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The Caspian Sea: Black the stone and pliable the serpent

The Caspian Sea is a remnant of the so-called Paratethys, an ocean that covered large parts of present-day Eastern Europe fifty million years ago. Even bigger than the North American Canadian lakes, it is considered to be the largest inland waterway in the world, and has been the geostrategic powerhouse of Central Asia since the nineteenth century as a sort of empty center.

“Not a few observers believe that the essential features of the future world order are currently emerging in this region,” wrote the Australian, also in London and Berlin teaching democracy researcher John Keane 2015 in a momentous essay entitled “The New Despoties”. The five riparian states of the Caspian Sea – clockwise: Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran – represent a fabric catalog of the novel repressive regimes that Keane has analyzed. The general clause of the social contract that governs them is: “We rule and provide goods in return for quiet loyalty.” In the new despots along China’s projected “New Silk Road,” much of the world’s population lives; and in the wake of the current Atlantic economic crisis, this region has left the rest of the world in terms of investment, production and exports. It is the new geopolitical center of our planet. “

That’s too little for luck!

The fact that the Russian travel writer Vasily Golovanov made the Caspian Sea the subject of a weighty travel book is therefore not as exotic as it may seem to the German reading public. Of course, his access is not democratic and economic theory, but decidedly subjective. He describes his observation and writing method as “geopoetic”; in the American context one would speak of “personal travel essayism”.

“When you travel, you learn terrible truths about yourself,” writes Golovanov. But travel also presents him with epiphanies, which the reader can hardly forget as the author. “You may ask: what was there anyway? An abandoned shore, blooming tamarisk, a black stone that looked like the flank of a whale, yes, and that ‘Caspian sapphire’ that, inspired by Mr. Dumas the Elder, liked to walk over your, the author’s pages? Well, that’s about it. On top of that, there was the trace of a snake in the sand, warmed in the sun and then buried deep in the bushes: the trail reminded of the elastic line of a calligrapher, of a frozen sinusoid that had retained the motion of the flexible, body-like body. You may say, that’s too little for luck! Yes, it is little. But who tells us what and how much you need for happiness. “This passage over a coastal strip on the Kazakh peninsula of Mangyschlak is typical of Golovanov’s dialogic style.

“Writer” is still a magic word

Central Asia is not only since today a controversial because of their resources and their strategic importance world area. Golovanov introduces the historic depth dimension of this room in elegantly arranged excursuses. For centuries the history of those countries consisted mainly of invasions and raids by cavalry nomads and later Islamic empires. In the nineteenth century, the lands around the Caspian Sea finally became the playing field of the “grand game”: the expansion of the Russian tsarist empire southward towards India on the one hand, and attempts by the British Empire to repress and hinder this expansionist movement. The “Great Game” consisted of a decades-long and incalculably complicated clumping of skirmishes, diplomatic maneuvers, invasions and not least research trips, in the implementation and documentation of which German science adventurers such as the native Tübingen Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin excelled.

But Golovanov returns from such digressions again and again to his personal experience of those countries. The description of a flight-like bus trip from Derbent – the fortress city on the narrow coastal strip between the Caucasus and the sea at the interface between the Russian Empire and the Persian culture – back to Moscow is a culmination of tension and literary quality of the long and disparate book. The author finds himself in the company of Lesgian traders, Dagestan prostitutes and Kalmyk petty criminals who simply do not beat him up because he can convince them that he is a writer – still a magic word in post-Soviet culture. This passage is also exciting, touching and typical for the book, because the outer dramas of the described bus journey are only the backdrop for the inner drama of the narrator, who wonders why he never actually proposed marriage to his longtime partner Olga – what he immediately does after his arrival.

Another of Golovanov’s many beautiful Central Asian vignettes is the description of his ambivalent friendship with a Dagestani Wahhabite, where he lives for a few weeks and who on the one hand is personable as a person, while on the other hand his views are so nagged and stupid that Golovanov after long attempts to communicate with him gives up on the edge of his ability to suffer resigned – a serious and ultimately failed dialogue of cultures. In such reflections of the geopolitical great in the inner workings of a likeable, realistic and adventurous Russian “sixty-eight”, this beautiful (and somehow wild) book opens the opportunity to learn something concrete about a world region of which we will hear much in the future.

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