Kazakhstan’s city of gold
All that glitters
Astana’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. © Mariusz Kluznia
Central Asia’s new cosmopolitan capital writes itself into the history books.
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If you want to know the weather in Kazakhstan, don’t bother checking the international report on SBS – Central Asia is virtually the one place on the globe it doesn’t cover, as if that big space between Russia, China, Mongolia, Uzbekistan and the Caspian Sea were just an empty hole. No point in looking at the international weather reports in Australian, British, German or Chinese newspapers, either: Astana, capital of the ninth-largest country in the world, a significant oil and gas exporter, second only to Australia for uranium reserves and responsible for more than a third of global uranium production, doesn’t make the cut. Even the Russians ignore Kazakhstan’s weather, though you might think that as the largest and friendliest country in the “near abroad” (that is, the non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union), not to mention a founding member of the curiously named Common Economic Space uniting the Russian Federation, Belarus and Kazakhstan, it deserves better. This universal silence must be annoying to Nursultan Nazarbayev, for the past 20 years independent Kazakhstan’s “first president” (as he likes to be styled), and before that, when Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union, first secretary of the Kazakhstan Communist Party. What’s the point of announcing yourself as the meeting point of Europe and Asia, building a grand new capital filled with spectacular showcase buildings by internationally famous architects, designing a new sky-blue and gold national flag, gilding every dome and pillar in sight, and winning seven gold medals in weightlifting and cycling at the London Olympics, if nobody even reports your weather? Especially when you have such dramatic weather to boast of: 40 below in winter, 40 above in summer, and a strong wind blowing across the steppe practically all the time.
Astana, in Kazakhstan’s north-east, has been the capital since 1997; it was once a sleepy Russian provincial town called Akmolinsk, and then for a while the centre of Khrushchev’s virgin lands scheme under the name of Tselinograd. Now it has a population of 700,000 people and growing, though seemingly not as fast as the number of high-rise buildings on Astana’s right bank, which include Norman Foster’s pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, with separate halls for all the world’s great religions; the Bayterek Tower, offering tourists the chance to press a gold handprint of President Nazarbayev and make a wish; an apartment block in the style of Moscow University’s Stalinist “wedding-cake” building; and a new opera house modelled on Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, but bigger. There are five major universities in Astana, several of them established under Nazarbayev’s direct encouragement: the LN Gumilyov Eurasian National University, set up in the 1990s with instruction in Russian and Kazakh, which incorporates a special centre on Eurasian thought; and, more recently, Nazarbayev University, now in its second year of operation, where teaching is in English and the academic staff come from what was once known as the capitalist world – the United States, Europe, Australia. When I visited in May they had almost finished gilding the dome; inside is a spectacular sky-blue and gold space with fountains, the various schools and departments branching off, and the university’s dressed-for-success students striding purposefully to classes.
I arrived in a sceptical frame of mind, expecting to find something like a comic-opera dictatorship, but ended up more sympathetic, despite the gold handprint. Nazarbayev must be the only world leader who ever unilaterally closed down a major nuclear facility (the Soviet test site at Semipalatinsk in north-east Kazakhstan) and disposed of a nuclear arsenal without asking for a quid pro quo. His big domestic messages are modernisation and ethnic and religious harmony, both of which seem to make sense, the latter especially in a country with more than a hundred ethnic groups. At the time of independence in the early 1990s, Kazakhs were less than 40% of the population. (They are now more than 60%, thanks to the departure of Russians, the return of Kazakhs from China and elsewhere, and a high Kazakh birth rate.) Nazarbayev’s ethnic policy may be the old Soviet slogan of “friendship of peoples” in a new guise, with the friendship now incorporating religious as well as ethnic diversity, but it’s certainly better than its opposite. There are a lot of Soviet echoes in Kazakhstan, which isn’t surprising, as Nazarbayev only took his republic out of the Union when it had become clear that there wasn’t going to be a Soviet Union to belong to. Nazarbayev himself, a Kazakh more comfortable writing in Russian, has a very Soviet biography: a lower-class boy who rose up the ladder from worker to technician to engineer, gaining most of his training in the Ukraine, and finally became a career Party official, all the while keeping up the educational self-improvement that was such a feature of the Soviet system. The museum in Astana that tells this story is modest, at least in the context of the genre, empty of visitors, and oddly likeable.
Nazarbayev’s independent Kazakhstan has parliamentary institutions that seem a bit tentative and a party system that is only embryonic. Nazarbayev talks the talk on human rights, but according to Amnesty International Kazakhstan’s record remains poor, particularly with regard to police brutality in dispersing demonstrations in Zhanaozen in 2011. I’m sure they are right, but if the field of comparison is Russia and other former Soviet republics, or even the broader spectrum of non-Western emerging nations, Kazakhstan doesn’t seem to be doing too badly. Westerners working at the universities don’t complain of censorship, and when I asked what the name of the local security police was, only a few people could remember, a lapse that wouldn’t happen in Russia. Succession is going to be a problem: Nazarbayev is now over 70, with a bout of cancer behind him, not visibly aiming to found a dynasty (though with a politically active daughter, whose husband was recently banished for excessive ambition), and, in light of the weakness of all political institutions here except the presidency, with no obvious successor in place.
