New Capital for a New Kazakhstan

Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan

ASTANA, Kazakhstan—The Khan Shatyr, the world’s largest tent/shopping mall, is only the newest of the countless unique, futuristic buildings in Astana, whose bright colors and basic shapes—pyramids, spheres, cubes—make it look like the Jetsons’ hometown.

There is a 200-foot-tall glass pyramid, the Palace of Peace and Harmony. The national archives are in a green egg-shaped dome, and the circus looks like a flying saucer. There is also a series of shimmering turquoise towers frequently, but incorrectly, attributed to Frank Gehry; a presidential palace modeled after the White House, only much larger and topped with a bright blue dome; and other government buildings whose unorthodox shapes have drawn comparisons to syringes and cigarette lighters.

At the center of the city is its tallest structure: Baiterek, or Independence, Tower. It consists of a huge ball nestled on top of a spiky frame reminiscent of an upturned badminton birdie. It’s meant to evoke a Kazakh legend, the “Tree of Life,” where every year a sacred bird laid an egg in the crown of the tree.

Baiterek was designed by Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who maintains a remarkably personal involvement in the city’s ongoing construction. He also designed a cultural center, personally judged the international competition to pick an architect for Astana’s overall design, and even chose the species of tree to be used in a climate-moderating greenbelt around the city. “There’s no project he doesn’t participate in,” the city’s head architect, Amanzhol Chikanayev, told me. “The president’s brain works very hard, and he asks about very small details.”

Like Brazil and Burma (and, once upon a time, the United States and Russia), Kazakhstan has built its capital from scratch. During the Soviet era, the capital of Kazakhstan was Almaty, founded in the 19th century as a military outpost in the Russian empire’s expansion into Central Asia. Meanwhile, Astana, formerly known as Akmola, was an unremarkable regional center of about 200,000, known primarily as the home of one of the USSR’s most notorious gulags, designed specifically to hold the wives of male dissidents. During the Soviet era, Akmola was based on the northern bank of the Ishim River, and that part of the city still retains the scrappy charm of the average small post-Soviet city, with its tsarist-era pink-and-yellow buildings and aboveground natural gas pipes.

Nazarbayev decided to move the capital in 1992, just a year after his country gained independence upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the move was formalized just five years later. For nearly his entire presidency, Nazarbayev has seen Astana as the centerpiece of his project to make Kazakhstan a world power, and he has devoted a corresponding amount of energy and resources into its design. He has constructed a shiny new Astana on the southern, previously uninhabited, side of the river, and the population has swelled to 700,000.

The improbability of Astana’s existence is best contemplated from an observation deck at the top of Baiterek, where visitors can survey the whole city. Most striking is how the ultramodern development stops abruptly, so that directly behind the space-age polymer shell of the Khan Shatyr there is nothing but the timeless expanse of the steppe, grass as far as the horizon.

And there is much, much more to come. The government projects that Astana’s population will eventually grow to 1.2 million. Those people will of course need more space, and Chikanayev, the architect, estimates that the city’s construction is only about 30 or 40 percent complete. There will soon be a new tallest structure in Astana, the 65-story Ritz-Carlton, which will then be followed by an 88-floor skyscraper, the Abu Dhabi Plaza. (It is being paid for by the United Arab Emirates.) As Chikanayev described what was to come after that—a medical cluster, a cultural center, a space technology sector, a tourism center—it evoked a vision of Nazarbayev playing a real-life game of Sim City.

The design of Astana extends beyond the merely architectural; it’s political, reflecting the central place of the city in Nazarbayev’s vision of his country. The city is laid out on an axis connecting some of the most symbolic buildings, like Baiterek, the presidential palace, and the pyramidal Palace of Peace and Harmony, built to hold conferences about inter-religious harmony, on which Nazarbayev has placed a heavy emphasis. That the headquarters of KazMunaiGaz, the state oil and gas company, is also on the axis seems like a blunt tribute to the role that petrowealth has played in Kazakhstan’s success over the last two decades.

So it’s tempting to attribute the presence of the newest building along the city’s spine, the Khan Shatyr, to the importance the government places on rising living standards, i.e., giving Kazakhs the means to shop at a fancy mall. But when I pose that theory to Chikanayev, he laughs off the idea. “It’s a symbol of the steppe,” he said. (He did acknowledge that KazMunaiGaz is a “symbol of our wealth and prosperity.”)

