Silk Road. Gas and oil. Soviet heritage. The Aral Sea which is drying up. crazy dictators. Abduction of wives. Steppe. Mountains. For me (and I believe for a lot of people), Central Asia was that until last week: fragmentary and messy information. Reading “Sovietstan” by Norwegian writer and anthropologist Erika Fatland put an end to this mess.
The book is the product of an eight-month stay in the five Central Asian states that were part of the Soviet Union until 1991 and now exist independently: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Like the best travelogues, this one manages to balance historical perspective and personal testimony with great skill. Thus, each of the five countries separates itself from the indistinct mass of “Istans”, who saw their differences smoothed out by the Soviet regime, and emerges with their past, their ethnic groups, their landscapes and their clearly defined social and political particularities.
The distinctions are necessary because, as Fatland notes, the five countries are “remarkably dissimilar”. While more than 80% of Turkmenistan is desert, Tajikistan is 90% made up of mountains. While Kazakhstan has no liquidity, thanks to its gas reserves, Kyrgyzstan is largely dependent on resources sent from abroad by people who have emigrated.
If Turkmenistan is as closed a dictatorship as North Korea (both countries, by the way, insist they have had no cases of Covid-19 thanks to the wisdom of their leaders) and maybe being even more bizarre, Kyrgyzstan has democratic votes and has already impeached two presidents.
The pages in which Fatland exposes events already distant in time are never dry. So, for example, with his explanation of the “Great Game”, the dispute between the British and Russian empires which repeatedly drew and redrawn the map of Central Asia in the 19th century.
The same goes for his historical analysis of Soviet companies that have wreaked havoc on the environment. The author traveled to the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan, where the Moscow regime carried out most of its nuclear tests in the twentieth century of Soviet-era irrigation.
If research gives structure to the book, Fatland’s experiences give it color. Luck helped her in Turkmenistan: after waiting hours in the sun for a horse race that everyone already knew would have dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as the winner, she saw him crash to the ground at the finishing line.
In Tajikistan, she attends a wedding in a remote village and devotes beautiful descriptive pages to the ceremony and the landscape. And beware, Borat fans: In Kyrgyzstan, not the fearless film journalist’s Kazakhstan, she explores the practice of kidnapping wives by interviewing women who have resigned themselves to her – and one who rebelled.
What Fatland does not offer is a broader geopolitical analysis that puts the five Central Asian countries in touch with neighboring economic and military powers, or other continents. The region is sandwiched between Russia and China, but only the connection with the former commands attention.
The way Sovietistan fits into China’s economic and political plans is not even scratched, although it is the most important factor for its future. For those who want to add this piece to the puzzle, I suggest reading “As Novas Rotas da Silda”, by Peter Frankopan, which has a Portuguese edition.