“Next morning I flew to Karaganda, the second city of Kazakhstan. This was no more than a feint into the heart of a steppeland spreading thinly peopled towards Siberia, for you could travel it for weeks and encounter no one. Far down, under the wings of our groaning Tupolev, drifted an unchanging, dun-coloured earth, where cloud-shadows moved in grey lakes and there was no glint of life. It was hard to look on it without misgiving. In these secretive deserts and the grasslands lapping them to the north, the Russians had for decades concealed an archipelago of labour camps, nuclear testing sites, ballistic missiles and archaic heavy industry. It was the dumping ground of unwanted nations. Around the handful of those exiles it hammered into stature – Dostoevsky soldiered here in disgrace, Solzhenitsyn festered – millions more succumbed into death or obscurity. Trotsky spent two years banished in Almaty, before the murderer’s ice-pick found him in Mexico.”
From time to time the land had floated visions. In the late 1950s Russians and Ukrainians flooded into the northern steppes to plant a hundred million acres of wheat and barley on Kruschev’s ‘Virgin Lands’ (lands not virgin at all, but Kazakh pastures) and for a few years the scheme flowered spectacularly, before soil erosion called it to heel…” (p. 337)
“But the testing sites near Semipalatinsk have left half a million people ill with radioactive sickness, some of them – in Stalin’s time – exposed intentionally as guinea-pigs. Over a region now riddled with unfissioned plutonium, some 500 bombs, exploded over forty years, have undermined a bewildered populace with cancers, leukemia, heart disease, birth defects and blindness, so that the first act of an independent Kazakhstan in 1990 was to ban all tests on its territory. All across this blighted country, lead smelters and copper foundries, cement and phosphates works still plunge the skies and waters in poisonous effluent, and some two million Kazakhs and Russians are rumoured chronically sick from the pollution.” (p. 337)
In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan the author met a writer named Kadyr. He informed Thubron of the following problem: “We’ve hundreds of writers, but no money…and our publishers can’t get paper. It used to come to us from Russia, but now everything’s atrophied. So at last we have our freedom to write – but no paper!” His lank hair and glasses lent him a juvenile charm which drifted on and off. An ingrained wariness pervaded him. Questions turned him vague. ‘There was always too much that we couldn’t say. We couldn’t draw on our traditions or write our own history. Now our spiritual situation is richer, far richer, but our material one is hopeless.”
‘What did you used to write about?’
‘My novels were about nature,’ he said quickly, as if exculpating himself from something, ‘how the mountains sit in people’s spirits, and how people relate to them and to one another. There are inhabitants of Bishkek like that, and I suppose I’m one of them…People call us ‘the mountain people’ because we’ve never really left the wilds.”
To write about the mountains, I supposed, was a covert way of expressing patriotism.
‘It wasn’t dangerous,’ he said, ‘Nature is nature, whoever is in power.’”