Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland (translated by Kari Dickson) looked as if it was going to be a daunting brick of a book of 477 pages, but it surprised me by being an alarmingly rapid read. Fatland wrote it in her native Norwegian and Dickson produced such an excellent translation that, barring only a couple turns of phrase a native English speaker would never say, it was difficult to tell that this book wasn’t originally written in English. For 477 pages, that’s pretty good.
I was hooked as I read about Fatland’s treks through the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia in the early 2010’s. She made the trip on her own yet with obligatory guides and drivers where necessary. Turkmenistan, covered in the first chapter, is the most bizarre of the Asian republics in its paranoia and personality cult of a regime. A comparison to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would be accurate in that Fatland was never let out of sight (or when she thought she was, she knew someone was watching or listening). The only part where the book d-r-a-g-g-e-d was the section entitled The Great Game within the chapter on Tajikistan where Fatland spent far too long outlining the failed attempts to conquer Central Asia, most recently by the British and Soviets. I was lulled to sleep at times, but the history of the Wakhan Corridor revived me. Aside from those pages, she wrote with a degree of intellectual curiosity that was infectious. Unlike some travel storytellers, Fatland didn’t look down on the people or places she visited. She didn’t use cultural differences as a way to ridicule those that were different from her. Her language skills worked to her advantage, as she attempted to speak to the people she met in their native tongue, falling on Russian as a lingua franca.
Among her many adventures within each republic, my favourites were travelling down the empty multi-lane highway in downtown Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, among the white marble buildings and statues of its late dictator. I also enjoyed her trek across the salty bed of the former Aral Sea. She talked to Kyrgyz women who were kidnapped into marriage, who, surprisingly, didn’t mind being abducted. That section had the best of all subchapter titles: “Don’t Cry, You are My Wife Now”. The history of cotton production in Uzbekistan, and the evaporation of the Aral Sea there to divert its water for irrigation, was also of great interest.
Since the book had no index it was difficult to relocate passages (such as that about the Wakhan Corridor) and although the pagination left roughly 95 pages to each republic it was still no easy task to find things, in spite of the subchapter titles. I always keep notes when I read and I realized how important it was to do so without an index. I found a few editing gaffes that should be corrected by the next printing, such as the confusion of the years on p. 46. Fatland wrote that Saparmurat Niyazov was born on February 19, 1949, yet in the very next sentence stated that his father died during the Second World War, and in the sentence after that she wrote that his mother died in an earthquake in 1948. So was Niyazov born after both his parents had died? The imprint I read was meant for a British audience as British spellings such as tyre were used, so I suppose the UK indecisiveness over the metric versus imperial systems allowed the author to alternate between kilometres and miles. And in discussing the sheer size of Russia and Kazakhstan, she erred in stating “The Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, today’s Kazakhstan, accounted for twelve per cent of the total area of the Soviet Union, which was a staggering 22,402,200 square metres.” (emphasis mine). Perhaps this was a translator error or a slip of the printer. I’d like to see what the original Norwegian text said.
I thoroughly enjoyed Sovietistan, and the author’s bibliography has led me to request two books via interloan.