“Lost Heart of Asia” Has Compelling “turn-of-phrases”

The “Steppelands” section about Kazakhstan does not appear until the eleventh chapter in Colin Thubron’s book titled “The Lost Heart of Asia.” Seemingly Thubron was preoccupied with describing his early 1990s visits to the newly independent countries more exotic, such as, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan first.  His final chapter 12 ends with his visit to Kyrgyzstan.  Perhaps we might have walked past each other on the Bishkek streets during his visit while I taught at a university in Bishkek from fall of 1993 to 1995.  But first Thubron starts out with explaining his adventure to Kazakhstan:


“I was entering the fringes of a formidable solitude.  For almost a thousand miles Kazakhstan stretched northward in rolling grasslands and dust-coloured desert.  For hours, on all sides, the land was the same, a treeless wilderness under a dead sky.  It lay like a caesura in Asia’s heart, as if this were the earth’s natural state of rest.  Here I was out of the tilled oases and into the nomadic hinterland, from where centuries of warrior-herdsmen had descended on the valleys of the south…”


“…For more than a million square miles this opaque nation sprawled between China and the Caspian.  It was the size of Western Europe.  Its people had coalesced as late as the fifteenth century from Turkic tribes which had swept in from the northeast nearly 1000 years before, and from Mongol invaders, and the Russians found them sprinkled over their vast plains in three confederate hordes.  As the czarist settlers inched towards the trading centres of the Uzbek valleys, and of Persia and China beyond, the Kazakhs fell first into alliance with Russia, then into servitude, until by the mid-nineteenth century they had all been overrun.  But they had still been a nomad people, who circled with their herds over huge migratory paths, and Islam sat light on them.” (p. 311)


“In time Kazakhstan became the waste-bin of Moscow’s empire.  A rash of labour-camps covered it, and Stalin transported whole unwanted peoples here during the Second World War.  Then the Soviets chose it as their prime atomic and nuclear testing site. Entire regions were envenomed by radioactive dust, while the titanic factories of an antiquated heavy industry still suffocate others in a toxic fog.”


“This was the most Russified of Central Asian states.  Its government, like most others, was composed of old Communists under a new name, barely irked by a mosquito-cloud of opposition parties.  Yet now it had sponsored a drive towards privatization which was biting deep in commerce and agriculture.  Quietly, with independence, the climate was changing.  The high native birth-rate had already lifted the Kazakh population just above the Russian, and the economic tied with Moscow were straining.  The mineral and energy resources of Kazakhstan – the biggest deposits of iron, copper, lead and zinc in the old USSR – were alerting international business, and Western companies cautiously investing in its gas and oil fields.”(p. 312)


“Yet the old people went on feeling nostalgia for the past.  Their bitterness, where it existed, fell far short of their sufferings.  In 1920-23, towards the end of the Civil War, almost a million Kazakhs died of famine, and later the forced collectivization was crueler here than anywhere in the Soviet Union.  Between 1930-33 a ferocious and chaotic campaign to settle the nomads and reduce the richer farmers led to Kazakhs burning their grain and slaughtering their cattle rather than let them fall into alien hands.  Almsto half the livestock of the steppes vanished.  Some people fled towards China, but only a quarter survived the trek; others were killed by the Bolsheviks.  Out of a Kazakh population of only four million, over one million died of famine or disease. By the end of the decade the Great Terror had decimated officials, teachers and whole general of early Kazakh communists.  Yet even now, with independence, people scarcely spoke of it.  The tragedy had descended on them impersonally, perhaps, on native and Russian alike, and was scarcely scrutable.” (p. 314)


Author Thubron talked to a 40 year old man who was Kazakh.  He said the following: “…Afterwards the famine came. The old people still speak of it, but there are hardly any old people left. Almost my whole village died of hunger then.’

‘How do you forgive that?’

“It was very big.  Three million of us died, you know.’ He gave a dulled, compensatory smile.  He did not try to explain anything.  This blackest estimate of three million was becoming truth all over the nation. ‘But that’s all over now.  We’re not haters.  Our people get on all right with the Russians, I’ve plenty of Russian friends.’” (p. 316)

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