Kazakhstan, say signs by the side of the road in this vast Central Asian country, is ‘a land of unity and accord’. Few outside pay a great deal of attention to a state that is almost as large as Europe, and home to eye-popping natural resources, chiefly — but not only — oil. One who does is Joanna Lillis, who used to work in Russia and then for the BBC Monitoring Service in neighbouring Uzbekistan, and knows the region as well as anyone.
Her book, Dark Shadows, is astute, refreshing and revelatory; it is also surprisingly tender, showing not only her affection but her care in trying to make sense of a country that needs to be understood warts and all. She introduces a cast of characters one could not make up, from an Old Believer living in the north of the country to a militant atheist, whose grim convictions are not entirely appealing.