The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele and David Perry

Last year in one of my Nonfiction November posts I featured a selection of books about the Middle Ages. One of which was Charles Warren Hollister’s Medieval Europe: A Short History. It’s been a favorite of mine for decades thanks to its straightforward approach and readable style. But my most lasting takeaway from this excellent book is the author’s firm denial a European-wide “Dark Ages” ruled the continent for a thousand years. The reality, Warren Hollister argued is a bit more complex. Over that long length of time some parts of Europe advanced economically and intellectually while others might have stagnated or even regressed. In the decade since I read Medieval Europe the more I’ve read about this period of history the more Warren Hollister’s claim rings true. 

Looking for another decent book on the Middle Ages I recently borrowed a Kindle edition of Matthew Gabriele and David Perry’s late 2021 book The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. They subscribe to a similar viewpoint. Europe did not spend a thousand years as some benighted peninsula at the extreme end of Eurasia, cut-off economically, culturally and intellectually from the rest of the world. Instead it was a vibrant, dynamic and well-connected continent, enriched mightily by even its most distant neighbors.

Traditionally, many felt the Dark Ages began with the Fall of Rome. As successive waves of barbarian hordes overran the Italian peninsula high culture came to an end. In reality, the Empire’s borders had been growing increasingly porous over the last several hundred years.  Intermarriages involving Roman elites and their foreign counterparts were becoming commonplace. More and more foreign-born soldiers were rising up the ranks of an increasingly polyglot Roman army, with some even becoming generals. And when these invading groups did takeover, they adopted Roman customs and language and quickly converted to Christianity. (Or in the case of the Goths ditched Arianism for the era’s more orthodox Christianity.) Lastly, regardless of who happened to be running the show in Rome the Byzantines still saw themselves as Romans. Carrying on the legacy of Rome they soldiered on until their crushing defeat at the hands of the Turks in the mid 15th century. 

Gabriele and Perry also challenge the notion of Europe’s distinctness vis-à-vis its Islamic neighbors. Both Christianity and Islam, along with Judaism aren’t just monotheistic religions. There are Abrahamic faiths, which comparatively speaking, share more similarities than differences. While Christian armies frequently fought Muslim armies during the Crusades and the Reconquista from time to time they fought as allies, both in the Middle East and Iberia. Intellectually, the writings of Islamic luminaries Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd, (Averroes) together with their Jewish counterpart Maimonides profoundly influenced European thought, especially the theology of Thomas Aquinas. 

After the Mongols’ expansive conquests a well-maintained conduit was established across Eurasia, facilitating the transfer of goods and ideas between Europe and the Far East. Chinese silks flowed west, Catholic missionaries traveled east and a guy named Marco Polo captivated Europe with stories of his travels. 

The Bright Ages, much like the above mentioned Medieval Europe is a straightforward, readable and fresh look at Europe’s Dark Ages which in reality, probably wasn’t all that dark. 

Book Beginnings: Magnificent Delusions by Husain Haqqani

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

Over the last two decades US-Pakistan relations have often been described as America’s most difficult external relationship. Although the two countries have been nominal allies dating back to Pakistan’s independence in 1947, their relationship has never been free of friction.

Last week I featured Aria Minu-Sepehr’s 2012 We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran. Before that it was Matthew Gabriele and David Perry’s 2021 The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. This week it’s Husain Haqqani ‘s 2013 Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding. 

Magnificent Delusions has been on my list to read for about five years. The other day I noticed on Overdrive it was once again available to borrow in Kindle format so I decided to take advantage of my good luck and download a copy. Here’s what Amazon has to say about the book.

The relationship between America and Pakistan is based on mutual incomprehension and always has been. Pakistan — to American eyes — has gone from being a quirky irrelevance, to a stabilizing friend, to an essential military ally, to a seedbed of terror. America — to Pakistani eyes — has been a guarantee of security, a coldly distant scold, an enthusiastic military enabler, and is now a threat to national security and a source of humiliation.

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Katie from the blog Doing Dewey kicked off Nonfiction November. This week Rennie at What’s Nonfiction has agreed to host. She invites participants to share their favorite book pairings, and takes a pretty inclusive approach. It could be a pairing of nonfiction books with fiction, podcasts, documentaries, movies or even additional works of nonfiction.

