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Rollan Seisenbayev: Мертвые бродят в песках (The Dead Wander in the Desert)

The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest lake on the planet (it is not a sea but an inland lake). In what has been described as one of the greatest environmental disasters of the twentieth century, it has now virtually disappeared. This book follows the story of a group of people, mainly Kazakh but also Russian, who were affected by this, who studied the issue and who tried to stop it.

The main character is Nasyr. He used to be a fisherman on the Aral Sea but now that there is no water and no fish, he has retired. He was appointed mullah but subsequently handed the role over to a younger man, Kaiyr, who is described as a wily young man and turns out to a disaster.

Nasyr is married to Korlan and they have a son, Kakharman who, along with his father, is the key character in this book. Kakharman has a son, Berish, who lives with his grandparents.

The Kazakhs used to be a nomadic, entirely dependent on their cattle, which provide all their needs. In 1929, the Soviet government started confiscating the cattle. The result was mass starvation, millions dying and cannibalism. Nasyr is witness to this, seeing cannibalism and rescuing two children from being eaten. He does not spare us any of the details.

The fisherman, away from the central Kazakh plains, had managed to survive, despite various storms and the like, which led to many deaths, as well as large fish which actually attacked boats and the men. The Aral Sea was fed by two rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, better known in the West as the Oxus. The Soviet government decided that the Kazakh steppes would be an ideal place to grow cotton, a cash crop, provided the area could be watered, so they diverted much of the two rivers for this purpose. It was done very inefficiently so a huge amount of water was lost and the surrounding area became marshy and saline, and therefore useless. Of course, it also meant that the water in the Aral Sea started to go down. Worse still, the run-off from the extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides, as well as spills from chemical factories on the shores of the rivers, meant that the water that did reach the sea was harmful to the fish and resulted in many species of fish dying out.

The Soviets tried two solutions to these problems. The first was what was known as the Northern river reversal, which involved diverting Siberian rivers to the steppes. This was proposed and studied but eventually abandoned.

As regards the fish, the northern snakehead (Channa argus) was introduced. It ate up everything remaining in the Aral Sea. Again we get a detailed description of a snakehead in action.

Finally, the Toktogul Dam was built, which diverted water from the Syr Darya and further depleted the Aral Sea.

Nasyr and Kakharman try and fight these disasters, aided by a Russian scientist, Slavikov. Much of the book is about their various efforts to halt these and other harmful projects but, clearly, no-one really cares about the loss of livelihood of a few fisherman nor about the disappearance of the Aral Sea. Kazakhstan cannot meet its fishing quota, which is deemed a slight inconvenience though, in many cases, the fishermen move elsewhere to fish.

Nasyr does fight. Towards the end of the book, he manages to speak to Dinmukhamed Kunaev who was the very real First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. He is sympathetic but sees the diversion of the Siberian rivers as the solution.

Kakharman tries to fight the system from within but cannot and does not succeed. We follow his travels in some detail. He gets involved in other Soviet projects which lead to environmental disasters, such as the Kapchagay Reservoir but is powerless to do anything about them. Slavikov shows the huge scientific damage of many of these projects (we get all the details) but no-one seems to care.

When nature is damaged, it fights back is just one of the many comments by the main characters but the Soviet view is that nature can be tamed for the benefit of man. Each republic uses the wealth of the earth as if it’s their own property. It is the view of the main characters and of Seisenbayev that this is a disastrous approach and they have been proved right.

We learn about many other horrific Soviet policies, such as arbitrary arrests and torture, forced migration, and, of course, the attempt to Sovietise the various nationalities. However, though this book does not fail to mention these horrors, it is the huge environmental damage – I have only mentioned some of the damage that is detailed in this book – that is the key.

I personally think that man is the greediest creature of nature. Man destroys everything—birds in the sky, animals on the land, fish in the water. Now only one thing remains: to eat each other, says Slavikov and, reading this book, it is hard not to agree with him.

Seisenbayev tells a superb story, as we follow the main characters and the many issues they face and their attempts, invariably unsuccessful, to fight them. The book does not end well, either for the main characters or for the environment. It ends just as the Soviet Union is breaking up (Gorbachev does not come out too well). However, we know that, though some of the Aral Sea has been replenished, the successor states still follow environmentally harmful policies in the region, for the sake of money.

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by Междунар. клуб Абая
First English translation in 2019 by Amazon Crossing
Translated by John Farndon and Olga Nakston