The best books to summon up the spirit of Central Asia

Who am I?

I am a reporter and author with a passion for seeking out stories less told, and there are plenty of those in Central Asia, where I made my home more than two decades ago: first in Uzbekistan and, since 2005, in Kazakhstan. I have found telling overlooked tales from an overlooked region that is overshadowed by its mighty neighbours – the Russian bear to the north and the Chinese dragon to the east – to be both rewarding and valuable. I hope these book selections will bring more stories about the people who populate Central Asia to the attention of readers with inquisitive minds.


I wrote...

Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan

By Joanna Lillis,

Book cover of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan

What is my book about?

Featuring tales of murder and abduction, intrigue and betrayal, extortion and corruption, Dark Shadows is a compelling portrait of Kazakhstan exploring how a vainglorious president transformed himself into a potentate and his country into a swaggering oil-rich monocracy – and examining the tortuous fallout from his departure from power. A colourful cast of characters brings the politics to life: from strutting oligarch to psychotic presidential son-in-law, from principled politicians to striking oilmen, from crusading journalists to courageous campaigners.

Traversing dust-blown deserts and majestic mountains, glitzy cities and dystopian landscapes, Dark Shadows shows a country grappling with its past, with survivor testimony recounting a dramatic history of revolution and war, famine and flight, terror and trauma that left the Kazakhs battling for their survival as a people.

The books I picked & why

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Eastern Approaches

By Fitzroy Maclean,

Book cover of Eastern Approaches

Why this book?

In the 1990s when I worked at the British Embassy in Moscow organising social functions I met a kind, elderly, white-haired man who came to visit the ambassador. Sir Fitzroy Maclean was a distinguished former diplomat, war veteran, politician, and writer, but still he found time to chat with a lowly staff member about Soviet history – and when he got home, he sent me his book. Eastern Approaches is a captivating memoir of Maclean’s diplomatic service in the USSR during Stalin’s Terror, when he sneaked undercover into Central Asia and experienced many escapades, including run-ins with the Soviet secret police. His tales of derring-do evoke a bygone age – but his expressive portrayals of the people and landscapes of Central Asia are recognisable to anyone travelling in this alluring region today. 


The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad Under Stalin

By Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, Jan Butler (translator),

Book cover of The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad Under Stalin

Why this book?

This beautifully-crafted memoir beginning in 1930s Soviet-ruled Kazakhstan inspired me to seek out a survivor of the famine that tore through the land and left over a million Kazakhs dead during that traumatic decade. I found a feisty nonagenarian who recounted how she walked from Kazakhstan to China at the age of six to find food. Shayakhmetov’s book charts the famine and the accompanying destruction of the nomadic lifestyle the Kazakhs had led for generations until the iron fist of Soviet rule came crashing down. He lyrically evokes his carefree childhood as the son of nomadic herders, which came to an abrupt end when the Soviets seized their herds, corralled them into collective farms, and shot his father. Harrowing, but uplifting too – a story of survival against the odds.


The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years

By Chingiz Aitmatov,

Book cover of The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years

Why this book?

Socialist realism meets magic realism in this novel by Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov, which took me by surprise when I came across it just over a decade after its publication in 1980. The Soviet literature I had read was staid, but this pushed the boundaries of both literary style and censorship. In parallel plots, a railway worker marches with his camel and dog across the Kazakh steppe to bury his friend, while two cosmonauts blast into space and go visiting extra-terrestrials. The themes are way ahead of the book’s time, touching on taboos such as Stalin’s repressions and even hinting at climate change: the extra-terrestrial planet is plagued by a cosmic version of global warming. A quirky tour de force that conjures up the spirit of Soviet-era Central Asia.


The Vanishing Generation: Faith and Uprising in Modern Uzbekistan

By Bagila Bukharbayeva,

Book cover of The Vanishing Generation: Faith and Uprising in Modern Uzbekistan

Why this book?

The exquisite blue-domed mosques and madrasahs in the fabled Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara took my breath away when I first visited them while living in Uzbekistan in the early 2000s. But behind this dazzling façade lay an ugly truth: the persecution of thousands of Muslims incarcerated, tortured, demonised, and dehumanised for the crime of being too pious for the liking of Islam Karimov, the paranoid dictator who ruled for a quarter of a century. Bukharbayeva tracks down victims of these atrocities to give a voice to the voiceless, aiming to show the “real people behind the terrible but cold and faceless statistics of human rights abuses.” In this important chronicle that records this repression for posterity, written with passion and oozing with empathy, she succeeds beyond measure.


A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road

By Christopher Aslan Alexander,

Book cover of A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road

Why this book?

As I perched on the ramparts of the citadel in Khiva one sunny morning in autumn of 2001, the scene in the bazaar below of sellers hawking everything from recalcitrant sheep to giant melons and elaborately-carved furniture summoned up the exotic past of a town once traversed by caravans of merchants plying their trade between China and Europe. But what is compelling about this book is its focus not on Khiva’s illustrious history but on the present-day lives of the people the author encountered when he lived among them running a carpet-making workshop. Fascinating both for its forensic exploration of that ancient craft and for the sensitive depictions of the people of Khiva, this book is a true tale of the modern-day Silk Road.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Central Asia, World War 2, and the Soviet Union?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Central Asia, World War 2, and the Soviet Union.

Central Asia Explore 21 books about Central Asia
World War 2 Explore 975 books about World War 2
The Soviet Union Explore 226 books about the Soviet Union

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Devils' Dance, Pipe Dreams, and The Great Game if you like this list.