The real story out of Kazakhstan isn’t Borat, it’s oil. No sooner did this sprawling Central Asian state declare independence in 1991 than foreign investors began jockeying for a piece of the action. But for the excitable Arkansan heading there to meet his mail-order bride at the start of Christopher Robbins’s engaging if somewhat starry-eyed travelogue Apples Are from Kazakhstan, the place still smacks more of myth than of reality. “That country’s got gold and every other metal, and more oil than the Arabs. And they’re building a shiny new capital out in the middle of the prairie, pretty as a picture,” the bridegroom enthuses to Robbins. Two years later, Robbins himself makes the trip in the hope of uncovering an unsung Eden in the land where apples reportedly originated, only to find orchards heavy with unpicked fruit while shrink-wrapped imports fill supermarket shelves.
Kazakhstan’s oil-rich economy may be booming, but the ironies of post-Soviet life are everywhere to be found. Robbins briskly crisscrosses the country, from the neo-Soviet chic of upscale Almaty to the bizarre moonscape of the Aral Sea, which has retreated from its former shoreline by as much as a hundred miles since its waters were diverted for a massively misguided irrigation project in the 1960s. Farther north, he visits a toxic area where nuclear weapons were tested and interviews a survivor of one of the country’s Stalin-era labor camps. Kazakhstan’s remoteness kept it high on the list for everything Moscow preferred to keep out of sight—including Chechens, Volga Germans, and other nationalities brutally deported there. These ethnic influxes, coupled with the resettlement of millions of Russians, left Kazakhstan with a majority non-Kazakh population when independence was finally declared. Robbins breathes life into this history by drawing on the accounts of prior visitors, from Dostoyevsky, Trotsky, and Solzhenitsyn, who were exiled there, to dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, whose horror at the nuclear tests he witnessed turned him against the weapon he had helped create.
One of the challenges of writing about post-Soviet countries is weighing tales of setbacks against those of progress, which is why it comes as such a surprise when Robbins chooses Nursultan Nazarbayev, former head of the Kazakh Communist Party and president of Kazakhstan for the past eighteen years, as one of his guides on the ground. Thanks to a well-connected businessman, Robbins is able to meet the president and to spend the next two years interviewing him and accompanying him to otherwise inaccessible sites. The Nazarbayev he portrays is a pragmatic idealist: cautious when it comes to economic and national security but gifted with the pioneering vision of Peter the Great, a leader who similarly signaled his country’s reawakening with the founding of a new capital three hundred years ago. Among Nazarbayev’s futuristic plans for Astana, Kazakhstan’s decade-old seat of government, is a yurt-shaped pleasure dome complete with golf course, underground shopping mall, and sandy beaches.
The catch is that Nazarbayev often appears to be Robbins’s main authority on a country that has come under serious criticism for corruption, media control, and the suppression of political opposition. Less than two years after winning reelection in 2005 with a staggering 91 percent of the vote, Nazarbayev signed a constitutional amendment exempting his presidency from term limits. Yet Robbins, who sometimes worries about becoming too “gung-ho,” dwells on Nazarbayev’s efforts to “further democratize the political system” instead of offering a real sense of balance. As he notes, the path to democracy is a winding one, but travelers can only gain from listening to new voices along the way.