Saturday was a refreshing day for many of us from the university in Astana as we traveled north to Borovoye. We each paid 2,500 tenge to travel by bus to the area close to the small city of Kokshetau. This tourist attraction is known as the little Switzerland of Kazakhstan. Emphasis on the word “little.” Sadly, there are many brightly lit up, small casinos here that are outlawed everywhere else in Kazakhstan. But seeing forests and small mountains is most welcome to the eyes if you live in Astana for any length of time. Flat, flat, flat and cold! Temperatures have been unmerciful in Astana this past week and last Wednesday there was a brutal wind that reminded some of us how tough life must have been for the early Kazakh nomads who travelled these parts. But going to Borovoye, our spirits seemed to lift with seeing a different kind of geography, seeing beautiful pine and birch trees and drinking in the pure mountain air once we got out of the bus. Here are more photos of the activities we enjoyed.
Archive for February, 2011
Yesterday was taken up with over eight hours on the bus and eight hours seeing the sites of Borovoye. Words to describe all our activities (besides 35-40 of my work colleagues from our university sitting on the bus) are the following: eating, drinking, sliding on ice, climbing rocks, skiing, skating, playing games, buying souvenirs, breathing fresh air, singing, laughing, sleeping (on the bus), watching old Russian movies (on the bus), talking, meeting new friends…enjoying life in Kazakhstan.
I continue to learn new things from my advanced Speaking class, sad things about death and repressions. What irony there is in life but it often happened in the former Soviet union, double punishment for fighting as a soldier in a war and being caught as a prisoner. One of my student’s grandfather on her mother’s side was arrested by a German officer and put in a German concentration camp. After the war, the Kazakh soldier was released and he returned to Kazakhstan only to be put in a Soviet gulag camp according to Stalin’s orders. After Stalin died in 1953, he was released and lived only another 8-10 years, he died in the early 1960s.
Another student said that his grandfather on his mother’s side wasn’t imprisoned, he somehow avoided prison. But he did not avoid the police station every night for several years. He was asked over and over again the same questions and by 1953, he was convinced he hated communists. I asked if he was beaten or tortured. No, he just had to answer the questions correctly otherwise he would have ended up in a Siberian concentration camp.
Another instance in the same family was the grandfather was an officer for the NKVD. After the Great Patriotic War there were a lot of gangs with guns in the Pavlodar region and he had to interrogate those who were causing much unrest in the area. He would have been on the opposite side of the table as the other grandfather as he was the head of this police station.
Another Kazakh student of mine is from the Karaganda area and she doesn’t know much about her own grandparents. [this is typical because there was a strict code of silence for all those in Karaganda and especially those who were finally released from the KARLAG once Stalin died] She said that many intellectual people were sent to Kazakhstan from all over the USSR to the Karaganda region and they helped develop and build the architecture of that city. Many Japanese, Russians and other nationalities brought enrichment to this area because of their expertise. The very skills that had drawn attention to themselves in a favorable climate, won them disfavor in the eyes of the ruling Moscow elite.
She did remember that her mother’s older brother had driven a tank during WWII and when he returned from the war he worked in a mechanical factory or plant. When he was alive still she was very small. She did say that what was a prison for political prisoners in Karabass is now a prison for hardened criminals.
Another interesting story came from a woman whose mother’s uncle was a tall Kazakh man with BLUE eyes. He was somehow so unusual in his appearance that a German officer didn’t put him in prison but rather he stayed in his big house and helped built things around the house. He was good with wood and made things for three years while living in Germany. This Kazakh man spoke German very well but upon his return to Kazakhstan he was directly sent to Magadan in Siberia. He stayed there ten years and when he returned to his native town he built a beautiful home. He died at the age of 95-96. This student remembers that he was a vigorous, proud man who didn’t stoop but had good posture the last time she saw him at age 92. He walked with a cane but had the regal look of a decorated officer, perhaps like the German officer who had spared him from prison camp while in Germany.
