The southern entrance to the rectangle of greenery in the heart of the city named in honour of the soldiers of the 316th Rifle Division, a unit formed by Major General Ivan Panfilov in Almaty Region, and in particular of a group of 28 men of Panfilovs division, led by Vasily Klochkov, who became icons of the Soviet Union for their exploits in defending Moscow during a fierce battle in November 1941 at Dubosekovo Station near Volokolamsk. Almost all of the 28 were killed in the engagement, during which they reportedly destroyed many German tanks, and all were awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. The '28 Panfilov soldiers' were probably the men of 4 Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1075th Regiment, 316th Rifle Division, though historians have long debated the accuracy of the Soviet version of the events. What is certainly clear is that the 1075th Regiment suffered huge losses in the engagement. Major General Panfilov himself was among those killed in the defence of Moscow.
A statue of Panfilov stands at the Dostyk Avenue entrance to the park, his right arm patriotically against his chest. The tiled wall to the left displays the hammer and sickle of the Soviet period; that to the right bears the steppe eagle and sun of post-independence Kazakhstan. The path leading into the park behind this statue is lined with pink bollards, each honouring one of the Panfilov Heroes.
The focus of the eastern side of the park is a huge war memorial, its centrepiece a dramatic sculpture of the Panfilov soldiers, their profiles forming a large map of the USSR. From the centre of this a grenade-wielding Red Army soldier seems to be in the process of jumping out. Below the sculpture is a quotation from Klochkov, to the effect that 'Russia is huge but there is nowhere to retreat since Moscow is behind us'. In front of this sculpture is a long black marble sheet, with an eternal flame, and an inscription to the 601,011 Kazakhstanis killed in the war. On the south side of the war memorial complex, the statue of three haggard, war-weary soldiers is a monument to the Kazakhstanis killed in Afghanistan, a very different iconography from the proud memorial to those killed during the Great Patriotic War.
The war memorial is one of the favoured spots in Almaty for newly-weds to be photographed. Local champagne is drunk, and doves set free into the sky (they return later to be re-caged, and then re-released, in a curious wedding cottage industry). On the north-eastern corner of the memorial square, the quaint pitched-roofed wooden house with a central spire was built in 1907 by architect A P Zenkov, and once housed the Officers' League.
The building now accommodates the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments of Kazakhstan.
From the ornate entrance hall, you pass through two small rooms to the right. The first shows scenes of dancing and instrument playing depicted on petroglyphs, as a demonstration of the antiquity of folk music in Kazakhstan. The second features paintings of the 20th-century composer/conductors Tulebaev and Zhubanov, and a somewhat lonely accordion. The first main room beyond is devoted to wind and percussion instruments, featuring a wide array of clay whistles, horns, flutes, drums and rattles. The next room is devoted to the kobyz, whose horse-hair strings are played with a bow.
Variants on the theme are also on display, including the zhezkobyz, whose strings are made of metal. Next comes a room mostly dedicated to the two-stringed guitar-like dombra. Variants displayed here include the tumar dombra, with a triangular body. There is also a seven-stringed zhetigen, a distant relative of the harp. The next room features instruments which once belonged to some of the leading lights of Kazakhstan's musical history, including dombras formerly owned by Abai, Zhambyl and Makhambet Utemisov. The museum also houses a small auditorium, where performances involving the traditional instruments are sometimes held. The museum guides will also offer you a short burst of any instrument of your choice. The labelling throughout is rather technical in style, and in Russian and Kazakh only.
The eastern edge of the memorial square is bounded by the wall-like 1970s concrete bulk of the Officers' Palace. Here sits a Museum of Military History but it can require the most patient of military campaigns to get to visit it. Ascending the flight of steps up from the square, go to the main entrance of the block on your right-hand side. Take the corridor to the right of the entrance, and climb one floor of stairs to Room 211. You may well need to track someone down (try the floor above) to get the museum unlocked.
If the eastern side of Panfilov Park is dominated by the war memorial, and by adjacent buildings with a military past or flavour, the western side of the park is more spiritual. Its centrepiece is the remarkable Cathedral of the Holy Ascension, built in 1907 by architect Andrei Zenkov during a period in which the main building material of the earthquake-wary city was wood. The cathedral reaches a height of more than 53m, making it one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world. It withstood the earthquakes of the 20th century, including the major tremor of 1910 (cathedral is one of Almaty’s few surviving tsarist-era buildings, most others were destroyed in the 1910 earthquake), and remained in remarkably good shape. The use of brackets rather than nails to join the beams together proved particularly inspired protection against the dangers of earthquakes. Used as a museum and concert hall in the Soviet era, then boarded up, it was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1995 and has been restored as a functioning place of worship, with colourful icons and murals. Services are held at 8am and 5pm Monday to Saturday, and 7am, 9am and 4 or 5pm Sunday. The cathedral today is a confection of warm pastel shades. Its dome, covered in coloured lozenges, sits atop an octagonal drum. Four smaller domes guard it. On the western side of the cathedral stands a square-based bell tower which rises to an onion dome by way of a lozenge-covered roof. The interior offers a busy assembly of icons and frescoes, the yellow, blue and red stained glass giving a rather summery quality to the light filtering through.
Running between the Holy Ascension Cathedral and the war memorial is the Alley of Heads of State, lined with conifers planted by various visiting presidents.