Eastward to Tartary: The Travels of Robert D. Kaplan

Eastward to Tartary presents an interesting challenge for a critical book review. The manuscript follows the author, Robert D. Kaplan, as he travels through a series of countries on his way to his final destination, the region known as Tartary. The book presents an interesting challenge because it is not really the type of book a student would expect in a graduate course on geostrategic studies, at least not this student. Instead it is more of a combination history / travelogue of several regions (Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia) as seen through the eyes of Kaplan. As Kaplan himself states in the author’s note to the book, “âÂ?¦Eastward to Tartary portrays the Greater Near East at the turn of the twenty-first century, and looks forward to the next decade or so in that region” (Kaplan, 2000, author’s note). He goes on to say, “This bookâÂ?¦describes the lay of the land” and “My aim here is to record a journey, not to write a comprehensive survey” (Kaplan, author’s note). This last point is what makes the book so interesting, and is the subject of criticism from reviewers, as is demonstrated later in this paper.

Kaplan’s travels really are quite extensive. This paper begins with a short review of Kaplan’s travels through each region in the book. It all starts with Kaplan’s departure from Hungary and his movements through Eastern Europe, specifically through the countries of Romania and Bulgaria. From there, the paper chronicles Kaplan’s travels through the Middle East, beginning in Turkey and moving through such Middle Eastern notables as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. The paper then discusses Kaplan’s travels through the Caucasus and Central Asia, covering the countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. Following the review of Kaplan’s travels, the paper briefly discusses some of the criticisms of the text from other reviewers. This section of the paper was included because of this student’s unfamiliarity with Kaplan’s works and so that other assessments could be included in this critical review. Finally, the paper concludes with an assessment of Kaplan’s text as a whole.


Kaplan begins Eastward to Tartary in Hungary, and quickly moves to the former Communist stronghold of Romania. He takes every opportunity to discuss the historical significance of the places he visits and describes in detail the course of everyday life and the problems with progress in Eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kaplan explains that Orthodoxy is one of the problems in Eastern Europe, regardless of what type of government is in place: “Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Russia, Greece-all the Orthodox nations of Europe-are characterized by weak institutions. That is because Orthodoxy is flexible and contemplative, based more on the oral traditions of peasants than on texts” (Kaplan, p. 33). He goes on to say, “Orthodoxy is separated from, yet tolerant of, the world as it is: fascist, Communist, or democratic, because it has created an alternate world of its ownâÂ?¦” (Kaplan, p. 33).

In Kaplan’s view, Romania is the key, or pivot, state in Eastern Europe: “With Romania absorbed into the West, Europe stretches to the Black Sea; with Romania estranged, Europe becomes a variation of the Holy Roman Empire, while the Balkans rejoin the Near East” (Kaplan, p. 55). Yet, says Kaplan, nine years after the collapse of Soviet Communism, “âÂ?¦Romania’s recovery was only beginning” (Kaplan, p. 39). While in Romania, Kaplan took time to write about the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and offered some advice for Western policy makers: “The real significance of NATO’s expansion into Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland had less to do with Russia per se and more to do with how the expansion institutionalized the divide between the Christian West and the Orthodox East-for it wasn’t just Russia that was now cut off from the new Europe, but the Balkans, too. Rather than worry about Russia, which had little chance of conforming to NATO’s membership standards, Western analysts should have been concerned with Orthodox countries like Romania and Bulgaria, which had a fighting chance” (Kaplan, p. 46).

From Romania, Kaplan moved to his next stop in formerly Communist Eastern Europe: the country of Bulgaria. Again, Kaplan goes to great lengths to describe the people and places he encounters in extraordinary detail while furthering his argument about the divide between East and West: “American and Russian values in Eastern Europe were still at war: the humanism demonstrated by a homeless shelter for an abused minority and a university to foster tolerance pitted against the absolutism and thuggery of criminal oligarchies” (Kaplan, p. 76).

Kaplan makes excellent use of his descriptions of those with power in Bulgaria, in particular the wrestlers who seem to control society. Before concluding his tour of Bulgaria, Kaplan takes the opportunity to counter the idea that globalization is as great as its proponents claim it to be by talking about the continuing divide between East and West, despite advances in communications technology that purportedly eliminate borders and reduce national barriers. He writes, “The idea that the Internet and other new technologies annihilate distances is a half-truth. Americans and Bulgarians might send email to each other, but once they leave their computer screens, they face two vastly different societies: one in which you had to pay protection money to keep your car from being stolen, and one in which you didn’t; one in which your currency is worth something, and one in which it isn’t; one where World War II ended in 1945, and one where it lasted until 1989âÂ?¦” (Kaplan, p. 86).


