A welcome survey of a region that remains little known, even if it now often figures in the daily news.
First came news that the Aral Sea was drying up, then that great oil reserves beckoned east of the post-Soviet Caspian, then that the Taliban were blowing up anything they didn’t approve of in Afghanistan. Whitlock, a BBC World Service correspondent, was on the ground for a number of such events, and her thorough overview of the many lands west of China, east of Iran, and south of Russia is full of luminous facts and interpretations that help explain them. Before the arrival of the Soviets and the demarcation of Central Asia into various ethnic enclaves, for instance, “ordinary people of Bukhara and Ferghana rarely used the words ‘Uzbek’ or ‘Tajik,’ except, perhaps, when tempers were up in a bazaar row”; after the 1920s, however, race consciousness became ever more important, and to disastrous ends. Afghanistan’s king at the time, of a modernizing temper, opened the door to outsiders, which, as an unintended consequence, led to a minor Soviet invasion in 1929—and, Whitlock adds, the first use of Red Army paratroopers. A later Soviet invasion, in 1979, was never approved by the full Politburo; only “a coterie of generals and perhaps four members” ever made the decision to send in the Red Army, which of course changed world history. And so on. A lively writer, Whitlock favors an encyclopedic inclusiveness—in the high valleys of the Pamir Mountains, she writes, for instance, “wheat, walnuts, almonds, cherries, pistachios, apricots, peaches, quinces, figs, apples, pears and pomegranates all grow well, and bread, nuts and fruit are important staples”—that sometimes threatens to drown her narrative in data. But given how little Western readers know of the region, what is wanted is just that detailed compendium, and not another travelogue in the Robert Byron vein.
A sturdy, more complete companion to other recent looks at the area, such as Tom Bissell’s Changing the Sea (p. 786) and Lutz Kleveman’s The New Great Game (p. 952).