by the Soviets, were seething under occupation. Altay was also struck by the cleanliness and coziness of Lithuanian houses; these were signs to him of a happy people, not the forlorn, starving masses portrayed by Soviet propaganda. Altay realized that Soviet propaganda was telling bald-faced lies. Loath to keep quiet, he told his fellow soldiers how he had socialized with Lithuanians. "These people aren't dying of hunger in their capitalist country," he said.

Altay's dissenting views had no place in the Soviet system. He was summoned to a meeting of his military unit's political committee, reprimanded for socializing with Lithuanians, and kicked out of the Communist Party. Already a minority in the Soviet army as a Muslim from Central Asia, Altay had become an outcast. The young Soviet conscript began to survey the world around him suspiciously. People were not to be trusted, or personal views shared. Altay's hardening exterior would serve him well in the coming years.

* * *

Germany's surprise attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, decimated the Red Army. Supported by planes, tanks, and heavy armor, the Nazi invasion apparently so distressed Stalin that he refused to speak with the Soviet people about it. Instead, it was left to Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov to make a radio address at noon, a full nine hours into the blitzkrieg. Molotov tried to rally a traumatized Soviet people by uttering the now-famous words: "We are right. The enemy will be defeated. Victory will be ours."

Despite his misgivings about the Soviet Communist Party, Altay, who was posted on the border between Soviet-occupied Lithuania and German-occupied Poland, threw himself into the fight with invading Germans. He had given an oath to defend the homeland, however imperfect it was, and his country was under attack. "It is not a Kirghiz custom to avoid fighting for one's native soil," he wrote some years later. And that soil was being gobbled up at an impressive clip — the Germans would make it all the way to Moscow in just four months.

On the battlefield, in the face of overwhelming German firepower, Soviet forces were in chaotic retreat. Altay would lament later that the Soviet soldiers were not taught how to retreat in an orderly manner. Instead, all was chaos. After finding that his platoon had disintegrated, Altay ran for his life through an open field, with bullets clanking off his shovel and grazing his military coat.

He eventually located remnants of his battalion on the other side of the Neman River in the Kaliningrad region, and together they headed northeast to Russia. Cut off from supply lines, Altay and some of his battalion mates joined forces with other Red Army stragglers and rallied to fight against the German juggernaut. Somehow they survived Nazi bombs, tank shells, and gunfire for two months, and at the end of August, after crossing hundreds of miles of territory, they ended up in the besieged city of Veliki Luki in western Russia, near the border with the Belorussian Soviet Republic. Reunited with their regimental commander, they prepared for a last stand. Just 42 men of the original 2,500 soldiers in Altay's regiment answered the muster call.

Surveying the decimated ranks of troops, a Soviet colonel ordered Altay, just a cadet, to lead the remaining soldiers in a desperate counterattack to break the siege. Altay gathered himself for what must have seemed like a futile mission. "Attack," he cried, leading his bedraggled troops into battle. At his signal, his men followed, yelling, "For Stalin, for the motherland!"

The counterattack failed miserably, with German troops advancing relentlessly against the outmanned Soviets. When the retreat signal was given, Altay hid in low bushes with ten other soldiers while German soldiers on motorcycles rumbled by just feet away. "What do we do now?" he despaired. "Where do we go?" His commander slipped away into nearby woods and — in an act that Altay knew from military school signaled the desperation of their situation — wrapped the platoon's banner around his torso under his shirt, so it could not be captured. He was never seen again. Altay was captured a short while later while searching for food in a village.

He and his fellow soldiers were actually captured by Spanish soldiers fighting with the Nazis and turned over to the Germans. From that fateful day, Altay began an ordeal of capture and escape during which he would spend thirty months in prisons across 250 miles of Nazi-occupied territory in present-day Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and Russia, and eventually make it to France to fight with French partisans until the end of the war. Altay's travails as recounted in his memoirs are fantastic and some say improbable given the difficulty of surviving three years behind Nazi lines. But dates and descriptions of places and wartime conditions accord with other accounts.

* * *

After his capture by the Germans in late August 1941, Altay and other prisoners of war were imprisoned in a temporary camp swelling with those who had been captured. The onset of winter brought cold weather and wind, and there was little food. Prisoners stood in line from morning until noon to get food; even then, their hunger pangs were not satisfied. In his memoir, Altay recounts how when German guards shot a dog, prisoners pounced on the creature, tearing it to pieces. Altay's friend managed to get a leg, and they cooked up a soup to feed five people. "Hunger robs a man of his pride," Altay would remark many years later. "And he turns into an animal."

