Greetings from Almaty, Kazakhstan! I will be in Almaty for a semester through the American Councils’ Russian Language and Area Studies Program. Before I left, many people would ask me why I would be studying abroad in Kazakhstan. For many Americans, Kazakhstan generally perceived as a backwards country. This perception is usually fueled by Kazakhstan’s name – as a “stan” country some people may associate it with the war-torn Afghanistan – or from watching Borat. Many people are unaware of the fact that virtually all of Kazakhstan’s populace speak Russian – due to its history as part of the Russian Empire and then Soviet Union.
Admittedly, Kazakhstan has a relatively small political and economic presence beyond its immediate neighbors. Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev – who has held this title since the country’s independence in 1991 – recognizes this fact and is making a concerted effort to reverse this, codified in the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy. Announced in 2012, this strategy has a lofty goal – to position Kazakhstan among of the top 30 global economies by 2050 through widespread economic, social, and political reforms. Some of the reforms proposed this plan include diversifying the country’s oil-dependent economy, growing foreign investment, and improving education – most notably through the successful implementation of trilingual education in Kazakh, Russian, and English. President’s Nazarbayev’s plan is perhaps most visible through the capital city Astana and the recently-concluded EXPO 2017.
Two weeks ago I traveled to Astana with some of my classmates and was thoroughly impressed. Formerly called Tselinograd during the Soviet Union, Astana (which means “capital” in Kazakh”) has been the capital since 1997. Situated in the middle of the otherwise-barren steppe, Astana is an ultra-modern city that reflects the grand ambitions of the Kazakhstan political leadership and President Nazarbayev. The planned city, following the master plan of Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, is littered with futuristic architectural marvels. Among these was the imposing Bayterek Tower. The Bayterek tower stands at is a 105-meter and has a golden sphere at the top, which hearkens back to Kazakhstan’s history – the golden sphere is meant to embody a fable about a magical bird which laid an egg on the tree of life. In addition, the city boasts two buildings designed by British architect Norman Foster – the Khan Shatyr and Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. The Khan Shatyr is a gigantic tent-shaped structure that serves as a shopping mall and entertainment center – and notably has an indoor beach. The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation is a glass pyramid that hosts international religious conferences. In addition, Astana boasts a futuristic concert hall, massive presidential palace, a Stalin-esque skyscraper reminiscent of the “Seven Sisters” in Moscow, and two extremely large mosques.
During our weekend trip we also had the opportunity to witness EXPO 2017 during its final weekend. For Kazakhstan, EXPO 2017 was a monumental effort to present the modern nation of Kazakhstan to the world, and received a litany of international press coverage. (I highly implore people to read this excellent New York Times piece on EXPO 2017.) Focused on the theme of “Future Energy”, dozens of country’s built exhibits to showcase their country’s technology. Most impressive of all, however, was Kazakhstan’s exhibit. Housed in “Nur Alem”, an eight-story spherical building specifically constructed for EXPO 2017 by the renowned architecture team Adrian Smith (the main architect behind Dubai’s Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world) and Gordon Gill. Kazakhstan’s eight stories were eye catching and intriguing. Focusing on a different form of alternative energy – from the sustainable energy mainstays of hydro and solar to less-recognized forms of energy such as biomass. Will EXPO 2017 deliver on ambitions to introduce greater international economic activity to Kazakhstan? Only time will tell.
By: Edwin Portugal
Term: Fall 2017