Archive for October, 2008

Other Shapes of Astana Landscape

 Only one of these shapes is traditional to Kazakhstan and that is the signpost for Akmola, close to where the ALZHIR museum is.  Perhaps the pottery with coins is traditional as well but UFO and Baiterek stick out like a sore thumb on Astana’s landscape.  Once inside the Baiterek, it makes sense to get a good view of the cityscape.  What would former Kazakh nomads think if they had been given a time machine to see these sites today?  I wonder.

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ALZHIR…Facing Every Blow of a Fierce Life…

The following poem by A. Ahmatova is engraved on the black wall of female victims outside of the ALZHIR museum close to Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital.  I wrote about this prison in my last blog.  I can’t even imagine what these women (wives of “Enemies of the People” went through at this ALZHIR prison.  The blowing and howling cold winds of the flat steppes must have been their most formidable enemy when fighting for survival.  However, the museum, statues and memorials help us to remember that their lives were NOT wasted.  This is roughly translated into English:

And wasting our youth
we were facing
every blow
of a fierce life.

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Guilt by Association – ALZHIR camp for Wives in 1937

We visited ALZHIR today which is about 20 kilometers southwest of the capital of Astana, Kazakhstan. The acronym of ALZHIR really meant “Akmolinskiy Camp for Wives of Parricides.” I’m not sure if that is a poor translation from Russian of “parasites” or “traitors of the people.” In any case, fear was invoked in the late 1930s with the idea that anyone potentially could be an “Enemy of the People,” even some of the Soviet Union’s most prized intelligentsia. As it turns out, famous ballerinas, singers, writers, poets, doctors, teachers and other notable women were sent to Akmola, Kazakhstan from all over the U.S.S.R. Many of these women were plunged into this punishment simply because they were married to those men who were considered suspect. What I especially appreciated was the symbolism of the ALZHIR artwork I observed in many different memorials, even though we had an English guide help us to understand the other artifacts behind the glassed in cases of memorabilia.

Imagine being a woman not knowing where your husband is simultaneous to being a mother separated from your children, stuck on a train in the middle of winter. These saddened figures of humanity were put in confinement which was desperately cold and ill suited for women used to the finer things in life. A third of the female population didn’t survive the harsh conditions at ALZHIR while others did by building their own barracks, brick by mud and straw-mulched brick. They planted gardens after a Ukrainian woman helped to irrigate water to the camp from the nearby lake. Others used their creative abilities to do simple artwork using bread dough or doing needlepoint and embroidery later sold in Moscow or Leningrad.

These women also sewed clothes for what they hoped would reach their husbands during the Great Patriotic War years, those whom they thought were fighting on the Front. Usually these women’s penalty at ALZHIR lasted 8-10 years. Our excursion through the newly built museum, which looked like a sawed off cylinder of a nuclear reactor, was really another symbol of something secret, ominous and mysterious. It looked like a round box but once inside this sepulcher, every hidden truth in unbearable grief was exposed. Before entering this newly built museum was a very symbolic “Arc of Grief” monument which captured the black, war-like helmet of hate covered over by a beautiful headpiece worn by brides in white steel that represented love. So feminine love, which is meant to nurture, trumped hate that was intended to annihilate families as God created them.

Symbolism continued once inside the museum where the “Memory Flower,” a black rose, burst through the four cracks that slanted up from hard rock. To me, the obvious meaning was that beauty can bloom and prevail even in the darkest, most difficult places to exist. ALZHIR was once one of those places of punishment for at least 20,000 women in the span from 1937 to 1946 and beyond. According to the wall that surrounds the museum, it has the names of 7,620 women who perished at this camp. It reminded me of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C. In a way, these women were engaged in a brutal war against good and evil and seemingly there was no way for them to win. However, their names are engraved and immortalized for future generations to know that they did NOT die in vain against the evils of totalitarianism.

