I might not be a shopper faithful to the brands, but when it comes to books I’m quite a man of habit in the sense that I have a tendency to stick with an author that I know and respect and of whom I will, inevitably, buy all titles. This is a pretty dangerous business, for there will be one occasion, sooner or later, when even the best author will deliver the biggest lemon of his career, to the scorn of critics worldwide and, also, to my great displeasure.
So, it’s not an everyday occurrence for me to be venturing in to the relatively unknown realms of previously untested writers, where the chances of making a potentially great encounter are dwarfed by the risk of hitting an iceberg-sized lemon, regardless of how many more-or-less-enthusiastic reviews each oeuvre might have on Amazon.
However, last week, I felt bold enough to pick In Search of Kazakhstan, by Christopher Robbins, from my local Oxfam charity shop. In the midst of big names – Chatwin, Thubron, Bryson, Theroux – and well-known places – Patagonia, Australia, India – it sat shyly on the side, quite unsure of whether it belonged there. It was, after all a book by an author who isn’t recognized as a trademark of travel writing (even though, as I discovered, he did some seriously good books such as Air America) and it revolved around a country, Kazakhstan, that most wouldn’t be able to put on a map.
Unless you’re that kind of lunatic that has drooled about Central Asia since childhood, who’s going to Almaty before ever having flown to New York and who knows that Baikonur cosmodrome isn’t in Russia. Someone like yours truly, for example.
So I picked up In Search of Kazakhstan, undeterred by the obscurity of its subject (which even the book’s subtitle, The land that disappeared, admitted) and set off reading.
Robbins’ introduction to this great land, capable of containing France five times over – or the whole of Western Europe, happens on a Moscow-bound plane, on a casual encounter with a man bound for Kazakhstan, in search of love. What ensues is a series of trips where the author brings justice to a country whose main reason for notoriety in the world is a mankini-clad, moustached twat impersonated by Sacha Baron Cohen.
Through Robbins’ book we come to know Kazakhstan’s troubled recent history, a past made of brutal Tsarist and Bolshevik aggressions and of the forced sedentarization and collectivisation of the then-nomad peoples of the great plains, whom Lenin and Stalin beat into to leaving a livelihood more Communist than Marx himself. What followed, if possible, was even worse: Kazakhstan became Gulag central, the epicentre of an ecocide without precedents (the Aral sea tragedy), a testing ground for nuclear weapons and also the end of the line for millions of minorities from the Volga and Caucasus regions of Russia, deported there by Stalin to punish them of some ‘betrayal’ that he must’ve dreamt about one night after spending a day rat-arsed with vodka.
Given this incredible succession of train wrecks, made by a political elite seemingly intent on purposefully destroying Kazakhstan as an entity, a nation and even as a landscape, it’d be easy to assume that all that emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union is the steppe version of Dresden after Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris’ visit, with a sprinkling of radioactivity and toxins for good measure.
But, in fact, that isn’t the case. Robbins witness, much to his surprise, a country in apparent ease with itself, enjoying a newfound prosperity and a relative peace amongst the myriad of ethnicities and religions populating it, a country where ethnic Russians, Chechens descending from the Stalin-era deportees and Gulag survivors all seemed to be getting along quite nicely.
In Search of Kazakhstan also offers an interesting view on the Kazakh president and de facto lifelong lider maximo, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former Communist chief turned leader of the independent country. It’s a portrait that, and this is Robbin’s only fault in my opinion, sometimes becomes a little bit too celebrative but that, at the end of the day, raises one interesting and compelling question: here we have a man who obviously cares about his country, that has preventing it from descending into war or fundamentalism (or both) and that is providing a great deal of development and welfare to his citizens. And he’s hugely popular. He is, however, not the leader of a democratic state and there have been rumours of violence against opponents; is he to be blamed, or not?