In past years I’ve been straight-forward, just pairing up nonfiction books with works of fiction. However, last year I did something new and featured Michael David Lukas’s 2018 novel The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, pairing it with a half-dozen books about the ancient Cairo Geniza and Egypt’s Jewish community. This year I thought I’d return to my old ways. I’ll be looking back at what I read in 2022, both nonfiction and fiction and select 15 books. For every work of nonfiction I’ll suggest a piece of fiction and visa versa.

Considering my reading tastes it’s no surprise I’ve included lots of history and international politics kind of stuff. For the first time doing these pairings I’ve featured books by two siblings (Masha and Keith Gessen), a pair of books by the same author (Andrey Kurkov) and two works of nonfiction by the same author (Adam Hochschild). In other firsts, close to half were translated into English from another language, with three quarters of these books written by either immigrants, expats, refugees or children of immigrants. I hope you enjoyed my post and I look forward to reading all the others from Nonfiction November.

Book Beginnings: The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, only recently I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

He was my people—he and I kneaded by the same hands. He was on the shorter side, my height, not in the greatest of shape. His hair had less gray than mine but was the same shade of dark. We had similar facial features. I would have recognized that he was from the Levant even without the Palestine Red Crescent Society vest he sported.

Last week I featured the 2012 Kindle release of Lawrence Durrell’s 1960 travel memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island. The week before it was Life of Pi author Yann Marte’s 2016 novel The High Mountains of Portugal. This week it’s the critically acclaimed 2021 novel The Wrong End of the Telescope by Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine.

Alameddine’s novel caught my eye back in June when I spotted a copy at the public library as part of its Pride Month display. Sucked in by its cool cover art, upon closer inspection I noticed it’s set on the Greek island of Lesbos during the 2015 -2016 refugee crises. Recently, I was in the mood for even more international fiction and remembering I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I grabbed the book during one of my library visits. Once again I’ve deviated from my original 20 Books of Summer but since the challenge is ending in less than a week who cares. LOL!

Earlier I was going to read James Angelos’s The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins to fulfill the Greece requirement for the European Reading Challenge but decided to go with The Wrong End of the Telescope and return The Full Catastrophe to the library unread. But a few days ago I learned Robert Kaplan has a new book out entitled Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age so I placed it on hold with the library. While I’m impatiently waiting my turn I’ll be reading additional books about this part of the world, including stuff on the former Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy. Because nothing takes the sting out of waiting for a good book than killing time reading other good books.

Like I mentioned earlier, The Wrong End of the Telescope received widespread critical acclaim, including winning the 2022 PEN/Faulkner Award. I didn’t remember until this morning the author also wrote my favorite essay from The Best American Essays 2020 entitled “How to Bartend.”  Instead of me blathering on, here’s what novel’s page on Amazon has to say:

By National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award finalist for An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine, comes a transporting new novel about an Arab American trans woman’s journey among Syrian refugees on Lesbos island.

Mina Simpson, a Lebanese doctor, arrives at the infamous Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece, after being urgently summoned for help by her friend who runs an NGO there. Alienated from her family except for her beloved brother, Mina has avoided being so close to her homeland for decades. But with a week off work and apart from her wife of thirty years, Mina hopes to accomplish something meaningful, among the abundance of Western volunteers who pose for selfies with beached dinghies and the camp’s children. Soon, a boat crosses bringing Sumaiya, a fiercely resolute Syrian matriarch with terminal liver cancer. Determined to protect her children and husband at all costs, Sumaiya refuses to alert her family to her diagnosis. Bonded together by Sumaiya’s secret, a deep connection sparks between the two women, and as Mina prepares a course of treatment with the limited resources on hand, she confronts the circumstances of the migrants’ displacement, as well as her own constraints in helping them.

20 Books of Summer: The Attack by Yasmina Khadra

I’ve mentioned from time to time I enjoy books on the Middle East or novels set in that part of the world. Therefore, it was hard to resist borrowing Yasmina Khadra’s 2006 novel The Attack when I came across a copy at the public library. After putting it aside for a couple of weeks I dived right back into it and whipped through it in no time. I’m happy to say it’s yet another pleasant surprise of 2022.

