Astana: All The Hype You’ve Probably Never Heard, And More

Posted on June 11, 2012

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I’m having a devil of a time figuring out how to introduce Astana. I’ll buy myself a moment or two by situating myself, giving my geographic position and then perhaps using that to branch out into the rest of the city and its character as a whole.

That seems as good a course of action as any other, given that I’ve somehow wound up in the old city, so radiating outwards will help to map and navigate this wondrously strange city. Although it’s odd to say “the old city,” since nothing here is particularly old and everything that constitutes the “new city” has really developed within the past 14 years. But for the moment, back to straight geography.

I am sitting in a room on the fourth floor of one of the cheapest hotels in Astana, the Bayan Sulu hotel in the old city. From my window, I can see a few blocks of crumbling concrete block houses from the Soviet era. Most of these buildings sprung up along the right (east) bank of the river Ishim only during the middle of the 20th century. Before all that, Akmolinsk, as it was known at the time, had been a sleepy little fortress town founded a hundred years prior by Cossack units seeking to etch out a southern border for the Russian Empire by establishing posts along the steppe, signifying the end of Russian rule and the beginning of nomadic Central Asian cultures—such forts would continue to extend south and south , relegating Akmolinsk to relative insignificance in the wake of an expanding Russian border.

The first wave of development that created the old city came around the time that Akmolinsk turned into Tselinograd in the early 1960s. That’s when it became the headquarters for a Soviet project called the Virgin Lands project, which sought to turn the entire Kazakh steppe, of which Tselinograd was near the dead center, into a giant series of wheat farms to feed the expanding Soviet population. It was also a convenient place to relocate hordes of Russian settlers, onto the new farms supplied out of Tselinograd, to remove them from over-crowded Russian regions. The influx of Russians into Tselinograd and the Kazakh steppe was such as to turn the north of the current nation and the city as a focal point into 50-50 Kazakh-Russian populations, if not slight Russian majorities. And that’s part of the reason that Astana is what it is now.

But back to history, which I seem to adore so much in this blog—sorry to those for whom it is all repetitive or basic information. For anyone who’s ever been to the steppe before, you might be able to imagine what the Virgin Lands program led to: a massive dustbowl that stripped the topsoil from the steppe, devastated the pastoral lands and helped to kill off the remnants of nomadic culture that collectivized farming efforts hadn’t managed to select against, and turned Tselinograd into a sleepy town once more, with most of the political power and clout drifting to the major city of Almaty at the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains in the Kazakh-majority deep south of the nation. Almaty would become the capital after independence, while Tselinograd would revert to the Kazakh version of its original name: Aqmola, meaning “White Tomb,” so named for the harsh winters the little collection of broken-down Soviet factories, farm depots, and apartment blocks suffered through yearly.

Then, one day in 1997, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev decided he would move the capital from Almaty, the seat of his ethnicity, his clan, and of commerce and history in the nation, up to the White Tomb in the dead center of the stripped and abused northlands.

No one knows why, really. I’ve heard a number of theories. Some accounts have Nazarbayev saying he did it because he wanted to create a symbolic new capital at the center of the nation rather than on its periphery. Others have proposed a logic similar to that which underpinned the inward, nationalist and/or isolationist developments of Islamabad, Brasilia, Abuja, or Naypyidaw. I tend to believe the story, though, that the move was a half-pragmatic, half-symbolic attempt to assert control over a diverse population with the majority of its diversity being Russian and concentrated around and with history linked to Aqmola. The opportunity for Nazarbayev to develop a new, planned capital as a monumental collection of symbols and narratives to create an image of what Kazakhstan should be in his estimation was a happy ancillary. As for the final change in name, I tend to buy into the camp that says that Nazarbayev, hounded by critics who alleged that the ludicrous attempt to build a megalopolis in the middle of the blasted steppe and make it a global and national icon would be the president’s “White Tomb,” decided to tweak the name to the less ominous and satirically-inclined Astana, which simply means “Capital.”

Flying into Astana on an antiquated F50 propeller yet from a little airport in Ekaterinburg, Russia (the process of that flight itself deserves a post and will get one once I feel that it is safe/appropriate to do so), I too suspected Astana would still be something of a White Tomb. I entered a supreme critic, being somewhat naturally disposed against overly planned cities. For those who have heard my rants and rages calling for grid patterns while navigating New York City south of Midtown, allow me to explain:

I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to periodically attempt to do large scale works of infrastructure improvement for a city. Wide streets and adequate sewage systems and grid patterns are useful from the standpoint of efficiency, both for those who live in a city and those who run a city—less reason to riot and an easier ability to control security situations (not saying it eliminates all dangers, but that it does help with creating a manageable and livable city). But I am a huge opponent of the planned city ala La Corbusier, the French maniac who once or twice proposed tearing down Paris and rebuilding it as a series of identical cruciform patterns created for sterile repetitiveness and absolute modern, controlled, utilitarian efficiency, while using identical green spaces as a claim to have fulfilled the needs of man.

