“People were to be sentenced not for what they had done, but for who they were”

That quote is from Gulag, a detailed and deeply depressing account of the gulag system in the Stalinist USSR by Anne Applebaum. Highly recommended on a day that you feel like your mood is too good.

Kazakhstan was second only to Siberia in terms of the size and number of prisoners held in its gulags during Stalin’s control of the USSR. The Gulag system operated from the early 1920’s (though political prisons did start to appear immediately after the October revolution in 1917) until after Stalin’s death in 1953, with the highest number imprisoned during the purges of 1937-1938. By the late 1950s, most camps were closed. In total, 1.2 – 1.5 million people died (due to freezing, infection, starvation, and execution) and approximately 15 – 18 million were imprisoned (though some believe this number is higher). Unlike some parts of the post-Soviet world, Kazakhstan has taken steps to memorialize the victims and catalog the crimes of the USSR. More surprisingly, given the nature of post-Soviet politics in Central Asia (democracies in name only, still controlled by former USSR communist party apparatchiks with tendencies inflate the importance of the state and crack down on anything that reflects poorly on them), these memorials and museums are actually supported by the government.

I visited two of these memorial museums during my time in Kazakhstan. The first is Kar-Lag (short hand for the Karaganda labor camp) outside of Karaganda, a coal mining city in the central part of the country. This was the largest camp in Kazakhstan, and the 4th largest out of the 480 camps in the entire gulag system, encompassing 1200 square kilometers. It was not fenced, as the brutal, empty steppe would kill any prisoners who escaped, but guard towers dotted the perimeter and white patches were sewn over the heart and knees of prisoners’ uniforms so guards would have a target for aiming their guns. Prisoners largely worked in the coal mines, though the highly educated were allowed to perform work toward “the improvement of the motherland.” This meant that scientists and engineers produced airplane designs and electrical devices to help the very nation that held them captive. Artists could paint, but their work had to be in praise of the motherland and was unsigned.

Guard tower at Kar-Lag museum (actually called the ‘Museum of the Victims of Political Repressions’).

The museum at Kar-Lag is at the former administration headquarters of the labor camp and has multiple rooms of exhibits, including Soviet documents, lists of names of prisoners and known deaths, artwork by the prisoners (including a massive, entire wall-sized painting of Lenin seated at a table with a young Stalin at his shoulder), Soviet propaganda in (a needlework shawl depicting Stalin with his arm around a young boy and the words “thank you Stalin for my happy childhood” was particularly haunting), and replicas of torture chambers and interrogation rooms (all based on information gleaned from available records). At the height of his paranoia, Stalin sent even party loyalists to the gulags if they had knowledge of ‘sensitive’ materials. Such as nuclear projects. Or military secrets. Or the gulags themselves. As such, many former gulag administrators were imprisoned at the end of their tenure. And unlike the Nazi party, there are few detailed records – the identities of famous or important prisoners are known, but there are many who are not. In one room, dedicated to victims, a large book is available for people to write information about relatives who may have been in the gulag. A university in Karaganda has a program dedicated to researching Kazakh gulag history and will contact these families if they turn up any information.

The village surrounding the Kar-Lag museum is called Dolinka and is now a typical small Kazakh farming village. Well, typical except that most of the houses are converted prisoner barracks and the medical clinic is the former gulag hospital. Maybe Kazakh children don’t get nightmares…

Former gulag hospital, now local clinic. Mind you, this was not a hospital for prisoners. Just for the soldiers and administrators of the camp.
Oh, hey look! There’s a Lenin in the grass!

The second site I visited is called AlZHIR. AlZHIR is an acronym for the Russian name for the camp and is a memorial on the site of the “Akmolinsk camp of wives of traitors of the motherland.” This was the only camp in the entire gulag system that was intended to imprison the wives of men sent to the “real” gulags. 18,000 women (predominantly wives, but also some mothers and sisters) were imprisoned at this camp over its 29 years in operation. Their children were sent to orphanages and brainwashed into believing that their parents were traitors. Some women died and many were never reunited with their children.

Arch of Sorrow at AlZHIR memorial.
Wall of remembrance with the names of the known victims at AlZHIR.
AlZHIR museum complex.

AlZHIR is located about 30 minutes outside of Astana / Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s wildly futuristic capital city. Astana was recently renamed to Nur-Sultan, dedicated to the first president of independent Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev was the first secretary of the Kazakh communist party (essentially the leader of Soviet Kazakhstan) from 1989 – 1991. When the Soviet Union crumbled, he was reluctant to leave and Kazakhstan was the last Soviet republic to declare independence. He gave them back their nuclear warheads, the first and only nation to ever voluntarily give up nuclear weapons. Then he was promptly elected president and had remained such, winning farcical “elections” with 97% of the vote every 7 years, until he resigned in April of 2019. The next day, the capital city was renamed in his honor. His handpicked successor reliably won his election in June but, not to worry, Nazarbayev declared himself “Leader of the Nation” a few years back, a title that grants him the right to shape policy and to be immune from prosecution for the remainder of his life. Nazarbayev is everywhere. Every city has renamed prominent streets in his honor. And statues. And squares. And universities. And libraries. And museums. At the top of the Bayterek monument in Astana (which I will continue to call it, as most Kazakh’s I spoke with do), there is a gold cast of his handprint and people wait in long lines to take a photo with their hand in his. At the Kar-Lag museum, dedicated to victims of political oppression, there is an entire room inexplicably dedicated to Nazarbayev with hard-cover books for each year of his presidency describing his “great works” and pictures of him with foreign leaders. I guess what I’m saying is, I wouldn’t feel too warm and fuzzy about the Kazakh government sponsoring these gulag memorials. Nazarbayev’s political rivals were often jailed and occasionally wound up dead and Reporters Without Borders ranks the country as 158th in the world in terms of media freedom. A gulag by any other name smells just the same (rhyme!).