Kaplan leaves Bulgaria and begins his journey through the Middle East in Turkey, a country often regarded as the bridge between Europe and the Arab countries. Turkey, according to Kaplan, represents confirmation of what he believes are the dire consequences of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. He writes about Turkey’s vibrant economy and talks about the cultural split between the Turkish military and the rest of society. Kaplan writes fondly of Turkey, calling it “âÂ?¦a keystone of power and stability in the Near East, the unspoken organizational fact of the region’s geography and politics” (Kaplan, pp. 102-103).

From Turkey, Kaplan traveled to Syria, a Middle Eastern hotbed of terrorist sponsored activity. He begins his discussion of Syria with an historical recollection of Assyria, which comprised modern Syria and Iraq: “They story of AssyriaâÂ?¦is hauntingly appropriate to the dilemma of the early-twenty-first-century Middle East. Assyrian militarism grew out of the need to protect the inhabitants of the Syrian desert and Mesopotamia from the hostile mountain people in Anatolia and Kurdistan to the north and Iran to the east, and from the pharaohs of Egypt to the southwest. But such extensive militarization created a brittle Assyrian political culture, not unlike the heavily mobilized, dictatorial states now occupying the Syrian desert and Mesopotamia, as well as elsewhere in the Arab world where institutions, except for the military and security services, are weak or nonexistent” (Kaplan, p. 112).

Kaplan goes on to discuss the lack of modernity in Syria, and the weird cult of personality surrounding Syrian President Assad. As Kaplan writes, “Syria, unlike every other place I had visited since leaving Budapest, was a mobilized society: Everyone was in some sort of uniform-soldier, peasant, religious Moslem, while the eyes of the leader watched over all” (Kaplan, p. 128).

One of the things that stuck out about Syria to this student was the lack of attention paid by Kaplan to radical Islam. In fact, it seems as if Kaplan almost touts Islamic movements as progressive compared to other organizations in the Middle East: “Wherever I had encountered Islamic movements in the Middle East, certain features rarely varied: a heightened organization and fastidiousness among the adherents that created its own peculiar energy. The Islamists were often the first groups in the region to have Web sites, E-mail, cell phones, and other accessories of the modern world” (Kaplan, p. 115).

From Syria, Kaplan travels to Lebanon, a country so heavily influenced by Syria that it is essentially a Syrian satellite state along the model of the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe. Kaplan describes the journey from Syria to Lebanon by saying, “Traveling from Syria to Lebanon was like going from East to West Germany during the Cold War: same language, same country for so long, yet so different” (Kaplan, p. 150). Kaplan spends some time discussing Syrian domination of Lebanon and concludes that the Lebanese are really not interested in democracy as much as they are interested in the comforts of life: “Lebanon suggests that the ‘end of history’ is not democracy or humanism but materialism. People wanted goods and the money with which to buy them more than they wanted the rule of law” (Kaplan, p. 158).

Following his stay in Lebanon, Kaplan traveled to Jordan after a brief return to Syria. Kaplan writes as if Jordan has potential when he says, “Jordan flourishes as a middleman economy with few natural resources; its middle class is proportionately larger than that of any neighboring Arab state” (Kaplan, p. 175). The writing sounds promising because it focuses on the middle class, which is the essential building block of any strong economy. However, Kaplan quickly returns to his negative views of the region by drawing attention to those individuals increasingly attracted to radical Islam as a means for changing their lot in life: “Jordan and the Arab world are demographically dominated by youth, for whom educational and employment opportunities are increasingly inadequate” (Kaplan, p. 180).

Kaplan’s final stop in the Middle East is the state of Israel. He begins by noting the difference in attitudes between Israel and its Arab neighbor Jordan. Kaplan writes, “The peace treaty and open border that Jordanian road signs try to conceal, Israel celebrates” (Kaplan, p. 188). He notes that there are no signs in Jordan leading to Israel, indicating the Israeli celebration of statehood and the general Arab desire to see Israel cease to exist as a state.

While in Israel, Kaplan writes of the dangers of radical Judaism when he says, “Just as in the Moslem world, where the rise of political Islam means the end of real devotion, in Israel the identification of Judaism with extreme nationalism has threatened a similar result” (Kaplan, p. 199). He further warns that radical Jews threaten the prospect of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors: “Adapting Judaism to new and more complex times will not be easy in Israel, where Orthodox nationalist parties have built walls between Jews and Arabs and between Jews and Jews while turning religion into a patronage mill” (Kaplan, p. 200).

