Book review: ‘In Search of Kazakhstan – The Land That Disappeared’

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Book review:

‘In Search of Kazakhstan –
The Land That Disappeared’ by Christopher Robbins, 2006.
Profile Books, London. Illus.
Johnnie Hannah.

Review by Ross Hunter

To most people brought up on a small island, never more than 100km from the sea, in a land made by maritime trade, the great continental interiors are truly ‘terras incognita’, and the endless plains disorienting. I have managed a complete career in a geography classroom without honestly knowing one ‘Stan’ from another, or meeting the phrase ‘double landlocked’. Christopher Robbins leads us gently and beguilingly into his excellent biography of Kazakhstan with a confession of bemused ignorance. An accident of airline seating, a chance encounter with an unlikely groom-to-be, and a core motif: apples are from Kazakhstan. His bemusement becomes amusement and his curiosity is sparked.

Selection_075‘Apples are from Kazakhstan’. Really? Most of us would shrug our shoulders and leave it at that. Not the professional journalist. Bit by bit, as these things happen, he learns more about this vast steppe, the size of Western Europe. Three years later, via a snooker game in London, came the first of several visits and explorations, from the mountains, via the Aral Sea, across the deserts, to grimy soviet hotels and shiny new capital cities, and several audiences with the president himself.

At the beginning of ‘Cannery Row’, John Steinbeck tells us of a species of river worm so delicate that it cannot be picked up, and the only way to gather one is to let it drift on to a flat blade: Steinbeck’s and Robbins’ stories are allowed to walk onto the pages themselves. Mr Robbins tells his tale quietly but with great factual detail, hidden in a friendly narrative. Impassioned, angry chapters are interleaved with personal tales. He loves setting up or observing quirky contrasts: old soviets with young Turks; locals and Russians; winners and the left behind; dreamers, realists and cynics. It is a serious book, with a lot to say, but it reads as easily as a light guide book.

Selection_076By the end of the book, as well as being back to apples, we have explored the high Altay mountains, seen the wreckage of Soviet nuclear testing, been snowbound with eccentric (?mad) C.19th explorers, hunted with Trotsky in exile, and gazed across the map of the President’s dreams for his country’s future. We have also listened to a Beatles tribute band in a basement, and wolves on the frozen steppe. Mr Robbins reserves his greatest anger not even for the gulag, but for the wanton destruction of the nomads’ sustainable, workable way of life and of the Aral Sea, a catastrophe of unthinkable dimensions. The two disasters are linked by their causes: doctrinaire thinking and not listening to locals.

Christopher Robbins listens to locals, and gives them a voice, which speaks to us, clearly, lovingly and hopefully. You will enjoy it, and learn along the way.