Shortly thereafter, Altay endured a ten-day forced march with thousands of other Soviet POWs, during which the weak and failing were shot if they could not keep up with the eighteen-mile daily regimen. The march took the group farther from the front lines and deeper into German-occupied territory, ending in November 1941 in Latvia. There, humiliation continued, with sadistic German guards tossing pieces of bread down into the makeshift pens that confined the Soviet POWs. While the guards laughed, starving POWs grabbed at the morsels so desperately that the bread disintegrated before any of it hit Altay's hands. But the saving grace was two fellow Kyrgyz POWs who, no doubt recognizing a "brother Kyrgyz," shared their heavy military coats with Altay to keep warm at night in the frigid temperatures. It was not the last time brotherly Kyrgyz would come to his aid.

At Camp Valeyko, a German concentration camp near the Belorussian-Russian border to which he was transferred in late 1941, Altay endured what he later described as "hellish torments," including sleeping in animal pens surrounded by barbed wire and starvation rations. The five-foot-seven, broad-shouldered Altay was wasting away. "If we don't escape, we'll die," he said to a fellow Kyrgyz.

In fact, the German policy toward Soviet POWs was calculated. Just months before, the German Army had set a ration of a mere 2,200 calories per day for working Soviet prisoners of war, an amount insufficient to sustain life for long. But in practice many Soviet prisoners of war received a ration of only seven hundred calories a day, the equivalent of about three candy bars. It was death by starvation. Because the Soviet Union had not ratified the 1929 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war or declared its commitment to the 1907 Hague Convention on the rules of war, the Germans justified their actions by saying they had no obligation to care humanely for POWs.

Under the cover of a rainy night in early December 1941, Altay and a fellow Kyrgyz prisoner approached the barbed-wire enclosure surrounding the horse pen they were living in. Hastily covering the metal spikes with rags and bags they had collected, they slipped their emaciated frames through the barbed wire. "No more humiliation by German guards," Altay thought. "No more tearing a dog to pieces for morsels of food."

Altay and his fellow prisoner ran into the darkness, crossing fields of frozen cabbage plants, some of which they scooped up and nibbled on as they tried to put distance between them and the camp. Hiding by day in the forest and moving by night, Altay lived like a fugitive behind German lines, begging food from friendly Polish and Belorussian peasants and taking refuge in their barns. Occasionally, he traded chores, such as chopping wood, cutting hay, and watering animals, in return for a hot meal and bath. The two Kyrgyz learned to navigate to friendly villages and houses that were not along main roads, which the Germans and their local collaborators traveled, often searching for escaped POWs. They always moved eastward, toward Soviet territory that had not yet been occupied. For Altay, his suffering as a POW ended for the time being, and the trials and tribulations of flight began.

He got separated from his Kyrgyz fellow escapee, who would eventually make it back to Soviet Kyrgyzia and write Altay some fifty years later recounting their joint escape. For Altay, fortunately, there were good Samaritans along the way, like Stefan, an elderly Polish man whose own son had been exiled to Siberia by the Soviets when they occupied land under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the Germans. Stefan would bring a blanket to Altay, who was sleeping in his barn, but his wife, bitter about her son's imprisonment, would take the blanket right back, muttering about lice as she walked away. While Stefan offered Altay meat and tea, his wife countered with potatoes and water. The wife seethed and took every opportunity to demean her unwanted guest. When German planes flew overhead on their way to bomb the Soviet Union, the wife coldly remarked to Altay: "Hey, Asian communist, today your Moscow will be destroyed."

Altay had gotten used to words like "communist," "komsomolets," and "Bolshevik" being used as pejoratives by Poles and others whose territory had been occupied by the Soviets. "When you live a cursed life, you have to accept such humiliations," Altay told himself. Living with Stefan and his wife for several weeks was a lesson for Altay on how to respond to misfortune. You can act with kindness and sympathy like Stefan, who saw in Altay his own son's plight, or you can respond with stinginess and anger as his wife did. Indeed, good and evil existed side by side during this peripatetic period of Altay's life, like variable winds on a sailing day. Altay tacked to the good whenever he could.

Traveling by night and taking refuge in barns and outdoor pens, Altay survived for a year before he was apprehended walking along a road at night by police in Nazi-occupied Belorussia and taken to a prison in the village of Ashmyani in central Belorussia. He was fortunate to be taken to a local prison, not a German military camp. The food was better, and given that winter was under way, he reasoned that he was better off with a roof over his head than braving the elements outside.

