Kazakhstan beyond Borat

A British journalist offers a colorful look at an ancient land and its people.

Apples Are from Kazakhstan: The Land that Disappeared By Christopher Robbins Atlas Co. 296 pp., $24

Ask any Western family heading to Kazakhstan to adopt a child: It’s hard to scare up readable English books on the Central Asian nation, and even harder to find an upbeat one. Like the rolling Kazakh steppe, the few existing volumes tend to be dry and bleak.
Into this landscape comes Christopher Robbins’s Apples Are From Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared, a colorful, whimsically illustrated travelogue about the past and present of an ancient land and its people.

Many foreigners couldn’t find Kazakhstan, a nation the size of Western Europe, on a map – and the country’s history is just as mysterious.

"Modern Kazakhstan occupies a region of Central Asia that is not only a lacuna in the knowledge of most of the West, but has also been shrouded in mystery from the beginning of time,” Robbins writes. “To the ancients it was an unexplored and inaccessible world more myth than reality.” For today’s average Westerner, little has changed, but Robbins aims to alter that.

As his title suggests, along with the rich artistic and social legacies of its once nomadic inhabitants, and the vital role it played as a Silk Road caravan route, the land is thought to have given the world apples, tulips, and possibly even King Arthur.

From the hat-shaped airport in the former Kazakh capital, Almaty, to the spiky, oil-funded grandeur of its present one, Astana, the book shatters the pervasive image of today’s Kazakhstan as a backward land of bigotry and Borat.

“I took to Almaty, the apple city, from the beginning,” Robbins writes – despite the pounding of an all-night disco under his hotel room and some evocatively Soviet encounters with the hotel staff. Once installed in a cozy apartment near Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s former exile digs, Robbins spends his days visiting golden eagle hunters, Kazakh antiquities experts, and of course the famous apple orchards.

When he leaves Almaty to travel to Astana, he seems to share the regrets of legions of bureaucrats who’ve been ordered to relocate to the odd new capital. This shiny $10-billion metropolis “bang in the middle of nowhere” is so thick with construction cranes, “so spanking new, so lacking in a settled identity, it seems unreal.”

From there Robbins heads northeast, finally hitting the southern edge of Siberia in the “scruffy” city of Semipalatinsk. Once home to exiled novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. the area later became the nerve center of Soviet nuclear weapons testing. Kazakhstan was the USSR’s Nevada, and its citizens were unwittting human guinea pigs in radiation experiments that poisoned the people and their land for 40 years.

Throughout his journey, Robbins also meanders through Kazakhstan’s past and politics: from the military might of Genghis Khan; to the collectivising policies of “The Great Gardener,” Joseph Stalin; to the modern ambitions of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Nearly two decades into his presidency, foreign observers remain divided about Nazarbayev. His celebrated decision to dismantle the country’s Soviet nuclear stockpile touched off an explosion of investment in Kazakhstan’s vast oil and mineral resources. But corruption charges and high-profile murders of opposition journalists have left many skeptical.

Robbins, though, takes to the president, enjoying access unprecedented for a Western writer. Together the men travel by helicopter to remote holy sites, spend evenings listening to Kazakh music (even played, with delicacy, by Nazarbayev himself), and share traditional meals of horseflesh and boiled sheep’s head. Along the way, the author gets rare insight into the president’s own life and the birth of independent Kazakhstan.

Though Robbins’s generalizations are at times too general, and his remembered conversations sometimes improbable (what “gentle but unworldly redneck” from Arkansas would call a shopping cart a “supermarket trolley”?), his writing is lively, and his storytelling informed and captivating. The sum may indeed, as he hoped aloud to Nazarbayev, make for “a book on Kazakhstan that will be read for many years to come.”

Mary Wiltenburg traveled to Kazakhstan in 2005 on an International Reporting Project Fellowship from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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