In 2006 British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought his bumbling-yet-wily Kazakh character, Borat, to the silver screen, a smash hit in both Europe and the United States. As Norwegian writer Erika Fatland observes in her engrossing new book, “Sovietistan,” the blockbuster film inadvertently shone a spotlight on the isolated former Soviet republics — Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan — that cluster along the steppes and mountains of Central Asia. They only emerged as nations in 1991, with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. For most Westerners, this part of the world is terra incognita, the underbelly of a despotic empire. Fatland’s book seeks to illuminate the landscape and history of the peoples who live there, chronicling her monthslong odyssey through these young, struggling nations.
Fatland speaks eight languages, including Russian, which proves enormously beneficial as she meanders across borders and among a mosaic of ethnicities, religions and apparatchiks. Despite the region’s faltering steps toward cultural and economic openness, Soviet DNA can be found everywhere, from architecture to bureaucracy to the brittle personalities she encounters. As with Stalin and Putin, dictators and their cruel whims are the norm.
Fatland’s anecdotes are rich and revelatory. In Kazakhstan she endures a nightmarish journey on a train. In Tajikistan she crashes a Muslim wedding in a tiny village. In Kyrgyzstan she assists an “Eagle Man” as his prized bird hunts rabbits. She marvels at the ancient craft of silk-making in Uzbekistan and the region’s connection to the Silk Road, whose traders and nomads defined Central Asia for millennia.
And in a beautifully textured scene, set in a yurt in Turkmenistan, Fatland meets 19-year-old Ogulnar, burdened with chores but somehow determined to compose poems that she recites in her native tongue: “I have no idea how many books she has, all closely written in neat letters, full of praise for the small, big world she lives in. Her parents do not understand how they came to have such a daughter … but from the time she learned to understand the mystery of letters, Ogulnar has written. It comes over her all of a sudden, she becomes distant and strange, and the family then know that shortly she will run from the boiling pots and goats with udders full of milk to fill another page in one of the thick notebooks.”
Reminiscent of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “The Shadow of the Sun,” “Sovietistan” blends complex history with Fatland’s own clear-eyed reporting, the devastation of the Soviet era always in the background (and sometimes the foreground). With the Russian Bear once again on the move, she plumbs the high cost of dictatorships and the human yearning for self-determination. “Sovietistan” is a perspicacious, vital book about little-known places and real lives; it deserves a wide readership.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
By: Erika Fatland.
Publisher: Pegasus Books, 448 pages, $28.95.