‘Writing about contemporary Kazakhstan is like making a journey into unexpected territory, for it is one of the least known yet most surprising nations of the post-Soviet world’ – a Briton Jonathan Aitken in his portrait of 21st century Kazakhstan. Despite an increase in the international recognition of Kazakhstan over the past decade (thanks largely to its growing economic importance), foreigners still know little or nothing about the country’s history, culture character, and future potential. The widespread stereotypes are that Kazakhstan is poor and politically unstable. But lying beyond this limited foreign perspective is a country with a rich cultural offer and plenty of cultural institutions.
The purpose of this piece is to challenge Kazakhstan’s negative stereotypes by providing factual information in relation to Kazakh cultural institutions in Almaty (the cultural and former capital of Kazakhstan) and Astana (the current capital). For instance, it was estimated that in Almaty alone there are 225 cultural institutions, and this number seems to be continuously expanding.
The tumultuous past
The culture of Kazakhstan, which we have now, is a base that was produced in the Soviet times… This powerful base, built in the Soviet era, achieved its historical and cultural mission, and the topical question has become how to foster the formation of the basic conditions for the creation and promotion of modern art. (Kulbayev, 2015)
The nomadic way of life in Kazakhstan, combined with its colonial past and consequent communist ideology, have shaped the nation state as we know it today. Therefore, situating the current cultural and creative infrastructure in Kazakhstan within its historical context is important, allowing us to push our understanding of its current nature and practice much further.
As stated previously, the process of uniting the nomadic and settled cultures in the territory of the modern Kazakhstan started as early as the sixteenth century, but the most vigorous imposition of the Russian lifestyle and culture started between the 1920s and 1930s. Mass settlement of the Kazakh people and forced collectivisation took place during this period, leading to dramatic events and an inevitable famine. 1.5 million of Kazakhs fled to China and Mongolia in the early 1920s, while almost 3 million died of starvation over the course of collectivisation; Kazakhstan lost half of its population as people were forced to change their traditional ways of life that had been maintained for centuries (Aitken, 2012). In order to survive and become successful Soviet citizens, Kazakhs had to reject their nomadic culture, their language and submit to the new system. Indeed, the time between the 1920s and 1930s is a key period in the formation of the contemporary Kazakh culture. During that time Kazakhs were gradually being detached from their indigenous culture; new cultural standards, artistic forms of expression, as well as new types of institutions were increasingly imposed and integrated into the society, in a top-down exogenous manner.
Regardless of the harsh treatment of individuals suspected to have anti-Soviet sympathies, a major cultural development was taking place with the appearance of painting as a form of artistic expression. Painting had been weakly present as an in Kazakhstan and had mostly existed as part of the applied arts (in the form of carpets, jewellery, ceramics, etc.).
New operas houses, theatres, philharmonic societies and art schools begun to be founded all over the country in the 1920s, gaining momentum in the 1930s. Generous government subsidies and the Artists’ Union (the Kazakh SSR Artists’ Union was founded in 1933) supported and regulated the existence of these institutions. European forms of culture, filtered through the Soviet censorship were introduced to the Kazakhs and later were adapted into national cultural forms. National operas, plays and paintings were being created, communicating the values of communism but wrapped in the fashionable and exotic wrapper of orientalism.
Acknowledging the numerous negative and even tragic aspects of the enforced and rapid integration of the foreign culture imposed on the Kazakh people, it is also necessary to admit the undeniable benefits that came with it. For instance, the arrival of schools, universities, hospitals, museums, libraries, and so on, which resulted in enhanced wellbeing, literacy and education of the urban population. Besides, the Soviet rule not only allowed the Russians to colonise Central Asia, it simultaneously allowed ex-nomads to travel in the opposite direction from towns and villages in Kazakhstan to cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Furthermore, the centralised approach of the Soviet Union to distributing museum exhibits (as part of a cultural exchange programme) also played a vital role in enriching Kazakhstan’s cultural wealth and the rest of Central Asia. Even though the Soviet government on many occasions jeopardised the literacy of the Central Asian people by forcing them to switch scripts from Arabic to Latin and later Cyrillic (in less than three decades) – causing much confusion – it contributed significantly to building the educational infrastructure throughout the country, and to the secularisation of education, as well as encouraging women’s participation.