But with the local prison filling up with POWs, Altay feared that he and other POWs would be transferred to a concentration camp. He escaped a second time in December 1942 — this time on his own — while repairing a road outside of Ashmyani as part of a prison work gang. Encouraged to flee by some Jewish prisoners who, he says, gave him rations of bread and milk, Altay broke from the work gang while the guards were warming themselves by a fire. Under cover of a heavy fog, he ran to a snowy forest and forded a freezing river. A helpful Polish peasant let him dry his clothes at his outdoor stove but then advised Altay to leave immediately because his Asian face would arouse suspicion among locals. His Asian looks, which had actually helped him early on in Lithuania, seemed to have become a liability. "They'll see you are from another people and country, and they'll punish us," he was told by his Polish host.

Following the advice of locals, after traversing thirty miles on foot, Altay ended up of all places in a Muslim village in Poland, one of very few such places in the region. Tracing their ancestry back to waves of Tatars who had arrived in the region as early as the fourteenth century, the Polish Tatars had maintained their religion and many customs, and they greeted a fellow Muslim warmly. Altay cleaned himself at the mosque, ate a meal, and attended prayers. The prayers took Altay back to his childhood during Muslim holidays when he had joined fellow villagers at the makeshift mosque in his home village. It was a welcome respite from life on the run. Seemingly at home among a fellow Turkic people, Altay nevertheless couldn't stay for long because the village was on a main road traveled by the German military.

Altay eventually joined up — or was forced to join up — with Belorussian partisans, who spirited him to eastern Belorussia on a sleigh. The partisans turned out to be a savage lot, robbing people, stealing horses, and preying on villages along the way. Altay commandeered a horse and galloped away, only to be captured by an even more savage group of bandits preying on defenseless villagers during wartime. This group was led by a commander who ate only meat and drank vodka for sustenance and spoke little. For food his subordinates would shoot cows and drag them to the forest to be dismembered and cooked. Altay watched as the partisans, lacking a shred of sympathy, forced an elderly grandmother to stand barefoot in the snow while her granddaughter pleaded with the partisans not to shoot the family cow. Sick to his stomach about being a party to such crimes, Altay lagged behind the group one night and fled on his horse in the other direction. For weeks, he wandered by foot, short on food and with a gun in hand to guard against the Germans or being taken away again by partisans.


Excerpted from "Have The Mountains Fallen?"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jeffrey B. Lilley.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Note on Transliteration and Translation
List of Names

Part I
1. Flight
2. Seeds of Rebellion
3. Have the Mountains Fallen?
4. The Burdens of War

Part II
5. Chinese with a Dog
6. Recovering Dignity
7. The Sting of Rejection
8. Balancing Acts

Part III
9. American Rendezvous
10. Standing up to Injustice
11. Waves of Change
12. An Expiring Ideology

Part IV
13. The Wheels of Truth
14. New Beginnings
15. Times of Tumult
16. Holy Ground

What People are Saying About This


It is impossible to understand today's Central Asia without knowing Kyrgyzstan, and impossible to understand Kyrgyzstan without reading this book. This is an insightful story of the terrible challenges that faced two courageous men and their dedication to preserving their nation, even 'when the mountains fall.' It is a thought-provoking book about the long journey of the Kyrgyz people to independence.


United States Senator (Ret.) - Richard G. Lugar

Jeffrey B. Lilley brilliantly describes how individual freedom and justice have come to the citizens of Kyrgyzstan through the inspiring efforts of author Chingiz Aitmatov and broadcaster Azamat Altay. Have the Mountains Fallen? is a Cold War story that gives hope.

Donald Lamm

Have the Mountains Fallen? is historyat its best, with the qualities of a novel—narrative, color, pace.

President of the Kyrgyz Republic (2010-2011) - Roza Otunbayeva

It is impossible to understand today, and impossible to understand Kyrgyzstan without reading this book. This is an insightful story of the terrible challenges that faced two courageous men and their dedication to preserving their nation, even 'when the mountains fall.' It is a thought-provoking book about the long journey of the Kyrgyz people to independence.

Roza Otunbayeva

It is impossible to understand today's Central Asia without knowing Kyrgyzstan, and impossible to understand Kyrgyzstan without reading this book. This is an insightful story of the terrible challenges that faced two courageous men and their dedication to preserving their nation, even 'when the mountains fall.' It is a thought-provoking book about the long journey of the Kyrgyz people to independence.

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