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.

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The books I picked & why

Eastern Approaches

By Fitzroy Maclean,

Book cover of Eastern Approaches

Why did I love 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. 

By Fitzroy Maclean,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eastern Approaches as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

70th Anniversary Edition with a New Foreword by Sunday Times Bestselling Author Simon Sebag Montefiore

'A classic' Observer | 'A legend' Washington Post | 'The best book you will read this year' Colonel Tim Collins

Posted to Moscow as a young diplomat before the Second World War, Fitzroy Maclean travelled widely, with or without permission, in some of the wildest and remotest parts of the Soviet Union, then virtually closed to foreigners. In 1942 he fought as a founder member of the SAS in North Africa. There Maclean specialised in hair-raising commando raids behind enemy lines, including the daring and…

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 did I love 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.

By Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, Jan Butler (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Silent Steppe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a first-hand account of the genocide of the Kazakh nomads in the 1920s and 30s. Nominally Muslim, the Kazakhs and their culture owed as much to shamanism and paganism as they did to Islam. Their ancient traditions and economy depended on the breeding and herding of stock across the vast steppes of central Asia, and their independent, nomadic way of life was anathema to the Soviets. Seven-year-old Shayakhmetov and his mother and sisters were left to fend for themselves after his father was branded a "kulak" (well-off peasant and thus class enemy), stripped of his possessions, and sent…

Book cover of The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years

Why did I love 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.

By Chingiz Aitmatov,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

" . . . a rewarding book." -Times Literary Supplement

Set in the vast windswept Central Asian steppes and the infinite reaches of galactic space, this powerful novel offers a vivid view of the culture and values of the Soviet Union's Central Asian peoples.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Bagila Bukharbayeva,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Vanishing Generation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As a young reporter in Uzbekistan, Bagila Bukharbayeva was a witness to her countrys search for an identity after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While self-proclaimed religious leaders argued about what was the true Islam, Bukharbayeva shows how some of the neighborhood boys became religious, then devout, and then a threat to the country's authoritarian government. The Vanishing Generation provides an unparalleled look into what life is like in a religious sect, the experience of people who live for months and even years in hiding, and the fabricated evidence, torture, and kidnappings that characterize an authoritarian government. In doing…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Christopher Aslan Alexander,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Carpet Ride to Khiva as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Silk Road conjures images of the exotic and the unknown. Most travellers simply pass along it. Brit Chris Alexander chose to live there. Ostensibly writing a guidebook, Alexander found life at the heart of the glittering madrassahs, mosques and minarets of the walled city of Khiva - a remote desert oasis in Uzbekistan - immensely alluring, and stayed.

Immersing himself in the language and rich cultural traditions Alexander discovers a world torn between Marx and Mohammed - a place where veils and vodka, pork and polygamy freely mingle - against a backdrop of forgotten carpet designs, crumbling but magnificent…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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

9,000+ 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 26 books about Central Asia
World War 2 Explore 1,535 books about World War 2
The Soviet Union Explore 282 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.