Incredible things an American teacher can learn from her Kazakh students if asking the right questions. Today was no exception as a continuation of what I learned about ALZHIR, but this time it was from my advanced learners. The photo shows the artwork on the ceiling of the lobby area of the ALZHIR museum which is titled “Freedom and Captivity.” This shows 15 different birds in various stages of getting free from their cage of captivity. This symbolizes the 15 republics whose women from the era of the former Soviet Union who were trapped in this far away place close to Astana, Kazakhstan.
Apparently two years ago there was a big conference in Poland where three or four Kazakh professors attended because they were vice presidents of universities here in Kazakhstan. Such an important event attracted many different people from many nations. During one of the meetings, a Polish man stood up and said the following to these Kazakh representatives: “I want to pay my respect to your country and thank the Kazakh people because my grandmother stayed in ALZHIR. When everyone was very hungry, every day the Kazakh children would give them cheese and bread. Even when the guards thought the children were throwing stones at the poor women, they said, “see even the small children hate you.” So that is why we need to make education a top priority for the Kazakh children because of this situation where Kazakh children saved my grandmother from certain starvation.”
I had asked my students today about the following women: Lubov Babitskiy, Lubov Vasilevna Ivanova, Ruslanova, Galina Serrebryakova, Bulbairam Kozhakhmetova, Natalya Satc, Katya Olaveynikova, Zagfi Sadvokasovna Tnalina, Raissa Moisseyerna Mamayeva. These names were in the brochure that I got at the ALZHIR museum the other day and very little is known about them. However, everyone seemed to know about Ruslanova who was a famous Russian singer. There’s a story about when the prison guards asked this talented singer to sing a song for them, she declined and said “A nightingale doesn’t sing in a cage.” After she was released, she went to sing for the troops during the Great Patriotic War.
I questioned them about Galina Serrebryakova and all my students could say was that her husband was a poet so that is why she ended up at ALZHIR. See some of the poetry that is displayed on the first floor which gives a background of the husbands who were labeled “enemies of the people” and why the women became victims in ALZHIR.
The “Arch of Sorrow” is quite a monument in front of the ALZHIR museum in tribute to those terrified voices and plaintive cries of desperate women that have long since been silenced due to forgetfulness by design or sheer neglect. However, the President of this fine country of Kazakhstan strongly believes it was NOT Kazakhstan’s fault that so many women were brought by train from all over the U.S.S.R. to this barren wilderness near Astana to work hard or to die due to the deprivation. Many of these women, who came were from the elite of the Soviet elite, their only problem was that they were married to Soviet men who were considered traitors to the communist cause.
One of my students commented that the train car in front of the “Arch of Sorrow” shows that the war against “Enemies of the People” did not play favorites even with the Soviet upper crust. The symbolism shows inside of the train car when you see two kinds of individuals. One that is clearly aristocratic in her bearing and clothes, another who is huddled in a weak mass in thin clothes and barely clad. [Actually both are not dressed appropriately for the sub zero weather we have been experiencing in Astana this past week. It will not let up until first of March.] For the women who survived ALZHIR prison life, it was one cold day after another especially without their loved ones to care for.
One of my former students from Almaty wrote about her grandmother living through this dreaded experience at ALZHIR. Please see her research paper from December of 2008 where she used different sources and also an interview of her grandma to reveal just how very difficult life was living in ALZHIR. Looking at all the displays inside the museum and hearing the stories behind the pictures from our guide, after an hour we were all weighted down with just how very desperate and dismal these women’s lives were.
One story still haunts me. Some of the Kazakh people in the nearby area of the ALZHIR camp knew that these women from all over the U.S.S.R. were innocent of any crimes or at least they knew they were not well fed and many were dying. In front of the guards, while the women were cutting reeds from the lake, there were Kazakh children holding bags of stones and throwing at the poor women. The guards laughed and taunted the women saying that even the young Kazakh children despised these prisoners. When one woman fell down she smelled the stone as if it were cheese. Yes, in fact, the neighboring Kazakh village had made balls of hardened, dried curd which was meant to feed the starving women. Many other acts of kindness were shown to these innocent women by the neighboring Kazakhs even at risk of being caught and killed.
