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History of Astana

The capital of Kazakhstan since 1997, Astana has grown at a staggering rate. With a population of little more than 300,000 when it inherited the mantle of national capital from Almaty, it grew to beyond half a million in just a few years. Plans that Astana would top one million people by 2030 have been revised forwards. President N. Nazarbaev wants Astana not just to grow, but also to be special, a sparkling symbol of independent Kazakhstan. World-renowned architects have been enlisted to help build the city: its general plan designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, some of its most eye-catching buildings by Norman Foster. The rise in the cost of borrowing precipitated by the US sub-prime mortgage crisis in 2007 slowed the building boom, but the skyline of Astana remains dominated by cranes as the new capital continues to take shape on the steppe.

Kazakhstan's archaeologists have devoted much recent attention to establishing a long historical pedigree for Astana, not least to downplay suggestions that the nation's capital may have started its life as a Russian fort. The remains of a settlement, possibly Buzuk, established by Turkic tribes in the 8th or 9th century, have been identified on the outskirts of the modern city. This had been deserted by the 13th century, though the site was used for burials for several more centuries. At the centre of the modern city, on the banks of the River Ishim, a site known as Karaotkel, 'black ford', was long used as a crossing place of the river. And it was here in 1830 that the Tsarist authorities started to construct a fortress, which would be named Akmola. Akmola was used as a staging post by travellers, and trade in cattle and merchandise from China and the towns of the Central Asian steppe flourished.

There are many different interpretations of the origins of the name Akmola, which by one account derives from the Kazakh 'white grave'. Some believe that the name refers to the white-domed Mausoleum of Niyaz Bi, an adviser to Ablai Khan, which reportedly stood near the site. Others suggest that it refers to a limestone hillock, which had some burials at its summit. Another version has it that the name is not to do with death, but milk, arguing that the name comes from Ak Mol, 'white abundance', a reference to the rich dairy products of the area. To add to the confusion, Akmola was probably not the geographical name associated with the eventual site of the fortress at all, but with the place originally chosen for it, more than 30km away, which proved to be too prone to flooding.

The stronghold at first served as a shelter for the Kazakhs against attacks from warlike neighbours such as the Kalmyks, Bashkirs and Cossacks, but later on its role changed to that of an outpost in Russia's campaign to colonize the nomadic steppe peoples. The fortress was one of the targets of the ultimately unsuccessful rebellion of Kazakhs led by Kenesary Kasymov in the late 1830s, who called on the Tsarist authorities to take down their fortresses in Kazakh territories. Akmola received town status in 1862, and gradually developed into a trading centre between Russia and central Asia. Mining became its predominant industry and it also became an important railway junction. From 1852 a popular market known as Konstantinov's Fair was held each year at the end of May and the beginning of June. Its site was that of the present-day Congress Hall. Following the arrival of the railway in the late 1920s, Astana developed into an important railway centre, especially with the later extension of the track to bring coal from Karaganda to Russia. The town's population was swelled with the arrival of deportees from the 1930s: Akmola lay close to the ALZHIR labour camp, which housed the wives and children of convicted 'betrayers of the homeland'.

The character of this quiet regional capital changed dramatically in 1954 when Khrushchev launched the Virgin Lands Campaign, to develop large swathes of the Kazakhstani steppe for grain production. Akmola, which already housed an agricultural machinery factory, was one of the centres of the Virgin Lands programme. Some 3.5 million hectares of virgin land was ploughed in the region between 1953 and 1956. In 1961, the town was renamed Tselinograd, 'virgin lands city'. Large numbers of five-storey apartment blocks were built to cope with the rapidly growing population.

Following independence, the city was given back the name Akmola in 1992. In 1994, on the initiative of President Nazarbaev, the Kazakhstan authorities announced that the capital would be relocated from Almaty to Astana. On 10 December 1997, by a presidential decree, Akmola was duly named as the capital of Kazakhstan. In May of the following year the new capital city was renamed Astana, which in Kazakh simply means 'capital'.

There are a number of reasons why charming, green Almaty, with its tremendous mountain scenery and its mild climate, had to surrender its position as the capital in favour of an incongruous town in the steppe-somewhere to which unwanted people were once banished, somewhere extremely hot in summer and gruesomely cold in winter. The decision to relocate the capital was not universally welcomed, particularly in cosmopolitan Almaty, some of whose citizens still lend to regard Astana as a place of exile in the frozen north. Numerous theories have been advanced as to why Nazarbaev decided to move the capital, almost all of which probably offer part of the explanation. Official accounts tend to stress the centrality of Astana's location, both in respect of the country and of the Eurasian landmass as a whole: the city serves as a bridge, it is argued, between Europe and Asia. The constraints on the further urban expansion of Almaty, hemmed in by the Tian Shan Mountains, and its vulnerability to earthquakes, are also often mentioned.

Some academics have favoured geopolitical explanations, citing Almaty's proximity to China, and also apparent concerns in the immediate post-independence years about the direction of focus of parts of northern Kazakhstan, with large ethnic Russian populations and close links with Russia. Bringing the capital closer to the north was perhaps seen, they argue, as a means of binding these regions more firmly into the newly independent state. Moving the capital should also bring about a better-balanced ethnic mix, a cooling of separatist tendencies among the Russian population groups in the north of Kazakhstan, more single-minded economic development in so far undeveloped parts of the country, and a halt to the exodus of human resources in the region.

A similar argument is also presented in respect of intra-Kazakh relations. Almaty sits in the heartland of the Great Zhuz, to which Nazarbaev also belongs. Moving the capital to Astana may have been seen in part as helping to build the support of the Kazakhs of the Middle Zhuz, in whose traditional territories Astana lies.

A revamp of the ageing generation of long-established civil servants was promised in setting up the new capital, and a new cadre of young, ambitious state employees were recruited in order to fill the government's ranks in the new capital. Moving the capital in 1998 was of course a tough ordeal for state officials who had to relocate there immediately. There were insufficient offices for the newcomers, and appropriate residences were scarce, with little worth classifying as luxurious. Flats from the 1960s-80s dominated the city, and it was obvious that the cityscape had to change fundamentally-and fast.

It has certainly done that: since 1997, building in the new capital has been taking place on a massive scale and at warp speed. The provincial airport of Akmola became the Astana international Airport, to which Air Astana, Lufthansa and KLM now fly. The Presidential National Culture Centre, with its blue dome in the shape of a yurt, was completed in 2000; a new national university was opened, the Eurasian Gumilyov University, named after the spiritual father of the notion of a united Eurasia; and many modern architectural gems have followed. The mix in building styles gives an impression of a capital where Western and Eastern cultures meet. Turkish and domestic construction firms have built-and continue to build colourful skyscrapers of many different designs on the right bank of the Esil River, creating a skyline worthy of a new metropolis.

Whatever was the underlying idea of moving the capital they managed to build an impressive new capital city, a showcase for the achievements of the newly independent state of Kazakhstan and a tribute to its first president.

History of Astana