Kazakhstan is a new country, and few books of interest to the general audience have so far been written about it in English. Too bad, since there is a lot to say. We have highlighted 6 books that we recommend for the traveler who wants to understand Kazakhstan better before or after her visit. Below these, we gathered up the best of the rest: propaganda, photography books and novels set in Kazakhstan.
Good travelogues and historical and political overviews of Central Asia that include Kazakhstan can be found in the Central Asia books section.
Best books about Kazakhstan
Dark Shadows – Joanna Lillis
Dark Shadows traces the history of independent Kazakhstan, from its inception to the publishing date in 2018, just before Nazarbayev’s abdication. Joanna Lillis is Kazakhstan’s longest-serving foreign journalist, and no one is better placed to give a nuanced view of modern-day Kazakhstan.
We frequently rail against the lack of perspective of foreign journalists who fly in for a short while and come up with sweeping generalizations (usually wholly negative). It’s true, Kazakhstan’s recent history counts a lot of dark pages, as the title of this book also hints at.
But Dark Shadows succeeds where others have failed; it steers well clear of post-Soviet cliches and instead paints Kazakhstan in full colour, with a real understanding of the local mindset, painting Kazakhstanis as a diverse people who are determining their own future in the face of adverse circumstances.
Based on newspaper reporting of the past 15 years, the book can at times feel disjointed; there is no overarching narrative to guide you through the different chapters. Keep that in mind, and you will find there is no better book to teach you about modern-day Kazakhstan.
The Silent Steppe: the Story of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin – Mukhamet Shayakhmetov
If you read just 1 book about Kazakhstan, let it be this one. 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 sad, starved end to the nomadic lifestyle of Kazakhs.
Like a Kazakh “Wild Swans”, Shayakhmetov has written an exceptionally dignified and balanced account of the incredible hardships the Kazakh people had to endure in the 1930’s and ’40’s. You will learn not only about the tragic history of the land, but also about the age-old way of life of Kazakhs before it was destroyed by Soviet Russia. No other writer comes close to Shayakhmetov in describing the Kazakh way without undue romance or exaggerated venom. The Silent Steppe will make you understand how Kazakh traditions still linger on in contemporary life.
On top of that, the story of little Mukhamet is an inspiring tale of survival against the odds, ready for a Hollywood make-over. You are guaranteed to understand Kazakhstan better after this read.
The day lasts more than a hundred years – Chingiz Aitmatov
By revered Kyrgyz novelist Chingiz Aitmatov, The day lasts more than a hundred years is 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.
Book of Words – Abai
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.
Once in Kazakhstan: The Snow Leopard Emerges – Keith Rosten
Once in Kazakhstan tells the often unbelievable story of the first moments of Kazakhstan’s independence. 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.
The Nomads – Ilyas Esenberlin
A big, heavy 3-volume book that tells the complete history of the Kazakh khanates. We don’t really recommend this book for a first-time visitor. If however you are truly gripped by Kazakhstan and have read the books above, The Nomads is a good investment. Looks good in any modern apartment in Astana.
Only available in bookstores in Kazakhstan.
Apples are from Kazakhstan (The Land that Disappeared) – Christopher Robbins
A brilliant piece of propaganda. Since it is/was the most popular book about Kazakhstan, we have to include it in our list.
The author spends his time in Kazakhstan talking to rich businessmen and other powerful men. 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, a wolf hunter and a John Lennon impersonator.
Unlike me, most people love this book. It’s well researched, and a good introduction to Kazakhstan for those who, like the author, 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.
Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan – Jonathan Aitken
Jonathan Aitken, a convicted criminal, is a buddy of president Nazarbayev, and this book presents another glowing portrayal of Kazakhstan’s one and only president. Nonetheless, 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. For those with an interest in politics and an underdeveloped gag reflex.
Coffee table books
The Soul of Kazakhstan – Alma Kunanbay and Wayne Eastep
There’s a bunch of photo books on Kazakhstan. I find the best one The Soul of Kazakhstan by Alma Kunanbay and Wayne Eastep. With evocative, artful pictures and a text that brings to life Kazakhstan’s culture and traditions, this book works well as a gift and outranks anything you can find in a book shop in Kazakhstan.
Nomads and Networks – Soren Stark
Also worthwhile as a coffee table book for those with an interest in ancient history and/or the Altai region (small crowd, I admit!). Accompanying a groundbreaking exhibition in the Smithsonian, the book traces the sophisticated culture of the Scythians and their neighbours living in Kazakhstan around 2000 years ago.
Kazakhstan has inspired some of the most depressing books in Russian literature (not an easy feat). One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich was based on Solzhenitsyn’s time in a labour camp in Ekibastuz, while Dostoyevski started The House of the Dead in Semey. Alexander Chudakov won awards with A Gloom Is Cast Upon the Ancient Steps (untranslated thus far), which takes place in a fictional town in Kazakhstan and describes life under Stalinist Russia. All brilliant books, but not included here since Kazakhstan is really just a faint backdrop to the story.
Zahir – Paolo Coelho
If you are a fan of Paolo Coelho and are planning a trip to Kazakhstan, Zahir will give you a taste for the empty steppes. Easy to read with a clear message, Zahir is good for those long train rides through the endless green flatlands of Kazakhstan. If you are not a fan of Paolo Coelho, you know what to do.
Performance Anomalies – Victor Robert Lee
A thriller set in Almaty? Yes, it works! The plot is original, with modern, plausible geopolitical strands woven into a fictional story about a man with exceptional senses. The writing is good, the plot pushes forward at pace and there is a good sense of place here: the author describes Kazakhstan well.
The keeper of Antiquities – Yuri Dumbrovsky
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 the critics, it’s good to know a bit of Soviet history before attacking this one.
Bradt guide to Kazakhstan – Paul Brummell
The Bradt guide is thoroughly researched and covers almost all interesting places in Kazakhstan. It is well-written by the original author, and is invaluable to anyone planning to travel Kazakhstan for more than a week or 2.
The 2nd edition is quite poor in its updates, though. Mistakes from the first edition have been copied into the 2nd edition, and interesting places that were skipped before have not been included. Only Almaty and Astana seem to have had a substantial update, but seeing the rate of change in these cities, many of the recommendations are already outdated. Despite this, still a very good guidebook, and the best choice for practical information for a deep exploration of Kazakhstan. Last update 2012.
Odyssey guide to Kazakhstan – Dagmar Schreiber
Odyssey gives more room for Kazakhstan, offering more background than Bradt. This book is very outdated and lacks in practical information, but it is invaluable for those who have been to all the places the Bradt guide covers and need more. Schreiber has been everywhere and offers background and inspiration on topics and places not covered in the Bradt guide. Latest edition 2010.