Erika Fatland’s Sovietistan is an odyssey through Central Asia, the distant terra incognito that, despite its ancient history, colorful customs, and giant territory, remains largely invisible even to the most adventurous traveler. Fatland, a Norwegian anthropologist, is more adventurous than most. In this book, she visits the “stans,” all of which were once republics of the Soviet Union and each of which has its own unique culture: Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
Fatland’s account is engaging and nuanced; she shares her impressions of the cultural and political realities of Central Asia, always providing proper context for those who have never so much as thought of, much less read about the region. The central question Fatland poses for herself is simple but extraordinarily hard to answer: why is Central Asia the way it is? And to arrive at possible explanations, Fatland tackles the countries one by one.
Turkmenistan is one of the most closed and authoritarian countries in the world. Despite the abundance of oil and gas reserves that could have turned it into a second Dubai, a dictatorship took root in the post-Soviet years. Saparmurat Niyazov, the first president who ruled the country until his death in 2006, is known in his native land as Turkmenbashi (the head of the Turkmen). He came to power and launched his cult of personality, which eventually reached grotesque proportions, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the death of the dictator, many predicted the fall of his regime, but his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, successfully continued in Turkmenbashi’s footsteps.
While traveling around the country, Fatland is accompanied by local guides who do not leave her unattended for a single moment. In turn, she peppers them with questions about the past and current regime. Some of the guides praise and admire the wisdom and accomplishments of the recent presidents, who have led the country to a golden age. Others let down their guard and scold the leaders, blaming them for the country’s decline.
Kazakhstan, the country of the great steppe, is where great empires were born, flourished, and went into oblivion. These include the Turkic Khaganate, the Mongol Empire, and the Golden Horde. The Kazakhs are direct descendants of the Turkic-Mongol nomads who created these empires, and some are descendants of Genghis Khan himself. In addition to Kazakhs, the country is populated by Russians, Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Koreans, and people of many other origins, and Russian still enjoys the status of official language. But despite this multicultural makeup, Kazakhstan did not escape the fate of becoming an authoritarian state after the USSR’s collapse. For thirty years, President Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled the country with an iron fist, ruthlessly eliminating competitors in the struggle for power and putting pressure on opposition newspapers and websites. But in March 2019, Nazarbayev unexpectedly resigned. The new leader, Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, has expressed the desire to preserve the best of his predecessor’s legacy, such as a market economy that ensured a good standard of living for its residents, but also to carry out democratic reforms.
Tajikistan is named after the Tajiks, an Iranian-speaking people with an ancient, distinctive, and distinguished culture. It is thought that the Sufi poet Rumi was born in the region, and the name of the great physician Avicenna is also associated with it. In the chapter devoted to Tajikistan, Fatland describes the warm hospitality and the mountainous landscape that she encounters in the country.
Unfortunately, the current situation of Tajiks leaves much to be desired. After the collapse of the USSR, a conflict broke out in the country between the Islamist opposition and the government, resulting in a civil war. Gradually and painfully, order was restored, and both sides reconciled — but not before tens of thousands were killed or went missing, and over a million became refugees. For those who survived, the standard of living remains extremely low.
The chapter on Tajikistan is the most touching part of this book. Despite their poverty, Tajiks are ready to open their homes to, and share their last piece of bread with, anyone who is lost or simply passing through. And the joy that the people Fatland meets derive from the simple pleasures of life and from their environment, despite everything, is inspiring: “We went together to the wedding celebrations at the other end of the village. The small room was packed with people and the music was playing at full volume. […] I looked up at the sky. I have never seen so many stars as I did there, on the roof of the world. They were strewn across the black sky like luminous grains of sand.”
According to many standards of evaluation, Kyrgyzstan is the most democratic country in Central Asia. But things are not that simple. Over its nearly thirty-year history of independence, two coups and two ethnic conflicts have taken place in the country, ending in the resignation and emigration of two presidents. However, recent years have been marked by relative political and social stability. Still, Fatland wonders: how real is this impression of freedom? According to her, rather than actual freedom, what the Kyrgyz enjoy is a lack of fear to express their thoughts. Unlike their neighbors, they do not lower their voices when it comes to talking about politics. Meanwhile, the widely practiced and seldom punished custom of bride kidnapping indicates that the country is still far from modern democracy.
Uzbekistan may be the most picturesque country in the region. Tashkent, Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, Namangan — almost every Uzbek city is famous for the beauty of its Islamic architecture, its folk crafts, and its hospitality. In the north of the country, in the city of Nukus, is the Igor Savitsky Museum, famous for its extraordinary collection of Russian avant-garde paintings.
Uzbeks are of mixed Iranian-Turkic origin, and their culture absorbed elements of both nomadic and settled peoples. The life of the Uzbeks has much in common with the Tajiks, but like the Turkmen, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, they speak a Turkic language.
For a long time, Uzbekistan was a closed country. Islam Karimov, who ruled the country from the time of the collapse of the USSR until his death in 2016, maintained a course of isolationism, preventing or “slowing down” the entry of foreign companies into the country’s market. His policies led to wide-spread unemployment, which was further aggravated by the practice of nepotism. Fatland’s companions complain about the lack of economic prospects in the country, and many dream of emigrating to the West. But the majority of émigrés wind up in Russia, where several million Uzbek guest workers are employed in difficult, low-paying jobs.
Karimov’s successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has worked to expand economic ties with both his neighbors and other countries. One can only hope that this economic policy will be paired with democratic reforms.
So why is Central Asia the way it is? Fatland writes, “It is impossible to understand the five new countries of Central Asia without taking into consideration the way in which their past as Soviet republics has shaped them. During the seventy years of Soviet rule, Central Asia was forced to leave the Middle Ages and step into the twentieth century.” At the same time, “Central Asia has managed to maintain some of its unique character.” In other words, Central Asia is at the junction of two different periods. On the one hand, there is the Soviet legacy, with its authoritarian systems of governance but also its emphasis on large-scale industry, which gives economic support to each republic. On the other hand, there are the centuries-old customs and traditions, which lend the region its rich culture and build community, but which may also impede economic development and modernization.
Why is Central Asia the way it is? Fatland’s excellent book, smoothly translated by Kari Dickson, provides many answers. Though none of them is definitive, they should all inspire readers to look more closely at the region, and perhaps to visit it themselves.