The most recommended books on Kazakhstan

Who picked these books? Meet our 11 experts.

11 authors created a book list connected to Kazakhstan, and here are their favorite Kazakhstan books.
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A Shadow Intelligence

By Oliver Harris,

Book cover of A Shadow Intelligence

Victor Robert Lee Author Of Performance Anomalies

From the list on spy books set in Asia.

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.

Victor's book list on spy books set in Asia

Why did Victor love this book?

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.

By Oliver Harris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Shadow Intelligence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


“An absorbing, superbly written novel likely to stand as one of the best spy novels of the year.”
—Kirkus, starred review

Elliot Kane reflects the dark side of MI6. He is the instrument of an agency that puts two years and more than £100K into training recruits to steal cars, hack bank accounts, strip weapons, and employ everything from blackmail to improvised explosives in service of Crown and Country. After fifteen years overseas embroiled in events that never make the news, Kane is a ghost in his own life, assuming and shedding personalities with…

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

Kate McGovern Author Of Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen

From the list on trains.

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. 

Kate's book list on trains

Why did Kate love this book?

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.

By Monisha Rajesh,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Around the World in 80 Trains as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER AWARD FOR BEST TRAVEL BOOK SHORTLISTED FOR THE STANFORD DOLMAN TRAVEL BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD 'Monisha Rajesh has chosen one of the best ways of seeing the world. Never too fast, never too slow, her journey does what trains do best. Getting to the heart of things. Prepare for a very fine ride' Michael Palin From the cloud-skimming heights of Tibet's Qinghai railway to silk-sheeted splendour on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Around the World in 80 Trains is a celebration of the glory of train travel and a witty and irreverent look at the…

Diplomatic Baggage

By Brigid Keenan,

Book cover of Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse

Nicholas Coghlan Author Of The Saddest Country: On Assignment in Colombia

From Nicholas' 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Who am I?

Author Diplomat-in-recovery Long-distance sailor

Nicholas' 3 favorite reads in 2023

Why did Nicholas love this book?

Up-and-coming fashion journalist Brigid Keenan threw in a promising career to marry – then follow – a European Union diplomat around the world on a series of diplomatic postings in exotic locales.

This is as funny a book as I’ve read in years. When I passed it on to my own spouse (who gamely accompanied me on six postings as a “dependent” from Mexico to South Sudan), I watched her nodding silently in amusement and recognition at one episode after another.

But it’s a serious account, too. The author constantly has to re-invent herself so as to make her life meaningful and rewarding. And when it’s all over, and the couple comes home to a tame retirement with their friends scattered all over the world, they find this is the most challenging assignment of all.  

By Brigid Keenan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

When Sunday Times fashion journalist Brigid Keenan married the love of her life in the late Sixties, little idea did she have of the rollercoaster journey they would make around the world together - with most things going horribly awry while being obliged to keep the straightest face and put their best feet forward. For he was a diplomat - and Brigid found herself the smiling face of the European Union in locales ranging from Kazakhstan to Trinidad. Finding herself miserable for the first time in a career into which many would have long ago thrown the towel, she found…

The Hungry Steppe

By Sarah Cameron,

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

Shoshana Keller Author Of Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence

From the list on modern Central Asia.

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.

Shoshana's book list on modern Central Asia

Why did Shoshana love this book?

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.

By Sarah Cameron,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Hungry Steppe examines one of the most heinous crimes of the Stalinist regime: the Kazakh famine of 1930-33. More than 1.5 million people, a quarter of Kazakhstan's population, perished. Yet the story of this famine has remained mostly hidden from view. Sarah Cameron reveals this brutal story and its devastating consequences for Kazakh society.

Through extremely violent means, the Kazakh famine created Soviet Kazakhstan, a stable territory with clear boundaries that was an integral part of the Soviet economy; and it forged a new Kazakh national identity. But ultimately, Cameron finds, neither Kazakhstan nor Kazakhs themselves integrated into Soviet…

The Silent Steppe

By Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, Jan Butler (translator),

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

Joanna Lillis Author Of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan

From the list on 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.