On May 31, 2007, President Nazarbayev was at the dedication to this building called “Memorial-Museum Complex to the memory of Victims of Political Repressions and Totalitarianism.” He had very strong words to say against the oppressors of these women from other countries and what they endured, besides those Kazakh women who also died at ALZHIR. He repeated that it was NOT Kazakhstan’s fault that so many were sent to their deaths on this soil of his country. Nazarbayev said, “Victims of political repressions must not be forgotten. One can not impose humanity either prosperity or progress by force of violence and atrocity.”

In many cases, it was Kazakhs who helped those repressed such as in the case of Ivan Ivanovich Sharf as a young boy whose German father had been shot, his mother died during tree cutting at ALZHIR and consequently Ivan was deported to an orphanage. After he became a successful poultry businessman, he resurrected in the middle of the night in the small village close to the museum, a broken star about a meter in size and torn in half, called the “Akmola-Phoenix.” Symbolism again shows that the red, Soviet shining star was torn asunder and broken into two parts when it hit the ground at Akmola’s ALZHIR camp. To me, it means the soul of communism was destroyed when it tampered with the hearts of women by tearing them away from their loved ones.

For me, the most interesting art piece hung in the center of the museum from above as if a chandelier but instead a cage in the shape of a figure 8. It had 15 doves mostly inside but a few were out of the cage. The doves represented the 15 different republics of the U.S.S.R. that all were harmed by the rigid, over-control of people’s family lives. Some of the doves were in different stages of escape from the cage.

Finally, there were two notable lifesize figures outside the museum in statues depicting “Despair and Forcelessness,” the man’s posture dramatized his utter feeling of hopelessness of spirit and soul against evil incarnate. His hands were fallen useless to his sides, an abject creature of failure and misery. The other statue is a woman looking pensive and pondering up to the sky titled “Struggle and Hope.” The first floor showed the men and their positions and what was taken from them, the second floor of the museum portrayed what their wives’ lives were like without them and their families.

I believe it is Nazarbayev’s sincere hope that nothing of this magnitude ever happens again to his own people or people from other nations. This Kazakh president is a man of peace because he has witnessed too much heartache, as his fellow countrymen have. This is why I believe he is so highly respected, revered and beloved in this fledgling democracy and as a noble leader to a developing nation. Many have too many secrets in their own family of the repressions they suffered and finally with this memorial so close to the nation’s capital, the lies and deceit will be exposed to the rest of the world. Totalitarianism was a cancerous evil that maligned far too many talented and good women who just wanted to raise their families in the security of their own homes. Another way to conclude, the enemy should know by now, never mess with maternal love!!!

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Build Up Astana and THEY Will Come

 Astana, the NEW capital of Kazakhstan, brand spanking new! Ten years ago President Nursultan Nazarbayev had the vision to build up this small frontier town into a megapolis of half million people. He probably had “Field of Dream” visions of constructing skyscrapers. Surely the big players in investment would come and fill the palatial buildings. That remains to be seen and the building projects continue in different stages of completion.

I was surprised how huge Astana has become from Akmola, what it was known as 15 years ago. We are staying in the old part of the city where it has the typical Soviet style of architecture. We visited the ball on top of the tower, Baiterek, that faces ALL directions, toward the president’s palace to the east, the airport where Ken’s cousin Jack flies into is to the south (makes sense, closest to Almaty as the crow flies). The better part of Astana is to the north and to the west are the flat plains. What is missing are the mountains and I wonder how Nazarbayev copes with the lack of mountains though one would think that it would make construction much easier if everything is on level ground.

Riding the Spanish train that went east first and then north we had in our coupee a Russian gentleman whose business is with Astana’s drinking water. He said that the water table is quite high in Astana as it was built on a swamp. Rivers dissect the city into Left bank and right bank or Old City, reminded me a little bit of Kyiv and also a tinge of San Antonio, TX. There are no basements in any of the buildings as a consequence. I’m wondering how the architects deal with sinking of land due to abundance of swamp water. At least they don’t have to consider earthquakes which are known to happen in Almaty along the Tian Shan mountains. Too much for me to ponder on as an English teacher. I just hope the buildings being built will be filled but not too full that they start sinking into the saturated land.

