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The Urban Transformation

The twentieth century changed Kazakhstan radically from a society which was still foundationally a pastoral and nomadic community to one of permanent settlement and widespread and usually rather gruesome industrialisation.

The brief period since the coming of independence at the end of 1991 has heralded, or indeed already brought about, a further transformation, perhaps no less fundamental although not so outwardly manifest - a transformation engendered by a free market, an enterprise economy superseding a ruthlessly monolithic command economy. And again, as we have seen, it has engendered, and still engenders, its hardships, although nothing like on the scale of the earlier transformation.

The present change, in its way no less sudden in its impact, has two faces: what one may call the existential and the economic - or, alternatively, the self-view and the means of survival and advancement.

The existential, or self-view, reassessment concerns the citizen's view as to his or her responsibilities, both to himself or herself and those to whom the citizen is committed by love or family tie or dutiful practice. For the first time in some 70 years, it fell to citizens to look to themselves in the first place, for their own welfare, their employment, and their progress through life and, it might be said, the health of their souls. For the 'State' was no longer there to guarantee the citizens a job, a meal ticket, or indeed an ideology. All were back in the hands, or the hearts, of the individual. And individuals found themselves at once at the untender mercy and unpredictability of the market place and a global economy which offers nobody a free lunch.

Survival - individual or familial -became at once demanding in a new way: demanding as to hard work, ingenuity, competitiveness, the securing of key qualifications, and so on. It was instantly, in its way, a tougher socio-economic environment. At the same instant, life was arguably more meaningful.

For almost simultaneously the opportunities - which for a moment seemed invisible - began to appear. Wages, even for those with significant and hard-earned qualifications in, say, teaching and medicine, were unconscionably low; but the rewards from second jobs made survival at an acceptable standard of living possible... if at the cost of hard work, a high level of alertness and (often enough) long hours. In the later 1990s, it was not uncommon for the energetic and resourceful in the major cities to be holding onto, and holding down, not two but three jobs in any single week.

The lure of what higher rewards could buy were all around - more spacious, better appointed apartments, a smarter wardrobe a range of stimulating and glamorous sports, a break at a health clinic or hydro, а holiday abroad, even a motor car.

New blocks of flats were, and are still, going up at a rapid rate, many of the first wave being erected by Turkish contractors to whom Kazakhstan became synonymous with a quick buck. Corners were sometimes cut; but building quality has steadily improved and standards are now being more rigorously upheld.

For there is money about for better quality, and the new shops show it. The trumpeted if deceptive egalitarianism of economic Marxist-Leninism has been replaced by the confessed amorality of the free market and commercial opportunism, which is bringing to the smart or well- placed few of Kazakhstan! society newly- gained riches, sometimes of a high order. Thus Kazakhstan has been experiencing a multiplying 'skill base', and a fresh indigenous work ethic such as is set to exploit the impending accessibility of new wealth deriving from the hydrocarbon treasures of the Caspian region and the country's other mineral resources. By 2003 standards of living - already respectably high in the new western towns of Atyrau, Aktau, and Uralsk - were noticeably climbing in Astana and Almaty.

Beyond the enticement and excitement of rising living standards and personal amenities - the acceptable face of 'consumerism' - and the consequent expenditure not only of money but time and energy, must be seen the opportunity for Kazakhstan's coming generation for a greater leisure and the deeper rewards of the human spirit in reflection and creativity.