Nur-Sultan, formerly called Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The first policy move by the new interim president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, was the kind of bombshell few national leaders would drop.

Immediately after his inauguration on March 20th, he proposed renaming the capital city – from Astana to Nur-Sultan (“Sultan of Light”) – in honor of semi-retiring strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, his mentor. In a sign that Nazarbayev retains a hold on the reins of power, parliament approved the change within hours.

Whatever it is called, it is more than just another Central Asian capital: It is a masterpiece of authoritarian, personality cult-driven architecture. One that has already had many different names.

Goodbye Almaty, hello Astana

Founded in 1824 by Russian Cossacks as a fortress in the steppes, the town was first named Akmolinsk, and in pre-World War II days it was a small mining town. Then, in the 1950s, it became the center of a vast, agricultural “virgin lands” project initiated by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. This inspired the new name of Tselinograd (after the “virgin lands” around it). In the early 1990’s it became Akmola (“White Grave” – referring to its harsh climate).

When, in 1997, Nazarbayev decided to move the capital from Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, to the bleak industrial town, it was once again renamed, this time as Astana (simply “The Capital” in Kazakh).

Unlike the leafy, sunny city of Almaty, with its dramatic mountain backdrop, the new capital squats in the middle of bare, wind-blasted steppes. A thousand kilometers north of Almaty, it suffers extreme temperatures ranging from -40 to +40 Celsius

In winter, officials who complained about icy winds flew back to Almaty every weekend. Foreign diplomats complained, too, with many refusing to relocate from Almaty. The South Korean embassy only moved to Astana five years after it became the capital.

Ethnicity and power politics underwrote the move. Russian and Kazakh experts believe the idea was to move the political center away from the China border, while cementing a Kazakh presence in an area that was ethnically Russian.

To his credit, the “Sultan of Light” transformed a gloomy industrial town into a futuristic city of skyscrapers rising from the steppe. But the architectural achievements also provide convenient fuel for state propaganda organs that continue to trumpet the achievements of Nazarbayev’s three-decade reign.

Steppe fantasia

Given a surplus of oil money and Nursultan’s desire to express his personality cult in concrete, architects could be handsomely rewarded and were offered a broad, empty, canvas to work on. As a result, top global firms queued up to work for the strongman as he raised his wind-swept fantasy in the middle of nowhere.

Japan’s most renowned architect Kisho Kurokawa was the first. He drew up the masterplan for a city of broad boulevards reminiscent of other planned cities like Canberra and Brasilia.  Italian architect Manfredi Nicoletti followed, designing the city’s concert hall, near the presidential palace.

Then came the big names, like Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid, and the city has evolved into a collection of pyramids, glitzy towers and golden cones that abruptly gives way to the endless steppes of Eurasia.

It sits on the banks of the Ishim River. On the other side of the Ishim there is the old Soviet town, with its typical Khrushchev-era five-story apartment blocks. This part of the city is hardly a place of beauty, but offers an almost cozy, provincial feel compared to the monstrosities across the river.

The core of the new district is a monumental axis lined with breathtaking architecture. At its very center stands the biggest tent in the world. The Khan Shatyr shopping mall was designed by British architect Norman Foster in the form of a massive Kazakh yurt. This astonishing structure is not only the favorite place for locals to hang out in winter, it also boasts a rollercoaster and an artificial beach, complete with sand imported from the Maldives.

At the other end of this boulevard stands a silver pyramid, also by Foster. Grandly entitled the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, it is “a meeting place for world religions” where a global religious congress took place in 2018.  Then, there are the government buildings – the presidential palace, topped with a big blue dome; golden towers for the state bank and insurance fund; and a huge observation tower.

Many buildings look like they were imported directly from the Gulf, while the monumental axial planning recalls Pyongyang. (Pyongyang, though an ancient Korean city, was completely rebuilt after being flattened in the 1950-53 Korean War.)

The city has worked hard to promote itself. Last November, global media experts gathered in Astana for an OSCE conference on freedom of the press in Central Asia. (This was not without irony: Kazakhstan ranks 158th out of 180 countries on the 2018 World Press Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.) The city has also successfully hosted Syrian peace negotiations, bringing together delegations from the Assad regime and its opposition.

Still, the stunning capital has endless shortcomings.

Dictatorial dreamscape

City-boosting projects have not always benefited Kazakhs. The high-profile Expo 2017 Astana, themed around “Future Energy”, was held in Astana in 2017. The development and design of the expo site predictably attracted the elite of global architects. The competition was won by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, creators of Dubai’s tallest skyscraper, who beat out Zaha Hadid, but many are bitter about an Expo that cost $3 billion in a nation where almost half the population lives on under $100 a month.

“It cost dozens of billions of dollars to build this useless project, yet there are towns a few kilometers away that don’t even have proper roads, electricity or basic  services,” said Andrei Alekseev, an ethnic Russian journalist from Astana. “All the money spent on heating these huge buildings in winter could be used to fund infrastructure for the rest of the country.”

Moreover, it is an oasis of steel, concrete and glass amid a region mired in poverty. The old Soviet town across the river presents a startling contrast, with shabby structures and poorly paved roads, and the surrounding province remains the way it was in the early 1990s, or worse.

The city is also monumentally pedestrian-hostile. “Its architecture and planning are just not suitable for [the] harsh climate,” says Oleg Klynin who runs a Kazakh travel agency. “The buildings are too far apart, and that keeps people off the streets. In winter there are icy winds…in summer there’s no shade.”

And it keeps expanding. The high-profile Abu Dhabi Plaza, an office and residential complex, with costs exceeding $1.5 billion, is now under construction.  Once completed, the main tower, at over 380 meters, will be the tallest building in Central Asia.

But yet more monumental hardware is hardly what Kazakhstan needs. Human rights activists claim that newspapers are shut down, critics locked up and protesters tortured while the world’s top architects battle for lucrative contracts.

Perhaps the most notorious contract was for “Nazarbayev Center” – which was won by Norman Foster, who took heavy flak for designing a memorial to a dictator.

Originally conceived as a public library, it now exhibits a vast range of Nazarbayevian personal items – the suit he wore on inauguration day, gifts and awards he received from world leaders – in addition to his 4,000-book collection. (He claims to have read them all.) There are also napkin sketches of skyscrapers drawn by Nazarbayev himself.

This is an entire city designed to be a monument to Nazarbayev, and now that it is literally being renamed in his honor, the semi-retired dictator’s personality cult is scaling heights that even Kim Jong Un might envy.

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