Another of Nazarbayev’s signature policy priorities has been the creation of what he calls “multi-vector diplomacy,” which aims to balance relations with all the major powers so as to not become too beholden to any one. That, too, is reflected in Astana’s design, Chikanayev said. The Triumph of Astana, a 35-story residential building, is modeled after a classic Moscow building, the Triumph Palace, and as such it is a tribute to Moscow. The Peking Palace, a hotel with some pagoda-esque touches, represents China. The United States will be represented by the future Ritz-Carlton. “We wanted to take the best from everywhere but create something Kazakh,” Chikanayev told me.

Nazarbayev’s desire to place Kazakhstan on the world stage is also evident in the number of international events that the government attracts to Astana. Kazakhstan made a failed bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics and is mulling a shot at 2022. In the meantime, it settles for a steady stream of second- and third-tier events. On my trip around Kazakhstan, I stopped twice in Astana, and during each stay several international events were going on: the International Math Olympiad, the Asian Women’s Boxing Championship, an “ international action film festival,” an “International Eurasian Congress.” The city was getting ready for the 2011 Asian Winter Games and the Third Congress of World and Traditional Religions, a gathering that Nazarbayev inaugurated in 2003. Though they might have been second-tier events, they were nevertheless extravagantly promoted on billboards around the city.

And if you look hard, you can also see echoes of Kazakhstan’s political culture in Astana’s architecture. It’s constructed on a monumental scale, with large distances between each building, to evoke awe rather than to encourage participation. The windows in many of the government buildings are mirrored, as if to say, “What goes on here is none of your business.” One political analyst I met pointed out that even the open space in front of the presidential palace—that is, the most likely place for anti-government protests—is surrounded by high ground, making it perfect for snipers, but that seemed a bit paranoid. Still, it’s undeniable that Astana’s location out in the middle of nowhere ensures that such protests won’t erupt. Astana’s population is still relatively small, with a high proportion of people connected to the current government. Most other institutions are based in Almaty, still the largest city and home to most of the political opposition. Another analyst told me that if there was even a hint of large-scale protests, all the government would have to do is cancel the flights and trains to Astana from Almaty.

In trying to unpack the meaning of Astana, perhaps the must fundamental question is why it exists at all. There were practical reasons to move the capital—Almaty is on an earthquake fault line, and it’s on the far southeastern edge of a vast country. But Almaty is also the most pleasant city in Central Asia—leafy, cosmopolitan, with a gorgeous setting at the foot of a mountain range. It’s much more livable than Astana, and few people who don’t have to move to the new capital do so.

Astana is much closer to the center of the country, and it is also in the middle of the greatest concentration of ethnic Russians. In the early days of independence, Kazakhstan’s leaders saw Russians as a potential pro-Moscow fifth column, and moving the capital was in part a strategy to maintain control over this area.

But more fundamentally, Astana represents the grand vision Nazarbayev has for the new Kazakhstan—and for his role in reinventing it. The epigraph to a coffee table book on Astana that Chikanayev gave me is a quote from Nazarbayev: “The creation of a capital is the creation of a new text of national history.”

The foundation of Astana was a way for newly reborn Kazakhstan to get on the map, Chikanayev said. “In the beginning, the most important thing was to get international approval for this—our country had just gained independence, our economy was in terrible shape, people were emigrating. The morale of the nation was low. So we needed something to make the international community believe we had a great future. We needed people to understand that we exist. It’s common for young states, like young people, to have this need for approval.”

Astana is rising in such a hurry that up close, the signs of shoddy construction are evident, even on the prestige projects. On the pedestrian mall that runs along Astana’s axis, the paving stones are precariously loose. A maquette of Astana’s monuments, also on the mall, appears, upon close inspection, to be made up of pen-and-ink drawings backed with cardboard, like a grade-schooler’s diorama. Chikanayev, the architect, bluntly admitted that the quality of construction in Astana was poor: “Now they just build it and leave it, not like in Soviet times, when things were maintained.”

There also seems potential for the city’s futuristic aesthetic to become quickly dated. It reminded me occasionally of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and Skopje, Macedonia, two other formerly communist cities built in a hurry (in both cases, after earthquakes devastated the old cities in the mid-1960s). Today, Tashkent has a kitschy retro look and Skopje an ugly brutalism. But maybe in a few decades, Astana will bear no resemblance to today’s version. Perhaps, in the writing of the new national history, this is just the first draft.