Astana: A City Built for Giants

Kazakhstan 2013

By Ben Arnoldy

August 28, 2013

Also published by The Christian Science Monitor

Photo: Ben Dalton

Astana simply means “capital.” In 1997, the recently-independent country of Kazakhstan moved its government here. Flush with new oil wealth, Kazakhstan has built an EPCOT city of sorts on the empty Central Asian steppe. With a jumble of international styles and knock-offs of historic buildings, the city embodies the aspirations of a post-Soviet people searching for a new identity.

Photo: Ben Dalton

Astana has drawn comparisons to Las Vegas. Both cities have replica pyramids and French monuments, light shows and indoor amusement rides – and generally a lack of understatement anywhere. Astana almost ups the ante with a Ministry of Finance shaped like a dollar sign. Instead of housing a casino, Astana’s Pyramid of Peace and Accord (pictured here) was built to bring together world religious leaders to find common ground.

Photo: Ben Dalton

In Astana, classical Greek columns and Chinese pagodas rise next to Gothic Stalinist architecture and space age motifs. The flying saucer shown here houses the Metropolitan Circus.

Photo: Ben Dalton

The city’s chief architect, Amanzhol Chikanayev, explains the method behind the mishmash of international styles to a group of visiting journalists in August 2013. The city wants to become a center of international business along the lines of Dubai. “Anybody who visits the city from anywhere,” he explains, “would find something familiar and comfortable, they could recognize something that they know, and at the same time they could be surprised.” The impulse to be a good host came at the expense of showcasing Kazakh style, he says, adding: “Maybe that should change.”

Photo: Ben Dalton

The city’s chief architect, Amanzhol Chikanayev, explains the method behind the mishmash of international styles to a group of visiting journalists in August 2013. The city wants to become a center of international business along the lines of Dubai. “Anybody who visits the city from anywhere,” he explains, “would find something familiar and comfortable, they could recognize something that they know, and at the same time they could be surprised.” The impulse to be a good host came at the expense of showcasing Kazakh style, he says, adding: “Maybe that should change.”

Photo: Ben Dalton

One Kazakh legend does find expression in the Baiterek Tower, the golden lollipop seen here. In the legend, a magic bird of happiness lays an egg in the branches of a poplar (baiterek) tree. A dragon steals the egg – symbolizing winter – but the bird always comes back to lay another and bring new life. The city architect says that Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the country since independence in 1991, came up with the idea for the tower and sketched it on a napkin. Visitors can go to the top of the tower and put their hand inside Mr. Nazarbayev’s gilded handprint.

Photo: Ben Dalton

Kazakhstan’s strongman Nazarbayev works here at the presidential palace, a massive structure seven times the size of the White House. While elections have not been credible, most observers say Nazarbayev would easily win a free and fair vote. If there’s apprehension in the air, it’s about the lack of a successor. Nazarbayev dominates the country’s decisionmaking, right down to which architectural bid should win next in Astana. The city architect, Mr. Chikanayev, says Nazarbayev has such a mind for architecture that it’s “sometimes it’s very difficult for us professionals to contradict him.”

Photo: Ben Dalton

The fast-growing economy explains part of the complacency with Nazarbayev’s long rule. When the Soviet Union fell, the economy plunged and old Soviet infrastructure – like this apartment block in the original city’s right bank area – decayed further. When Nazarbayev outlined his vision to build a glimmering new capital on the left bank of the Ishim River with cutting-edge materials and international consultants, Chikanayev admits he was skeptical. At the time, there was no money.

Photo: Ben Arnoldy

Thanks to oil, gas, and mineral sales, the horizons have changed dramatically in just a decade and a half, with Astana now offering multiple high-end shopping malls like this one…

Photo: Ben Dalton

…and this one, in the shape of a yurt. The malls are packed with Western brands from Adidas to Apple to Arby’s. The most crowded stores, however, are discount shops, highlighting that many Kazakhstanis cannot afford the Western prices.

Photo: Ben Dalton

Among the changes since independence is the end to atheism as official policy. The Khazret Sultan mosque became the largest in Central Asia when it opened in 2012. The regime encourages people to identify with “traditional” forms of religion – meaning Hanafi Islam or Orthodox Christianity – but heavily regulates any practice of religion.

Photo: Ben Arnoldy

Few women in Astana wear a headscarf outside the mosques. But that may change as young Kazakhs like university student Nurila Ydyrys grow more interested in practicing Islam and reclaiming a Muslim identity. Headscarves are banned in primary and secondary schools. After graduation, Ms. Ydyrys sought her parents’ blessing to wear the hijab, which they denied for a year. Like many parents here whose children are becoming more religious, they were initially worried she would become radical. Ydyrys convinced them that headscarves were a part of Kazakh tradition by showing them a 19th century photo.

Photo: Ben Arnoldy

Young Kazakhs who are curious about Islam often can learn little from their non-practicing parents and, instead, turn to their grandparents. While their grandparents also grew up under state-sponsored atheism, they had more exposure as children to religious practices at home.

Photo: Ben Dalton

The government says there is religious freedom but cautions that extremist influences from outside must be kept in check. Kazakhstan is on a “modernization track,” Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov told visiting journalists in August 2013, and is wary of zealots “trying to influence the young minds … on which we stake our own growth.” While Astana has some large mosques, the building closest to the presidential palace – the city’s inner sanctum – is this futuristic concert hall that evokes the Guggenheim Museum.

Photo: Ben Dalton

The opera house, meanwhile, harkens back to ancient Greece and the Parthenon. In the foreground, the massive scale of the city blocks can be seen. Astana is a city designed for giants.

Photo: Ben Dalton

Astana is also designed for the rich. Built in 2006, the “Triumph of Astana” is modeled after Stalinist high-rise architecture of the 1950s – but with 21st-century luxury apartments. By day the city isn’t exactly bustling, and at night, many of the luxury high-rises around town do not appear occupied. There are murmurs here that the city has overbuilt at the high-end and underbuilt affordable housing and amenities. Rymgali Abykayev, a young strategic studies researcher who studied in the US, lives on the left bank but not in a luxury high-rise. “No, no, those are for cool people. I rent out a room. I just graduated, I don’t have that much money. But, in the future I hope to make some.”

Photo: Ben Dalton

For young people like Mr. Abykayev, the outsized, soaring architecture reflects the country’s “potential to be a great country.” He, too, sees the borrowing of foreign architecture as a way to be welcoming. “I think the intention was to take all the best from the world experience and put it in one place. And people from all around the world can come here and see something they can compare to their own countries and be part of Kazakh culture, because we are really friendly, hospitable.”

Ben Arnoldy reported from Kazakhstan on a reporting trip with the International Reporting Project (IRP).