Frank Westerman’s English-language publishers describe this book as ‘a brilliant fusion of travel-writing and Soviet history’. The travel part is evident from the outset, and culminates in a hard-won and hard-living pilgrimage to the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. The history is prominent, too, dispensed with confidence and narrative control. It would have taken a brave publisher, however, to have come clean about the real focus of the text. You will have read 100 pages before you find out that Westerman once planned a career devoted to hydraulic engineering and irrigation systems. But if that sounds unappealing (and it certainly helps to explain why it took nearly ten years for this edition to see the light of day), take heart. In Westerman’s capable hands, dam-building, canals and grandiose irrigation projects are the foundations of a gripping moral tale.
Back in the 1980s, Westerman’s class of radical Dutch students regarded hydrology as a tool in the battle against world poverty. Only one of their lecturers, a tie-wearing right-winger, questioned this trend. He challenged them to read Karl Wittfogel’s 1957 classic, Oriental Despotism, which argued that ‘hydraulic’ civilisations