Murderers in Mausoleums

In this corner, Bill Bryson and Peter Mayle, travelers on the bright side of the road. In the opposite corner, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Jeffrey Tayler, worthy wayfarers, too, but skinned to the journey’s dark linings. Tayler is known to write fine, grim dispatches, from Russia and Africa, as a correspondent for Atlantic Monthly. In Murderers in Mausoleums, he takes a crescent-shaped swing from Red Square to Tiananmen Square via Central Asia, some 7,200 miles through inimical lands that have known a millennium’s worth of pillage, plunder, and ugly governing since the good old days of Genghis Khan — just Tayler’s bailiwick, a pretty slice of anomie. He seeks to measure the emotional temperature of village and rust-belt town dwellers, see how they are faring under the latest Great Game: Russia, the United States, and China wooing the new steppe-and-desert republics to control, through ratty geopolitical one-upmanship (or simple thuggery), their strategic footing and vast energy deposits. Tayler leavens the trip with some transporting landscapes — Kyrgyzstan’s red-orange massifs, say, topped by snowy peaks — and those everyday, indelible chance encounters: sharing a melon, a pie, or a cigarette with locals, perhaps a gold-toothed woman in Gypsy scarves and floral skirts. But Tayler focuses on the hard-bitten life of the vox populi, scraping by on wits and wiles amidst the corruption and mayhem (in Dagestan — forget Chechnya, please — Tayler is told, “We all get along really well here, despite our ethnic backgrounds ? I mean, aside from the bomb blasts and shootings”), while the Bush era’s embarrassingly opportunistic support of regional “democratic” figures, such as Kazakhstan’s odious Nursultan Nazarbayev, helps quash any populist impulse. Survival is the bottom line: people want stability and jobs, not bombast; if the “Great Game that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union has ended ?victory has gone to the home teams. The West is out.” Tayler’s is a sad song of autocratic ascendancy.