Kaplan’s writings on Israel are surprisingly not more detailed with regard to the issues of Palestinian statehood and the ongoing violence between Arabs and Israelis over boundary lines and the fate of Jerusalem. Perhaps Kaplan was trying to stay unbiased given his Jewish faith.


Departing Israel, Kaplan returns to Turkey to launch his journey into the Caucasus and Central Asia by traveling to Georgia, a former Soviet satellite state and the birthplace of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Kaplan’s discussion of Georgia centers on what he perceives to be an Eastern, or Oriental influence over the nation: “While Georgia was superficially influenced by the West (Greece and Rome), its political culture became profoundly Eastern” (Kaplan, p. 229). Additionally, he writes, “âÂ?¦so despite the influence of European Russia in the nineteenth century, Georgia can be considered part of the Near East” (Kaplan, p. 229).

In Georgia, Kaplan returns to a previous theme: that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe for the nations formerly under Communist rule. Kaplan says, “Americans, I thought, are triumphant about the collapse of the Soviet Union. But throughout the Caucasus and beyond, I experienced firsthand how the Soviet collapse, while a blessing in the long run, has meanwhile ruined millions of lives. Communism, however disastrous, was still a system that provided pensions, schooling, social peace, and physical security for a multitude of people who often had no recollection of anything better. The collapse of that system has left a chaotic void that, so far, has made life here much worse” (Kaplan, p. 244).

From Georgia, Kaplan travels to Azerbaijan, where he continues with his theme of doom and gloom when writing about peoples and countries that seem to have no hope and are barely surviving. In Azerbaijan, Kaplan notes “âÂ?¦an attitude that was morally neutral compared to that in the West and that saw politics in terms of physical power and living standards, as might have been expected with people living on the edge” (Kaplan, p. 263). In Azerbaijan, Kaplan noticed no real signs of development in the country outside of Baku, a trend he had noticed in other Near East countries: “âÂ?¦in the Caucasus one could be optimistic in the capital cities, but in the provinces one confronted the hardest truths” (Kaplan, p. 255).

A major problem that impeded progress in the former Soviet satellite states centered around the fact that the only individuals capable of governance were the very individuals that were responsible for the dismal conditions that prevailed in daily life in Communist countries aligned with the former Soviet Union. As Kaplan notes, “The only people with the skills to wrest control from chaos and to run a bureaucracy were the old Communists, but of course they opposed reform” (Kaplan, p. 269).

The final leg of Kaplan’s journey involved his travel from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan and the region known as Tartary. Kaplan’s discussion of Turkmenistan contains many historical ramblings, in keeping with his pattern of weaving historical significance with current conditions in the lands he is visiting. Again in Turkmenistan, as in the other countries Kaplan visits, the writings are very depressing, expressing little in the way of hope or promise for the peoples of those nations. On top of the normal doom and gloom, though, Kaplan cites several “quality of life” factors that make Turkmenistan appear to be the worst of the worst of the former Soviet satellite states: “No other formerly Soviet Republic had a higher unemployment rate, a higher infant mortality rate, or a lower literacy rate” (Kaplan, p. 290).

Kaplan then returns to revisit a familiar theme: that the destruction of the Soviet Union was a catastrophic event for millions of people in the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. As Kaplan notes, “Of course, it’s hard to deny that the destruction of the Soviet Union was a good thing. But ever since I had crossed into Georgia from Turkey, I found people whose lives had been ruined by it” (Kaplan, pp. 301-302). Further, Kaplan offers an apocalyptic outlook for Western help in rebuilding and reforming the former Soviet satellite states: “âÂ?¦remaking this part of the world-even with the incentive provided by energy pipelines-would take both the resolve of a missionary and a sheer appetite for power that the West could probably never muster, especially given the difficulties it was having in the relatively nearby and less challenging Balkans” (Kaplan, p. 302).


Kaplan concludes Eastward to Tartary by summarizing the depression and misery that was so prevalent throughout his travels through the Near East. Kaplan writes, “Anarchy in some form or other, as I had seen, was almost everywhere in the Near East” (Kaplan, p. 304).