Joanna's book list on to summon up the spirit of Central Asia

Why did Joanna 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…

Backpacks and Bra Straps

By Savannah Grace,

Book cover of Backpacks and Bra Straps

Janna Graber Author Of A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel

From the list on travel for women.

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.

Janna's book list on travel for women

Why did Janna love this book?

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.

By Savannah Grace,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Backpacks and Bra Straps as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Savannah Grace’s best selling, award winning saga of her family’s four-year-long backpacking adventure continues. "Backpacks and Bra Straps" picks up where "I Grew My Boobs in China" leaves off, offering insights into how family dynamics are affected by such intensive togetherness as well as a candid, intriguing look at world-wide travel and the camaraderie of the backpacking community, told from a perceptive young woman’s viewpoint. This second instalment of her Sihpromatum series takes us to Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, through Western China and Tibet, and finally, to watch the sun rise over Mount Everest in Nepal. Savannah’s initial reluctance to travel…

All You Can Ever Know

By Nicole Chung,

Book cover of All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir

Matthew Pratt Guterl Author Of Skinfolk: A Memoir

From the list on heartbreaking memoirs of race and adoption.

Who am I?

I was raised as one of two white kids in a large, multiracial adoptive family by loving parents who wanted to change the world. Our parents were thoughtful about adoption, ambitious about the symbolism of our family, and raised us all to be conscious about race, to see it, and to guard against it. But the world is a lot bigger than our house and racism is insidious and so, in a way, we all eventually got swallowed up. So I started thinking hard about the dynamic relationship between race and adoption and family when I was just a kid, and I’ve never really stopped. 

Matthew's book list on heartbreaking memoirs of race and adoption

Why did Matthew love this book?

I enjoy reading stories that are complicated, with protagonists who are introspective and human. I like a memoir that raises questions, and a plot sequence that doesn’t always answer them fully. I like reading material that sits, or lingers, with you for days.

All You Can Ever Know is that kind of book. I bought it at an airport right before I got on a plane and didn’t close the cover until the last word had been read. Even then, though, I had to think about it all for a long, long while. Nicole’s story – an astonishingly honest account of her quest, as a transracial Korean adoptee, to discover her birth parents – has since become precious to me.

Beautifully written, the book is also careful, deliberate, and precise about adoption as an institution that makes and remakes families, with powerful consequences. 

By Nicole Chung,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked All You Can Ever Know as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


This beloved memoir "is an extraordinary, honest, nuanced and compassionate look at adoption, race in America and families in general" (Jasmine Guillory, Code Switch, NPR)

What does it means to lose your roots—within your culture, within your family—and what happens when you find them?

Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hope of…


By Roger Deakin,

Book cover of Wildwood

Edward Picton-Turbervill Author Of Talking Through Trees

From the list on to rewild the mind.

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. 

Edward's book list on to rewild the mind

Why did Edward love this book?

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.

By Roger Deakin,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Here, published for the first time in the United States, is the last book by Roger Deakin, famed British nature writer and icon of the environmentalist movement. In Deakin's glorious meditation on wood, the "fifth element" -- as it exists in nature, in our culture, and in our souls -- the reader accompanies Deakin through the woods of Britain, Europe, Kazakhstan, and Australia in search of what lies behind man's profound and enduring connection with trees.

Deakin lives in forest shacks, goes "coppicing" in Suffolk, swims beneath the walnut trees of the Haut-Languedoc, and hunts bushplums with Aboriginal women in…

The Dead Wander in the Desert

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

Book cover of The Dead Wander in the Desert

Sophie Ibbotson Author Of Uzbekistan

From the list on to discover the Silk Road.

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.

Sophie's book list on to discover the Silk Road

Why did Sophie love this book?

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. 

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

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Dead Wander in the Desert as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize.

From Kazakhstan's most celebrated author comes his powerful and timely English-language debut about a fisherman's struggle to save the Aral Sea, and its way of life, from man-made ecological disaster.

Unfolding on the vast grasslands of the steppes of Kazakhstan before its independence from the USSR, this haunting novel limns the struggles of the world through the eyes of Nasyr, a simple fisherman and village elder, and his resolute son, Kakharman. Both father and son confront the terrible future that is coming to the poisoned Aral Sea.

Once the fourth-largest lake on earth, it…