Aigerim Tazhi is a Kazakh poet whose writings will impress you and move you, a new and exciting voice which, thanks to the work of James Kates, a distinguished translator of Russian, can now finally be heard in English. It goes without saying that the literature of  Central Asia and the newly-independent countries of the former Soviet Union needs to be better-known, and this slim volume is a fine contribution to it.

The cover of Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present, with its photo of the massive walls of the Ark Fortress in Bukhara, is something of a bait and switch. The book flies through that period implied by picture: the “imperial conquests” of the subtitle are not those of Genghis Khan or Timur, but rather the later ones by China and Russia: conquests of Central Asia, not by.

The title of Roberto Carmack’s book is a bit misleading, as is the book’s cover, which shows two helmeted and uniformed soldiers in battle. The book is part of the Modern War Studies series, but its focus is on the administrative, institutional and ideological aspects of war in the Kazakh Republic of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. It is more sociology than military history.

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.

Although Aigerim Tazhi is Kazakh, she writes in Russian. “I live in Kazakhstan,” she is quoted in translator J Kates’s introductory essay as saying,

 

but I was born in the Soviet era. We had a common country then, a common capital (Moscow), and the main language was Russian. Therefore, in school we were taught in Russian, on the streets and at home we talked in Russian. I did not choose the Russian language, did not evaluate it in terms of its attractiveness. It’s just the language that I’ve spoken since childhood.

 

Unlike other forms of disaster—such as earthquake, flood or hurricane—famine is a distinctly political occurrence. Most often they are the product of political action that deprives people of food, either through neglect or targeted victimization. Such was the case for the nation-wide famine inflicted upon the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic—now the modern-day Central Asian state of Kazakhstan—from 1930-33.