Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shiskin, Yale University Press, 2013, Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-300-18436-5, pp. 301, $20.07 Hardcover, $14.99/$15.49 E-Book (Kindle/Nook)
Some caveats are required in introducing this book. The restless valley in the title refers to the Fergana Valley, the most fertile region of the former Soviet Central Asia, divided by Stalin between the Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz SSRs. The dustcover introduction suggests the book is “… a gripping, firsthand account of Central Asia’s recent history.” That’s not quite accurate. In fact, the book only touches in passing on either subject. What Restless Valley does is provide a vivid account of the recent history of one of the former Soviet Central Asian republics – Kyrgyzstan – with a bit of Uzbekistan’s thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, it presents those events in a vacuum, with minimal historical background to assist the reader unfamiliar with Central Asia.
The five ‘Stans (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) became independent political entities for the first time when the Soviet Union dissolved itself in 1990. In all but Kyrgyzstan, the first secretary of the local Communist Party evolved into the first president of the independent republic. Two remain in power – Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan. In Tajikistan the speaker of parliament, Emomali Rahmanov, became president in 1992 during a brutal civil war and remains in power. The first president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov (known as “Turkmenbashi), died of a heart attack in 2006. Only in Kyrgyzstan did the Supreme Soviet actually hold a contested election for a president. When neither the president of the council of ministers or the first secretary of the party could gain a majority, a compromise candidate, Askar Akayev, a physicist and mathematician, was elected.
Akayev was forced out of office in 2005 in what was called the “Tulip Revolution.” His successor Kurmanbek Bakiyev was, in turn, ousted after massive protests in 2010. Restless Valley recounts the tumultuous terms of those two presidents, particularly the events leading up to their ouster. For good measure it provides insight into two events that cross the Fergana Valley borders between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – a 2005 massacre in the Uzbek border town of Andijan, and riots in 2010 in the Kyrgyz border town of Osh, the latter involving Kyrgyz on Uzbek violence. Both events received extensive, but not very enlightening, world press coverage when they occurred.
The author, Peter Shiskin, an experienced, Russian-born journalist who has worked extensively in the region, relates the events by following a number of relatively minor characters who played important roles at various points throughout the chaotic period. Shiskin clearly had extraordinary access in the region, including gaining access to Andijon and Osh when journalists were not allowed in. Color and the ability to give readers a sense of participation in events are the hallmark of excellent journalistic skills, and Shiskin demonstrates all of that. His focus on key participants in the events he describes illuminates them and gives the reader a sense of being there.
Unfortunately, Restless Valley suffers from a lack of critical editing. Several of the characters and events reappear at several stages. Each time they are re-introduced with background information provided earlier, giving the impression that the book was cobbled together from separate articles or essays rather than written as a whole. On balance the book is useful for readers who have some familiarity with the events it recounts and are interested in additional details and local color. For those less familiar with the region, there are better general books and articles on the Fergana Valley and the republics that surround it.