The Astana Opera towers over a windswept plaza in this capital on the Central Asian steppe, a near-copy of Moscow’s neoclassical Bolshoi Theater, right down to the sculpture of galloping horses on the roof.
Across a broad avenue stands the tilted, irregular cone of Khan Shatyr, a shopping mall designed as the world’s largest tent. Its roof is supported by a single slanting pole to evoke the nomadic history of the Kazakhs, a Turkic ethnic group slowly reasserting its identity after centuries of Russian rule.
In between stands a fanciful construction all Astana’s own: one of the “ice cities” that dot the freezing capital in winter. Children scoot down ice slides, and at night, ice sculptures glow with candy-coloured lights.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union made Kazakhstan an independent state in 1991, it has been cultivating relationships with Russia, its longtime hegemon, and Turkey, which invested early in the new nation and shares some of its cultural roots.
It’s easy to see why Astana was Russia’s choice to host a new track of Syrian peace talks this year. Convening talks five time zones east of Geneva — where talks have been sputtering along without progress for years — underscored what Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, described recently as a desire for a “post-West” international order.
Astana also represents the success of Kazakhstan’s leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in managing Moscow. The country’s only president since independence — elected five times with 97.5 per cent of the vote — Nazarbayev has created a kind of “authoritarian lite” system that has more in common with the strongman rule in Russia, and increasingly in Turkey, than with Europe.
He has sought to strike a balance between accommodating Russian power and pushing back, and Kazakhstan has avoided the territorial disputes with Russia and the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued other post-Soviet states.
“We don’t have such problems,” said Abzal Abdiev, 25, who gave me and two friends an amateur tour of Astana, pointing out the sights with evident pride.
The city’s very existence embodies the anxious, centuries-old dance between Moscow and the mostly Muslim regions that line Russia’s southern periphery, from the states and semiautonomous republics of the Caucasus region north of Turkey all the way to Kazakhstan’s eastern tip, farther east than Kathmandu.
When I first visited Kazakhstan in 1993, Astana did not exist. I was sent by my editor at The Moscow Times to buttonhole Nazarbayev at a ribbon-cutting for a power plant in the country’s remote north, near the Russian border. A Russian nationalist parliamentarian, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, had been calling for Russia to seize back the mostly ethnically Russian area, where he was born.
Nazarbayev brushed off the threat; Russia was weakened then, and any such move was unlikely. But a few months later, he decreed that the capital would move from Almaty — the country’s largest city, in the more populous, more ethnically Kazakh south — to the northern steppe. The move demonstrated power and ambition, but also placed a marker on the map, shoring up Kazakhstan’s possession of the area.
Astana was built in a hurry, by renaming and augmenting a provincial town called Akmola (in the Soviet era, Tselinograd). Nazarbayev was turning Kazakhstan into a resource-rich, consequential state, winning vast Caspian Sea gas fields in negotiations with Russia and cultivating global approval by giving up Soviet nuclear weapons left on his territory.
He recruited famous international architects like Norman Foster to dot Astana with structures of his own conception, like a tower with a gilded globe evoking a golden egg from Kazakh legend. More than one public building has an imprint of his palm where citizens place their hands for good luck.
Today, Astana is sometimes nicknamed the “Dubai of the North”, bustling with business travellers and offering tourists and residents indoor entertainment in forbidding weather. Its answer to steamy Dubai’s indoor ski slope is a beach club, complete with sand, on the top level of the Khan Shatyr mall.
When he dreamed up the city, Nazarbayev had been dealt a potentially explosive challenge: The population was about evenly divided between ethnic Russians, many unenthusiastic about suddenly being citizens of Kazakhstan, and Kazakhs, estranged by Soviet rule from their language and from an Islamic tradition layered on older shamanism.
Astana hints at his approach to the problem. Nazarbayev has sought to forge a national identity separate from Russia but not too exclusive of Russians, now a large minority. And he has led a restoration of Kazakh and Islamic identity, embedded firmly in state-imposed moderation — with a dose of a personality cult.
The National Museum greets visitors with a two-storey portrait of Nazarbayev decked in medals and flanked with murals from Kazakh history. Exhibits highlight Kazakh crafts and horsemanship, battles with czarist Russia, proud moments in Soviet history (the space programme, the Second World War victory). But they also document hunger and privation in a prison camp for dissidents’ wives and children where Astana now stands.
Abdiev, our guide, was born a year after independence, but his elders, he said, remember Soviet days as “bad times,” when food was rationed and “you couldn’t get good shoes.”
Things are better now, he said, pointing out neon-lit toy stores, affordable Turkish clothing shops, modest but sturdy apartment blocks, glassy luxury towers and a CrossFit Astana.
Abdiev grew up in an agricultural area farther south, training colts and riding bareback; his family, ethnic Kazakhs, raised horses for riding and meat, the national delicacy. His early playmates, he said, were Russian neighbours, and all the children spoke both languages.
In the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, the largest in Central Asia, detailed instructions on how to pray are written in Kazakh — though not Russian — for people still learning the religion, pointing them to Muslim.Kz for more information. Its soaring dome and intricate decoration are reminiscent of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, but with lighter blues — recalling the turquoise of the Kazakh flag.
Kazakh officials often sound themes of religious coexistence and moderate Islam, which is reassuring to neighbouring Russia, home to 20 million Muslims. Putin recently noted that 4,000 Russian citizens and 5,000 citizens of other post-Soviet states had joined Islamist insurgents in Syria, a concern cited as one reason for Russia’s intervention there.
Nazarbayev has promised political reforms to bring in a new, less powerful president. Still, Kazakhstan falls short of democracy and good governance, ranking poorly in indexes of corruption and press freedom. In smaller, less favoured towns, conditions can be far worse, with rickety infrastructure and coal pollution.
For now, Astana, an artificially created city, is growing some roots of a real one.
At the Astana Opera one night, the gilded and red velvet hall was packed. Latecomers skittered across the marble floor to avoid missing the curtain. Dancers, mostly Kazakh but also from other former Soviet republics, performed excerpts from Russian classical ballets. Posters advertised newer productions based on Kazakh folk tales.
At intermission, patrons sported clothing as stylish as any in Moscow. Couples posed with mannequins in costumes designed for classic Russian operas and ballets but featuring Central Asian fabrics, hats and jewellery. Little girls twirled like ballerinas.
Asked why he was driving a cab in subzero Astana instead of raising horses down south, Abdiev, the guide, answered like any young fortune seeker.
“Well,” he said simply, “it’s the capital.”
–New York Times News Service