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Without Right and Left.

NAZARBAEV'S reputation grows and grows. Unlike most of the first secretaries of the various republican Communist parties, he has succeeded in making the difficult transition from Communist boss into the first "semi"-elected president of indepenent Kazakhstan. Presumably, publication of this book is intended to further improve Nazarbaev's international standing.

Populism is the hallmark: "I never cease to be amazed by the natural wisdom and insight of working people," remarks this paragon of peoples' democracy. In spite of the intrinsic interest of the subject, the book fails to get off the ground. Yet its smugness and characteristically moralistic tone is combined with what may well be genuine modesty.

Kazakhstan's current leader actually praises his disgraced predecessor Kunaev - usually criticised for corruption and nepotism - for being extremely erudite and understanding Kazakh traditions and mentality, though he admits Kunaev was too authoritarian, quoting what he says was the First Secretary's favourite maxim, "to be obedient, your employees should be afraid of you."

His comments on defects in the past system of government, of which he himself is a product, are often interesting. Under Soviet rule, the Russian language was given absolute predominance. Any Kazakhs who spoke out of turn in defence of Kazakh culture were accused of chauvinism and anti-Soviet nationalism. "It hardly made sense to publish literature in Kazakh, because the readership was declining rapidly,"

There are quite a few anecdotes and personal details revealed in this book, but this is emphatically not a rounded, three-dimensional picture, let alone an autobiography. Instead, it is very much an official account, with Novosti-style "interview" format, a "ghosted" book in the traditional Soviet model.

Very different is The Lost Country, Mongolia Revealed, in which the English writer, Jasper Becker, makes the people of a remote land come alive and even speak eloquently through their reported conversations. Becker was Peking correspondent of The Guardian newspaper for five years and managed to travel extensively in Mongolia. He shows in a lively, sympathetic and often witty travel book that Mongolia (Outer Mongolia as it used to be known) remains in some respects a truly exotic part of Asia, where a remarkable traditional culture has survived the ravages of tyranny and Communism.

Mongolia used to be called half jokingly "the 16th Soviet republic", so closely was it obliged to follow Soviet orders. But since glasnost, its formal and empty independence from Moscow has come to mean something substantial. One of its signs is that along with the jettisoning of Communism, Genghis Khan has found an honourable place in history.

Even before the Turko-Mongol rulers converted to Islam, many Muslims from the eastern lands of "Turkestan", (that is, Central Asia as a whole), Afghanistan, and Khorasan in particular achieved high ranks in their service. Many Turks and Tajiks served as governors, finance ministers and senior bureaucrats, as well as in the Mongol armies.

One such was Ata-malik Juvaini, a scholar from the city of Nishapur utterly destroyed by the Mongols, who wrote a celebrated history in Persian to explain these conquests and also to justify Mongol rule to his fellow Muslims. Encounters described here with living Buddism and shamans show that some of the traditions survived against all the odds.

Becker writes graphically about the deep anger felt at the awful persecution suffered under Stalin's Mongol henchmen in the purges of the terror years of the 1930s, under Marshal Choibalsan, a man he calls "the 20th century's most obscure dictator". An estimated 100,000 deaths took place, mostly in the 1930s, with the revolts led by the lamas punished with terrifying cruelty.

Choibalsan's successor, the Soviet appointed bureaucrat Tsedenbal, writes Becker, presided over a cultural lobotomy. "He methodically substituted Russian and Soviet culture for Mongolia's rich heritage." It even became the norm for senior officials to marry Russians, and tie Mongolia more closely to Moscow.

Yet pride in their ancient heritage is strong, and some of the imposed Russian-style reforms have been abandoned, along with Stalin's statue. Now Mongols have begun once again to learn the traditional Uighur script used since the era of Genghis Khan for the Mongol language, based on the semitic alphabet written from right to left (brought by the Nestorian Christians from what is now southeastern Turkey). Abolished 40 years ago, in favour of Cyrillic (like the Turkic languages of Soviet Central Asia before), this "long, straggly and Arabic looking script" is now seen widely in shops and offices of the capital Ulan Bator.
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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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