He then begins to offer a glimmer of hope, but always with a reservation about whether or not the states he visited could really be saved. The problem was one of self-interest, a problem that seemed to return Kaplan to his realist beliefs: “âÂ?¦and what had I learned? That power and self-interest would shape the immediate future, at least in this part of the world” (Kaplan, p. 307). He goes on to say, “The fact that national characteristics were undeniable did not mean that they would always be so. The fact that the Near East was a battleground of power politics did not mean that power politics could not make a positive difference. It was the impermanence of bad governments that gave me hope” (Kaplan, p. 308).

But of course the possibilities for hope and promise can be negatively influenced by a number of factors: “âÂ?¦the fact that stability and civility are even harder to achieve in the Caucasus than in the Balkans-and harder to achieve in the Balkans than in Central Europe-does not mean that a variety of choices, good and bad, does not exist here. Of course, countries are not empty slates full of possibilities: history, culture, and geography really do set limits as to what can be achieved” (Kaplan, p. 322).

Kaplan finishes Eastward to Tartary by expressing his belief that Western power projection into the Near East is the key to the development of the region: “Fragile statesâÂ?¦will copy whatever system is dominant: Nazism, Communism, criminal oligarchy, or liberal democracy. The only way to ensure that the latter triumphs is not to force elections on societies ill prepared for them but to project economic and military power regionallyâÂ?¦” (Kaplan, p. 328).

Kaplan quickly questions whether the West will project such power, though, when he writes, “Is it in our self-interest to battle chaos and absolutism in the Near East? It is in the Balkans, because they are near Central Europe, and a natural area for the expansion of the West’s zone of influence and prosperity. Elsewhere, our interests depend on whether an overriding necessity is at stake. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine a Western government sending troops to, say, Syria, Georgia, or Azerbaijan were they to disintegrate” (Kaplan, p. 329).

Kaplan concludes by asserting that he does not hold out much hope for the countries of the Near East, but instead expects continued misery and depression and little movement if any toward free democratic societies: “Democracy may prosper in Central Europe, the Southern Cone of South America, and elsewhere, but in much of the Near East in the first decade of the twenty-first century, democracy will, unfortunately, be beside the point” (Kaplan, pp. 329-330).


As mentioned before, this section of the paper is included to offer some other reviews of Eastward to Tartary and because of this student’s unfamiliarity with the works of Robert D. Kaplan.

The first thing one notices when looking at reviews of Kaplan’s works is that many regard him as one of the premier travel writers of our time. As David Landes writes for the New America Foundation, “Kaplan is one of the two or three top travel writers of our day. He chooses important places (not merely pretty); he studies up on history, geography, and societies; and he tells wonderful stories about people. I’m a great believer in the power of anecdote, and Kaplan is a master of anecdote-not simply to entertain but to instruct” (Landes). Further, Michael R. Hickock writes in Aerospace Power Journal, “As a travel writer Robert Kaplan is near the top in current American literatureâÂ?¦” (Hickock, 2001).

One of the facets of Kaplan’s writing in Eastward to Tartary mentioned in this paper is the consistent theme of doom and gloom in the countries visited by Kaplan during his travels through the Near East. Other reviewers have noticed this aspect of Kaplan’s writing in Eastward to Tartary as well.

Akash Kapur writes that Eastward to Tartary is “âÂ?¦Kaplan’s latest installment of gloom and hopelessness, an account of his travels in the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus” (Kapur). Kapur goes on to say that “âÂ?¦Kaplan shrouds the world in darkness, lamenting the ‘imprisoning desolation’ and ‘Brezhnevian gloom’ of the lands he visits” (Kapur). While Kapur concedes that Kaplan is an excellent author for the study of the lands covered in Eastward to Tartary, he concludes his review by saying, “Over the course of two decades, Kaplan has established himself as the leading chronicler of the post-Communist Pax Americana, a grim reaper whose seamy version of globalization contrasts sharply with so many of the sunny-and often flippant-promises of global culture and prosperity” (Kapur). Finally, Thomas Goltz writes for the National Interest that, “Like his previous works, Robert Kaplan’s most recent opusâÂ?¦is a study in prophylactic pessimism” (Goltz, 2001).

