In 1389, as Tamburlaine the Great was making his way west along the Silk Road on his way from conquering Persia to take Delhi, he stumbled on the gravesite of one of Sufi Islam’s earliest advocates, one responsible for bringing Islam to much of that part of the world. The 200-year-old site in the middle of the Central Asian steppe was already popular with pilgrims, but it was dilapidated, and Tamburlaine figured Khoja Achmet Yassawi deserved better, so he designed and commissioned the building of an enormous mausoleum that today still ranks as one of the world’s biggest Islamic pilgrimage sites.
In 1854, Fyodor Dostoevsky, his death sentence commuted to hard labour, was excused further because of his tuberculosis and sent off to five years of military exile in the tiny town of Semipalatinsk in far eastern Siberia. There, he wrote a couple of his early novels, including Uncle’s Dream, and made his notes for Notes from the Underground, the beginning of a spectacular literary run that only ended with his death.
In 1942, Sergei Eisenstein and his entire Mosfil company were evacuated out of Moscow to Almaty, where he spent three years filming, among other things, Ivan the Terrible. The Soviets considered the location so remote as to be absolutely safe.
In 1950, nailed by Stalin’s men for writing mildly critical things about Uncle Joe in personal correspondence, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to three years of hard labour in the a small Siberian gulag called Ekibastuz, where he set his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
All of these places are now one place, Kazakhstan—a nation, it turns out, that is more familiar than we tend to think.
I decided to go to Kazakhstan before I knew any of this. It, along with the rest of Central Asia, struck me as being the perfect example of one of Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns. We know we don’t know much about Africa—is Nairobi a city or a country? Are there two Congos, or is it two Sudans? Or both?—but we know we don’t know. Central Asia, though? Land of the -stans, Siberia, the vast steppe that makes the North American Prairie look like it’s not really trying? We barely even know what we don’t know about it. I’m guessing there are a lot of us, maybe most of us, who don’t even know a place called Tajikistan exists. What about Turkistan? (Hint: one of them’s a city.) I don’t want to presume any particular ignorance on your part, but I can tell you that I didn’t know enough about the place to even ask any good questions about it.
So, after a month of so of planning, I took a Turkish Airways flight to Istanbul, and hopped a flight on the Kazakhstani national airline, Air Astana. I went all over the country: from Aktau on the Caspian Sea in the west; far east, to where the country borders on China; north to the 10-year-old capital of Astana, a sort of Dubai built by adults and the site of Expo 2017; and south to the leafy old capital of Almaty, settled since the Bronze Age and now a concrete jewel of Soviet architecture surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains.
Kazakhstan is a legitimately exotic place: an equine culture for thousands of years, residents ride their horses, hunt with them (with eagles on their shoulders), eat them, and their fermented milk, called kumys, is the national drink. They sit on the floor to eat; guests must offer speeches, one by one in order by age, praising and honoring their hosts before a meal; and they speak a language that’s an ancestor of Turkish, rendered in a 44-character version of Cyrillic. They were an oral culture into the 20th century, and their musicians, playing national instruments like the dombra and the kobys, ad lib epic songs, often describing and interpreting the scene in front of them.
But it was its half-known literary history that really grabbed my attention, adding another layer to the Rumsfeldian formulation. Kazakhstan is actually an unknowingly known unknown unknown.
Tamburlaine, or Timur as he’s more widely known, was one of those historico-literary figures that’s been perched somewhere in the recesses of my awareness since high school, when I read other things by Christopher Marlowe, but not the long, two–part Tamburlaine the Great (1587-88).
I read the play on the plane from Almaty to the closest large city, Shymkent, and on the three-hour drive from there to Turkistan, the town that’s grown up around Timur’s memorial to Yassawi in the central southern part of the country. There, I was a couple of hours from the border of Uzbekistan, maybe a four-hour drive from Samarkand, where Timur was born. Almost half the people in Turkistan are Uzbek, and probably a similar number are descended from Timur’s notoriously plunderous horde.
Tamburlaine, in Marlowe’s telling, is brutal but brilliant, a fair representation as far as it goes. But when you walk around the mosque he not only funded but designed, and see the interiors of the three domes with their organically descending design, inspired by stalactites and meant to improve the acoustics, and wander along out back and get a load of the gorgeous blue ribs of the anterior dome, a design only seen here and in two Uzbek mosques, you get the sense this man’s brilliance was not all strategic, not all barbaric. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine excoriates the Prophet on several occasions in ways that folks like me have probably only grown sensitive to in the last decade. This place was built in, and is built out of, piety. I don’t know whether Marlowe knew it existed, or much about Timur’s relationship to Islam at all. But if you read into the play the devotion evident in the very flagstones of this place, in the two-tonne alloy font, lugged across the desert and mountains from Persia where it was made, and the inscription, Remember, everything in the world belongs to Allah, repeated around and around its circumference, it makes his enraged blasphemy a lot more powerful.
