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Red Odyssey: A Journey Through the Soviet Republics.

THE GOAL OF THIS ambitious travel book is to make a "death mask" or faithful picture of the old Soviet Union, or, more precisely for its Muslim lands. Marat Akchurin is a Tatar writer and journalist who was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan but whose career has been in Moscow. In that sense he is an outsider in the series of republics which he goes through, but one with a natural instinct for storytelling.

His book is a vivid record of his long trip by road - is "Odyssey" - across a wide swathe of the former Soviet Union. Such a long journey by road, taken in 1990, was uncommon even for a Soviet citizen, partly because of the shortages of petrol but also because of frequent disturbances and dangers en route. The timing was excellent, for change and uncertainty was undeniably in the air.

Can one take seriously an extraordinary author's note: "All places and events in this book are real. No names have been changed"? Perhaps. But the "conversations" reproduced appear heavily altered so as to make them easily intelligible to a foreign reader. Akchurin certainly shows a lively interest in virtually all the people he encounters on this adventurous trip. They include old friends as well as casual acquaintances and many Tatars, a large but dispersed community throughout the Central Asian republics.

Tatarstan and the Volga region are in fact first on his itinerary. Cheboksary, an awful industrial centre formed out of an old Tatar town, is a place where tourists never come and would not be welcome. He shows graphically how brutish is the proletarian culture of the alienated unemployed and bored young people, dominated by what were officially (and quite accurately) described as "criminal youth gangs."

Alma Ata is reached and Kazakhstan. Though he concentrates on Kazakhs and the nationalist ferment, the author does not neglect the place of the Russians and other non-Muslims also important in Tashkent and, indeed, almost everywhere in the cities of Central Asia.

On reaching Bichkek, no longer the detached outsider, he records with feeling the dark passions and murderous hatred roused up among Kirghiz students and other volatile elements against the unfortunate Uzbek community in the Osh region of Kirghizstan. Who is responsible? Like so many citizens of the ex-Soviet Union, Akchurin believes in plots, and the omnipresent KGB is blamed along with Moscow for much of the violence and problems, rather than the unaided forces of nationalism.

Food, or the lack of it, is inevitably an important topic through these journeys. Travelling on a rare train he finds the conductor cooking pilaf, and selling it to the luckier travellers. About the pilaf rice dish most characteristic of Central Asia and which men often cook (the only household work which Uzbek men think not beneath them), he quotes an old saying, "the cook must love the people he labours for."

Red Odyssey is really more about life - or individual lives - in the capitals of the various republics visited. Impressionistic glimpses are especially good about life in Central Asia. In Tashkent Akchurin describes the makhallya (or mohalla), the local community of the town, and its communal spirit, as well as its entrenched conservative values.

One peculiarity of the Uzbek mentality, notes Akchurin, is strong local patriotism. However bad or corrupt Uzbekistan's dictator Sharaf Rashidov was, or his successors, they were still Uzbeks. Some shrewd points are made about values in Uzbek society, unchanged after seven decades under communist rule. "In Tashkent, money is treated with great respect, no matter whether it was made legally or illegally.... Here it is not shameful to be rich." The local Mafias benefit more than any other group from the collapse of the rouble, inflation and unsettled times.

It is quite obvious that this book, apparently written in English in the first case, is targeted for a public knowing little or nothing about the Soviet Union. The author's grasp of politics and history is anyway much less impressive than his ability to communicate atmosphere. He makes a number of basic errors of fact, and often gives a rather crude and superficial analysis of such subjects as Pan-Turkism and the powers of Communist party bosses in Central Asia.

Yet this does not matter, nor the fact that the pace of political change has altered again since this book was completed, bringing with it a kind of independence. There remain the colourful glimpses of everyday life and preoccupations of people from many nationalities and classes across the southern republics of the former Soviet Union.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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