Like I mentioned in an earlier post, Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul. While serving as an officer in the Algerian military in the late 1980s, Moulessehoul adopted the the feminine pseudonym to keep his superiors from censoring his writing. Even though his true identity was revealed in 2001 he continues to write under the pen name. Just like his fellow Algerian novelist Amara Lakhous, he lives abroad in Europe. (Lakhous lives in Italy and writes in Italian. Moulessehoul lives in France and writes in French.)

All things considered, life’s been good to Amin Jaafari. A successful self-made man by any standard, the highly skilled Arab-Israeli surgeon is well-respected by his Jewish colleagues at the hospital in Tel Aviv where he practices. Happily married to Sihem, an intelligent and lovely woman, the two share a home in one the city’s poshest neighborhoods where their frequent get-togethers attract well-healed guests from across confessional lines. Bedouin by birth, he’s since embraced an urban, cosmopolitan lifestyle.  Both an Israeli citizen and non-practicing Muslim, his outlook is wholly secular with one his best friends a high-ranking Israeli police chief.

But then one day this comfortable world comes crashing down. Not long after a suicide bombing flooded his hospital with dozens of casualties he’s told the bomber was none other than his wife. Overnight his colleagues and neighbors no longer see him as a “good” Arab. At the very least he’s seen a clueless moron, negligently oblivious to his wife’s murderous intentions. (Much like the parents of America’s young mass shooters.) At worst, he’s some closeted radical who secretly assisted in his wife’s deadly act terrorism. Instead of mourning his deceased wife he’s forced to undergo humiliating interrogations, invasive home searches and police detentions.

Initially, in hopes of clearing her name he leaves his upscale Tel Aviv home in search of evidence to clear her name. Visits with his in laws eventually lead him to a radical imam and his acolytes. Slowly connecting the dots he begins to see how Sihem secretly evolved into to suicide bomber. At the same time, he’s gripped by feelings of betrayal, like a faithful husband confronted with the growing evidence of his wife’s infidelity. Feeling increasingly alienated by both Israelis and Arabs he begins questioning his religion, nationality and allegiance to the Jewish State.

Like I mentioned earlier this is a surprisingly good book, one of many I’ve stumbled across this year. Don’t be surprised if you see more novels by this talented author featured on this blog.

Library Loot

I dropped by the public library the other day to return some books only to grab a few more. Just like last time I selected a pair of books by authors from outside the United States. Penelope Lively is a British resident of London while Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of exiled Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul who’s lived in France for years. 

  • Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively – I’ve borrowed this book several times only return it ignored and unread. Needing something representing the United Kingdom for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I’m hoping this time I finally read it. 
  • The Attack by Yasmina Khadra- Always hard for me to resist novels set in the Middle East, especially by native authors. Harder still if it’s deckle edged

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s blog.  

About Time I Read It: Kings and Presidents by Bruce Riedel

I’ve mentioned from time to time of all the countries in the Middle East Iran and Israel intrigue me the most. But if I had to pick a runner-up it would probably be Saudi Arabia. A major oil exporter, home to the holiest sites in Islam and ruled since the early 1920s by the puritanical al-Saud family, Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally since the end of World War II. It might seem odd a representative democracy like the United States, a majority Christian nation with a deeply enshrined commitment to a separation of church and state would ally itself with one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. Even when compared to its Arab neighbors the Islam practiced by most Saudis and heavily promoted by the kingdom’s ruling family is an austere, uncompromising interpretation easily at odds with more modern concepts of feminism, religious tolerance, scientific inquiry and freedom of sexual identity. While both the United States and Saudi Arabia see Iran as a threat to the region the Saudis have traditionally viewed Israel, a chief American ally, as a perennial thorn in their side hellbent on destabilizing an already volatile region.

So, why a long friendship between the two countries? That’s the question Bruce Riedel set out to answer with his 2017 book Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States since FDR. Considering my interest in the Middle East it was hard for me to pass up a borrowable Kindle edition of Riedel’s 2017 book. Knowing nothing about the book or its author I didn’t know what to expect. I’m happy to report Kings and Presidents exceeded my modest expectations and is one of 2022’s pleasant surprises.

