The best books on Kazakhstan

Many authors have picked their favorite books about Kazakhstan and why they recommend each book.

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The Silent Steppe

By Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, Jan Butler (translator),

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

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.


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.

Sihpromatum - Backpacks and Bra Straps

By Savannah Grace,

Book cover of Sihpromatum - Backpacks and Bra Straps: Backpacks and Bra Straps

Continuing the saga that began in her first book, I Grew My Boobs in China, Savannah Grace moves into new territory with Backpacks and Bra Straps, which takes the reader to Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, through Western China, and into Tibet. Grace gracefully weaves in interpersonal dynamics of traveling with family and the backpacking community while coming-of-age during travel in Asia.

Who am I?

Travel teaches and molds us. It certainly changed my own life. At age 19, I picked up my backpack and schoolbooks and moved from America to Austria. That experience opened my eyes to the world, and I’ve never looked back. Today, I’m a travel journalist, author, and editor at Go World Travel Magazine. I’m always on the lookout for fascinating tales of travel, but I especially appreciate learning from other female adventurers. They continue to inspire me. I hope these books will inspire you, too.


I edited...

A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel

By Janna Graber,

Book cover of A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel

What is my book about?

The recipe is simple -- take 22 adventurous women, drop them into fascinating destinations around the globe and add exceptional storytelling. The result is a compelling women's travel anthology called A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel.

A Pink Suitcase brings together a talented group of daring women as they journey across the globe on adventures that are as unforgettable as they are moving. These intrepid explorers take on the world with wide eyes, an open heart, and a woman's point of view. They tackle Mother Nature, dive into other cultures, and try new things. And in the process, they learn not only about new people and places, but uncover their own hidden strengths.

The Hungry Steppe

By Sarah Cameron,

Book cover of The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan

The Kazakhs suffered a devastating famine 1928–1932 that was caused by Stalin’s collectivization campaign. Because the Kazakhs were nomadic herders, the first step was to “modernize” them by forcing them to become settled farmers. Cameron uses Russian- and Kazakh-language sources to show how Soviet communism’s obsession with creating modern nations led to near-genocide.


Who am I?

I am a historian of Russia and Eurasia at Hamilton College. I teach courses on Russian history, Central Asia, and the modern Middle East. We usually think of these as separate regions of the world, but in fact they are all connected across the vast Eurasian continent. Russians, Turks, Iranians, Mongols and more have been intertwined with each other throughout their histories. My formal research specialty is Soviet Central Asia. I have written on Stalin’s attempt to destroy Islam, on education and creating a historical narrative for Uzbekistan, and on cotton and manual labor under Khrushchev.

Many people are fascinated by the ancient Silk Road, but don’t know much about how we got from there to the “Stans” that emerged out of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. These books showcase the most recent scholarship on how Central Asia was gradually taken over by the Russian and Chinese empires, and how the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were created, as well as Xinjiang Province in the People’s Republic of China.


I wrote...

Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence

By Shoshana Keller,

Book cover of Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence

What is my book about?

Russia and Central Asia provides an overview of the relationship between two dynamic regions, highlighting the ways in which Russia and Central Asia have influenced and been influenced by Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. This readable synthesis, covering early coexistence in the seventeenth century to the present day, seeks to encourage new ways of thinking about how the modern world developed.

Shoshana Keller focuses on the five major "Stans": Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Cultural and social history are interwoven with the military narrative to provide a sense of the people, their religion, and their practices – all of which were severely tested under Stalin.

The Dead Wander in the Desert

By Rollan Seisenbayev, John Farndon (translator), Olga Nakston (translator)

Book cover of The Dead Wander in the Desert

The shrinking of the Aral Sea is arguably the greatest manmade environmental disaster of the 20th century. Kazakh writer Rollan Seisenbayev uses the catastrophe as the backdrop for his novel, exploring the impact on local people through the eyes of a fisherman and his son who are confronted not only with the vanishing sea but as a result also the disappearance of their livelihood and future. The Dead Wander in the Desert was long-listed for the PEN Translation Prize and deserves to be much more widely read. 


Who am I?

When I first visited Central Asia in 2008, little did I know that it would become the focus of my life and work. I now advise the World Bank and national governments on economic development, with a particular focus on tourism, and I’m the Chairman of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. I am Uzbekistan’s Ambassador for Tourism, a co-founder of the Silk Road Literary Festival, and I’ve written and updated guidebooks to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the Silk Road.


I wrote...

Uzbekistan

By Sophie Ibbotson,

Book cover of Uzbekistan

What is my book about?

Bradt Travel Guides’ Uzbekistan is the best-selling English-language guidebook to Uzbekistan: The Heart of the Silk Road. Now in its 3rd edition, this guide covers not only the country’s rich history and cultural heritage, but also all you need to know about the fast-developing tourism sector. 

Around the World in 80 Trains

By Monisha Rajesh,

Book cover of Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure

I read Monisha Rajesh’s earlier travel memoir, Around India in 80 Trains, while planning my own train journey in India. In this one, she circumvents the entire globe (technically more than once in terms of mileage). It’s the kind of book I wish I’d written myself because I would love to do a train journey like this! I love Rajesh’s descriptions of the places she passes through and the people she meets along the way, and of course, how it changes her to see the world through this lens.


