Until 1998 the Left Bank of the Ishim had almost nothing to show except a few scattered allotments in the middle of the Central Asian steppe. Now it is the site of Astana, the showcase capital of Kazakhstan. The snow that falls almost every day between November and March on the presidential palace and golden towers of the National Bank gives the city a look of Las Vegas and Washington with a touch of Narnia.

On the other side of the river stands the old Soviet town of Tselinograd which has now been absorbed into Astana. With its Khrushchev-era blocks of flats and a population of ethnic Russians who rarely cross to the Left Bank, its centre could be mistaken for many other provincial towns in the former socialist camp.

A towering figure of Kenesary Khan, leader of a 19th-century Kazakh uprising against the Russian Empire, has been erected by the current President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and reminds passers-by that the USSR is no more.

Astana has an ambiguous attitude to Soviet history. A memorial to the victims of a famine that killed more than 35 per cent of all ethnic Kazakhs in the early 1930s was unveiled in the capital last year. A Moscow-style socialist realist skyscraper stands proud besides a large shopping centre and indoor beach all housed under a huge yurt. Along with other symbols of the Kazakh people's nomadic past dotted around the city, the giant tent seems to suggest that the republic has shed its Soviet legacy.

In stark contrast to central and eastern Europe, where historical debates sometimes overshadow contemporary affairs, Astana's focus on the future is refreshing. Civil engineering is the most popular degree at the capital's Nazarbayev University, a new Englishlanguage institution founded by the president in 2009 that aims to bring British and American-style education to Kazakhstan, and prevent a brain drain. Students laugh when I mention that a degree in engineering was once a means to social advancement in the Stalinist 1930s but most remain optimistic about their job prospects in Astana.

A closer look at the campus, however, reveals a Kazakhstan is still burdened by its Soviet past. The university has a serious research agenda and plenty of funding to attract international scholars, but a top-heavy bureaucracy makes research leave difficult. In true Soviet fashion, classrooms are short of proper chairs, but visitors can admire an atrium lined with palm trees. The college buildings were built quickly, leaving exposed wires and workmen tying up loose ends.

The university is also struggling against foreign perceptions of Kazakhstan as a quirky post-Soviet dictatorship. The recent link that the British media drew between 72-year-old President Nazarbayev's light-hearted remarks about an 'elixir of youth' and a probiotic yoghurt fabricated at the university's Centre for Life Sciences was tenuous at best. Then again, the university does not help its own brand by hosting events such as 'The First Nazarbayev Readings'.

Astana has a lot to learn from the old Soviet town on the right bank of the Ishim. In 1961 Tselinograd embodied hopes for a brighter, post-Stalinist future. Lured by prospects of improved living conditions and romanticized stories of pioneer settlers conquering the Kazakh steppe, young migrants from all over the USSR flooded into the city. Its residents shared a kind of 'Soviet' identity that helped keep ethnic tensions to a minimum. Rates of inter-ethnic marriage in Soviet Kazakhstan exceeded those of other Soviet republics at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in parts of the United States.

At the same time, the history of Tselinograd raises troubling questions about Astana's future. The enthusiasm for Khrushchev's ambitious project wore off, especially once he was ousted from the Kremlin. Will Astana continue to attract young Kazakhstanis and keep its momentum without Nazarbayev? Astana is looking to the future, but it needs to come to terms with its 20th-century past.

Zbigniew Wojnowski is an assistant professor at Nazarbayev University





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