While some reviewers complained the book was superficial I disagree. Riedel is no stranger to the Middle East. He spent 30 years in the CIA, served on the National Security Council for four different presidents, as well as a Special Advisor to NATO and is currently a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He covers a hundred or so years of major political and religious developments that helped pave the way for the founding of Saudi Arabia. From there Riedel draws from his decades of foreign policy experience supplemented by memoirs and official documents to craft a detailed and readable history of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia

Even after reading John R. Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crises and Karen Elliott House’s On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future this book taught me more than a few things about Saudi Arabia. I knew the Saudi monarchy, together with the American CIA worked with Pakistan’s intelligence agency the ISI to arm and train Afghan and Islamic resistance groups to fight the Soviets and their Afghan puppet army during the 1980s. But I had no idea military ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan go much deeper. For years starting in the 1982 Pakistan stationed a “reinforced armored brigade” of 20,000 troops in Tabuk near the Jordanian border to serve as a both a deterrent to Israel as well as a “loyal Pretorian guard” for the royal family in case of a palace coup or popular uprising. (During the run-up to the first Gulf War the brigade was quietly redeployed across the kingdom along the border with Iraq in case it was needed to counter an Iraqi invasion.) I’ve read the Chinese supplied the Saudis with medium-range ballistic missiles, which, due to their inaccuracy are suitable only for carrying nuclear warheads. Why the Saudis would purchase such missiles while lacking a nuclear arsenal for years has been a mystery. But Riedel plausibly speculates as part of this long and shadowy military alliance the Saudis feel the Pakistanis will provide them with deliverable nukes should the Kingdom be sufficiently threatened by one of its regional rivals like Israel or Iran.

In the end, the US-Saudi alliance is based not upon shared values or long-standing institutions but common interests. Affordable and plentiful oil runs our economy and in turn keeps the Saudis afloat financially. While our leaders disagree over Israel, for decades our two countries have allied with each other against various powers in the Middle East be they Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq or Iran under the Ayatollah or his successors. It’s a marriage of convenience that’s lasted since the spring of 1945 when FDR met with the founding king Saudi Arabia on an American battleship near the Suez Canal and hashed out a deal to both parties’ liking.

2021 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I found myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 20 books, and for my efforts once again earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. Compared to past years my performance in 2021 was pretty lackluster with just 10 books read and reviewed for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Switzerland. This year for this first time I’ll be including something by a Norwegian author. 

  1. Becket or the Honor of God by Jean Anouilh (United Kingdom)
  2. Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland (Norway)
  3. Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes (Switzerland)
  4. Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer- The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames by Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer (Russia)
  5. The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (Spain)
  6. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini (Italy)
  7. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (Germany) 
  8. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Ukraine)
  9. Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury (France)
  10. Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska (Poland)

Much like last year it was a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction with five books apiece. Four are translations from other languages, including Polish. Red Famine easily made my Favorite Nonfiction list for 2021 while Swiss Watching was a runner-up. Both The Invisible Guardian and Empire of Lies made my year’s Favorite Fiction list with Not All Bastards Are from Vienna along with There There as my favorite novels of the year.  

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

About Time I Read It: I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet

As you’ve probably guessed, while I’m always borrowing books from the library I don’t manage to read them all. Some books I end up returning without even cracking them open, and more than a few I’ve started only to return to the library unfinished. But even if I don’t finish a book, if it shows promise I’ll borrow it again later and try harder to finish it. Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad is one of those books. I started it back in August only to return it unfinished to the library three weeks later. Recently, I wanted to give Mekhennet’s 2017 book another chance so I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work. I’m glad I gave it another chance because I Was Told to Come Alone is a well-written, first hand account of life growing up in Germany as the daughter of Muslim immigrants and her rise to prominence as a world-class foreign correspondent.

Besides a talent for writing well, bravery and a dogged ability to uncover the truth, one could argue for a foreign correspondent to be successful such an individual should also be even handed, multilingual, and possess a keen understanding of other cultures. With that in mind this is the career Mekhennet was destined to pursue. Her father a Sunni Moroccan and her mother an ethnic Arab Shia from Turkey, Mekhennet’s parents met as guest workers in Germany. Underclass and a cultural outsider who experienced more than her share of prejudice, the young Mekhennet nevertheless applied herself. Intellectually curious, ambitious, and a desire to write, she began interviewing German political figures while still in high school. Later, as a college student she worked as an entry level journalist. Raised Muslim and fluent in Arabic, she quickly proved to be an invulnerable asset to her more seasoned colleagues as they interviewed Muslim immigrants and perused leads throughout Europe in the wake of 9/11.