Who am I?

I took my first cross-country train ride with my mom when I was seven years old. That gave me the train bug. Since then, I’ve been across the United States three times via rail, across Europe, and all over northern India with my husband, too. I think train travel is a very special way to see a place. You’re going past backyards and back roads. You see the whole landscape, and you meet so many people you wouldn’t otherwise. I’ve never set out to write a “train book,” but trains play an important role in two of my three novels. I can’t get away from them, even in my imagination. 


I wrote...

Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen

By Kate McGovern,

Book cover of Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen

What is my book about?

Maple Mehta-Cohen has been keeping a secret: she can’t read all that well. She has an impressive vocabulary and loves dictating stories into her recorder—especially the adventures of a daring sleuth who’s half Indian and half Jewish like Maple herself—but words on the page just don’t seem to make sense to her. Despite all Maple’s clever tricks to hide her troubles with reading, her teacher is on to her, and now Maple has to repeat fifth grade. Maple is devastated—what will her friends think? 

But as Maple navigates the loss of old friendships, the possibility of new ones, and facing her reading challenges head-on, her deception becomes harder to keep up. Can Maple begin to recognize her own strengths, and to love herself—and her brain—just the way she is? 

A Shadow Intelligence

By Oliver Harris,

Book cover of A Shadow Intelligence

This novel is set in Kazakhstan, with which I have a longstanding love-hate relationship. But that's not the reason I praise the book. In 2014 The Guardian asked the espionage novelist Charles Cumming, "Has modern technology killed spy thrillers?" Oliver Harris shows us the answer is No. Deep fake videos, manipulated social media, conjured digital backstories, intentionally corrupted data sets, geotracking, wifi tricks, hacked networks-- they're all here in spades, part of the new tradecraft. They don't overwhelm the story, they feed it. Russian militias are positioning to take a bite out of snow-coated Kazakhstan-- our friends in Ukraine will be uncomfortably familiar with at least one part of this tale.


Who am I?

I write about Asia, where I have spent a chunk of my life. My non-fiction reporting has centered on Beijing's territorial ambitions, including its ongoing takeover of the South China Sea, which in a sense was prefigured by the plot of my novel Performance Anomalies. The main character, Cono 7Q, has been pecking at my brain for many years, abetted by my brushes with spooks in the underbelly of Central Asia and China. I use a pen name so my travel in certain countries can be less encumbered.


I wrote...

Performance Anomalies

By Victor Robert Lee,

Book cover of Performance Anomalies

What is my book about?

What do you do with a feral orphan spy, Cono 7Q, who is part Chinese, Russian, Brazilian, and Roma? Pit him against the greatest menace to the free world: China's Communist Party dictatorship. The conflict is framed by a trinity of women: Xiao Li, the fiery Han who as a teen was booted out by her family in Xinjiang, the western region of China, and left to earn her own survival in Kazakhstan. The Ukrainian Katerina, whose access to Kazakhstan's most powerful and ambitious minister entices the CIA to recruit her. Dimira, the steady Almaty teacher whose goodness belies her suffering and strength.

Can these three women and Cono 7Q out-maneuver the Beijing operator charged with bringing vast territories under China's thumb? Or is their real enemy betrayal, in this land of lies?

Wildwood

By Roger Deakin,

Book cover of Wildwood

This was the book that made me look again at trees, seeing them for the incredible organisms that they are. Deakin goes on an amazing adventure from Suffolk to Kazakhstan, Australia, and beyond, trying to get to the heart of why wood and trees have such profound meaning for us. If you like Wildwood, you could also try Waterlog, in which he wild-swims his way through the British Isles. He’s the perfect companion for the armchair adventurer, and a very genial writer.


Who am I?

I did a master's in Environmental Policy, and at the end of that year, I thought, "this is all very well, but there’s no point designing these policies if no one wants them." My response to the environmental crisis is to try to open people’s eyes to the beauty and wonder of Nature. If you pay close attention, you start to develop an expansive sense of the ordinary: Creation is stranger, more mysterious, and more wonderful than we can imagine. This in turn helps us to love the world more deeply, and we tend to look after things that we love. 


I wrote...

Talking Through Trees

By Edward Picton-Turbervill,

Book cover of Talking Through Trees

What is my book about?

Talking Through Trees was supposed to be a rather dry history of the gardens in St John’s College, Cambridge, but what came out when I sat down to write it was altogether more unexpected. The book is a rhapsody on the trees in the college’s garden, flowing between anecdote, history, biology, poetry, and philosophy. It was augmented by 35 wonderful woodcuts produced by Angela Lemaire for the book and printed by hand at the Old Stile Press. My favourite lines are "A tree is a river in reverse. A river converges on its trunk, and a tree diverges from its source. Humans are both wood and water, since our arteries are trees, and our veins are rivers."

This book is available here.

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