Perhaps because Central Asia is still off the beaten track, it attracts its fair share of travel writers, maybe more than its fair share, from the venerable Colin Thurbon (who has two, The Lost Heart of Asia and Shadow of the Silk Road), two by horse (The Last Secrets of the Silk Road by Alexandra Tolstoy and On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads by Tim Cope) and the cleverly-entitled Out of Steppe by Daniel Metcalfe and Postcards from Stanland by David Mould. Fortunately for Erika Fatland, the region is changing so quickly that no one, not even Thurbon, remains definitive for long: there’s always room for a new entry.
Unlike all these others, furthermore, Fatland’s Sovietistan is also a translation of a Norwegian original which won the 2015 Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize for Nonfiction. Not, it must be said, that anything in the book gives that away: if the goal of translation is to be transparent, then Kari Dickson must be at the peak of her craft. It’s entirely colloquial; some references to Oslo aside, the only thing that gives Fatland away as something other than the otherwise expected Anglosaxon travel-writer is that in the book she communicates in Russian, German and Finnish (her bio says she also speaks English, French, Italian and Spanish—and presumably Norwegian).
Even at 400 pages, the book is a whistle-stop trip through five countries, multiple environments from desert to steppe and farmland to snow-capped mountains, ancient cities, traditional cultures to burgeoning metropolises modern in form if not always in substance. Fatland includes extensive detours into Soviet and more ancient history, as well as recent history, politics, culture and environmental issues. The result is a series of wide-ranging if not always connected vignettes: from a marble-encrusted Ashgabat to ersatz falconing in Kyrgyzstan. In between she talks—as one does—to guides, truck and taxis drivers, young mothers, an archaeologist, fellow train passengers, one of the few remaining ethnic Germans from a centuries’ old diaspora of Mennonites, immigration officials, a TV reporter.
Fatland takes particular interest—rather more than her male fellow travelers have been wont to do—in the status of women in a region where men can be allowed multiple wives (or just have them) and where wives are often abandoned when the men go to work in Russia. Fatland is also a social anthropologist as well as a writer, training that occasionally comes to the fore as in the relatively detailed discussion of Kyrgyz “wife-kidnapping” in which young women are bundled into cars and forced into marriage. Fatland has a long section on a very different sort of gender problem: Gulnara Karimova, the elder daughter of the late Uzbek president Islam Karimov, who at various times was ambassador, rock star, entrepreneur, fashion and jewelry designer with a Harvard masters degree to boot. In an epilogue, Fatland notes that she is now, after the change in regime, in prison.
Fatland has an eye for the absurd—in addition, that is, to Gulnara Karimova—something not difficult in a region where buildings are made to look like books and statues of dictators rotate to face the sun, or when a president falls from his horse in front of the TV cameras. But she also has a soft spot for ordinary people making do in difficult circumstances, as well as extraordinary accomplishments in extraordinarily difficult circumstances such as the Nukus Museum of Art, a repository of Soviet avant-garde art isolated in the deserts of Uzbekistan.
Why did she go? Wanderlust, it seems. There’s hardly any discussion of Central Asia’s geopolitical role betwixt Russia, China and the US and other than noting the relative lack of civil liberties, little discussion of the countries’ political outlooks. If anything, Fatland is—despite the title—attempting to give these five countries their own identities free of, and which predate by millennia, the Soviet interlude.
Those who want to read about contemporary Central Asia are usually left choosing between academic monographs, often dry and dense with political and economic minutiae, or travel-writing which runs on anecdote and is less than definitive. Fatland however is an engaging writer with an excellent translator. Completeness would have been an impossible objective. Fatland chooses the individual tesserae of her mosaic well: stand back and a picture comes into view. Those new to the region can do far worse than start with her.