Anyone who employs an internationally acclaimed architect to design an iconic building for a brand new capital city, with a brief to combine state of the art design, whilst paying reference to the country’s cultural heritage and then goes and sticks a shopping centre in it, is clearly someone who does not know the meaning of the word soul and will never know the meaning of the word soul. Whether or not it was Kazakhstan’s strong man of politics (regional parlance for brutal, corrupt dictator), Nursultan Nazarbayev who personally took this decision is of little consequence, for it epitomizes his capital city and it most definitely is HIS capital city.
Ruling the country since independence, he has made enough western friendly noises to attract much-needed investment to exploit the huge oil and mineral reserves, occasionally talking of moving in a democratic direction. This can be translated as getting increasingly dictatorial, whilst improving his PR skills to present the opposite picture. Levels of outright bullshit had to increase to such heights of incredulity in this process that he was reduced to bringing in every dictators’ friend, Tony Blair as an advisor at the cost of millions of Pounds Sterling, in an effort to put a bit of shine back on the turd of democratic transformation. One of the many men who evidently wasn’t fooled by this, as far back as 2005, was opposition politician Zamanbek Nurkadilov who conveniently “committed suicide” just before he manged to be a political threat in elections. Quite how he managed to shoot himself twice in the chest and once in the head during the process of committing suicide remains a treat for the imagination. Aside from a few other tragically opportune deaths of men with political aspirations Nazarbayev has preferred the gradual tweaking of legal processes to ensure that no one interferes with his dynastic advances. As old age and infirmity beckons the only fly in the dynastic ointment is the lack of anyone he deems trustworthy enough to hand over the responsibility of unfettered corruption and state violence. Son in law Rakhat Aliyev was originally looking the most likely prospect but a major falling out with Nazarbayev required that he leave the country on pain of a long prison sentence. Safely ensconced in Malta he regularly reminds the world about corruption and human rights abuses in Kazakhstan, knowing full well that he would have been just as guilty had he got the top job himself. His now ex-wife Dariga is back in the running having proved her family loyalty and business acumen but being female could count against her as Kazakh women are meant to be more suited to things like embroidery than embezzlement and torture.
Once in a while Nazarbayev has a campaign to clamp down on the evils of corruption, which would be an absolutely splendid idea if only for the fact that the entire government is corrupt and the worse example is without doubt himself, having trousered billions that could have been used on far more frivolous expenditure like healthcare. Alternatively it could be spent on cleaning up the environmental mess left by extractive industries who absolved themselves of any responsibility for such things, because that’s the kind of lefty nonsense that western governments would never risk asking of their multi national corporations. So, corruption allegations are another way of culling any politicians with foolish ideas of questioning his excellency and leaves the proprietors of posh London shops and prudent financial institutions rubbing their hands with glee whenever a Kazakh walks though their doors.
The creation of Astana, officially ordained in 1997, was only another part of his totalitarian jigsaw, allowing him to consolidate power in the potentially restive North, away from his traditional power base. Although there are obvious parallels with Turkmenbashi’s Ashgabat in Turkmenistan (ie: power mad, post Soviet leader with more money than sense, building a brand new capital – https://insideotherplaces.com/2014/05/23/ashgabat-turkmenistans-city-of-dreams-and-nightmares/) the two have, at their heart, little in common. Whilst no one could say Ashgabat has soul it does have an audacity and grandiose vision but one which is designed to remind the citizens of their own unimportance, with little interest in making a statement to the outside world. Astana’s creation was driven only by political expediency and a design brief that went, “Right”! I want a shed load of famous architects to knock me up some iconic buildings we can show off to international business men and compliant politicians so we can look modern and forward thinking (ie: obsessed with wealth and power) whilst giving the Kazakh people a sop towards national identity. Oh yeah, people, we’d better have some of those to clean the toilets and stuff”.
Consequently the city appeals to two kinds of architects: those who got the contracts and those who didn’t. Those that did were tumescent with pleasure at the prospect of being able to let their egos run carefree, unshackled by the accountants and quantity surveyors of the West who just couldn’t understand their genius. Those that didn’t just sulked dismissing it all as pompous rubbish but having to admit in private that actually there were at least some good designs amongst the oil wealth dictator’s trash. These motivations have thrown a mish mash of unrelated designs next to each other, which even several centuries of weathering would struggle to harmonise. Judging by some of the shoddy workmanship I dare not imagine what the place will look like in a few decades, let alone centuries.
The Kazakh people got the Bayterek Tower, representing the myth of the Samruk bird that laid the golden egg containing the secret of human desires and happiness in a poplar tree. That the egg lay out of human reach is probably a subtle hint to all the people that they certainly won’t be finding much happiness with this president. Thus I dutifully joined the long queue of proud Kazakhs in the transparent globe high above the city to get my photo taken with my palm in the golden hand print of the president. Naturally I fully support the right of the Kazakhs to express their pride in their young nation, having been denied such expression for so long. But, to a man who thinks it’s right to ask his people to place their hands in his golden palm print at the height of a building representing the soul of the nation, I say only one thing, “YOU ARROGANT WANKER”! A statement only further underlined by the presence of a museum dedicated to him in the city.
Which seems an appropriate juncture to mention thermodynamics. The tower, along with architect Norman Foster’s pyramidal Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, are basically fancily designed greenhouses and even the most slow-witted teenager who needs to be dragged whining from his Playstation will tell you that the basic point of a greenhouse is to be hot. Hence even on the cold and windy, but sunny day I was there, it was stiflingly hot in both structures, with air conditioning struggling at its limits, so it doesn’t take much imagination to think what it would be like in the 40C which is not unknown in the region. Architectural genius it seems doesn’t extend to the point of employing someone who knows anything about air conditioning.
Unlike much of the rest of Central Asia, the Kazakhs have little inclination to speak to strange tourists and in Astana I would say no inclination whatsoever. This does not mean they are intrinsically unfriendly, after all the British are even less likely to act so but we are not all obnoxious gits, despite the best efforts of our politicians to prove otherwise. What it does mean that the linguistically challenged tourist in particular will have a much more difficulty in getting an insight into the national culture. Two explanations were offered to me by ethnic Russian Kazakhs: increased wealth has eroded traditional habits (much as it has done in the West I might add) and in Kazakh culture it wasn’t seen as appropriate to force yourself on strangers. I would question the latter as those Kazakhs I met in the adjoining region of China were super friendly and very interested in talking to me, happy to overcome the communication difficulties as best they could. Another factor may be worth considering: religion. Despite the majority professing to be Muslim, a survey found that around a half of them couldn’t even name one of the five Pillars of Islam. Which is a bit like saying, “I’m a Christian, whats all this stuff about a cross”? In the rest of the region and in general I would argue, there is a reasonable correlation between Islamic piety and an openess with strangers (a subject which I will no doubt return to once I have visited a more representative sample of Islamic countries). In contradiction to this the drivers are without doubt the most courteous in the region, they actually stop at pedestrian crossings to let you go rather than treat you with utter contempt and a hinderance to their god given right to advance unimpeded, as is normal in the other stans.
People were no doubt an afterthought in the minds of the city planners as everywhere pedestrians had decreed their own routes across supremely illogical intersections of walkways. President Nazarbayev also had little interest in people as he has been too busy counting his billions to bother himself much with the concerns of the public, who, although largely aware of this have continued to make the pointless effort of getting out the house every now and then to vote for him, grudgingly thinking its better the devil you know. They won’t have the luxury of such complacency when he dies. Lets hope the Kazakh people can then create their own paths to a better future than have a direction imposed upon them once more.