Central Asia is one of the most little known places in the world: Borat is the only cultural connection of many a European or an American to the land, and it was chosen to be from Kazakhstan particularly because Kazakhstan is so unknown abroad that it functions as a blank slate. This is despite the massive size of Central Asia, where just one of its countries, Kazakhstan, still is the world's 9th largest country in of its own right, and the population which today exceeds more than 70 million people, and its geographic location at the very center of the world's largest continent. This makes books like Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, by Erika Fatland, a rare look at Central Asia as she travels throughout it.
Who is Erika Fatland? A Norwegian traveler who has gone through the vast expanses of the former Soviet Union, Fatland is a mixture of a journalist and a traveler, hopping from one country of Central Asia to the next. She wrote this book around ten years ago, and it was just recently, in 2020, published into English - with some errors, such as claiming that the first Tadjik president was born in 1949 but that his parents died in 1947 in an earthquake. Her journey in Central Asia mostly stops at the key parts of the countries she visits, normally the capital of each nation, but also strays out to other sites, be they the famous Aral Sea or the Igor Savitsky Museum of Art in Uzbekistan, or the less well known like Yaghnobi mountain people or Pamir plateau with its desolate isolation from the rest of the world. It would make a great book to read prior to planning a trip to Central Asia.
What is disappointing about the book is how attracted Fatland is by the political side of it, and how little it pays to analyzing the rest of Central Asian society. In every country, the first thing that she pays attention to is the presence or the absence of the portraits of dictators in the streets. Its ending conclusion comments little on the people of the region, even their economy and life, their culture and views, but rather about the hope for political transformation in Central Asia. An important issue certainly, but her focus on this above all removes her from being able to look at life as a whole for Central Asians. And also its political view overwhelmingly concerns Central Asia since the end of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union itself, despite the title of the book, doesn't receive much attention other than at its nuclear bomb testing sites in Kazakhstan or the nostalgic memories of the old generation.
But while it could have devoted more to looking at the rest of Central Asia and its life, the picture it does provide is a fascinating one for a first hand look at the transformations of the region, and Fatland has a knack for ferreting out irony and the absurd in a country filled to the brim with farcical dictators. The bizarre building projects and the strange rewriting of Turkman history by Saparmurat Niyazov, the first dictator of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan's hopelessly distorted internal economy combined with the façade of development, the hundreds of Mercedes stolen from Germany and officially registered in Kirgizstan, there are so many moments of looking at the sheer absurdity of Central Asia that it makes you shake your head in mirth and bemusement. A lot of this is conveyed in secondary sources, talking about the history of the region and reflecting on its past, and quotations from key figures, mostly Russians.
There is also a real genuine sentiment of sympathy and liking for the people. This comes out the strongest with the trip to the mountain people of Tajikistan, the Yaghnobis, and when meeting with drivers, guides, and people of interest throughout the land. The nostalgia of the Russians and others for the days of the Soviet Union, on the shores of Lake Baikal as they remember when they used to have good jobs and a state that kept their industry running, or even in the city of Semipalatinsk - Kurchatov - as people mourned the good old days when they once had a future and a good life at the forefront of Soviet nuclear science.
As a relatively brief look into Central Asia, a skimming of its history, and the transformations that have happened to it since the end of the Soviet Union, Sovietistan is a fun, enjoyable, and intriguing read that sheds light on a little understood land. Easy to read, with a good sense of humor and irony, and which flies by as the author travels across the vast land.