In Search of Kazakhstan Book Review

Last week I wrote a post about the historic signing of “The Declaration of Alma-Ata” in modern day Almaty. I’ve spent my time since then reading more contemporary reports from the WHO and Work Bank concerning disease and health investments in Kazakhstan and global mobile phone technologies, which make for considerably less interesting blogging. However, I picked up a copy of “In Search of Kazakhstan” by Christopher Robbins, which has thus far made a fascinating read.

Robbins, a writer associated with the Daily Telegraph and various other magazines and newspapers in Britain, describes his initial fascination with the country:

The subjects of my books always come to me obliquely, from stage left – so to speak – disguised as something else. In this case it was my near total ignorance of Kazakhstan that was the hook. I sat beside a man from Arkansas on a flight to Moscow who was on his way to marry an Internet bride. It struck me that the only things I knew about the place were that it has a lot of steppe, nomads, and was on the Silk Route… and that was it! As my travelling companion left for his connecting flight, he said, “Apples are from Kazakhstan!” The phrase stuck with me… and somehow captured my imagination. And I ended up writing a book about the place.

The focus was the question – How did a country the size of Western Europe disappear out of sight and mind of the West for 150 years? And I discovered the quick answer is that the Tsars closed it to European travellers in the 19th century, as they ruthlessly pushed their empire south, and then the Soviets sealed it tight, so they could send up their sputniks, test their nuclear weapons, and built their Gulag. So Kazakhstan had a whole secret, untold history, which was fascinating. Pay dirt for a writer.

I can certainly relate to the ignorance on the country (in fact, I plan on writing a blog post soon about the perspective on Kazakhstan I’ve seen as I tell people about my trip. More soon!). The book is written as a travelogue, and is a highly engaging for any westerner interested in seeing Kazakhstan as described by the various people Robbins meets along the way. One person in particular, Baurzhan, is an ethnic Kazakh businessman whom Robbins meets while out clubbing in Almaty. Baurzhan describes the hectic days soon after Soviet independence:

Inflation was running at 30 per cent a month at least. So you took a loan from a bank in local currency, used it to buy dollars, and waited. You’d pay off the loan and borrow twice as much money the next month. And buy more dollars. And so on. Easy money!..

…You go to Uzbekestan or Kyrgyzstan and there are a few very rich people, Richer even than our rich – and we have half a dozen billionaires listed in Forbes. But in these other countries it’s unbelievable. Crazy rich. But they have no middle class. People have no hope for a better life. Ever. So it’s a mess. A middle class was made here- you make a middle class, you make a country.

While I can’t speak with any authority (without doing some serious research) on the comparative wealth inequalities of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, or Uzbekistan, nor do I assume that Baurzhan’s experience was in any way common or universal to the post soviet state, I think this quote by itself tells us a couple interesting things. The first is the perspective it gives us on the transition from Soviet to self governance. According to Baurzhan, the days of shady dealings ended about 1996, five years after independence. The second thing this quote shows us is a reverence and respect that even business oriented Kazakh’s have for a broadly shared prosperity, which, for all intents and purposes, has been and is being enacted in Kazakhstan.

The question is whether this occurs in spite of or promoted by the over two decade rule of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazkhstan’s constitution calls for a limit on presidential term limits, but has excluded the first president, Mr. Nazarbayev, from this requirement. While most of my classmates might balk at the prospect of a 20 year presidential reign, it appears that his regime has provided a continuity of power than has stabilized the country as it made the transition from Soviet to Post-Soviet systems. Under his watch, Kazakhstan has turned over its nuclear arsenal (a soviet heirloom), developed extremely well economically, presided over a religiously diverse but tolerant society, and advanced the role of women in society and politics. Robbins had this to say in an 2008 interview with The Book Depository:

Kazakhstan is run by a highly-intelligent and pragmatic president who has brought the country into the 21st century, and attracted the sort of western investment necessary to exploit its vast oil and mineral reserves. President Nazarbayev enjoys excellent relations with Russia, China, the dodgy southern Stans – and the United States and Iran, for heaven’s sake! He is in charge of an enormously rich, moderate Muslim country that actively promotes religious tolerance. You’d think we’d cosy up to him a little. By our standards Nazarbayev’s style is paternalistic and authoritarian, but he’s moving the country in the right direction. As they have only had a democracy for less than 20 years – and we have had one for a thousand – they are doing rather well.

I encourage you all to look up some of the Op-eds in the New York Times that President Nazarbayev has penned in the last several years. He’s an interesting character, and undoubtedly the transition from Soviet to Post-Soviet economic and political structures is a fascinating and vast topic stretching from northern Europe to central Asia. Further, the book “In Search of Kazakhstan” is an excellent read for anyone interested in or travelling to the country. I’ll be sure to quote from both in the coming weeks!

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