Simply looking at photos of Astana, you can see that this strange capital is something else. Whether it’s the glass pyramid, the giant tent shopping mall or a circus that looks like a UFO, Astana beautifully tells the world, “I am different”.
To truly understand Astana and why it’s so weird, it’s best that you know a tiny bit of history (we’ve condensed it, we promise).
Effect of USSR on Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan was once a part of the sprawling USSR and suffered badly under it. Communism under the USSR was woefully inefficient, resulting in poverty and sometimes starvation for Kazakhstan’s citizens (38% of all Kazakhs died, for example, in the 1932 famine). Furthermore, under communism, the money from Kazakhstan’s resources were spread across all citizens of the USSR (250 million in 1990) instead of Kazakhstan’s small population at the time (16 million). Thus, Kazakhstan was materially worse off under communism. Culturally, Kazakhstan also suffered. The USSR didn’t foster regionalism, but tried to make processes uniformly across the bloc, hurting local cultural identity. Aesthetically, cities across the bloc were made up of large, mundane, uniform buildings.
The USSR imploded in the early 90’s and Kazakhstan, along with 14 other nations, gained independence. Now, Kazakhstan was free to use it’s own wealth as it saw fit and the first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was keen to show newly independent Kazakhstan’s pride.
A City is Born
The President embarked on a series of high-value projects to showcase Kazakhstan’s break from the past and nowhere more is this evident than Astana, in itself a Nursultan Nazarbayev project. Similar to Singapore and Dubai, one man managed to turn a piece of wasteland into a rich, sprawling capital. Only 20 years ago, Astana was a small settlement called Akmola that lay in a semi-arid strip of land in the steppe. It was best known for being close to a gulag camp where family members of USSR traitors were kept. Now, it’s a futuristic, urban playground full of malls, museums, classy restaurants, theatres, fountains, monuments and parks.
Not only did the president want Kazakhstan to project an image of a rich developed nation (as opposed to the uncultured, poor backwater image that Borat projected), he wanted to reclaim Kazakhstan’s cultural identity. Go to the newly built National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and you will see Kazakhstan’s rich history. Kazakhs were nomadic horse warriors similar to the Mongols who joined forces and began to dominate a large portion of land in Central Asia. They were skilled in metallurgy and created beautiful gold jewellery and stone-embedded weaponry. The new architecture and projects reflect this identity. The Khan Shatyr Mall, designed by Norman Foster, is claimed to be the largest “tent” in the world and reflects the traditionally nomadic lifestyle Kazakhs all once had. Meanwhile, the Bayterek monument retells a story in Kazakh folklore about the origin of the world. It symbolises an egg being planted in between the branches of the tree of life.
One Man Rule
And this last monument, the Bayterek, symbolises something else too. It symbolises the amount of control and influence the President has. The Bayterek originated from the President’s own sketches and he was personally involved in the other strange landmarks across the city too, often joking to architects and builders that he was “watching them” from the monumental Presidential Palace (a building larger than the White House for a country with a population twenty times smaller than the US). His hands on approach isn’t hidden. You can even see the President’s own gilded handprint atop the Bayterek and as you place your hand inside his, you’re encouraged to make a wish.
Not all designs look to the past for inspiration, some things are very forward-looking. The pyramid, although a symbol to many people of ancient history, is actually a multi-faith building that seeks to unite religions around the world through triennial conferences.The President created a plan for Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan has been dancing to his blueprint ever since.
Though, not everything is rosy. Considering the amount of wealth Kazakhstan has, you would expect each Kazakh to be riding round in Bentleys, Bugattis and Rolls Royces. Though there are rich Kazakhs, not everyone is. The President has built an economy based on oil, a resource which the world will want increasingly little of in the future. Astana, the President’s pet project and future legacy, is built around cars with sometimes comically poor pedestrian access (we had to walk ten minutes around a large highway intersection as there was no pedestrian crossing). With no subway system and a sea of construction across the whole city, Astana’s noticeably bad congestion is about to get a lot worse, with all the problems that brings.
The population have mixed feelings about the President, who has been in charge for as long as Kazakhstan has existed. Though two is a small sample, the people in my compartment seem to converge with the mixed sentiment described above. As I write this article, on a train from Astana to Almaty (the former capital), a Russian-Kazakh national in my compartment called Sergei says that he is 50-50 on the president.
I like that Kazakhstan is peaceful, quiet. But financially it’s not good.
I’ve met many Kazakhs who seem to love the President and the benefits and pride he has brought to the country, though I doubt that 97.75% of voters voted for him in 2015, as the electoral commission have claimed. I’ve heard others say that there is a similar relationship between the government and people as with China, that the people have forsaken democracy temporarily whilst the economy and their fiscal position improves.
Though, this relationship can be a dangerous one. If the economy stagnates, then the people will demand more, and that will include greater democracy. If the government doesn’t give way, then that will lead to a tension that peaceful, stable Kazakhstan has never experienced in its short life. As Kazakhstan grows out of its twenties (it’s 28 years old next year), the government needs to kick-start the economy and diversify the economy away from volatile oil, while the people need to make it clear that democracy needs to be on the road map. Astana has been a wonderful expression of Kazakh will and identity and has met the needs of citizens so far. The government needs to continue their efforts, whilst future-proofing what is one the most grand, bizarre and beautiful capitals the world has ever known.