I just finished reading Apples are from Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins. It’s a fantastic read – enjoyable but informative, told in travelogue style but stuffed with the most engaging historical and cultural points. I highly recommend it to all soon-to-be PCVs traveling to the country, and everyone else for that matter.
I thought I’d share some of the fascinating lessons from the book with you all. Subtitled “The Land that Disappeared,” it really brings up so much of Kazakhstan’s rich and tragic national history, and highlights how little outsiders know about it. Reading tales of figures I’ve learned so much about from the Russian side like Trotsky, Sakharov and Dostoevsky, this time from the perspective of their relationship with Kazakhstan, has provided much new insight.
- Apples really did originate in Kazakhstan. So, for that matter, did tulips (the inspiration for this blog’s design…the tulips on the top banner were photographed in Kazakhstan), and trousers (worn by the first Central Asian cavalry regiments).
- Most people recall that Trotsky was deported from Moscow by power-hungry Stalin in 1928. But what few people remember is what happened after that. Trotsky was sent to Kazakhstan with his wife Natalya. Their first night they slept on tables and benches in an unheated hut on the frozen Kazakh steppe. Ironically, Natalya would later consider their time in Kazakhstan a “golden period” filled with hunting, beautiful snowy scenery, and copious writing on the part of her husband (who finished his memoir there). Of course, Trotsky was later exiled even further away, outside of the Soviet Union, and was eventually murdered with an ice pick in Mexico in 1940.
- Russian literary giant (and one of my own personal favorite authors) Dostoevsky was exiled by Tsar Nicholas I in 1849 for “conspiracy of ideas.” Narrowly avoiding the death sentence, he was given four years of hard labor in Siberia followed by indefinite exile in a punishment corps in Kazakhstan. The characters he met here would serve as inspiration for many of the figures in Crime and Punishment. In the remote town of Semipalatinsk (what is now modern-day Semey in northeastern Kazakhstan), Dostoevsky collected Kazakh artifacts and began a tortured love affair with future wife Maria Isayeva.
- The Polygon, in the city of Kurchatov 100 miles east of Semey, was a top-secret test site for Soviet nuclear weapons. Andrei Sakharov (renowned Soviet scientist, inventor of the first hydrogen bomb and later human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner) flew from Moscow to Kazakhstan to witness the test detonations. Kazakhstan was seen as so remote and thinly populated that the 1/2 million inhabitants contaminated by radiation from the tests were largely ignored. Even today radiation levels in the immediate area are 200 times higher than normal, nearly everyone suffers from a radiation-related illness, and children are born to birth defects or grow up to face impotence. Information on the devastating effects was deemed classified by Soviet authorities and hidden from the public eye. Tens of thousands had to be evacuated from the vicinity of the first H-bomb test site, and Sakharov himself suffered from radiation sickness and blood disorders upon his return to Moscow. I personally worked with one of Sakharov’s descendants while on a human rights fellowship named after him when I was in college, and even visited the museum in his honor in Moscow…but never did I learn about the extent to which the Kazakh people were treated as human guinea pigs and victims of nuclear testing all those years. Finally, President Nazarbayev put his foot down and ended the testing despite direct opposition from Moscow under Gorbachev. The first thing Nazarbayev did after independence was close the Polygon and issue a decree forbidding nuclear testing of any kind on Kazakh territory…and thank goodness for that.
- In 1997, President Nazarbayev moved the Kazakh capital from Almaty (still the largest city) to Astana. Southern Almaty had expanded to capacity, with increased pollution and earthquakes. Astana provided a much more central location closer to the rest of the country, and also offered improved relations with ethnic Russians that primarily populated the north. Astana was built almost completely from scratch (complete with a 200 million-dollar-pyramid built to foster inter-religious understanding), and Nazarbayev has called the new capital “the biggest gamble” of his political career.
- The shrinking of the Aral Sea in Southern Kazakhstan (see map) is likely the greatest environmental catastrophe resulting from Soviet-era policies. The sea was one of the largest inland lakes in the world and supported a vibrant fishing industry. Tantalized by a trillion cubic meters of water, Moscow ordered huge irrigation canals to be built from the Aral to support new cotton industries in the 1960’s. This new land use resulted in the draining of the lake, incredibly high concentrations of salt unsustainable to fish, and huge amounts of pollution from fertilizers and pesticides. As of today, the sea is 10% of its former size and the water-based industries that supported the region are non-existent. Half-buried fleets of boats can be seen stranded in what are now desert dunes. The local population has suffered from higher infant mortality and cancer rates, dysentery, jaundice and anaemia. Kazakhstan’s recent dam projects have helped bring up water levels slightly in the north, but there has been little progress seen in the southern Aral regions in Uzbekistan, which remains the world’s second-largest exporter of cotton.
This country is truly amazing, and has clearly been through so much. I hope I get to see even half of what Robbins explored on his journey…and maybe I will be able to add my own chapter of observations on the ‘Land that Disappeared.’