Reading other reviews of Kaplan’s Eastward to Tartary, another theme emerges: that while the writings are colorful and full of incredible detail, questions arise about factuality. As Thomas Goltz writes, “âÂ?¦this book is too diffuse to be much more than what its subtitle suggests: travels in three quite different settings, in which Kaplan relies more on anecdotes and glancing observations than serious investigation conducted over a sustained period. This leads him to produce more in the way of abstract generalizations than interpretations closely bound to his subject” (Goltz). Colin Woodard also writes about questions of factuality in Eastward to Tartary: “Like Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches, an account of his travels as a British diplomat in the Caucasus and Central Asia in the 1930s, Robert Kaplan’sâÂ?¦Eastward to Tartary can leave the reader uncertain as to how true and accurate it is” (Woodard, 2001).

There are reviewers that rave about Eastward to Tartary and go as far as to recommend the book as a sort of foreign policy guide for the American president. As Richard Bernstein writes for the New America Foundation, “President George W. Bush could do a lot worse than to read ‘Eastward to Tartary’ by Robert D. Kaplan, a scholarly and adventurous journalist who roams the less-traveled regions of the globe and writes about them knowledgeably and with sophistication” (Bernstein, 2000).

Still, the consensus seems to be that the book is entertaining and full of extraordinary detail about the countries of the Near East, but lacks some credibility as a serious academic undertaking. Questions about factuality abound and the book smacks of pessimism, despair, and hopelessness.


Overall, Kaplan’s Eastward to Tartary proved to be an interesting read. As the book begins, it is difficult to tell exactly what Kaplan’s thesis is other than to portray the Near East as a region doomed to despair and hopelessness. Kaplan chronicles his globetrotting through Eastern Europe and Central Asia in what proves to be a combination historical record / travelogue rather than a serious academic study of the regions in the book. As Michael Hickock writes, “âÂ?¦for the reader who wishes to extract more than entertainment from Eastward to Tartary, a note of caution is in order” (Hickock).

The level of detail in Kaplan’s writing is incredible. His interaction with the peoples of the Near East and his descriptions of fashion, structural dilapidation, and technological difficulties provide the reader with colorful, entertaining stories that depict daily life in ways that fascinate his audience. As Michael Hickock says, “He writes beautifully, having a gift for clear prose and a journalist’s eye for exact detail-clothing, smells, tastes, and odors-to make the exotic feel familiar to the reader” (Hickock).
Still, one cannot help but wonder exactly what the thesis of Eastward to Tartary is. Kaplan gives the impression that the purpose of the book may be to spark intervention from the West by painting a dismal picture of a region in desperate need of outside help. As Kaplan says, “Because foreign policyâÂ?¦is guided by necessity and not by sympathy, a landscape, however grim, will never deter the seasoned policy maker from intervention if an abiding national interest coincides with a moral one. Indeed, it is only the grimmest human landscapes that demand interventions in the first place” (Kaplan, author’s note).

Whatever the motivation for writing Eastward to Tartary, Kaplan succeeded in using detailed descriptions to paint the Near East as an area full of doom and gloom, a region destined to live in despair and hopelessness with little hope of progress in the near future. To conclude, David Landes sums up Kaplan’s view of the Near East nicely when he writes, “Travel writing is a dismal art. From Herodotus, wide-eyed (and perhaps more than a little disoriented) in an India of man-eating ants and black sperm; to Ibn Battuta, the fourteenth-century Arab wanderer who endured the thirst and marauding tribesmen of the Sahara; to Graham Greene in lawless Mexico and Redmond O’Hanlon on the untameable Amazon: The classics of the genre are journeys into the night, tales of loneliness and hardship and danger. As Ian Jack puts it, no traveler has written a better-or more exemplary-sentence than Captain Scott, who stood at the South Pole in January 1912 and wrote in his diary, ‘Dar God, this is an awful place'” (Landes).


Bernstein, R. (2000). New York Times Book Review. Retrieved September 2, 2005 from the World Wide Web: www.newamerica.net
Goltz, T. (2001). Traveling Light. The National Interest, Spring 2001. Retrieved October 1, 2005, from Ebscohost: www.ebscohost.com
Hickock, M. (2001). Kaplan Book Review. Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 2001. Retrieved September 10, 2005, from Ebscohost: www.ebscohost.com
Kaplan, R. (2000). Eastward to Tartary. New York: Random House
Kapur, A. To Hell in His Handbasket. The Nation. Retrieved September 19, 2005, from the World Wide Web: www.akashkapur.com/kaplanreview.htm
Landes, D. Retrieved September 9, 2005, from The New America Foundation web site on the World Wide Web: www.newamerica.net
Woodard, C. (2001). A Lackluster Guide. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September / October 2001. Retrieved September 16, 2005 from Ebscohost: www.ebscohost.com

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