We also had as our traveling companion on the fast train to Astana a woman by the name of Zhibek (silk) as in Zhibek Zholy which we all know means Silk Road. She is in her late twenties and her English was very good. She told me stories of her family being from a wealthy tribe on her mother’s side. As is typical in Kazakh families, the oldest son inherited everything. However, when communism clamped down on kulaks, they evenly distributed the wealth to the youngest son and hid the gold and silver. Consequently, the oldest brother was sent off to Siberia while the youngest one who appeared poor, stayed behind. As in many other stories I’ve learned, they buried the silver and gold to find it again for later use.

As it turns out, Zhibek’s grandmother was taken care of by the younger brother in Kazakhstan. She told of how her grandmother’s younger sister when they returned from Siberia to Kazakhstan was put on the shelf in the train. They had no food to feed the baby or themselves. Their thought was, if the baby is still alive by the time they get back to Kazakhstan, okay, she would live. This same little girl when she was 2-3 years old was deathly afraid of sheep, she had never seen them before in Siberia. She would scream and carry on whenever they got close to her. As discipline, the mother tied the little girl to the sheep so that she would not be afraid of the sheep any longer.

For Kazakhs of the past, breeding and raising sheep used to be their livelihood and to have fits about sheep was considered unnatural. What was also very unnatural was to have the collectivization project come through their sheep-herding steppes and have the soil upturned to plant vast fields of grain. Zhibek’s mother remembers seeing her grandfather crying when their sacred family burial plot was plowed under. Their ancestors memories were desecrated with the grain growing above their withered remains. Since Zhibek’s family had been a wealthy one in the past, they had had their own place to bury the dead. However, with collectivization Zhibek’s great grandfather saw that being erased as well as his future dwelling place for his old bones. Thus, the tears.

So, to put together these sad stories from the past with that of what I witnessed of Astana the glittering new capital, was a bit disjointing. Reading Christopher Robbins’ book In Search of Kazakshtan and the chapter titled “Howling of Wolves” concerns Nazarbayev’s sad past, similar to Zhibek’s family. How do the Kazakhs regain what has been lost of their heritage with its tribal values of honor and respect for the old while keeping pace with what is going on in the globalized world swirling around them? I guess they can look to China as an example of achieving much the same thing. No, China is too real a threat as is Russia. Thus, the reason for Nazarbayev wanting the capital to be moved from southern Kazakhstan in Almaty to the north.

I was surprised, as was Robbins, about the Kazakhs not appreciating Solzhenitsen and his contributions to the literary world about how difficult life was in the gulags. I should not be surprised because the Ukrainians react the same way to Solzhenitzen, he was a thorough going Russian nationalist to the exclusion of all other ethnic groups. As it turns out, Kazakhstan had many death camps, especially around Karaganda. Tomorrow I hope to have a student take me to one of the places Robbins mentions in his book, in Ajir, about 50 kilometers from Astana. Ajir was the place where the wives of the “Enemies of the People” were taken, guilty by association and sadly worked to the bone. Why do I want to see such a depressing place? Out of curiosity I suppose but also because not much is known about this by a majority of westerners, to our shame.

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Akinai’s Thoughts about Immigration in USSR

Akinai wrote about her thoughts on an article she read on immigration in the USSR.
Lewis, G.E. (1971). Migration and language in the USSR. International Migration Review, 5(2), 147-179.


The main issue the article is discussing about migration in the USSR. And according to the Lewis (1971), there were some deportations by which Baltic Republics affected. For instance, Lithuania in 1948, Latvia in 1949-1951 and Estonia in 1949 saw the deportation of what has been estimated at over a half-million people (Lewis, 1971, p.152). Also some nationalities like Volga Germans, Caucasians, Tatars, Chechens and Ingush moved to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republic, as a result approximately over a million of people were moved.

Also the article provides us with such fact that between 1946 and 1962, 88 thousand peasant Ukrainian families were migrated. There was a significant movement within Russia between 1897 and 1926 involving migration over 11 millions. The European North region had 5.5 million in-migrants, and 8.6 million out-immigrants (Lewis, 1971, p.155). The official estimate of migration into the Central Asia was 1.7 million of people, during 1926-1939 years. Migration led to increase in birth rate and total increase in population.

