Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Apples are from Kazakhstan"

I recently finished reading a book recommended to me by a couple of people "Apples are from Kazakhstan The Land That Disappeared" by Christopher Robbins after another friend alerted me to the fact that it was now at our local library. Our library staff are awesome, twice now they have purchased books about of which I know was specifically at my request for information on our kids birth country. Very thoughtful of them, especially when there are so few resources available about Kazakhstan in the first place.

Within 5 minutes of cracking open this book, I was hooked. Part travelogue, part history lesson, part personal interview, Robbins blends all three beautifully into a marvelous manuscript which provided me with the most incredible background on Kazakhstan. In 10 years of trying to research this amazingly diverse country, I didn't learn as much as I did in the reading of one chapter. After being subjected to the less-than-humorous and utterly inaccurate depiction of Kazakh culture by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame, it was a treat to have our kids' country portrayed in a positive light which focused on the indomitable spirit of the Kazakhstanis who persevered despite incredible Soviet era repression to become a country poised on the brink of climbing out of "third world" status. Of all the former Soviet Republics, Kazakhstan is the one to watch to see if reforms and globalization that came along with independence can lift it up from the ashes of the infamous gulags and images of being the preferred location for banishment of intelligentsia from Soviet society.

Robbins writing style captivates you with his off beat observations and humorous insights. He weaves relatively in depth history lessons throughout his travel stories with such adroitness that you find yourself riveted rather than bored to tears by the vignettes he shares with his readers that vividly tell the story of a country in the process of a rebirth. I am not a huge history buff myself and the history of Kazakhstan is such that it is hard to trace easily due to its scattered and shattered past, but Robbins somehow manages to impart an incredible amount of information without making you feel as if you are in the midst of a college history lecture.

Having traveled to Kazakhstan three times now and knowing no one else other than adoptive parents who has seen some of the sights we have seen or can offer that wonderful "I know what you mean, I loved that" reciprocation, I found myself grinning throughout my late night reading. Throughout the book there are lovely little drawings that instantly evoked a sense of my "home away from home"...the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Panfilov Park where I spent a magical afternoon photographing the visiting wedding couples, yurts, dombras and even an image of three elderly Kazakh men reminiscent of a photo I took myself in the History Museum in Almaty. These little black and white illustrations added a lot and for those who have not yet traveled there are very accurate depictions of what you might find there.

The biggest surprise about this novel was the access that Robbins had to Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only President the country has had since its independence was won. He had hours of interviews with President Nazarbayev and a man who heretofore had been an unknown personality to our family took on life, and his dream for his country and his understanding of what it would take to raise the standards for all were very interesting. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the President, his perspectives and own personal story are compelling to read. This sometimes controversial figure comes across as someone I personally would like to meet someday, as someone I can point out to my children with pride as a leader who is trying to change his country and is slowly succeeding. I can attest myself to the fact that the Kazakhstan we first saw in 2000 no longer exists, and the Kazakhstan of 2007 had changed remarkably in a mere 7 years. I would not be at all surprised if the Kazakhstan that my children will see in adulthood will no longer have a need for international adoption, that the level of poverty that may very well have led to their abandonment is somewhat a thing of the past.

One can at least hope...

For anyone adopting from Kazakhstan this book is an absolute "must read", having borrowed a copy from the library I can guarantee it will be purchased eventually and will sit on our bookshelf at home, awaiting the time when the children are all old enough to understand its subtleties and learn about their own past from it. No, it is not an adoption book, but you will not find a single better combination of history and culture presented in such an entertaining and readable way about your child's homeland. Robbins covers a lot of territory, visiting many Oblasts and providing the reader with an overall feel for the various territories of the country with varied and lush landscapes which are aptly described. If you have never been to Kazakhstan nor planned to, you might come away from reading this book feeling as if you need to pick up the phone and call your travel agent.


Anonymous said...

Hi Cindy,
Just wanted to say that I also read the book last summer. I adopted my daughter from Kazakhstan in 1999 and this past summer we went back to Kaz for a visit. I just stumbled upon this book in the library (without actually looking for anything on Kazakhstan... coincidence!) and I read it in one session. I also thought it was the best book I ever read about Kazakhstan, absolutely non-boring and totally interesting.
Just recently I was thinking about the book and wanted to buy it for myself and of course I could not remember either the title or the author, and along comes your post!
Another coincidence! Thank you so much. Off to buy the book now.

Carrie DeLille said...

Thank you-this book WILL one day be on my shelf-I know Sam will someday love reading it as well!

Nyura said...

Hi Cindy -- I love this book too, for several reasons: the sides of KZ that are never written about anywhere else; the truly affectionate tone of Robbins' writing; and the historical details. It's a must read for anybody even slightly interested in Kazakhstan.

Robbins' infatuation with NN does bother me -- he repeats the official line as though it's gospel truth. If you remember to bring a grain of salt with you for those sections, it's a fascinating, humanized portrait of the President.

I got extravagant and ordered it from the UK back in 2007! My review is under the original title: In Search of Kazakhstan. Guess I ought to update that review, huh?

Happy Holidays! I hope Dyed Maross brings you two new daughters for Christmas :-)