The reader learns a lot about all kinds of subjects, including silk farming in the Fergana Valley and the extraordinary collection of Russian avant-garde art at Nukus in the desert, 2,000 kilometres south of Moscow, the creation of the Ukraine-born Russian genius Igor Savitsky (that is one of the most gripping sections of the book).
But when Fatland branches out into more general areas it can become banal. ‘Why do we travel?’ she asks at a low moment. The material could have been slimmed: like most books, Sovietistan is too long. An afterword, written in May this year, brings the economic and political landscape up to date. Comments on border controls ushered in at independence strike a familiar note in contemporary Britain.
PPart travel diary, part sociopolitical analysis, Sovietistan seeks to keep in mind the region’s ancient history — dictated to Fatland with metronomic accuracy by identikit tour guides in the various city museums — while probing what may lie ahead. Modernity and tradition clash regularly... Fatland’s eye for the distinct nature of these countries — seamlessly conveyed in Kari Dickson’s translation — is critical. As she scrolls through Facebook and Twitter over sushi in Kazakhstan, it brings into stark contrast the strict censorship in Turkmenistan, the neighbouring country she left that morning. Her journey is dotted with well-timed coincidences.