In a career that’s spanned the better part of two decades Mekhennet’s travels have taken her across three continents, conducting interviews and investigating stories across Europe, North Africa, Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. During her tenure she’s reported on Al-Qaeda, the rise of ISIS, (including helping uncover the true identity of the infamous terrorist Jihadi John) Arab Spring, Syrian Civil War, 2015 Paris Terrorist Attacks and European Migrant Crises of the same year.

I Was Told to Come Alone is well written and considering English is her third or fourth language makes this even more impressive. What’s also impressive is her sense of fairness. As a Muslim from Germany, she’s experienced discrimination and as a result is sympathetic to the plights of her co-religionists living as immigrants or the children of immigrants in Europe. On the other hand, she takes to task Islamic extremists for their misogyny and refusal to respect the basic rights of others.

Admirable as well is her honesty and insightfulness when assessing the 2015 European Migrant Crises. Unlike some European leaders and aid officials she wisely pointed out while many of those seeking refuge were fleeing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, many were also economic migrants from across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. In addition, a sizable portion of them were not highly educated professionals but laborers conversant only in their respective native languages. Based on her observations she also revealed a few hailed from ISIS’s Islamic State. While not terrorists bent on wrecking havoc, nevertheless their sympathies for the Islamic State were apparent.

I Was Told to Come Alone is easily one of this year’s pleasant surprises. It deserves to stand beside other outstanding books by respected journalists about political developments in the Islamic world like Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS and Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War. Just like Black Flags and The Forever War there’s a strong likelihood it will make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.

Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland

Just before the entire world went on lockdown I was wandering through the stacks at the public library one afternoon when I happened to see a copy of Erika Fatland’s Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Intrigued by what I saw I still declined to  borrow it, but figured someday down the road I eventually would. Recently, I found myself in the mood to read about the “Stans” of Central Asia and borrowed a copy of Fatland’s book through my public library’s Overdrive portal. I enjoyed the author’s account of her journeys across the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and now can’t wait to read her recently published English edition of The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, … Finland, Norway, and the Northwest Passage.

Before reading Sovietistan I didn’t know a lot about this part of the world. I did however know all the countries are landlocked. (Although two of them border the equally landlocked Caspian Sea.) I’d also read one of the countries, Turkmenistan, for years was ruled by a dictator so megalomaniacal he renamed several months of the calendar in his honor. Lastly, thanks to the magic of Hollywood I knew Kazakhstan was home to the fictional character Borat.

Combining travelogue with generous portions of history and contemporary politics Fatland serves up a detailed yet personal look at all five Stans of Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Like so many former European colonies in Africa and Asia, these landlocked countries of Central Asia, while steeped in history are in essence modern creations, with legacies dating back to the early years of the USSR. After the Soviet Union collapsed all five declared independence. In the decades since then they’ve attempted, in varying ways and with varying success, to guide their young nations between East and West always mindful of their former master to the North and its undeniable influence.

The countries visited in Sovietistan feel ancient and exotic while at the same time modern and Western. Just as the lucrative trade of the Silk Road brought wealth to the ancient kingdoms and imperial provinces of this region centuries ago, today oil and gas exports generate billions in petrodollars, financing lavish presidential palaces and, depending on the country funding national infrastructure. Sadly however, like many oil exporting countries in the developing world most of this generated wealth ends up lining pockets of the elites only to be squirrelled away overseas in foreign bank accounts or spent profligately on luxury items. Like the potentates of old, their current day presidents have ruled their respective Central Asian countries with iron fists. (The exception being Kyrgyzstan, which even though it’s the most corrupt of all the Stans, its president actually stepped aside in response to public pressure.) Inheriting not just the borders of the old USSR but also its Stalinist mode of governance, some leaders have imposed their own cults of personality, with their imposing likenesses gracing statues and portraits ubiquitously throughout their respective countries.

While blessed with oil deposits and physical beauty, ecologically some of the Stans are horribly scarred. Years of Soviet above-ground nuclear weapons testing have ravaged parts of Kazakhstan and produced generations of health problems for its residents. Years diverting water to grow cotton has catastrophically drained the Aral Sea, leaving it a shadow of its former self.

This is a great look inside a part of the world that in my opinion doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Please consider Sovietistan recommended reading.