Such cities as Brasilia (or Chandigarh, a classical example of planned failure actually constructed by Le Corbusier himself as the dual capital of India’s Punjab and Haryana states) fail, I suspect as an amateur, because they are soulless and repetitive. Such cities value efficiency and control to such an extent that they squash out the space for a human being to exist as an individual independent of the state. There’s something of the same misery in those shiny, happy people abodes as we find in the unending monolithic blocks left over from the Soviet era. They subsume their residents into a skull-bashingly repetitive and over-simplistic symbology of control, power, order, and shoddy idealism. And people reject them accordingly, while they suck and suck and suck at the deep and misguided pockets that cobbled them together.

The shiny luster is itself usually a lie as well. Even cities like Ulaanbaatar attempt to pass themselves off as shiny, happy people paradises of modern developments and monumental symbolism ala Dubai. But peel away from the center streets and everything is usually far, far different from the image projected outwards by the core of the city. The same, I suppose, could even be said of Dubai, itself the classical super-modern city. Outside of its flagship monuments and core buildings, and beyond the abodes of the few super-rich, what is Dubai? I expected Astana to be much the same—pretty for a bit, but just a lie beyond, and often soulless even when it was pretty, a crushing expression of glory and ego.

I was surprised, then, to find that this city appears to be the real deal.

Coming into Astana from the airport, you get the usual: a long, open road with well-regulated traffic, a tall monument of gold-gilded horses rearing up before a column that welcomes you into Kazakhstan, and the glimpse of the iconic skyline of super-sleek, super-modern skyscrapers that cluster at the southern end of the left (west) bank of the Ishim. But then the road just stays the same. The traffic continues to be well managed. More monuments and parks and trees and quirky, modern structures pop up left and right as the city grows closer and more real. Driving past the flash new buildings in the southwest, towards the “old city,” it becomes clear that even that part of the city has been revitalized and rebuilt in the past decade or so. And it’s not all repetitive. Not at all.

The beauty of Astana is that only a small grouping of buildings was planned in the standard style—two big avenues that will one day constitute the center of the city with a few ultra-modern residential developments, but mainly government buildings and monuments. The rest of the city has been granted a great deal of freedom to develop, within bounds, with great independence and personality. The extreme diversity in styles and idiosyncrasies between neighborhoods … it’s all shiny and new and fantastically interesting. It is never repetitive or soulless. It is utterly walkable, but feels vast. It is rapidly expanding, but does not feel underpopulated, unwelcoming, or absurd. It strikes that impossible balance between a controlled space—littered with little, unique parks with various national monuments, too many to count—and a ravenous and independent one.

That reflects, I suppose, Nazarbayev himself. Mike and I have a few running jokes, one being that some parts of the city look like the creation of an idealistic and imaginative kid with an endless supply of Legos. But another relates to the omnipresence of the President in this city: a large statue of him resides at the core of the new city, and at the top of the grandest monument is an imprint of his massive hand in a block of gold, which you are supposed to fit your own hand into. He has two museums, semi-devoted to himself as well as to his nation, which, to our understanding, he himself controls to a degree. We joke that we half expect every taxi cab we flag down to be driven by Nazarbayev, who can just be everywhere and do everything.

Nazarbayev seems to be a fairly pragmatic man from what I can tell. We’d tend to label him an autocrat given that he has been in power since the fall of the Soviet Union and opposition rarely fares well in the political sphere. But he’s managed to turn his vast and diverse nation into a harmonious (the peace, respect, and co-existence between the Russian and Kazakh populations is astounding—a lack of severe racial problems may be one of those few positive legacies of the Soviet experiments in this region, although race programs elsewhere in the USSR were far more disastrous) and developing one while peer post-Soviet states have descended into war, stagnation, and corruption. The elite are very rich, but there is enough to go around from well-distributed oil and gas wealth such that the entire nation still benefits greatly. In short, the president takes a strong hand, but does so artfully and with a mind towards cementing a firm state while allowing freedoms and individuality where it is reasonable and most appreciated. It’s all very clever and very effective, it seems. And it reflects itself in Astana.

I’d heard from Kazakhs before coming to this nation that Astana did not feel lived-in yet. That it was too expensive and too expansive, too much under construction and too much full of recent immigrants. My own impression is that just now Astana is starting to turn into a home to many. It’s a luxury good that’s just been broken in—still very pristine and valuable, but no longer handled with the fear and frailty of something just out of the package. It’s a real city now and it seems to work.

None of that does real justice to this place but it’s all I can think to say for now. I’ll attempt to go on a picture-run tomorrow and post a bevy of photos soon thereafter. In a couple of days we will leave Astana, which is welcome if only for the fact that the city is still very expensive, being full of wealth itself and demanding much in return for its success and opulence. We will head south to Karaganda, once the center of the Central Asian gulag system and now a small copper-mining town. Then it’s south past Lake Balkhash and onwards into the Tian Shan Mountains and Almaty. Perhaps there I will gain some new perspectives on this city and this nation.

Expect a post on the journey to Astana soon. And on Karaganda, the Kazakh steppe, and the south of the nation later.

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