The lecture I had listened is about U.S. immigration from particular continents for the years 1820 to 1995, as well as from individual countries for 1995 year. So the lecturer told that U.S. is the nation of the immigrant, and only the Native Americans are true Americans, even ancestors like Indians were also immigrants. Also there’s some terms like “melting point”, which means that all cultures came together and mixed, intermarried until everyone became the same-Americans; or stew, when they never lose true ethnic identity.

In this lecture basically are all years and numbers of people who immigrated. For example, from the all countries during the 1820-1995 years total number of people who immigrated was 60602091, how can you imagine the number like that. But in the 1995 the number was decreased, only 720461 immigrants there were.

The biggest amount of immigrants was during 1820-1995 from the Europe, which was 59, 8% out of all immigrants. But the percentage declined in the 1995 till 17, 8%. The smallest amount of immigrants through the history was from the Oceania which is only 0, 36%. Also the Asian immigrants were on the third place, after the Americans themselves, and the amount of the Asian immigrants was 7732596 people.


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Maiya’s Version of Two Babushkis Visit

I enjoyed our “interview with babushkas” very much! They were so kind to share their personal stories with us.

First one, whose name is Lydia Timofeevna, was born in 1939 in Bryansk region, only 2 years before the Great Patriotic War started. Even though she was 2 at that moment, she remembers her dad going away to fight in the war. Her parents went through WWI, collectivization, famine in 1933 and WWII.

Lydia Timofeevna remembers hiding in the forests from fascists, because they were taking away all the belongings of soviets. Also, she is reminiscing that some of the fascists were nice to them and gave her candies, if they met her on the forests while she was looking for her dad there.

She had 3 siblings, and she was the youngest out of 4 children in the family. Her dad was an artillerist. Unfortunately, he died during the war. And when it has ended, the oldest sister was only 10 years old.

In 1946, she went to school, but in the village her family lived in, there was no paper or pens. They were writing using carbon-black or beetroots. Also, the citizens of the village had only 1 bag and 1 book for their children. Lydia Timofeevna was studying very well, had only highest marks, even though at that times there were no conditions for that – no paper, no books, no tools, no light, nothing.

At the age of 7, she started to look after sheep of the kolkhoz. And once, she fell asleep while doing it, and when she woke up, none of the sheep were in the field. She remembers coming to her house and telling her mom she lost the sheep. She is very thankful to her mom fir the fact that she never yelled at her, even though the case like this one could have had terrible consequences for the whole kolkhoz. These were post-war years when people were barely surviving. But, luckily, one family has found all the sheep and brought them back. Not single sheep was lost.

In 1953, after 7 classes of school, she continued her education in textile technical secondary school. And after that she has moved to Almaty to work at the cloth factory. And even though she could have worked as the main master there, she decided to be and ordinary weaver. She says that the experience she got from going all the way to the top position has helped her a lot. She was respected by all the co-workers and was a member of delegation to Italy that was trying to build friendly relationship with youth there.

At the age of 39 Lydia Timofeevna found out that she had cancer, and this part of a story was the most powerful one she made it through 8 surgeries overall. And she says that her faith in God has helped her to survive.


The second lady we listened to was Galena Allaevna. She was born in 1932 in Ashgabat. Her mom was Russian, and she worked in Turkmenistan as a doctor, and that is where she met her husband. But they separated before the Great Patriotic war started because her mom couldn’t live in Ashgabat.

  About her childhood, she remembers that everyone had like only 1or at most 2 pieces of clothes for each season and that would be it.

Her family moved to Oren burg in Russia and she finished 10 classes of school and a music school there. When the Great Patriotic War started, she was only 9 years old and since her grandma was too old and her mom was always busy with work, she had to get the food, stand in lines to get it and she told us how once she was walking home with bread and it was very dark and there was a man behind her. She was so scared that he would take it away from her and she wouldn’t bring it home.

Since her mother was a doctor, they lived right at the stationary. And Galena Allaevna told us that once in a month her mom was responsible for trying the food cooked for the patients, and she would give her lunch for her daughter. That’s when Galena had a little holiday. Later on, her mother got sick herself with tuberculosis. It was all due to endless work hours and malnutrition.