The arrival of perestroika in 1980s prompted a remarkable dynamism in Kazakh filmmaking. Again, this was thanks to the Soviet educational initiatives, because essentially this phenomenon was initiated by a groups of Kazakh students (Nugmanov, Omirbaev, Aprymov, Amirkulov, and Karpykov) who in 1983 were chosen and then trained by Russian filmmaker Sergei Soloviev at the film institute (VGIK) in Moscow. The students graduated in 1988 and returned home, to trigger a phenomenon entitled the ‘New Wave’ of Kazakh cinema. Michael Rouland (2013), a historian of Central Asia and the author of Music and the Making of the Kazakh Nation, argues that during that period Kazakh cinema underwent a meaningful transformation, from Soviet propaganda apparatus to a means of provoking a shift in social consciousness. The works of the aforementioned young filmmakers reflected the momentous shift in Soviet society as well as its political and cultural collapse. The Needle [Igla] (1989) by Rashid Nugmanov, starring iconic Soviet rock star Viktor Tsoi (whose fame brought enormous interest to the film), was probably the most significant work of the New Wave and became a cult film; 20 million tickets were sold all over the Union.
Road to independence
The cultural boom of perestroika permeated into the 1990s. Throughout the decade a number of independent art galleries, film studios and artists’ unions/collectives were active in Kazakhstan. It was estimated that in the early 1990s there were 25 private galleries (Ibraeva, 2013) and 28 independent film studios (Abikeyeva, 2006), none of which had existed before.
However, the newly gained independence necessitated certain actions on behalf of the government in order to validate its new political existence internationally and to establish new a post-Soviet national identity within its borders. Culture and art are among the most effective mediums for this purpose. Initially this was achieved via monumental art, and later through other types of artistic expression (film in particular). An image from the nomadic past – a horseman – was borrowed for the monumental representation of the new leadership. Ibraeva (2013) explains that as monuments of Lenin were being removed and substituted by sculptures of heroic horsemen, nationalism was gradually replacing totalitarianism. Using the example of monuments, Ibraeva demonstrates how culture and artistic expression were falling back into the old patterns of serving the needs of the ruling class; as she explains: ‘and so the socialist cultural model was replaced by a nationalist cultural model, indistinguishable models based on a cultural policy dictated from above’. She argues that art in Kazakhstan has almost never functioned freely, without serving political objectives, and that the reason for this is rooted in the historical events of the past century.
Following the logic provided by the example of Kazakh monumental art, one may argue that the government’s decision to relocate the capital city to Astana in 1997 also formed a part of the national cultural policy. The construction of the brand new city can be viewed as an attempt to create a symbol of new post-Soviet statehood, on both national and international levels. Numerous large-scale architectural projects (many of which were designed by international architects) for the centrally planned city were supposed to communicate an image of Kazakhstan that is independent, modern, developing, creative and cosmopolitan. The outcomes of this grandiose initiative, however, have been rather controversial. Internationally, the newly-created Astana, with its signature buildings, was perceived as lacking harmony and authenticity: British newspaper the Guardian recently described Astana as ‘one of the strangest capital cities in the world’. The relocation of the capital city from Almaty to Astana has undoubtedly affected the cultural ecologies of both cities, as the 1990s saw a sharp increase in the number of cultural institutions and venues founded in Astana (see Figure 1). In addition, all of the country’s ministries and governmental offices were also relocated to the new capital city.
A significant occurrence took place last year (2014) when the Ministry of Culture and Sport released a whitepaper outlining a project – The Concept of Cultural Policy in the Republic of Kazakhstan. The document is the government’s first attempt to come up with a systematic development strategy for cultural policy. The arrival of this document indicates that culture has started to make its way onto the government’s agenda. Following the document’s release, topics of culture and creativity have started to make frequent appearances in local media channels. Reading the document, it becomes evident that the ideological power of culture continues to be of tremendous significance for the government: ‘We need to view culture as a powerful instrument for formulating national ideology, spiritual development and for the positioning of the country in the global space’. But it can also be argued that the spirit throughout the document prioritises another idea, which is a more pragmatic or instrumental approach to culture and creativity.
