Up until 2016, Almaty was generally considered to be one hundred and sixty-two years old. Then, upon the degree of the state, it was actually eight hundred and thirty-eight years old because, it had been decided, Almaty would be celebrating its thousand-year anniversary that year. In a public statement, the deputy mayor announced to a surprised Almaty public, “Today we with pride claim that the city competes with large world megalopolises. According to all available data from the American edition of the Financial Times, Almaty has entered in the top-10 cities with a quickly growing economy.” Yes, Almaty was one thousand years old and recognized by the Americans, not as a post-Soviet backwater that it was often portrayed to be, but as a city not that different from the likes of Paris, London, and Rome. History is more complex in Almaty than you’d imagine.
I arrived in Almaty just as the winter Universiade was about to start. If you don’t know, these are the Olympics for university students. I didn’t know that either. Other esteemed hosts in the past twenty years include such worldly cities as Poprad-Vysoké Tatry, Erzurum, and Zakopane (twice). I was told the city was not this typically clean by a local friend over coffee. The city had been doing its upmost to showcase traditional Kazakh hospitality, which always demands having a clean house. Nonetheless, the city did not see it fit to either take down the massive Christmas tree next to the main shopping mall or stop playing “Happy New Year” by Abba on the speakers. Strangely, adverts were plastered across the grey Khrushchyovkas that still dominant an increasingly modern city line, labelling Almaty “The city of thousand colors”. It appeared that although the Nazarbayev government was attempting with such might to impress upon foreigners one particular image of Almaty, the execution of this vision remained rather wanting.
This is not to imply in any fashion that Almaty is just another kitschy Soviet backwater city. This can hardly be said when Kazakhstan is home to the ninth largest oil reserve in the world and has transitioned from a lower-income to an upper-income nation since the fall of the Soviet Union. Almaty is awash with money with the prevalence of BMW cars, international high-end fashion brands, and all the luxuries that neighbouring Central Asian countries could only fantasize about. Furthermore, the turbulent history or hermitic authoritarianism of their neighbours has been avoided, where ethnic Kazakhs, along with a Russian population comprising roughly a third of the city, have lived peacefully together. On the surface level, Almaty embodies what the former Soviet Union was supposed to transition into, but that still leaves so many questions.
Almaty exists for me as a puzzling city that demanded a visit, particularly after the state had removed visa restrictions for two weeks for Western travellers. The government continued to be controlled by the same dictatorship that had controlled the Communist Party before the fall of the Soviet Union and the country had strongly aligned itself with the Russian-dominated Euroasian Union. Yet in contrast to neighbouring countries, Kazakhstan had seen such amazing economic growth and secular stability. Almaty, being the largest and most cosmopolitan city, seemed to offer an ideal chance to see how post-Soviet youth were reconciling themselves with the abrupt shift of the fall of the Soviet Union with the subsequent stability of economic wealth. I was intrigued about how youth in Almaty were utilizing this economic enfranchisement to cultivate an independent Kazakh identity. In that particular fashion, Almaty existed almost without a comparison within the post-Soviet sphere.
Setting out on my first night out in the city to find those centres of culture, it was striking the absence of ‘alternative’ spaces that exist in Almaty. Upon the recommendation of an artist friend, I arranged with another mate to meet up at Yard House bar for drinks, as it is currently the vogue establishment. Arriving there, we quickly found a slick modern sports bar mostly blasting FloRida that did not sell Kazakh beer. Instead, they had every imaginable international beer on tap. Exploring the city, every cafe and restaurant looked to be a prefabricated interior with all the furnishings and sounds that befitted the exact image it aspired to be. The Irish bar was littered with the usual “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” bullshit, while cafes fit into the Parisian variety with the accompanying soundtrack of pop covers sang in a whispered fashion. It was striking how the notion of doing anything remotely original or outside the norm seemed to be avoided. Instead, social spaces like bars, cafes, and other spaces look to affirm a particular generic image as opposed to demarcating a unique cultural distinction. In spite of the state’s claim to being around for a millennium, I couldn’t help but feel as if there is something almost ahistorical about Almaty. Everything appeared to be a pastiche to a specific time period while not embodying any of the authenticity. The city appeared to exist within a time void.
Much of the dilemma in attempting to understand Almaty struggle with its history is that despite the governmental narrative about its age, it is in fact a city that only reached a significant size during the Second World War, when it became a site of re-located industrialization. Although a population has resided within what is now Almaty, as an urban space it is relatively new, and thus not possessing an extensive infrastructural history. In this regard, many parallels could be drawn to other cities across the world that have seen rapid population and urban growth as a result of shifting economics in order to understand Almaty better.