I went to what used to be Semipalatinsk, and is now mostly known as Semey, a city of about 300,000 known mostly for The Polygon, the primary Soviet nuclear test site. I went to a medical museum that has babies in jars of formaldehyde, examples of the sorts of extreme deformities that beset the irradiated town in the 1960s and ‘70s; one of them is a Cyclops. It’s also where Dostoevsky spent five extremely formative years, immediately after a couple of years of hard labour in Omsk, a little north of here in Russia, and after having his death sentence commuted while blindfolded and tied to a pillar with rifles trained on him. An execution in one’s past seems to focus the mind just as wonderfully as one in the morning. The books he wrote here in his wooden house, preserved, restored and turned into a Dostoevsky museum, are minor—Uncle’s Dream, The Village of Sepanchikovo, The House of the Dead—but reading Uncle’s Dream, as I did while in Semey, you see a writer realizing he has a certain freedom of form, but not yet confident or possibly able enough to do much with it. Knowing what came later—including Crime and Punishment, in the final scenes of which Semeyians recognize the banks of their Irtysh River—it reads very much like a writer revving up. His life here was full. He met his first wife, and his best friend was a now-famous Kazakh ethnographer named Shokan Waikhanuli. There’s a statue of the two of them sitting together, Dostoevsky looking like a premonition of his own death—he was not a pretty man—and Waikanhuli looking the way Kazakhs look, a cross between Chinese and European. Multiculturalism is not something you generally associate with the 1850s; during my two weeks in Kazakhstan, I rarely saw a group of young men that didn’t include at least one Kazakhstani of Russian heritage and one Kazakh. The statue is evidence that it may have been ever thus.
The most vital literary experience to be had in Kazakhstan, though, the greatest flash of recognition, comes from Ekibastuz, known these days for being the home of the world’s largest open-pit coal mine. But this town was built entirely around the gulag that was there until the 1960s—a special gulag for political prisoners, who spent their years of hard labour in the 1950s building a power plant that’s still running and still powering the town and the environs, huffing smoke by the tonne into the grey sky. It was this power plant that Ivan Denisovich was building in Solzhenitsyn’s first novel. A five minute drive away—and probably an hour’s wintry slog by foot—are the remains of the prison where he spent some of his time, the sixteen cells he describes plainly visible in the now crumbling and, by the looks of it, soon to be demolished brick and stone building. I climbed over some rubble and wandered around inside, having just finished the book, and looked to the smoke stacks in the distance. This is a desolate place. There’s razor wire outside my hotel room window for no reason I can discern, though it does deepen the miasma for someone here looking for Solzhenitsyn. I can only imagine how much more so when there’s snow on the ground and it gets down to 50 below. The dwellings built to house the prisoners are now used by some of the 120,000 residents, who mostly work at the Dantesque mine.
Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in several places, but his only long stint—three years—was here. What he knew of gulags he learned in this place. There’s no Solzhenitsyn museum here, though there is a display as part of the town’s historical museum, showing a picture of the young dissident in his prison coat with his number printed across the front. The place has an ambivalent relationship with the gulag system. The museum denounces it, but the town wouldn’t exist, and none of these people, most of whom have lived here for generations, starting as gulag staff and provisioners, would be here without it.
I visit a new music school, just opened last year. One of the choral teachers, seeing a foreigner peek into the class, has her group of 12-year-old girls sing a Kazakh song for me. There are four hundred students here, coming before or after regular school to put in hours of practice on the piano, violin, dombra and kobys. The administrator’s secretary tells me their big job these days is convincing parents boys can be musical, too. A wall of student pictures shows they may be making some progress, but slowly. This is what’s happened to “Siberia.” Culture squeezes through like dandelions from a sidewalk. It’s more than a footnote—it’s a sequel.
While Dostoevsky was in Semey, another writer I’d never heard of, now known simply as Abai, was going to high school there. Their circles didn’t intersect, as far as anyone here knows, but there’s a museum devoted to him, too—a much bigger one. For Kazakhstan, Dostoevsky may be the anecdote, but Abai is the story. Most cities and towns have a street named for him, and almost as many have a monument to him. There’s a city named after him, too. For us, for me, Timur, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn are the way in to this now slightly less foreign place, but they’re only the beginning.
For more photos of the places mentioned, visit Bert Archer online.