Her dad was a party member and was a bank director. Galena Allaevna said that once she was watching the TV and heard 2 very familiar surnames – Atabayev and Aitakov. It turned out that those were her uncles from dad’s side who were under repression and got killed in 1938. in Ashgabat, there is a monument for them.

Unfortunately, her grandmother died during the war and they moved to Almaty. Galena Allaevna started to work here. She worked as a teacher for 13 years in one school, and then for 40 years in another one.

She told us a cute story about one of her pupils in Oren burg. He loved Galena Allaevna as a teacher so much that he wanted to give her a nice gift, but it was a time when nobody had anything. So, he asked his father what to do and it turned out he was a patient of Galena Allaevna’s mom. The dad told his son that a gift has to be very special, something that his son really likes. And this little boy brought her little box with small feathers that he was collecting! For him, it was such a treasure! I loved this story.

To sum up, I would like to say that this interview was very helpful to get a better picture of how life was during the Soviet times. And I think, we should ask our grandparents and other relatives and their friends about those stories while they still can tell them to us, while it’s not too late. Also, this will make us appreciate their generation much more because of all the things they had to go through.

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Laura K.’s Versions of the Three Babushkis Visit

       The first babushka who gave a speech was Valentina Romanovna. She was born in Russian village in 1930. There were 9 children born in her family including her however 3 children died when they were little and 2 at older age. They were very poor and during the WWII they were starving. She said that they had no candy, no food, and no clothes. Her mother was a very kind and giving woman. This lady studied in school only for 1 year. When the war started she was 10 and already began to work so she could help her mother. During Collectivization period they had to give a lot of milk and eggs to SelSovet otherwise they would get sued. People had to pay high taxes on everything. All of her life she worked in the mine and retired at age of 45. Her pension was pretty high during Soviet Union times but after Perestroika become a very little. Later she started to talk about her family. Valentina Romanovna had two sons who died at relatively young age. The oldest son Anatoly died while serving in the Army in Vladivostok, Chechnya. Another son by name Nikolay went for hunting and died by falling under the ice of frozen river. Later her husband went to the place where her son died and started to drink heavily, and soon died from liver decease. She was left to live with her mother who lived 100 years and 3 months.


     The second babushka was Natalya Nikiforovna. She was born in 1931. Her birthplace is village in Semipalatinskaya oblast, Kazakhstan. This lady said comparing to Valentina Romanovna who lived in Russia during the war their family didn’t starve because they had a fertile land and own garden where they grew corn, sunflower and other fruits and vegetables. There were two children in her family. Her father died in WWII. Grain seeds and livestock were sent to soldiers who were fighting against Germans. She studied at school for 7 years and later worked as an accountant for 22 years. Natalya Nikiforovna had two children as well and died at young age as well. She blames Semipalatinsk’s polygon. That place was known for its nuclear tests. Those tests began in 1946. At that time they didn’t know that it was so dangerous for their health and lives. Her only left granddaughter has a son who was born with many deformities simply to say he is invalid who will never be able to live by himself and possibly will not live long. Many people suffered from radiation that they were exposed to when they lived in Semipalatinsk closed to the Poligon.


     The last babushka I am going to write about is Raisa Nikolaevna. She was born in 1932, in Kirov, Russia. There were 4 children in her family. Her father died during WWII while fighting against German Fashists. When Germans came close to Kursk they were evacuated to live in Zabaikalie. She started to work at the age of 9 in order to be able to her mother. Her education is 7 years of school. In the morning she would go to school and after school she went to work. Her mom made clothes out of parachute material that was found on the field. There was 1 cow and chickens on their premises. Later she got married and went with her husband to Tashkent. Over there she went to Medical School and later became a medical nurse. After that they went to live close to her mother to Ulan Ude. They worked at animal farm as a veterinarian. That farm was producing different animal furs like mink and etc. Later she moved again to live in the North, Magadanskaya oblast. She taught native people-chukchi everything. Chukchi elected her as deputy official. The furs that they made were sent to auction to Leningrad.   



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