In Search of Kazakhstan:
The Land that Disappeared

Christopher Robbins

Profile Books 2007
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
In Search of Kazakhstan interleaves personal travel narrative with biography and history in a mix that's lightweight but entertaining.

Robbins' own stories are fun, but he doesn't appear to speak Kazakh or Russian and his sources and perspectives are very much those of Western-educated elites. His potted history covers topics such as the origin of apples in Kazakhstan, the Kazakh connections with the Mamelukes and King Arthur, Stalin's relocation of entire populations into the Kazakh steppe, the workings of the gulag, nuclear testing, the ecological disaster that is the Aral Sea, the attempted coup against Gorbachev, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its aftermath, and the move of the capital to Astana.

Most of this is presented biographically. The recent political history, for example, is seen through the experiences of president Nazarbayev, as gleaned from interviews. There are extended biographical snapshots of the Russians Vavilov, Trotsky, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky, and Zhirinovsky and the British explorer Burnaby. And the local figures featured include eagle hunters, archaeologists, entrepreneurs, and a Beatles fan and imitator.

There's often little context to these stories. A personalised account of the relationship between Vavilov and Lysenko doesn't give much idea of the damage the latter did to Soviet science. The reader who doesn't know anything about Trotsky isn't going to go away with an understanding of why he was so important. And so forth. These stories may work best for those with some background knowledge: it is readers of Dostoyevsky, for example, who will most enjoy the account of his life as a prison exile in Semipalatinsk.

In Search of Kazakhstan is an easy, entertaining and lightly informative read which will help put Kazakhstan on the map for people who would otherwise know nothing about it. It includes a map but no details of references or sources.

August 2008

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%T In Search of Kazakhstan
%S The Land that Disappeared
%A Robbins, Christopher
%I Profile Books
%D 2007
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781861978684
%P 296pp