On his arrival to the capital of Kazakhstan on Tuesday, September 13, 2022, pope Francis saw a completely different city than did John Paul II, staying there in 2001. The pace of Nur-Sultan’s development is astonishing.
Kazakhstan as whole is changing too, but not everywhere and not at such a pace. But after all it is a huge country, where between cities there are hundreds of kilometers leading through the steppe. It was once an area inhabited by nomadic tribes; it was only under USSR that Kazakhs were forced to live in wooden, brick or stone houses. And before WWII this country became a true “prison of the nations” as huge gulags were installed here, it was also here that Poles from Ukraine were deported to in 1936 and 1939-1941.
Today it is trying to find its place in the world. A proof for that is the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions currently being held. Which is actually the main purpose of the Pope’s visit.
Akmolinsk, Tselinograd, Astana
To imagine what Astana looked back in the past one has to go to another big Kazakhstani city. Be it Almaty although the former capital is now several times bigger than Astana years before. But the first hasn’t changed so much, as has Nur-Sultan.
In the year of Pope’s visit, i.e. in 2001 it was a typical, post-Soviet regional city. Built in 1824 as the Akmolinsk fortress (Akmoly meaning in Kazakh “White grave”) was granted city rights only in 1862. For the first time the city changed its name in 1961. It was then that the then general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev launched the campaign to transform wasteland into fertile soil, i.e. to transform the steppe into fields, in which wheat was to be cultivated. Akmolinsk became the hub of this enterprise, which is why it was called Tselinograd, from the Russian word “tselina” meaning wasteland.
When Kazakhstan gained independence, in 1992 Tselinograd turned into Akmola. And then the authorities of the republic decided to transfer the capital from Alma-Ata (now the name of Almaty is used, but Alma-Ata is allowed). The reason was simple: Akmola was located in the center of the country, and the former capital in the south-eastern outskirts, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan. Of course, it required a great deal of effort, both organizational and financial. Ultimately, Akmoła technically became the capital city in 1997, and a year later it was called Astana, or simply “Capital”.
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By Piotr Kościński
Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki