Why Do We Travel? On Erika Fatland’s ‘Sovietistan’

Social anthropologist Erika Fatland eschews many of the clichés of Post-Soviet travel writing, providing an incident-packed trip to a vast, often-overlooked region in Sovietistan.

Sovietistan: A Journey Through Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan
Erika Fatland
Pegasus Books
January 2020

Post-Soviet Central Asia is a vast region comprising some of the world’s newest nations. It is rarely discussed in the West, often poorly understood, and occasionally subject to ridicule. (Sacha Baron Cohen remains a loathed figure in Kazakhstan due to his Borat character.) This newly published English translation of Sovietistan: A Journey Through Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland offers an opportunity for sustained reflection on the region.

Fatland, a social anthropologist by training, visits
the constituent parts the world that has fascinated her since she pored over maps of the region as a child. This fascination only deepened once she began to travel and do research in Russia and became increasingly interested in the peripheries of what was once the Soviet Union. The book’s less-than-subtle title evokes the spectre that haunts all territories that were once part of this sprawling social experiment. Despite the title, Fatland is careful to position the Central Asian countries as more than just post-Soviet. The region has a rich history and a breadth of cultures stretching back far beyond the creation of the Soviet Union. It also has a welter of contemporary problems that cannot be explained solely with reference to the events of the Soviet era.

In Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, Fatland finds sleek, barely-used highways, vast marble edifices, and grandiose monuments to the former leader Saparmurat Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi. The current leader, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, a former dentist, is no less of a mythmaker, but farce ensues when Berdimuhamedow falls from his horse while staging a spectacle of traditional Turkmen sports for the TV cameras. Fatland portrays Turkmenistan as a dictatorship governed by bizarre, almost comical rules; deadpan and hermetically sealed.

In Kazakhstan, Fatland finds things are comparatively liberal, but traces of past traumas still remain: the barely-inhabited steppes are a result of the dismantling of the traditional Nomadic way of life in the 1930s, and Karlag, one of the Soviet Union’s biggest prison camps, is now a museum.

In Tajikistan, she spends time in a Yaghnobi village, meeting this lesser-known ethnic group who are considered descendants of the ancient Sogdian civilization. Despite their storied past, they seem uninterested in sharing the remaining traces of their Zoroastrian traditions with the author. Crossing into Kyrgyzstan, she finds the tradition of bride kidnapping sadly still alive, and she also visits the remote, sparsely-populated Pamir mountains.

A highlight of the final leg of Fatland’s journey is her visit to the Nukus Museum of Art in Uzbekistan, a museum surrounded by desert and containing one of the world’s largest collections of Russian avant-garde art. This brief summary merely highlights some of the remarkable set-pieces in Sovietistan. There are many more memorable anecdotes and vivid portraits of the people she meets.

In addition to taking the reader on the fascinating journey outlined above, Sovietistan highlights what an ethnic mosaic the region is: from the Silk Road’s dispersal of ethnic groups, to the Plattdeutsch speaking German dissenters who settled in Kyrgyzstan during the 19th century, to Stalin’s attempts at re-configuring the Soviet Union by deporting various ethnic groups to Kazakhstan. Fatland points out that prior to the 20th century, Central Asia’s various ethnic groups were dispersed across the whole of the region. The borders were drawn by the Soviets with little care for demographics, she argues, in order to create republics that would feel closer to Russia than to each other. This is borne out by the much closer relationship the stans now have with Russia compared with other Post-Soviet countries.

It is to Fatland’s credit that she eschews many of the clichés of Post-Soviet travel writing. Invoking ruins has, since the end of the Soviet Union, become something of a platitude in writing about the region. Ruins do feature in Sovietistan, but Fatland draws our attention to remnants of much older civilizations. Merv, the once-booming Silk Road city located in present-day Turkeminstan, is one of several historical historic locations Fatland visits.

The potted histories that are interspersed throughout Fatland’s anecdotes add another layer to the book. Brief but enlightening summaries of the Great Game, the Silk Road, and Central Asia’s many contributions to the Islamic Golden Age give context to Fatland’s journey and hammer home the fact that places such as Merv, perhaps unfamiliar and obscure-seeming to many Anglophone readers, were once of vital importance; teeming centres of learning and trade.

Colin Thubron‘s classic The Lost Heart of Asia (Vintage, 2004) covers much of the same ground as Sovietistan but was written in the early 1990s when the countries were newly independent. Thubron’s musings on whether these countries will turn to Islam for guidance or form another mini communist bloc seem positively quaint today. In addition, he describes his journey through the region as he describes all his journeys: in high-flown literary prose.

While this reviewer has the highest respect for Thubron, what is so refreshing about Fatland is her predilection for deliberate moments of bathos and deconstruction. An eagle hunt in Kyrgzystan is in fact a staged spectacle for the benefit of Russian TV cameras, proving entirely too gory for the presenter. Meanwhile, the description of a competition between the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan to have the world’s tallest flagpole verges on Swiftian.

Fatland never comes across as sneering, as travel writers often can, just amused and occasionally exasperated. The latter is particularly noticeable when an agonizingly long train journey across Kazakhstan (a country approximately the size of Western Europe) prompts the following reflection:

Why do we travel? Why do we put ourselves through all the discomfort that moving across great distances and staying in faraway, foreign lands usually entails? My theory is that nature has equipped us with deceitful, flawed memories. That is why we forever set off on new adventures. Once we are home again, the discomfort transforms itself into amusing anecdotes, or is forgotten.

One of the major talking points about post-Soviet Central Asia in the West has been its political stagnation since the early ’90s. However, the passing of a generation since the Soviet collapse means that things have begun to change. Much has happened since 2014 when Sovietistan was first published in Norwegian, and Fatland addresses this in the book’s afterword, written in April 2019. Here, the death of long-serving Uzbek president Islam Karimov in 2016, and the resignation of Kazakhstan’s even longer-serving president Nursultan Nazarbayev in March 2019, are covered. The conclusion is judiciously cautious, with grim news intermingled with hope for the region. Whatever happens, Sovietistan is unlikely to be Fatland’s final word on Central Asia.

RATING 8 / 10