Friday, May 13, 2011

Christopher Robbins' "Apples Are From Kazakhstan": Book Review

First off, "Borat" only earns two asides. Second, this is not as "hilarious" as one prominent blurb promises, but for a solid, rather self-effacing narrative in straightforward journalistic style, it fulfills the need for a serious introduction to this massive ex-Soviet republic. There's not a lot of excitement, but this dignified study, enhanced by Bob Gale's illustrations, reminds us of the golden era of British travelogues through Central Asia.

Robbins, while not a showy writer, conveys efficiently a lot of information from past visitors-- not all of whom traveled there willingly. He sums up Tolstoy's forced stay, Dostoevsky's harrowing brush with the firing squad, tsarist imprisonment and internal exile, Solzhenitsyn's Stalinist gulag and post-independence resentment at Kazakh national pride, and Frederick Burnaby's dogged Victorian treks at 70 below. Robbins at his best conveys the visceral thrill of each of these storied predecessors.

His own prose I found more serviceable; he rarely draws our attention to it. But it subtly works to steadily roam these forbidding steppes. Near Tolstoy's old flat, he finds his own: in true Soviet fashion it's "unfinished, but in an advanced state of decay." (52) I vaguely had heard of the WWII mass deportation/genocide of Chechens. Robbins cites a postwar report the "head of the Department of Special Deportees" reporting to Moscow on the survivors starving through two winters by eating grass: "The absence of clothes and footwear in winter could have a fatal effect on their ability to work." (qtd. 162)

Andrei Sakharov's own brush with fatality as he watched the nuclear testing that decimated much of Kazakhstan also finds the telling phrase: thousands of birds died at each explosion: "They take wing at the flash, but then fall to earth, burned and blinded." (qtd. 195) Poplars, however, flourished by the roadside of one labor camp. Political prisoners distinguished Karaganda's landscape, for each tree "had the corpses of five prisoners to feed it." (qtd. 216)

I would have liked less of Almaty the capital, formerly awash with the original apples from which it takes its name, but the gravitation of the author towards the cities and the steppes, for this is where he gets to go for his travels, is understandable. What suffered was the lack of attention to the mountains along the southern borders, but geopolitical sensitivity might be to blame. We get to see the Charyn Gorge, the answer to the Grand Canyon, but not enough for me of Mount Belukha in the Altaic range, near the fabled Shambhala. But I learned of King Arthur's possible origins with Lucius Artorius Castus, prefect of a legion quartered at York. commanding the Sarmatian cavalry, heirs to the mounted Scythian warriors who came via Pannonia, today's Hungary. Somehow, this connects Kazakhstan to Lancelot-- read pp. 91-5.

More can be found about the influx of oil money, the brave invention of Kazakh's own currency vs. the ruble after the breakup of the USSR, and the Kazakh Beatles. It concludes with a somewhat ginger (if understandably so) look at how the president, Nursultan Nazerbayev, gains over 90% of the popular vote. Robbins gets close to the ruler of this somehow 60% Slav but Sunni Muslim nation, whose multiethnic descendents of the Golden Horde, of exiles, of oilmen, of deportees manages to make petrodollars replace caviar in this vast, still little-known, region. (Posted to Amazon US 4-18-10)

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