“Our President Is 2,000 Feet Tall”: The Impossibility of Kazakhstan

Posted on June 19, 2012


I’ve been sitting here for a few minutes now, trying to figure out how I’m going to write this last blog post about Kazakhstan. There are perhaps half a dozen more posts I could write about the nation, and I desperately want to include some notes on Karaganda and Almaty, among more thematic material. But if I took the time to write all of those posts, I’d only be finished with Kazakhstan by the time we’d rolled through Kyrgyzstan. At the very least, I think I understand the problem I’m having with tying things up here: Kazakhstan is a wonderfully inconsistent nation, and as such it doesn’t take well to my attempts at closure and summation.

In that problem, though, is my solution. Maybe the best way to give a sense of this place, at least as we have experienced it, is to give a series of episodic snapshots to illustrate the extreme diversity of the nation. The contrast between Karaganda and Almaty, anchored into a dozen little anecdotes we’ve lived there and between, are amusing, but stark as well. And it’s that stark contrast that can invite some thoughts as to how such a huge, diverse, and rapidly changing nation has managed to stay together, relatively happily, and succeed while nations all around them fall to pieces. As a teaser for those thoughts, as Mike summarized it, imitating a Kazakh man we met in Astana, the country stays together because “our President is 2,000 feet tall.”

Before engaging with symbolic gigantism, though, a series of vignettes.

Recall all those nice things I said about Astana in the past two posts? You could not imagine a finer foil to that city than Karaganda, our second major stop in Kazakhstan. Even the weather seemed eager to create a symbolic point of contrast; as we drove deeper south into the very heart of the steppe, the skies, so sunny and clear in Astana, began to darken, growing heavy, and eventually releasing heavy, unending rains. The bleak, washed out, grey world we stepped into there screamed of the stereotypical Western concept of a post-Soviet city.

Actually, there may be few places that match so perfectly the otherwise ill-formed American notion of what it is to be post-Soviet. For background, a little history on Karaganda.

The city popped up on my radar as a pit stop in our journey through Kazakhstan for two reasons: 1. It’s a good stopping point on the road to Almaty and a good representation of a steppe city, much like Astana may have been before its development. 2. It was the headquarters of the Soviet KarLag system, the Central Asian equivalent of the gulags of Siberia. In particular, Karaganda’s karlags were home to tens and hundreds of thousands of Korean and German residents of the USSR, deported to the middle of nowhere during WWII to move them away from the Japanese and German fronts, for fear that they would defect and fight for the opposing armies in the war. Or for more arbitrary reasons.

Actually, Karaganda was considered such an isolated place that it became the but of a Soviet joke–a by-word for the middle of nowhere, a place that no one had any reason to go. In truth the presence of such a concentration of essentially slave labor and exiled intellectuals led Karaganda to develop into a scholarly community with a vibrant market based on coal mining (still the largest industry there today). Much of this was helped along by the flurry of activity, subsidies, and attention the Soviet apparatus paid to the region, as it served as the headquarters for the USSR’s space and nuclear testing programs. (Karaganda is one of the only cities to have experienced a severe electro-magnetic pulse event when a nuclear bomb explosion fried the electrical grid of the city.) By independence, and after the decline of the KarLags, Karaganda boasted the second-highest population in Kazakhstan, and one of the more multi-ethnic and vibrant environments.

Independence ended all of that. Almost as soon as the nation declared itself free of Russian control, the ethnic Germans fled Karaganda and the population of the city shrank from around 600,000 to its current size of just above 400,000. Along with the German intellectuals, all of those high-earning men and women associated with the space and nuclear programs packed up and left (not even a trace remained, as Kazakhstan chose, fatefully, to return all its nuclear weapons to Russia and become a nuclear-free state). Likewise, the subsidies dried up, and storefronts and homes stood empty as capital, minds, and attention fled, and the city dropped to the third or fourth largest in the nation.

That Karaganda is not an economically desolate place is a testament to the continuing power of coal and the ingenuity of the Kazakhstani government and its ever-present business acumen. But still, as we clambered over piles of mud and slogged through watery dirt roads looking for the street where our contact, Zhandos (and his brothers Eldos and Aidos), lived Mike looked around and said to the city at large, “Was this city ever bombed? Because it still looks like ‘Enemy at the Gates’ here.”

A little exaggerated, but fair in a way. The homes in Karaganda outside of one leafy green street, are crumbling one-story huts that seem to have been cobbled together for collectivization and preserved through some insane ingenuity of the residents. Our place, though far more comfortable than some sleeping arrangements I’ve had, still lacked a shower, regular power, or the ability to flush the toilet without force-flushing by dumping a vat of murky tap water down after your own feces. Again, I’ve seen far worse (flying toilets, anyone?), but compared to what we’d seen in even modest neighborhoods in Astana, this was unthinkable.

Perhaps a moment we shared with Eldos, a silent young Kazakh man with a love for Led Zeppelin and for dressing foreigners up in Kazakh garb, best exemplifies our experience of Karaganda. Walking ankle deep in shit-scented mud, we stopped at the sound of mewling kittens. We looked down and saw three newborns rolling, blind and slick, in a dirt patch just beyond the corrugated tin fence of a little hovel. They’d been tossed onto the street and seemed like to die. Eldos looked down at the kittens, then around him, and said in his mumbly and nonchalant tone, “This is life.”

