Seeing how Kazakhstan is the only country in Central Asia the West really cares about, there is surprisingly little dedicated literature about Kazakhstan in English.
Too bad, since there is a lot to say.
I have highlighted the books that would be of most interest to the average (armchair) traveler wanting to know more before or after his visit.
Good travelogues and historical accounts of Central Asia that include Kazakhstan can be found in the Central Asia books section.
11 best books about Kazakhstan
A brilliant piece of propaganda. I don’t like this book at all, but since it is the most popular book about Kazakhstan, let me put it first. The author spends his time talking to rich businessmen and other powerful men about Kazakhstan. Apparently, it is all going great. The Soviet past was terrible, though, but now that Kazakh men are in charge (women are only interviewed as wives and daughters of, or feature as sad strippers, elegantly dressed granddaughters or angry receptionists. Poor people get no mention at all) things are going great!
A lot of pages are dedicated to the president: he gets to tell how he saved Kazakhstan on numerous occasions. In general, Nazarbayev comes off better than Jesus in the Bible. Robbins interviews critical journalists about the president, but even they cannot find anything critical to say!
The brilliance of the book lies in the writing. It’s very well-written, and Robbins juxtaposes his adventures with the boys with stories of the forced visits to Kazakhstan by Panfilov, Trotsky, Dostoyevski, Solzhenitsyn and others, as well as meetings with an archaeologist, wolf hunter and John Lennon impersonator.
Unlike me, most people love this book. It’s well researched, and a good introduction to Kazakhstan for those, like the author, who start off knowing nothing at all about Kazakhstan. It is sadly disfigured by the necessity to prop up the president and his boys.
Was Robbins paid to write this book? I hope so. Otherwise it is an embarassment.
By revered Kyrgyz novelist Chingiz Aitmatov, the greatest novel ever written set in Kazakhstan. It is at once a description of Kazakh culture and the hard life in the steppes, a crushing indictment of Soviet policy, a science-fiction story, and a book that makes you think about life.
Once in Kazakhstan tells the often unbelievable story of the first moments of Kazakhstan’s independence. Unlike Christopher Robbins, Keith Rosten has a lot of experience in the Post-Soviet space and avoids the cliches – this book suits those with more background in the region. Doubling as a crash course on how to start a country, the book is filled with amusing, fascinating, as well as dark and sad anecdotes of that crazy time in Kazakhstan’s history, when everything not only felt possible, but was.
Jonathan Aitken is a buddy of president Nazarbayev, and this book presents a glowing portrayal of Kazakhstan’s one and only president. Once you get over this fact, you can start to enjoy The Making of Kazakhstan. To understand Kazakhstan today you need to know Nazarbayev, and Aitken has a lot of first-hand information about the man you will not find elsewhere. Some great anecdotes here, as well as lots of figures to prove his claims of the man’s greatness.
All in all, a great political read and an antidote to the strictly negative messaging (which also makes important points obviously) from Western media.
While the devastating famine in Ukraine is fairly well-known, the death and displacement of millions of Kazakhs in the same period of Stalin’s reign is almost forgotten in the West. This first-hand account of a survivor tells the story of the bloody end to the nomadic lifestyle of Kazakhs. Besides a lesson in the history of 1920-1930’s Kazakhstan, it’s also a dignified and inspiring tale of survival against a cruel oppressor.
You are guaranteed to understand Kazakhs better after this read.
There are a number of books about the nasty, money-soaked oil business around the Caspian Sea. The Oil and the Glory is the best of them. Steve LeVine is a reporter who was there when it all happened, who knows all the players well, and who manages to shine a light on the dirty deals between oil executives and the new Central Asian elite.
Not entirely about Kazakhstan, as it deals with the whole Caspian basin, but you cannot know Kazakhstan without knowing Big Oil.
If you are a fan of Paolo Coelho and planning to head to Central Asia, Zahir will give you a taste for the empty steppes. Easy to read with a clear message, Zahir is great for those long train rides through the endless green flatlands of Kazakhstan.
In his main work, Kazakhstan’s national poet Abai describes the Kazakh people and their ways. and encourages them to look for a higher moral ground. More than 100 years later, the national character has not changed, and Abai’s Words are still the reference if you want to learn more about why Kazakhs are the way they are.
The best coffee table book on Kazakhstan. The pictures are evocative and artful, and the text offers a good overview of the country’s history, culture, nature and people.
Accompanying a groundbreaking exhibition, Nomads and Networks is the best book out there on the sophisticated culture of the Scythians and others living in Kazakhstan around 2000 years ago.
For lovers of archeology and ancient history, this is a must.
A thriller set in Almaty? Yes, it works! I am not a fan of thrillers but gave this a shot since I live in Almaty, and I have to say I enjoyed this book much more than I expected. I liked the plot idea of China’s territorial expansion – something you usually only read about in foreign policy briefs – woven into a fictional story. The writing is sumptuous and describes Kazakhstan well.
Other books about Kazakhstan
For completeness, and for those looking to study Kazakhstan more in-depth, here is a list of books that didn’t make it to the best books list.
If The Oil and the Glory was not enough for you, Lutz Klevemann’s The New Great Game offers another well-researched account of superpower politics and oil dealings in Pipelineistan.
At 400 pages, this academic tome contains everything you ever wanted to know about Kazakhs. For specialists.
Brilliantly intricate psychological novel set in Almaty, dealing with the insidiousness of the Soviet purges in the 1930’s. One of the great modern novels to come out of Russia in the past 20 years according to some, but difficult to track down.
The Nomads – Esenberlin Ilyas
A big, heavy 3-volume book that tells the complete history of the Kazakh khanates. Available in bookstores in Kazakhstan.
An overview of Kazakhstan’s basic facts, paired with lots of illustrations and diagrams. There’s a good overview of Kazakh history. Generally paints a positive picture of the country, but does not go beyond the basics, despite its size.
Another roaringly positive book from Jonathan Aitken, this one was too much for me. You can only handle that much ass-kissing before your mouth starts to taste like poo.
Heavy to digest, this book forms a counterweight to Jonathan Aitken’s propaganda, disclosing corruption and nepotism in Kazakhstan’s elite circles. Lots of information here about oil politics, ethnic struggles and religious sentiment. The author is a recognized authority on Kazakhstan, but I found her point of view too biased for an academic to attach real significance to it. More than 10 years on, the book is a bit dated as well.
If you are really interested in Kazakh politics, this book will teach you many things. I liked it. For everyone else, this is too much information.
This is really academic. Only if you have a deep interest in the question of national identity formation in Kazakhstan or the Former Soviet Union.
An academic treatise on the importance of the clan in Post-Soviet Kazakhstani politics.
From the publisher: Political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, policy makers, and others who study state power and identity groups will find a wealth of empirical material and conceptual innovation for discussion and debate.
Everybody else will have a hard time finishing this.