Sometimes this place feels like I’m living through the fading sunset of a once-great civilisation. I walk through in the abandoned bunkers in the mountains, the empty streets. At the pleasure park the children play on rusting swings, in the school they read faded books. When Nauan was showing us his school gym he said “there was equipment here before, but now it’s gone.”
If you look closely at the buses running to the outskirts of the city, there’s german writing on them. That’s because they come from East Germany. Everything here was built in a distant age.
The Academy of Science lays dormant, its halls covered in dust and cobwebs. The School of Architecture is all boarded up, now the rats dance in its corridors. Building work on the metro was stalled for almost two decades. They try to hide it but you can easily spot the stations which were built before. The city was well on its way to building an extensive metro system, and then the fall came, and they’re still recovering.
The Soviet life still lingers in peoples’ minds. Holidays were longer. The streets were cleaner, there was less corruption. People were better educated and didn’t have to worry about money as much. Things didn’t break as easily. If you got ill you would be taken care of. You had a say in your workplace, you didn’t have to be afraid of unemployment. Housing was a basic right and there were no homeless people, or slums. People worked less and retired earlier, they had more time to enjoy life. There was a system of communal organisation which brought people together. Was the food really tastier, or did they just imagine it?
Every now and then little bits of this history carry forward. Last month there was a free opera at the Palace of the Republic, and there was another one last week too. These things don’t usually happen in Europe, and that was the first time I’ve seen live opera. Not in London or Paris, but in Almaty.
The less rosy features of the soviet past haven’t improved with the restoration of capitalism. In the soviet period, there were state security services, those who advocated the destruction of the state were watched, and they were not given prominent platforms in the media. All dissent was ‘internal’ and grievances were contained within semi-official channels. This is all still true today.
Kazakhstan still has a secret service, it was superficially renamed from the Committee for State Security (KGB) to National Security Committee (KNB). There are still internal troops operating within the country, they were used last year at Zhanozen. The elections are habitually rigged and Nur Otan dominates the Majilis. The anti-government communist party was banned from operating through the period of this year’s election. The state rules as states do, only now it rules on behalf of capital, rather than on behalf of the popular masses.
I think those who lived through the socialist period can look back at the country and be proud. They physically built all this, and in a very political sense it truly belongs to them. The factories, the railways, the sport stadiums and the apartment blocks, those were at one time theirs.
On Saturday afternoons people gather outside the green market to sell or exchange old badges, patches or other artefacts. The people of my age were born in the early nineties; they grew up through the crisis of newborn capitalism and never got to experience the world their parents grew up in. I think I understand the attraction of the old soviet kitch, it’s a figure of reference. A set of icons and symbols which connect us to that world, but without their context these cultural relics are almost useless.
Worse, cultural expressions of some long-ago revolution can dullen the political impetus for change today. You can wear your ironic t-shirt, but you don’t get to argue for your rights in the workplace. In China, Yu Zhu bought a little plastic statue of a red guard. It’s cute, but all the poor Maoists would recoil in horror, these plastic statues get churned out by their thousands, consuming the ideology of anti-consumerism. At that point, you’re not buying into the idea, it’s just a commodity.
I try not to let lifestyle define my politics, even if it probably does. If I stick up a poster of Mao on my wall it’s not (just) because I like the aesthetic, it’s because I believe Maoism was important.
However Kazakhstan develops for the next few decades, the country was always born as a soviet republic, that past still resonates. I’m wary of projects which build themselves up as little more than a continuity of the soviet experience. It’s a very conservative position, always looking backwards for validation. Increasingly, Kazakh politicians look to socialist China, they hold events for Chinese diplomats at the university. If the working class ever pick up where they left off, they’ll have to develop something new, and that means letting go of soviet fetishism.