An obvious analogous example is Dubai. Both cities have had both their economic and population growth driven by natural resources. Likewise, both cities are comprised of a multicultural ethnic make up, yet are both accused by both locals and outsiders alike of being “soulless.” Speaking to many people within both cities, they feel a detachment and alienation where consumerism has become the dominant form of self-expression and the city is absent of a healthy vibrant culture. This is not to imply that there is no culture, however. I believe two significant aspects explain this feeling of particular emptiness in Almaty.
The first is that Almaty, along with the rest of Kazakhstan’s history, does not adhere to the standard Eurocentric model of urbanization and national identity. Both nations and cities within this model are viewed as organic creatures of primordial origins. Because of the absence of deep-seated national consciousness and urban history, Kazakhstan has been dismissed as an artificial country by the likes of Vladimir Putin. However, both Almaty and Kazakhstan have been heavily shaped by the effects of Soviet colonialism where the historical nomadic Kazakh population underwent forced collectivization and urbanization. As such, the indigenous Kazakh identity does not adhere to the traditional narrative of national identity, where a corresponding state and identity existed before the onset of Russian colonialism. The process of Almaty emerging as a city is a byproduct of colonial violence, greatly contributing to the superficiality of the nature of the city.
Secondly, the Nursultan Nazarbayev government has controlled Kazahkstan since independence, with a habit of brutally suppressing the free press, political opposition, and artists. The state has attempted to control artistic expression that has been at the forefront of addressing post-colonial Kazakhstan, which is largely centered in Almaty, being the largest city in the country. The most notable example of this has been the brutal imprisonment of Kazakh poet Aron Atabek, who was initially arrested in Almaty for political activity. Art galleries and public exhibitions of artistic expression must be sanctioned by the state, or else wise will be shut down. As such, the state has attempted to regulate and control artistic expression in the hope of shaping an artistic conversation that neither interrogates Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia nor the lack of democracy felt by the citizens in Almaty. Because of governmental control and the absence of any democracy, culture is Almaty has been stagnated by the state.
On my last night, I went to another generic cafe playing shitty whispered-tone eighties pop covers and serving mediocre coffee to meet two artists. Although born and raised in Almaty, I was curious about them because both had recently located to Europe but were just in the city for a brief moment. I spoke to them about how they felt about Almaty as a place where they grew up, where they still had families, but they had joined the large artistic brain drain leaving the city. Discussing the creative process in Almaty, the constant theme that arose was the omnipresent feeling of discomfort that extends from the artistic process all the way into the most monotonous aspects of life. One artist lamented the absolute arbitrary abuse of power where the state looks to regulate the arts as a means of limiting to state-approved aesthetics. If one does not conform to this standard norm then funding will certainly be rejected and arrest is a distinct possibility. Contemporary art is always rejected for either folk art or apolitical work because those mediums do not question the state’s authority.
Beyond the struggles of the creative process and into their personal lives, it was evident that neither artist would feel a certain loss of home by leaving Almaty. Inquiring about their attachments to the city, both said that neither felt a feeling of any connection. They wanted Almaty to be a space where the creative process could have the chance to flourish, the city felt void of culture not because there is no identity to Almaty or the Kazakh people. Rather, in the absence of thought-provoking art only consumerism could emerge. They claimed that as the state was able to continue to ensure some degree of economic stability within the country, individuals were flush with enough cash to express themselves without challenging the state. In such conditions where consumerism dominated, culture would continue to exist within a vacuum of banality and stagnation, where the serious existential questions that artists play a vital role in shaping, would be left ignored.
As with colonialism and other varieties of oppression, the Kazakh government’s attempt to regulate culture and encourage consumerism has led Almaty to descend into an ahistorical void. With artists and other thinkers being oppressed, Almaty is incapable of having an open and democratic conversation about where it is going and what the implications of the past are. State directed cultural initiatives that attempt to dictate the conversation would just contribute to giving the city a superficial and plastic façade. According to Oksana Shatalova, while addressing the political climate in Almaty and its relationship with the arts,
The state is perceived by its citizens as closed, autistic, and inaccessible, like a mystical Kafkaesque Castle. And talking about the situation in post-Soviet Asia is possible only through using a figurative language resembling the language of myths.
The capacity for Almaty to oxygenate its culture by reconciling itself with both the past and present becomes an impossible task within this oppressive context.
For this reason, I hold judgement on this city. All the banal drinking establishments, uninteresting architecture, and ever-growing creative exodus of the city holds no reference to the potential of the city. The continuing dictatorship of Nursultan Nazarbayev represents not just governmental oppression but the capacity for Almaty to truly express itself. What I saw in Almaty offers no reading to what may be the authentic soul of Almaty. I will have to return another day when the corrupt regime of Nazarbayev eventually falls to actually have a chance to see the true Almaty.