Saturday, August 6, 2011

Astana, new capital of Kazakhstan

Astana (formerly Tselinograd, then Akmola) has been the capital of Kazakhstan only for the past 13 years.  When I was there 20 years ago, a few months before independence, it was a sleepy dusty little city on the southern edge of the great wheat belt of Kazakhstan.

Under the Russian and Soviet Empires, Alma Ati (now Almaty) was the capital of Kazakhstan.  Located near the southern border, nestled at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains, it is a lovely city of a million people and still the business centre of the country.

In 1953, under Khrushchev, the USSR undertook a massive creation of new cultivated land, the Virgin Land program, breaking some 60 million hectares (150 million acres) over a 4 year period in Kazakhstan and Siberia.  25 million of these hectares were in northern Kazakhstan.  New state farms were constructed much of them by prison labour, as millions of soldiers and civilians were sentenced to 10 years in prison for being prisoners of war or for being caught on the wrong side of the line and sitting out the war.  These state farms were populated with peoples whom Stalin had transported to Siberia and Kazakhstan before, during or after the war as well as with volunteers, looking for a better life than what they had in European Russia.

At independence in Dec 1991, Kazakhstan seemed doomed to nationalistic struggles between certain Russians in the north who would cheerfully have taken northern Kazakhstan into Russia and certain Kazakhs in the south who wanted nothing more than to see ALL Russians out of their country. President Nazarbayev appeared to be walking a tightrope and moving the capital to the north central part of the country was intended to help keep the country together.

Kazakhstan is rich with oil and gas money which Nazarbayev used to build his modern new capital almost instantly.  Billions have been spent in construction of highways, lavish apartment blocks, business skyscrapers, parks and bridges.  The city is planned for 1 million people though only 750,000 currently live there and there are a lot of empty spaces.  And as you drive through the outskirts of the city you can see the poverty ridden communities where prosperity has passed them by.  There has not been a lot of "trickle down" to the distant villages, either.

The Kazakhs have a great sense of humour about these sometimes garish new buildings that have appeared in their midst, all architectural designs approved by the president himself, I have no doubt.  Whatever the official names are does not matter, the buildings are known universally by their colloquial names.

Golf ball on a Tee
The Cigarette Lighter.  Below is a round park area known as the Ash Tray
The Clothes Pin
The Sailor's T-shirt
The Syringe
The Three Drunken Kazakhs


  1. Well, you have to admit some of that architecture is quite interesting. Not dull at all.
    Glad you're home, BF.

  2. It really is interesting architecture and looks so modern and ahead of the times. I liked the guy pushing his ice cream cart and it's nice to see small business also a part of the new world in Kazakhstan.


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