A colorful, often bizarre, sometimes grim journey through five Central Asian nations that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“Although the five countries are in many ways very different,” writes Norwegian journalist Fatland in her first book in English, “they share the same origin and fate: for almost seventy years, from 1922 to 1991, they were part of the Soviet Union, a gigantic social experiment without parallel in history.” Conquered by czarist Russia in the 19th century, this area was a vast territory with an ancient history and a tribal, largely nomadic, livestock-based economy. This culture mostly disappeared after the 1918 revolution when Stalin and his successors introduced modern technology but little prosperity and no personal freedom. Local strongmen enjoyed a good deal of independence from Moscow and took over as dictators when its influence vanished. Taking a page from Paul Theroux, Fatland delivers a capsule history of each place and then chronicles her travels across immense distances, often in the company of chatty provincials, rarely concealing her low opinions of local lodging, food, hygiene, infrastructure, politics, and architecture. It may not be exotic, but it’s unquestionably eye-opening. Mostly desert but rich in oil, Turkmenistan is a bizarre, Orwellian despotism not unlike North Korea’s, with a similarly wacky autocrat surrounded by an apparently worshipful citizenry. Immense Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth largest nation, is the strongest economy of the five, rich in oil and gas. As befits its size and wealth, its dictator lacks the worst eccentricities of his four colleagues, but his hand is equally iron. Tajikistan is a dirt-poor, corrupt dictatorship; corruption is perhaps all five nations’ leading legacy from the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan, an oppressive police state, does not break the mold. Kyrgyzstan, also poor and corrupt, is a quasi-parliamentary democracy, although not notably stable or free.
A lively, if rarely cheerful, travelogue that fills a yawning knowledge gap for readers concerned with international affairs.