An illuminating travelogue through Central Asia.
Born in England, where he worked as a journalist, Mould (Dividing Lines: Canals, Railroads and Urban Rivalry in Ohio's Hocking Valley, 1825-1875, 1994, etc.) came to America in 1978 for graduate school and became a faculty member at Ohio University, where he is now a professor emeritus of media studies. His background thus provides contrast with the experiences that inform the book. “Since the mid-1990s,” he writes, “I’ve traveled to Central Asia, mostly to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, more than a dozen times to teach at universities, lead workshops for journalists and educators, consult with TV and radio stations, and conduct research.” The author recognizes that the two countries he names will be unfamiliar to a general readership. Yet these and other nations that have arisen in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union are among the world’s largest, though subject to name changes within the cities of their blurring borders and shifting perspectives to the legacies of Lenin, Stalin, and Soviet repression. Mould plainly feels considerable affection for the people he brings to life here, while his extended experiences in “Stanland” are marked by a tension between illumination and frustration. “I don’t deliberately stay in rundown Soviet-era hotels so I can write about them later,” he writes. “Sometimes, there’s just no alternative.” The author covers a lot of ground, historically and geographically, taking readers from rural areas to industrial regions to sites contaminated by nuclear testing that its natives refuse to leave. He provides some educational direction in cultures where professors generally teach by lecturing, rather than working with prospective journalists on how to practice their craft, where students and professors alike admit to engaging in bribery, and where officials believe “the goal of journalism education should be to prepare students to work in government media and corporate public relations.”
As a genial travel guide, Mould, an academic who doesn’t write like an academic, shows how one should resist the temptations to stereotype a culture too easily and understand it too quickly.