“Sovietistan” by Erika Fatland

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Sovietistan is one of the best books ever to get in touch with Central Asia, an incredible region, full of contradictions and treasures and which, precisely for this reason, needs to be explored more than ever.


With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the five republics of Central Asia hitherto controlled by Moscow gained independence. Over the course of seventy years of Soviet rule, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the countries that, from the world’s highest mountain ranges to the desert, once marked the route of the Silk Road, have somehow passed directly from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. And after twenty-five years of autonomy, all five nations are still in search of their identity, squeezed between east and west and between old and new, in the center of Asia, surrounded by great powers like Russia and China, or by restless neighbors like Iran and Afghanistan. The contrasts unite them: decades of Soviet rule coexist with local administrations, the exorbitant wealth given by gas and oil with the most extreme poverty, the cult of personality with archaic customs still vital.


And while the steppes are filled with ultramodern buildings and opulent villas inhabited by the new despots, the passion for carpets and bazaars, the love for horses and camels, and countless traditions that make a visit to the region and its inhabitants continue to survive. unforgettable. In her grandiose reportage on the countries on the outskirts of the former Soviet Union, Erika Fatland combines in-depth research and geopolitical analysis with the taste of adventure, creating a fascinating travelogue, which explores society, ancient and recent history and the culture of lands that no one had told with such elegant and seductive prose.

A journey to Central Asia

In Sovietistan we could enjoy a fabulous journey through the 5 states that make up Central Asia, an incredible area where thousands of cultures and stories meet. Erika Fatland will begin her journey in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, then moving to the immense Kazakhstan, the 9th largest country in the world.


After a brief return to Norway due to the prohibitive summer climates of the area, he will then visit Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and finally Uzbekistan, the country of the legendary Samarkand and Bukhara. A reportage that, also thanks to the variety and quantity of topics covered, always manages to be exciting and intriguing, leading the reader to a sincere immersion in this hard but wonderful world.

Turkmenistan, the land of supreme leaders

In Sovietistan for each of these countries there is a recurring theme and for Turkmenistan it can only be power and how it is exercised. In fact, in the latter there is one of the heaviest dictatorships on the entire planet, so much so that many consider it even worse than that of North Korea. The previous president, Saparmurat Niyazov, in particular, looks like he really is out of a movie and in several places it is almost hoped that he really is.

The famous “Monument to neutrality”

To say, he wrote a sort of “holy book” called Ruhnama which first became mandatory to access the driver’s license and then became the only book allowed together with the Quran (although in several mosques built at the time there are engraved verses of the Ruhnama and not of the Holy Quran). Not only that, he changed some names of the months, of the week and even of the bread, replacing them with his name, and with that of his relatives. He also had the “Monument to Neutrality” built, in which a gold-plated statue of him rotated all day to follow the movement of the sun; obviously the fact remains that he had Turkmenistan wallpapered with his photos and statues because “the people want it”. It is useless to mention the thousands of abstruse laws such as the prohibition for doctors to diagnose AIDS and tuberculosis and / or the fact that one should swear to him and not to Hippocrates. In the latest: the new capital, Ashgabat, is the city with the largest number of marble buildings in the world.

Kazakhstan, the land of endless plains

Even in Kazakhstan there is still no real democracy, power is less “strong” than in Turkmenistan and this gives the opportunity to deepen and appreciate the sad Soviet history of this country. Among the 5 states, in fact, it is in the latter that the Russians made the most “experiments”, completely disrupting the life and history of its inhabitants. Before the Soviet period, the Kazakhs were semi-nomadic populations who lived by farming in this boundless territory; the communists, however, wanted it to be cultivated in that land and for this reason they stained themselves with incredible barbarism towards the population, forced to become sedentary and to lose most of their animals, their ancient treasures.


The real tragic experiments, however, were later and were essentially two: the Aral Sea and nuclear tests. Before the arrival of the Soviets, the lake was the 4th largest in the world but, to try to cultivate cotton, the Soviets built canals (which were of very low quality) which diverted the course of its tributaries, condemning it to death. Today the Aral Sea is 10 times smaller than before and it seems that at least the Uzbek side is now doomed. In Semipalatinsk, on the other hand, the Soviets tested more than 100 aerial nuclear bombs, including the first with hydrogen, and over 300 underground; all without informing the nearby population which in fact still today is among the most affected by cancer.

Tajikistan, suspended in time

In Sovietistan, Tajikistan is dominated by a sort of “suspended time”, as if everything had stopped in the land of “fairy tales”. It is no coincidence that it will be here that Erika Fatland will meet the Yaghnobi, a population bordering on the legendary who seems to be the most related in the world to the ancient Sogdian people. The latter, who dominated these lands before the arrival of the Arabs, decided to flee and take refuge in the Yaghnob valley, where they remained for centuries, hiding from the eyes of the world.

Some Yaghnobi

Only with the arrival of the Soviets were they forced to leave their valley and grow cotton on the plains of Tajikistan, to which they were not even physiologically accustomed. The result was that many of them fell ill with diseases unknown to them, dying, and seriously endangering the existence of this people. It must be said, to be honest, that the living conditions in the plains are still simpler and different Yaghnobs live permanently in those lands, while maintaining very close contacts with their own valley.

Kyrgyzstan, the only democracy in Central Asia

There are two characteristics that most of all stand out in Kyrgyzstan: democracy and mountains. The country can in fact boast the distinction of being the only one in Central Asia to be able to boast of real elections and political debate which, unfortunately, is nothing short of surprising in the area. The second aspect, however, is the one that certainly catches the eye most, so much so that thousands of tourists go to this remote land every year. Indeed, 40% of Kyrgyzstan is located on heights of over 3000 meters, with peaks such as Jengish Chokusu that even exceeds 7000 meters. It is no coincidence that even today hunting with eagles is particularly developed in the country which, before the Soviet Union, represented the most important resource for obtaining a meal.


Unfortunately, the book also reports an all too widespread “brides’ rape”, better known as “Ala kachuu”. This tradition has boomed in recent years and it is estimated that more than 10,000 women are kidnapped every year and forced to marry against their will. The problem in this case is that, especially in the countryside, where the level of education is low, this practice is mostly accepted, increasing its severity and making it seem “normal”.

The heart of the Silk Road

Of this, as of the other 4 countries, there would be too much to say but, having to choose a characteristic aspect, it is impossible not to focus on the historical one. In fact, Uzbekistan has historic and incredible cities such as Samarkand and Bukhara, which still today bewitch visitors from all over the globe for their magnificence and beauty. The two were among the most important centers of all in the famous Silk Road, becoming among the largest, richest and most renowned.

The Registan of Samarkand

Incredible characters such as Bukhari, one of the greatest hadith scholars in history, al Khwarizmi, the father of algebra and Biruni, considered by many to be “the first anthropologist”, were born in this wonderful land. Furthermore, still in Uzbekistan, one of the best qualities of silk in the world is produced, a good which, as in the past, stands out among the riches of this incredible country.

Sovietistan, a wonderful cultural journey in Central Asia

Sovietistan thus turns out to be one of the best books ever to get in touch with an incredible region, full of contradictions and treasures and which, precisely for this reason, needs to be explored more than ever. In this work, specifically, you can have a great and intense smattering both on a historical and cultural level, allowing you to have a solid base for new and incredible readings about it.

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