The main square in Astana with the Bayterek monument as the anchor, where you too could put your hand in the first president’s handprint!

So let’s talk about Astana, Nazarbayev’s urban pair of shiny truck nuts. Astana was a medium sized city at the time of independence, but exploded with growth after Nazarbayev moved the capital there from Almaty in 1997 (reportedly due to Almaty’s high earthquake risk). The word ‘Astana’ literally means ‘capital’ in the Kazakh language (the city had previously been called ‘Akmola’). At the time, most people lived in the old city, along the Ishim river, in some lovely old Stalinist buildings (again, Stalin and those pastels – what a guy!). But this wasn’t enough. Nazarbayev set out to make Astana great again. Or make it great for the first time, I guess. Anyway, he invited architects from all over the world and allowed them to design their most outrageous fantasies on a canvas-flat, empty piece of Kazakh steppe. What has happened since is an absolutely mind-boggling rate of construction. In 10-15 years, an entire new city has arisen across the river on the steppe. And not just any plain city. A city of outlandish architectural wonders, rife with symbolism from nomadic times (many buildings feature the shape of the shanyrak, which is the sacred top of a Kazakh yurt, emblems from Kazakh mythology, or patriotic motifs). The buildings are gold or dark blue or shiny or round or triangular. There is a dazzling blue globe and a sparkling glass pyramid and shiny aqua skyscrapers lined with a ribbon of gold glass. There is an art school shaped like a shimmery navy blue donut. There is a shopping center designed like a circus tent with the “fabric” made out of teflon to resist the city’s infamous winds. There is the largest mosque in Kazakhstan, holding 10,000 people. Side note – yes, most Kazakhs are Muslim, though in sort of a buffet-table way. Most women don’t veil and most people don’t pray 5 times a day and I never heard a call to prayer even though people swore to me that the mosques do play it, but also someone told me that more young people are fasting during Ramadan now because it’s “trendy.” Anyway, the city is tremendously impressive, both from a design perspective and a speed of construction perspective. Perhaps more impressively, the city seems to be very grounded in Kazakh-ness, whereas almost every other city in the country was designed by the Russians. This is undoubtedly important in developing a national identity for a historically nomadic, tribal people who were only settled into cities first by Tsarist Russia and later by the Soviets. But is also important in tying the people to their president and in allowing the president to show off the riches of his nation to the world.

Hazrat Sultan Mosque

Astana is beautiful and impressive, certainly. It is also a deeply weird place. Most people still don’t live in the new city, so it feels vast and empty. There is no buffer between the new city and the steppe – no gradual drawing down of civilization, no suburban sprawl. The skyscrapers just abruptly stop in a line along the prairie and the winds howl in. Astana is incredibly windy (there are only 20 days a year that are ‘calm’) and cold. It is the second coldest capital in the world, with winter temperatures often in the negative 30 – 40 degree range. I can only imagine walking through these wide, empty streets in the freezing cold with the wind roaring. Out at the expo site (the ‘globe’ building), which is near the edge of the new city, I was completely alone with these giant buildings and this howling wind and it felt quite like a super-sized movie set. Like this is Nazarbayev’s showpiece for the world but it hasn’t quite become the real Kazakhstan. Yet. I do think it will.

Expo site, Astana.

It is an impossible challenge to grasp the spectrum of Kazakhstan’s relationship to its Soviet past in such a short amount of time, and I wouldn’t pretend to. Clearly there is some fond nostalgia for the socialist ideal amongst a generation that didn’t live through the atrocities of Stalin, but there is also open recognition of the horrors of the Soviet regime. There is quiet mocking (and some open mocking on Twitter) of the name change of the capital, but also a lot of people seem to really, genuinely like Nazarbayev and appreciate the economic and infrastructure expansions of his leadership. To his credit, this is one of the most successful and wealthy of the former Soviet republics with little sectarian violence or ethnic strife and a growing economy. I flew to Uzbekistan today to start the next phase of this trip and the ATM at the airport was out of currency. A currency that is so devalued that they are now printing 100,000 soum notes. Also, it’s 105 degrees. So, things could be worse in Kazakhstan.

The palace of peace and reconciliation, Astana.

In short, I am so grateful for my time in Kazakhstan – surprised by its natural beauty, awed by its cities, and so appreciative of all of the people I met who were helpful and enthusiastic. Next stop – Uzbekistan. But first, here’s a final Lenin to see you off:

The largest Lenin carved out of pink granite, in Karaganda city.

4 thoughts on ““People were to be sentenced not for what they had done, but for who they were”

    • They are a combination of both – all of the government buildings are in the new city as well as the headquarters for big companies like the state railroad, state airline, state newspapers, etc. Embassies and international companies are also there.

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  • WOW, Katie ! (Notice it’s not just a ‘wow’ with a capital W, but ALL caps.) – the city is certainly an eye-popper and quite impressive as well as beautiful. But the dirth of living souls would have creeped me out. Thanks for my newest lesson in Kazakh education !

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  • Oops – I didn’t see an option to edit, but I realized after posting that I mis-spelled a word – guess it should be “dearth”.

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