First published in 1992, Marat Akchurin’s East European and Central Asian travelogue is an evocative trip back in time, to the waning days of the USSR.
The year 1990 found Akchurin, poet, publisher and translator, living in Moscow and observing his changing country with wary hope for democracy. Interested in seeing for himself the reaction outside Moscow, he decided to drive through Russian territory and the USSR’s oft-ignored, yet resource-rich, south, including the (now independent) republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, his own native Uzbekistan, and more.
Akchurin’s trip takes him over rough, ill-maintained roads and sees him fending off roaming youth gangs and barracks-brutalized soldiers, using whatever means he can to book hotel rooms from uncooperative clerks. His travails illustrate the countless deprivations and small indignities of daily Soviet life.
His journey also points toward the vast empire’s undecided future, about which everyone he encounters has opinions. A Kazakh intellectual argues for a huge new “Pan-Turkic” country and an Uzbek poet for creation of an independent state. Akchurin encounters few remaining Communist diehards. They include, in one of Akchurin’s many vivid character sketches, a fanatical ex-fireman who dresses “like a twin of Stalin’s” and “smokes a hand-rolled cigarette made from a page of Pravda.
Yet beyond the Communist present and undefined post-Communist future, Akchurin also touches on old, pre-Communist customs. In Tadzhikistan, he visits a room where silkworms are reared, producing a “ceaseless noise … like an autumn drizzle” as they feed on mulberry leaves. In his own home neighborhood in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, he attends a wake which begins with an elder—unable to speak Arabic but defiant of official state atheism—phonetically reciting the Quran. Throughout, Akchurin reminds readers that, long before Bolshevism and even the tsars, these lands were shaped by other continent-defining conquerors, most famously Genghis Khan.
Even as Soviet Communism fades in memory, readers newly interested in Russia’s fraught relations with its neighbors will gain ample insight and pleasure from this superbly crafted account.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.