Nazarbayev has a friendship policy when it comes to the outside world as well. Russia is the greatest friend (and Russian remains a second official language), but he has cultivated ties with the US (signing on to the “war on terror”), China, the European Union, and the United Kingdom. Tony Blair is an adviser and booster, and Kevin Rudd made several visits. Just after I left, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, was in Astana, seeking to restart his political career (interrupted by a sex scandal) at one of the global economic conferences that Nazarbayev loves to host.
Kazakhstan, like all the former Soviet republics, had the challenge of creating an independent national history, once the Soviet version became invalid. Kazakh historians charged with this task were among the specialists sent abroad for professional upgrading after independence, and I met one in Tübingen, in Germany, in the early 1990s, an intelligent young woman with a wry sense of humour. It was the heyday of the Western academic embrace of postmodernist theory, including the idea that nationality and the sense of national identity are not hardwired but rather socially constructed, which is a nice way of saying invented. My Kazakh friend dutifully attended the German seminars, and remarked privately that seeing through the essentialist claims of nationality didn’t actually help when your job was to construct them.
The Kazakh sport of kokpar involves scoring goals with a headless goat. It has not yet been accepted into Olympic competition.
As a historian myself, I looked with some interest at the way Kazakh history has been rewritten in the service of post-Soviet nation-building. I wouldn’t say it’s a fully coherent story yet, but the nationalism it supports is an unusually benign one. It starts with nomads on the steppe and proceeds through Mongol conquest by Genghis Khan in the 13 th century, the Kazakh Khanate from the 15th to the 18th century, Russian conquest and 19 th -century colonisation, and then incorporation in the Soviet Union in the 20 th century. The Khanate is something to celebrate and Russian colonialism to deplore, but the emotions are all rather low-key. When we get to the Soviet period, there is suffering – notably the terrible famine of the early 1930s, which Nazarbayev has identified as a key moment in the history of Kazakhstan – but not a vengeful narrative of victimisation. (Professor Stephen Wheatcroft, a distinguished Australian demographic historian, is currently leading the university’s teaching and research on the topic.) Once we get to World War Two in the new history of Kazakhstan, we are fully back in Soviet territory – it’s the “Great Patriotic War” still, and Kazakhstan is a proud contributor to Soviet victory. The history of Kazakhstan is a compulsory subject at NU, but, rather unexpectedly, it’s taught in English by a bunch of eager young American and European historians with newly minted PhDs and the kind of training that makes them believers in multiple narratives, not a single standard version. So they are doing their best to teach the students critical thinking, which is not exactly what you would expect in a mandatory course in national history.
In Stalin’s time, Kazakhstan was notable for being a dumping ground for deportees from the western parts of the Union (that’s one of the reasons its population is so multi-ethnic) and the site of a number of large labour camps in the Gulag system, including the massive Karlag in Karaganda and the special camp for wives of “enemies of the people”, Alzhir, outside Astana. Both of these are now museums, staples of the tourist route, such as it is, in Kazakhstan, but once again it’s a surprisingly unaggrieved story that’s being told, with anti-Russian or anti-Soviet notes quite muted. The thing is that it wasn’t Kazakhs or Kazakhstan citizens, for the most part, who were in these camps in the 1930s to 1950s, but Russians, Ukrainians and others from outside the republic. So Alzhir, in particular, with its many photographs of attractive and privileged Russian women whose husbands were big fish before they perished in the purges, now seems almost more like a monument to celebrities than an exposé of the atrocities that brought them there. The local Kazakhs were sorry for the women and tried to help them, we are told; and now, as the last room on the tour of Alzhir proclaims, an independent Kazakhstan has come into being and everything is all right.
In the Nazarbayev photograph album I was given at the Eurasian University, he appears in many benevolent poses, some of them quite in the spirit of Soviet high culture (applauding young Kazakhs’ performance on the violin, for example), others featuring Kazakh folk culture or showing the First President in surroundings of natural beauty, of which Kazakhstan boasts quite a few. Sport is strongly featured, which may seem natural to an Australian but isn’t particularly for a Kazakh, if one excludes games played on horseback with goats’ carcasses, and others yet to make it onto the Olympic list: most of Kazakhstan’s Olympic victors at London had Russian surnames. The cover photo shows Nazarbayev riding a horse, as befits a man of the steppe. All the Central Asian leaders seem to ride horses, which is evidently necessary legitimation for a leader in the region. During my visit, the president of Turkmenistan competed in a horse race, endowed by himself, and won it – but then, unwisely, stood up in his saddle, alarming his horse, and ended up being thrown off and hitting the ground head first. Great though unavailing efforts were made to keep this from bloggers and the Western media. The account I read in a Kazakhstan Russian-language newspaper noted that falling from a horse is a very bad omen for leadership. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen to Nazarbayev, at least until he has a successor in place.