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Republic Square

Republic Square is the heart of administrative power in Almaty. Laid out in the early 1980s, this broad expanse of tarmac doesn't feel particularly square-like most of the time, as the traffic on busy Satpaev Street hurtles across it. This is, however, the place to come on major holidays, when the square is closed off to traffic, and frequently hosts live music and firework displays.

The south side of the square is dominated by the imposing pale grey late Soviet bulk of the former Presidential Palace, now housing the municipal authorities. The building was deliberately set back some distance to the south of the square, in order not to obstruct the view of the mountains, and is surrounded by gardens. In front of this building is the red marble-faced rostrum, from which military parades passing across the square could be inspected. This part of the square is set to be remodelled, with the construction of a new underground shopping mall.

The focus of the north side of the square is a post-independence addition, the graceful obelisk of the Independence Monument. This square-based structure, 18m in height, is topped by a replica of the Golden Man, his hat and breastplate shining gold in the sun, standing atop a winged snow leopard. Around its base are statues of a Kazakh family (a man, a woman and two colt-mounted children); behind is a semicircular wall of low-relief bronze sculptures depicting 10 scenes from Kazakhstan's history, from Golden Man times at the left end to Nazarbaev at the right. At the base of the obelisk, an inscription commemorates Kazakhstan's declarations of sovereignty on 25 October 1990 and independence on 16 December 1991. In front of this stands an open bronze book, representing the Constitution of Kazakhstan, bearing the hand print of the president. The hand print is worn shiny by the number of hands that have been placed into its grooves. An inscription in several languages tells you to make a wish. The English version reads: 'choose and be in bliss!' In the height of summer the effect is more likely to be: choose and burn your hand!' This is one of the favoured places for wedding parties in Almaty to be photographed.

Behind the Independence Monument runs a long screen, featuring a series of bronze panels, depicting proud moments from the history of Kazakhstan. These include the defeat of the Persians by the forces of Queen Tomyris and the defeat of the Dzhungars by those of Ablai Khan. The easternmost screen is centred on the bas-relief of President Nazarbaev, his hand on the Constitution, declaring the independence of Kazakhstan. The people and buildings of Kazakhstan standing behind the president form, in silhouette, a map of the country.

The Independence Monument is framed by two 16-storey Soviet buildings to the north, set at jaunty 45° angle to the square, topped by billboards reading, respectively, 'Kazakhstan' and Almaty'. Quiet Baiseitova Street running northwards between these buildings is adorned with fountains.

Republic Square was the scene of one of the most emotive events in the recent history of Kazakhstan. The Soviet authorities had on 16 December 1986 replaced the veteran Dinmuhammed Kunaev as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan by Gennady Kolbin, who had been First Secretary in the Russian region of Ulyanovsk. A crowd massed in the square on the following day, protesting not at the departure of Kunaev but the fact that his replacement was an outsider, a non-Kazakh who had never previously worked in Kazakhstan. The rally was brutally broken up by various law and order agencies, wielding truncheons and metal sappers' spades. There were fatalities and many injuries.

A plaque on a wall of a building in the northwest corner of the square commemorates the events of 17 December, which are given a more lavish memorial just to the west, as Zheltoksan Street meets Satpaev. The monument here, named the Dawn of Freedom, was built in 2006 in honour of those killed and injured 20 years previously. A young lady, with beatific expression, is drawn forward as if preparing for flight. She releases a small golden bird. Behind her trails a banner. To her right, are depictions of scenes from Kazakhstan's troubled history, including a chilling tableau of famine-ravaged faces staring out towards the onlooker. To her left, the banner offers a stylised depiction of the 1986 uprising: riot troops brandishing entrenching tools square up to a stone-throwing crowd. Zheltoksan ('December') Street itself is named from the events of December 1986.