Blog-text

South to Almaty

Chris McNab | 21 January 2019

Today we head for Almaty. This journey is something of a landmark event for me, as although I have been to Kazakhstan more than 20 times previously, work commitments have always unerringly steered me to Astana, never to the former capital. When I’ve mentioned this to Kazakh colleagues in the past they’ve have always looked at me wistfully and said: ‘Oh, but you must go to Almaty as well, it is so beautiful.’ That day has now arrived.

With the flight this evening, however, today I went out and acquainted myself with more of Astana’s landmarks, this time courtesy of the Kazakhstan Military History Museum. Kazakhstan’s military past is a varied and dark tapestry of wars. Spectacular room-sized artworks depicted centuries of strife in epic detail, while exhibits of arrowheads and stone clubs and axes reached back into martial prehistory, clearly showing that not all of Kazakhstan’s past has been peaceful coexistence. For those with a research interest in ancient and medieval arms and armour (I know you are out there), Astana’s Military Museum is a definite stop on the international itinerary.

On account of Kazakhstan’s recent history, the museum had a natural gravitation towards the equipment and history of World War II and the Cold War. The suffering of the Soviet Union during the world war was almost unparalleled, and although the German forces did not reach Kazakhstan itself, the country was far from spared the suffering.

Some 1.2 million Kazakhs were mobilized, and more than 300,000 soldiers and 350,000 civilians would die between 1939 and 1945. Now add the pre-war catastrophe – during the man-made famine of 1930–33, up to 2.3 million Kazakhs died, 38 per cent of all ethnic Kazakhs – and the scale of the human disaster becomes evident. The exhibits spoke of perennial hardship, terrible endurance and bravery. Nor is this history abstract from our literary project. One of the poets I interviewed said that her own mother served on the frontline digging anti-tank trenches in Stalingrad, an experience that left an indelible mark.

Another poignant element of the museum was that dealing with the Alash Autonomous Government (AAG), an historical entity little known in the West. Established in December 1917 by Alikhan Bokeikhanov, the AAG was essentially a Kazakh independence government formed as Russia was convulsed with revolution.

It loosely and fatefully allied itself with the White forces in the civil war. For a time, when the Whites seemed on the verge of victory, it appeared that an independent Kazakh nationhood was possible. But then, the emerging Red Army pushed through to victory in 1922, and in the 1930s, under Stalin, the pantheon of idealistic Kazakh leaders, writers, artists and thinkers were purged from society, their brilliance and optimism shot out of hand. Many of their portraits stared at us hauntingly from the walls. Taking the experience of Kazakhstan as a whole during the 20th century, the famous Kazakh attributes of kindness and tolerance are even more confounding.

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Note: Shortly after writing the words above, myself and Kagendo Salisbury conducted an interview with poet Tanagoz Tolkynkyzy. Her words, both in person and through her poetry, are strikingly beautiful – please read tomorrow for more about this remarkable woman.


About the author

Dr Chris McNab is an author, editor and publishing consultant, who has a long-standing relationship with both Cambridge University Press and with Kazakhstan. Chris is working as the editor of the poetry anthology for this project.

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