(This book is also published under the title Apples Are From Kazakhstan).
⭐ star out of 5. ⠀
This is a weird one. I appreciated this book–it’s a travelogue of two years spent exploring Kazakhstan–but I didn’t like it at all. It did a great job selling me on how fascinating Kazakhstan and its history are, but it didn’t tell me much about them at all. Also, while there’s thankfully only one Borat reference in the whole book (I had forgotten he was even supposed to be from there) there are still only a few fleshed out portrayals of actual Kazakh people in the book.⠀
The problem is the author’s tone. Robbins (R.I.P.) was a very good British writer who unfortunately seemed to harbor a rather old school colonial explorer mentality despite having done the bulk of his work in the 2000s. This leads to some rather unfortunate contradictions in this book. While he acknowledges the pain and cultural erasure in Central Asia caused by Russian occupation and Sovietization, half of book’s 8 chapters focus on famous Russians who lived in Kazakhstan, rather than Kazakhs themselves or any of the other ethnic groups that make up the country. Robbins was invited to spend a lot of time interviewing and traveling with Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was the president of the country until 2019. If you believe the accounts in the book, Robbins and President Nazarbayev got quite friendly. This means the author had all sorts of priceless opportunities to dig deeper into Kazakhstan than Russophilia, but he doesn’t often. Most of his sensibly described friends seem to be ethnic Russians. His ethnically Kazakh friends are all described with overtones of noble savage or quirky eccentric, and the Kazakh women he encounters are all “harridans” or literal prostitutes. It’s telling that the last chapter is a conversation between Robbins and a (Kazakh) friend who calls him out for tromping through the streets of Almaty dressed like an old Soviet officer and focusing his research heavily on gulags, nuclear testing sites and industrial slums instead of the beautiful countryside and ancient history of the country. Robbins counters with a weak argument about wanting to show the true Kazakh spirit but in the end, I agree with his friend. Robbins makes Kazakhstan seem foreign and exotic, full of old monuments to oppressive regimes and strange, unappetizing food, but he rarely gives us glimpses into the Kazakh people, art, culture, or current issues except for in largely unflattering, “look at the funny foreigners” ways.
This book leaves me in search of better books about Kazakhstan because I don’t trust anything I found in its pages. I’ve heard very good things about The Silent Steppe, by Kazakh nomad writer Mukhamet Shakaykhmetov–perhaps I’ll give that a try. ⠀
One star with a vodka chaser to In Search of Kazakhstan. ⠀
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