In other words, in addition to being a means of ideological propaganda and nation branding, culture and creativity are now also envisioned as one of the main alternative (i.e. ‘non-oil’) drivers of the national economy. Fashionable terms such as ‘creative clusters’, ‘creative industries’ and ‘creative class’ pop up throughout the document, indicating the Kazakh government’s inclination towards taking the Western position (currently globally accepted and spread) on culture and the creative industries as a growth sector with great economic potential.
As with any government report, this document is not without its limitations, and at times it raises far more questions than it answers. But, in spite of its limitations, the conception of such a document in itself is a very important occurrence, because it demonstrates that the government is ready to move to an alternative ‘branch’ in its outlook on, and approach to, managing cultural and creative affairs.
The intense preoccupation with hosting ‘country image’ events such as the Olympics and EXPO (especially over recent years) demonstrates that the state in fact is very much concerned with the improvement of the nation’s image internationally. Evidently, the Kazakh government devotes much energy and spends generous amounts of money to rebrand the country’s image. This becomes apparent when one encounters advertising inserts in magazines such as The Economist or happens to witness advertisements for Kazakhstan on the Euronews channel. At one point, the government had even considered changing the name of the country, by removing the ‘-stan’ that is believed to have a deleterious influence on the country’s international image (BBC, 2014). Recently, the president went further and suggested that the country should be branded as the ‘Land of the Great Steppe’, following the example of countries such as Japan (Land of the Rising Sun), South Korea (Land of the Morning Freshness), the Netherlands (Land of Tulips), and so on.
However, the efficacy of such top-down efforts is questionable, as one cannot expect simply by changing a country’s name to make it more creative or innovative and, therefore, more attractive to foreigners. A nation’s image is created by its achievements. Thus, if the government aims to position itself as an innovative, creative, as well as culturally rich and diverse country, it needs to allow creativity to flourish by enabling its people – creating an environment where culture and creativity develop organically from society, and not the other way around. In order to achieve the ambitious aspirations outlined in the whitepaper in which Kazakhstan is envisioned to become ‘one of the development centres of global culture and arts, historical science, archaeology and cultural studies, the leading international school for improving professional qualification and creative growth’ (p.21), the local cultural infrastructure requires significant strengthening and constant maintenance. Thankfully, the existing infrastructure that has been built over the course of the past century represents a solid base for future development. The following chapter presents some of the major institutions that contribute to the cultural infrastructures of Kazakhstan’s two largest cities.
The creative future for Kazakhstan
The World Cities Culture Report 2015 demonstrated the presence of a strong cultural and creative sector is a key component of the world’s most successful cities. By communicating with opinion-forming individuals in 30 different cities, the researchers were able to spot the challenges and opportunities facing these cities and how culture is able to address them. One of their conclusions is that in order to maintain urban growth and development, culture needs to be the ‘golden thread of urban policy, something that is integrated across all policy areas’ (World Cities Culture Forum, 2015 p.8). For Kazakhstan this report may also serve as an aspirational model in terms of the collection and development of data about its urban cultural economies, because it gathers and equally values opinions of creative professionals and entrepreneurs, members of the general public, business leaders and policymakers.
In Kazakhstan for a very long period of time the state had been uniquely in charge of culture, the predicted path for many governmental officials (the majority of whom were born, raised and educated in the Soviet Union) still tend to lead towards following an out-dated path of seeing culture simply as a nationalistic exercise. Investing in institutions and attracting large-scale events has been an easy path to follow in this respect, however, more challenging and important is to consider how ‘micro dynamics among creative industries and other agents at the local level become key to the understanding of the development of the creative cities’ (Comunian, 2011 p.1164). Change is now long needed and might allow culture to play a stronger role in Kazakhstan’s future.
This work has been produced in collaboration with the Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries at King's College and Calvert 22 Foundation.
Author: Sana Kim
Top image: Frank Herfort, Ministry Buildings