The wind is howling wickedly outside today worse than it was yesterday. Yet with this fierce, cold weather we are enduring in Astana, Kazakhstan, we have so much to be thankful for compared to the Soviet women from all over the USSR who were cruelly deemed as cast offs, spurned to this desolate area of Central Asia. All 15 countries or former republics of the USSR were represented. Very few intelligensia were spared during the Stalin purges. My students marveled that so many of the creative, smart ones were destroyed in the past while our university is currently trying to create an intelligensia to move this country forward.
As a class field trip, we went out to see this ALZHIR museum that was built in 2007. We picked up taxis across from Mega Mall by the sauna and with four of us riding in each taxi, it cost 1,000 tenge one way. The road is narrow and sitting in the front, I had to trust the skill of our driver to get us to our destination in one piece. These drivers have no idea how unnerving it is to narrowly miss a hair’s breadth away from hitting the oncoming cars and trucks. The bumps, crevices and potholes gave an extra thrill for those three riding in the back seat. Fortunately, we were able to get taxis going back into Astana (25-30 kilometers away) after not too much standing in the wind and cold.
How sad to hear all these women’s stories from our Kazakh guide. The cost was 100 tenge for student rate and 150 for me as their teacher. It would probably take a week, 8 hours a day to really know and understand each sad saga that is represented behind the faces of these ladies whose pictures were on display. I am eager to find out what my PDP students’ reactions were to all this. One from the south of Kazakhstan didn’t even know this gulag existed so close to the capital city. Another student showed me the name on a list of his grand, grandfather who was considered an enemy of the people.
These 18,000 women were considered political prisoners and first they had their husbands taken from them and then they were yanked away from their children. Some women came pregnant and after their children were 3-4 years old, they were taken away to be put in an orphanage. Sometimes the women were lied to and tricked into being interrogated to their own demise. Initially they were told they were to meet up with their missing husbands again. In some cases, they would put on their finest clothes only to be placed on a train going south to Kazakhstan. Another instance I read in the English brochure produced by the British Council is that a husband and wife met in the hallway where they were being interrogated. They were in a mad embrace and would not let each other go until their arms were brutally hit with the butt ends of rifles. Oh…the sadness!
Today I’ll show the photos from inside the main lobby area but we could only take photos on the outside. Too cold to go to the back wall where ALL the women’s names were engraved into a stone slab similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.
Today, my PDP class is going to ALZHIR (Women’s gulag in the 1930s-1950s for wives of Enemies of the People). This museum is about 10 miles out of the city of Astana and so I’ll have photos to show from that field trip tomorrow. For today I’ll show photos that I didn’t use before but will now, it is on my jump drive and I have too much to write so my fall back is to show photos. What I REALLY regret is that I didn’t get the photos I should have of the Asian Winter games billboards. I saw them every day when I would ride to work, I had NO idea that the people would pull them down so quickly. If I don’t act quickly I won’t even get the photo billboard of Dennis Ten at one of the busstops. I did get a small poster of the snow leopard poster at the Ramstore. However, that is nothing compared to the colorful, abstract billboards of figure skaters, hockey players and speed skaters. Rats! I was too slow on the draw!
Below is the inside of the arena that looks like a bikers helmet on the outside. What I really would like to write about but don’t feel I have enough information is about the polylingual issues that are taking up people’s attention, especially today. I’ll miss most of a seminar that is about how to improve the problems of Kazakh language teaching methods, problems of teaching English to polylingual students, learning Russian as a mother tongue and as a second or third language and finally the vision of the Model and Concept of trilingual education. All complex issues and there will be a brainstorming session about it at the end. All this I’ll miss because we already scheduled this fieldtrip to ALZHIR about a month ago. I hope the roads are safe from all ice and snow. Note the books in Russian and Kazakh that I have on my bookshelves.