Apples, tulips, golden eagles, nomadic horsemen, caviar, Genghis Khan, Scythians, Sarmatians, steppes, and lots of oil, uranium, natural gas, coal, iron ore, manganese, chrome ore, nickel, cobalt, copper, molybdenum, lead, zinc, bauxite, and gold; they’re all from Kazakhstan, a country that is larger than Western Europe and well on its way to wealth and modernity since becoming independent in the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Robbins, a British journalist who first became interested in Kazakhstan after talking to an Arkansas man who was traveling to Kazakhstan to meet his internet girlfriend, spent three years exploring the country and talking to its people, including many interviews with President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The book is very pro-Kazakh, and Mr. Robbins ends up with a great admiration for Mr. Nazarbayev, who has been president of the republic for over twenty years (ever since independence). Internet sources imply that Nazarbayev is either dictatorial or slightly crazy, but Mr. Robbins’ book has none of that. He presents President Nazarbayev as the architect of Kazakhstan’s growing economic prosperity and of the country’s burgeoning democracy.
In addition to the stories of Kazakh apples and the life of President Nazarbayev, the book chronicles:
the shrinking of the Aral Sea which has been called “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters.”
the imprisonment in Soviet or czarist gulags in Kazakhstan of some of Russia’s most famous exiles and “criminals”, including Leon Trotsky, Feodor Dostoyevsky, the entire nation of Chechnya, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
the Polygon in northeastern Kazakhstan, the principal test site for Soviet nuclear weapons.
the Baikonur cosmodrome and the Russian space program that launched most of its rockets from Kazakh territory.
the clash and the harmonization of the more than 100 ethnic groups that make up Kazakhstan today: Kazakhs, Russians, Uzbeks, Ukranians, Koreans, Tatars, Germans, Uighurs, and many others.
I found the book fascinating, a look at a land that is very much “off the radar” for most Americans but that may play a huge role in future world economics and geo-politics.
My interest in this country was first aroused because I have friends who several years ago adopted two children from Kazakhstan. Now I am interested because it’s a huge nation with a compelling and important history and current influence in world affairs.