After getting tied up at the train station, forced to stay an extra night at Eldos’s house (which, as it turned out, was once a hostel), we boarded a train to Almaty.

It’s hard to believe Almaty is in the same nation as Astana or Karaganda. Leafy and lush, sitting beside the high peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains unfolding to the south, Almaty has the feel of some little town in the Alps. Though rampant earthquakes have destroyed much of the old city of Almaty (which was the traditional capital of Kazakhstan–an old Silk Road city known for quite some time as Almatu and then Alma-ata [Father of Apples, as Kazakhstan was the birthplace of said fruit]), the central parks are anchored by onion-domed churches done up in yellows and blues and constructed without the aid of metal (even the nails were made of wood).

Contemporary Almaty is a flat, sprawling, green city uniformly composed of pleasant, shady streets lined with European cafes, Russian restaurants, and stalls selling fruits and traditional Kazakh noodle-meat-and-vegetable dishes. It’s the place to find expats chatting over a cup of tea (I even managed to have a conversation in Hindi with a man of Bengali descent). And it’s a place to find Kazakh and Russian men and women swarming the central park to dance salsa together before the bust of long-dead Soviet rulers. It’s a restful place, prosperous in its own way, but free of the flash and future-lust of Astana.

Almaty is not Astana is not Karaganda. None are similar to Taraz or Shymkent or Turkistan, the mud-brick, more devoutly Muslim (most people on the steppe and at the foot of the Tian Shan are non-observant), little towns in the south-central Kazakh desert. None are similar to Aktau or Atyrau, the oil-rich ports of the baked shores of the Caspian Sea. None are even similar to Ust’-Kamenogorsk or Semey, the little industrial towns of the northeast.

Kazakhstan is not a simple nation. It’s 122 ethnicities, with no single dominant ethnic group (Kazakhs are barely a plurality, with Russians being present in huge proportions)–not even one dominant color. I’ll say again that one benefit of the Soviet system in Kazakhstan was to force proximity and unity among the races such that they’ve become minimally salient, and race-based hostility is rare, while inter-racial marriages, friendships, and other relationships are among the most common in the world. It’s a land of infinite ecological zones, connected only by thin ribbons that pull together small pockets of dissociated populations, adding up to just 16 million people but spread out over one of the physically largest nations in the world. It has no singular or even really dominant history, economy, architectural style, culture, sensibility, etc. It’s a nation that, by all rights when compared to other post-Soviet states, ought to be falling apart or be ruled much more harshly and ineffectively than it is ruled.

The existence of a cohesive, functional, developing, independent, and real (as a lived experience for its citizens) Kazakh state is nothing short of amazing, in some ways. It’s probably exactly what Joseph Stalin hoped would never happen when we drew up the bogus borders and artificially and acrimoniously mixed the faiths and cultures of the region. It’s just plain surprising.

It’s equally surprising that people seem to support the modern state so readily, especially when you scratch the surface you’ll find that many Kazakhstanis have rather fond memories of the Soviet era. Most of those who have even grown up entirely in capitalist Kazakhstan reject capitalism as a system in conversation. We even saw a few young men with the sickle and hammer tattooed on their necks. The older citizens more concretely yearn for the era when the Soviet apparatus bolstered the economy with massive subsidies and did guarantee housing, infrastructure, and highly effective (if rote) universal education (and thus some of the, still, highest literacy levels in the world). They all bemoan the market attitude that anything can be bought and sold, including morality and social mobility.

I think Astana holds the key to understanding the cohesive Kazakh nation, or at least the partial key (the most visible and obvious one). I’ve mentioned that the city is loaded with monuments and miniatures, with statues to famous Kazakhs, historical and legendary (thanks to Galym, who went through all my photos of Astana on Facebook and provided the names and histories of all the figures I did not know), and with representations of the city and of the nation repeated again and again in dioramas, images, sculptures, etc. Karaganda and Almaty have their fair share of monuments and miniatures, but Astana is the capital of such things.

Astana as a place, and its saturation with such monuments, creates an image of what Kazakhstan can be. It’s not a sterile, utopian, abstract, and largely unattainable vision like the Soviet era created. It’s an experienced and practical vision, laid out so that it can be touched, seen, and internalized. So that it can be owned and experienced, lived and compartmentalized, visualized and cherished. Astana and its monuments and miniatures are a symbol that people can inhabit and make their own. They’re a symbol that is being embraced, if slowly and cautiously. They’re an image of the future, of literally forging a new nation.

It’s really a breathtaking kind of nation building. Some of it may seem a bit kooky, but it’s just spellbinding.

As we were walking down the Mall in Astana, we saw giant representations of rings and other pieces of jewelry dropped throughout the gardens. “Man, those are fucking huge,” I said. Mike looked at me with his I-am-dead-serious face and replied, “Don’t you know? Our President is 2,000 feet tall.”

It’s fictive and it’s a bit humorous. It’s flawed and it’s not a win for everyone (but what is?). I’m overly cheery about it, but it really is quite amazing all things considered. It makes me cautiously optimistic.

That’s the impossible, fantastic world of Kazakhstan.

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