Despite the overwhelming advertising of nationalism, the capital Astana is an easy-going and cosmopolitan city
Kazakhstan’s capital city, Astana is a fitting example of the nation’s young identity and, as President Nursultan Nazarbayev describes it, “a symbol of our country that we take pride in”. A recent trip to Astana for the country’s Independence Day celebrations left this reporter’s toes and fingers numb with temperatures dipping to thirty-five degrees below zero Celsius. Yet, there was a lot to learn from this Central Asian nation that recently turned 21.
One of the first stops in this city is the Baiterek tower – a slender white structure crowned by a golden egg— ideal to catch a panoramic glimpse of this “futuristic city” that sprung up on the steppe almost 15 years ago. Despite poor visibility from the top of the tower, visitors can make out the outlines of the imposing Ministry of Defence and, the swank Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre. The tower also houses a miniature model of Astana. Yet, atop the tower is a much bigger attraction especially among Kazakh tourists— a handprint made by the President with a sign urging you to place your palm in his for good luck. As soon as you do, the song ‘My Country’ penned by President Nazarbayev plays in the tower.
The handprint is only an early glimpse of the all-pervasive ‘First President’ whose legacy is peppered across the city on billboards, on life-size television screens and enshrined in numerous museums. A fitting example is ‘The Museum of the first President of the Republic of Kazakhstan’ housed in his former residence before he shifted across the Yessil River. The museum, created by a presidential decree in August 2004, captures the historic role played by him in building an independent State. Here, the corridors are filled with memorabilia mainly featuring President Nazarbayev comprising documents, photographs and “souvenir compositions” as the guide suggests. On a flat screen television, the famous Kazakh band, MuzART, renders a song in the President’s native village, Ushkonyr.
Perhaps, the only Indian connections at the museum, which boasts 7204 depository items, is a picture of the Akshardham Temple in New Delhi and a ‘Panel Buddha Silk Gilding’ both gifts from the Indian delegation that attended the ‘Congress of the World and Traditional Religions’ held here. The Congress is pegged as a symbol of how Kazakhstan— home to 140 ethnic and 17 religious groups— has turned into a centre of global inter-religious dialogue.
Formerly known as ‘Akmolinsk’, Astana was home to one of Russia’s worst GULAG prison camps— run exclusively to imprison the spouses of those considered enemies of the State. When Kazakhstan gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakh Parliament voted to move the nation’s Capital from the southern city of Almaty to here.
It was only in 1998, the city was renamed Astana or ‘capital’ in the Kazakh language. “If you look at the map, Astana is somewhat centrally located in comparison to the old capital, Almaty. This makes it easier to access from different parts of the country,” says a government official, explaining the reason behind the move.
“In the late 1990s, many of my friends were asked to move to Astana from Almaty,” says an Indian businessman who frequents Kazakhstan. “While they were initially reluctant, today, many of them are very happy with the move,” he added.
Kazakhstan has no Independence Day parade and the cultural events, save a circus for children, to mark the day were cancelled due to harsh weather. For most Kazakhs, it was just another Sunday. A game show at a mall here asking participants to recognise famous Kazakhs was the only indication of an outward sense of patriotism.
But when prompted, many like Gaukhar Ospanova, a mother of five said: “December 16 is important for patriotic feelings and to recognise the past.”
Many others, especially youngsters chose to mark the holiday by queuing up to fetch their bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “Kazakhs love KFC,” they say.
(The reporter visited Astana on invitation of the Embassy of Kazakhstan, New Delhi)