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Former Modern Capital

The Three Modern Capitals, Alma Ata, Bishkek and Dushanbe
'Central Asia - A Traveller's Companion' by Kathleen Hopkirk

A fine thing in Alma Ata was the snow, white, clean and dry. As there was very little walking or driving, it kept its freshness all winter long. In the spring, it yielded to red poppies. Such a lot of them - like gigantic carpets! The steppes glowed red for miles around.

Natalya Trotsky, 1927

ALMA ATA, FORMER CAPITAL of Kazakhstan, is now a large modern city in a beautiful situation. Standing 2,600 feet above sea-level in the northern foothills of the Zailisky Alatau mountains, facing the vast Kazakh Steppe, it has an extreme climate ranging from 40 degrees centigrade (104°F) in summer to minus 34 degrees centigrade ( - 28°F) in winter. Mount Kok-Tyubeh, which can be ascended by cable-car, gives a panoramic view over the city. However, Alma Ata began as a small trading post, the Kazakh settlement of Almaty.

During the nineteenth century Imperial Russia expanded steadily south-eastwards, ostensibly as a 'civilizing mission' to the Kazakh nomads but also as a means of easing the pressure for land in central Russia. (The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 led to agricultural chaos, with most peasants working uneconomic plots for which they were heavily mortgaged.) A Russian fortress was built at Almaty in 1854, around which Cossack colonists erected homes and planted their crops. The surrounding region, between the mountains and Lake Balkash, was known by the number of rivers which flowed north into the long thin lake: Semirechia, or Seven Rivers Land. Over the next ten years or so, a regular Russian town grew up and in 1867 it was given the new name of Vierney.

Much of Vierney was destroyed by a severe earthquake in 1887, and after that only small wooden buildings were erected and the town declined. In fact by the end of the century Vierney was mainly used as a place of exile for political prisoners. The writer Stephen Graham passed through in 1914 and left the following description:

It is not necessary to say much about Vierney, the capital of Seven Rivers Land. It is so subject to earthquakes that it is difficult to see in it a permanent capital. No houses of two storeys can with safety be built, so it is more suited to remain a military centre and fortress than to be a great city. In order to look imposing, shops and stores have fixed up sham upper storeys; that is, they have window-fronts up above, but no rooms behind the fronts . . . Vierney has its bazaar, its inns and doubtful houses, its baths, dance halls, clubs, restaurants. It has no Bond Street or West End. One may say, however, that it has its Covent Garden. Vierney is a great market for fruit and vegetables . . . Carts heaped high with giant red radishes are driven through the town, and the strawberry hawkers make many cries. Many horses are adorned with fancy garments, and I noticed donkeys with trousers on.

Graham, Through Russian Central Asia, 1916

After the Bolshevik Revolution Vierney was renamed Alma Ata (City of Apples) and in 1929 became the capital of the new Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan. Leon Trotsky was banished to Alma Ata in 1927, having lost his battle for the leadership with Stalin, and lived there for a year with his wife. Although it was an anxious and unhappy time for them, increasingly cut off from all links with the outside world, Natalya Trotsky left some vivid descriptions:

The town had no central waterworks, no lights, and no paved roads. In the bazaar in the centre of the town, the Kazakhs sat in the mud at the doorsteps of their shops, warming themselves in the sun and searching their bodies for lice. Malaria was rampant. There was also plague, and during the summer months an extraordinary number of mad dogs. The newspapers reported many cases of leprosy in this region. In spite of all this, we spent a good summer. We rented a peasant house from a fruit-grower up on the hills with an open view of the snowcapped mountains, a spur of the Tien-shan range. With the owner and his family, we watched the fruit ripen and took an active part in gathering it. The orchard was a picture of change. First the white blossom, then the trees grew heavy, with bending branches help up by props. Then the fruit lay in a motley carpet under the trees on straw mats, and the trees, rid of their burden, straightened their branches again. The orchard was fragrant with the ripe apples and pears.

In 1929 Trotsky was deported from the Soviet Union, and lived a haunted existence in a number of countries before being dispatched by an ice-pick through the skull in Mexico in 1940.

Towards the end of the 1920s modern buildings began to be erected in Alma Ata, in the Constructivist style then favoured in the Soviet Union. The most ambitious was the massive complex of government buildings designed by the architect M. Ginzburg, who was clearly influenced by Le Corbusier. The style did not find favour with Stalin, however, and was suppressed during the 1930s as politically incorrect.

The completion of the Turksib railway in 1930 connected Alma Ata with the main rail networks of the Soviet Union, greatly aiding the town's development. By the 1940s the streets had been paved and a sewage system installed, and a number of hydro-elec-tric schemes provided the town with light and power. Trams, buses and lorries had replaced the peasant carts which were the only form of transport in Stephen Graham's day, and despite his prediction Alma Ata has become not only a permanent capital but also a heavily industrialized city. Because of its situation it has, in addition, become a centre for mountaineering expeditions.