Astana: An architectural playground

An ultra-modern metropolis celebrates 20 years as the capital of Kazakhstan

A general view of downtown with Kazakhstan's national oil company KazMunayGas (KMG) headquarters (front) in Astana, Kazakhstan. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A general view of downtown with Kazakhstan's national oil company KazMunayGas (KMG) headquarters (front) in Astana, Kazakhstan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Landing in Astana is like touching down on a movie set shooting a sci-fi film set decades in the future: an unusual number of buildings shaped as spheres – or “eyes” gazing up into space as if in communication mode with extra-terrestrial beings – interspersed with tall buildings topped with spires reminiscent of antennas.
At night, much of the city’s edifices are illuminated in colorful lights, evoking a carnival atmosphere. Many futuristic movies depict their cities as densely crowded places, but this is where Astana breaks the mold: many of the streets are boulevards – some of them eight lanes wide, even in the heart of the city – and the distances in this sprawling metropolis are not designed for walking from place to place.
Adding to the sense of a city of the future is the construction of a monorail, which will eventually connect downtown and the two inter-urban transportation hubs: the international airport and the new train station.
Astana was an unlikely candidate to be the capital city of the ninth-largest country in the world (in area) and fourth largest in Asia – more than 100 times the size of Israel. Less than a generation ago, it was just a backwater in the ocean of land that is the great steppe – actually closer to Omsk in Siberia than to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, and the nation’s capital since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Out of the blue, Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, decreed that the provincial town of Akmola would be the country’s new capital – and in Kazakhstan, what Nazarbaev says, goes. He has been the undisputed leader of the country since it was a Soviet socialist republic, and is consistently re-elected to the highest office with more than 90% of the vote.
It is hard to imagine that this was a popular decision for the thousands of government employees who would be compelled to relocate. The city’s climate is far from hospitable: although the weather in the summer is ideal, its long winters are harsh; Astana is the world’s second coldest capital, after neighboring Mongolia’s Ulan Bator.
The city would have to be redesigned and built to accommodate an influx of residents that would almost quadruple its population. Renowned international architects were invited to plan and reshape Akmola, which would be renamed Astana – meaning capital city – when it was officially elevated to its current status in 1998.
The city’s cultural life needed a serious upgrade as well, if senior government officials and foreign diplomats were to live there. An opera house to rival any in Europe, as well as a separate palace for ballet, went up in short order.
Enormous financial resources were invested in Astana; fortunately, Kazakhstan is blessed with abundant natural resources – including oil, uranium and rare earth metals – enabling the country to spend billions not only on infrastructure but also on an ambitious international Expo in 2017, in the run-up to this year’s big 20th birthday bash. Israel, which has had diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan almost from the start of the Central Asian republic’s independence, won the award for best presentation for its Expo pavilion.
Kazakhstan may be a Muslim-majority nation, but it is firmly a secular nation, which takes pride in maintaining good relations with everyone. If there is anything that symbolizes this attitude, I discovered it in the market; when I asked a seller of dried fruits where his dates were from, he replied: “Israel and Iran.”
An even more striking juxtaposition took center stage the next day. As part of the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of Astana’s coronation as capital, the city dedicated the Astana International Financial Center, an ambitious undertaking meant to serve as a clearinghouse and stock exchange that would catapult Kazakhstan into the forefront of Eurasian commerce. Economists and financiers gathered from the world over, including a significant delegation of Israelis; one of the featured speakers, shortly after the keynote address by President Nazarbaev, was Jacob Frenkel, global vice chairman of giant investment bank J.P. Morgan – and former Governor of the Bank of Israel. The speaker immediately preceding Frenkel? The representative of the Islamic Development Bank.
Israel-Kazakhstan relations have been nurtured carefully over the years: former president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have visited the country, and Israel maintains an embassy, with a resident ambassador, in Astana. According to a Russian-Israeli journalist familiar with the embassy of Kazakhstan in Israel, a posting as ambassador to Israel is considered a plum diplomatic position and a springboard to future promotions.
Kazakhstan’s moderation and tolerance certainly extend to its tiny Jewish community. The country’s chief rabbi, Yeshaya Cohen, along with other religious leaders, was one of the president’s distinguished guests at the official celebration of Astana’s 20th birthday on July 6.
Cohen, as well as the rabbi of Astana, Shmuel Karnaukh, are both emissaries of the Chabad movement, which has a special connection to Kazakhstan: the father of the famous Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, Levi Yitzhak Schneersohn, died in Soviet exile in Almaty in 1944; in 1999, with the blessing and support of the Kazakh government, his gravesite was renovated and became a destination of secondary pilgrimage for hassidic followers. President Nazarbaev himself ceremoniously delivered official documents posthumously exonerating the persecuted rabbi and used the occasion to reaffirm the country’s commitment to religious freedom.
Five years later, Nazarbaev welcomed the construction and establishment of the synagogue in Astana, an imposing blue structure that is the largest Jewish house of worship in Central Asia. The capital’s beit knesset barely manages to field a minyan for Shabbat services, but Jewish visitors are always welcomed with typical Chabad gracious hospitality for services and Shabbat meals. Interestingly, in a city with a million Muslims, the security at the synagogue is virtually non-existent – certainly as lax as I have seen anywhere in the world.
Given the history of our people, it should not have been surprising that the country also bears witness to a more somber chapter. In Stalin’s time, Kazakhstan was home to more than 20 prison camps in the USSR’s notorious gulag system; yet none were quite like Aljhir, just outside of Astana: a concentration camp for the wives, daughters and children of political prisoners, including Jewish refuseniks. A memorial erected by Israel at the site pays tribute to these particularly vulnerable victims of unspeakable Soviet cruelty.
Jewish connections can crop up in the strangest places, and Astana proved to be no exception. The observation deck at the top of Baiterek Tower, one of the capital’s most iconic monuments, contains a plaque commemorating the first Congress of World Religions, a Kazakh initiative that is held every three years. Etched into the metal were the signatures of the first participants, and the one in Hebrew stood out from the rest: it belonged to Yona Metzger, the former Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel.
As if that were not strange enough, as I tried to decipher the name in Hebrew script, I heard snatches of Hebrew conversation. Incredibly, one of the sightseeing groups enjoying the 360-degree view of the city from the tower at that exact same moment was the first-ever group tour from Israel to visit Kazakhstan, organized by the travel company Massaot. It was led Rahel Kaplon, a Jewish woman from Kazakhstan who had emigrated to Israel, as have the majority of Kazakh Jews over the years.
Kazakhstan is interested in growing its tourism sector and has embarked on a program of reciprocal visa-free entries that now includes Israel. Israelis no longer need a visa to enter Kazakhstan as tourists. The country is also moving aggressively to improve air links; it is not the easiest destination to reach and connections from Israel are still not the most convenient.
For those who do make the journey to Astana, however, a gastronomic holiday awaits, at prices that Israelis can only dream about. For example, we enjoyed exquisite Georgian cuisine – three generous courses, with lamb and wine – for NIS 55 per person; and a similar gourmet meal in a Korean restaurant (Kazakhstan is home to 100,000 ethnic Koreans who had forcibly been relocated by the Soviets from the Far East) that can only be described as a palace came to a grand total of NIS 60.
The writer was a guest of the embassy of Kazakhstan in Israel and Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.