After a 20 minute ride to the Jamaica Queens from Penn Station on the LIRR I am at the JFK. LIRR is really the best way to travel to JFK from the city. My flight leaves at 10:20 pm and the check-in procedure is quick an painless. I noticed that Lufthansa clerk did not check if I had a Kazakhstan visa.
It is approximately 7 hours to Frankfurt, one hour layover and another 5.5 hours to Astana. The flight was smooth and the airline food was surprisingly bearable. On the flight to Astana three Russian woman were sitting next to me talking about a Government congress that they were either organizing or actively participating in; their enthusiasm for navigating the local bureaucracy was noticeable but alas not infectious. Their command of the English language was impressive.
We landed in Astana at 12:30 AM local time, right on schedule. Anton, a grandson of repressed Polish people living in Russia during the Stalin era, met me at the gate. 20 minutes later we were in downtown Astana.
A few hours of sleep and I was up and ready to soak in the local culture. After acquiring a local sim card and telephone for $26 (4,000 ten) we visited the Pyramid and Court of Independence. Astana has an architectural plan, displayed on the third floor of the Castle of Independence spanning 18 years through 2030. The plan is to build a capital of Asia that would rival it seems the Arab Emirates.
The Pyramid is a magnificent structure taking the shape according to its name. Several floors displaying (artwork?) culminate with a garden, leading to a small auditorium at the apex. There, the world religious congress is being held every three years and representatives from world religions meet in a friendly atmosphere. This was the first sign of religious tolerance and celebration of cultural diversity that I have encountered in Astana. It was one of many.
After visiting the Pyramid Anton and I have taken a short walk across the street to visit the Court of Independence. It is another enormous structure of marble inside and out. The interior looks so polished that the floor ornaments reflect light making me feel like I am walking on an opaque mirror. An excursion organized by the staff takes us along the atrium to a set of stairs leading to the second floor. There, a small art gallery displays the works of local, American, and French painters, none familiar to me. I am particularly fond of the local painters depicting the nomadic lifestyle of the region.
Bayterek was the first building that marked the beginning of the massive construction project undertaken by the president of Kazakhstan. Incidentally, his pictures and portraits are splattered all over Astana in museums, road signs, and government buildings. Normally this type of propaganda is a sign of deep political corruption, which may indeed be the case, but in Kazakhstan common people seem to have a lot of respect for the president.
When I asked a tour guide at the top of Bayterek what she thought about the planned expansion of the city, she said that it would continue due to the will and ideas of the president, “may god bless his soul”. Her opinion was seconded by Anton, albeit not as enthusiastically. He thinks that even though Nazarbaev is the king of Kazakhstan, his policies of pluralism and his support of national diversity enables the peoples from 150 or so religions and nationalities to coexist in peace and mutual respect. This is not a small feat and the president should be applauded for this, irrespective of his motives.
Visit to the Chabad House
The tour guide at Bayterek mentioned that among other religious institutions, Astana has a large synagogue. I was surprised to hear that, since I knew that very few Jews live in Kazakhstan. Naturally, I was excited to see it with my own eyes. The Astana Synagogue is in fact an impressive building of white and blue on the (Left) side of the city (Astana is divided in two informal parts by the river Ishum. The new construction is on the right bank of the river if you are facing (North?))
This Synagogue is fact part of Habad, a Hasidic organization whose mission is to attract more Jews into the religious practice. It is the only branch of orthodox Jewry that is welcoming of secular Jews. The building is guarded by a perimeter fence and a security guard at the front gate. After informing the guard that I would like to visit the Synagogue, he politely motions me inside and leads me up the stairs into the entrance. Anton follows me in.
The Synagogue is empty at 2 PM in the afternoon. The guard informs the Rabbi of our arrival and in less than 30 seconds he appears smiling, sporting an obligatory long beard, white shirt, and a Hasidic hat. He is clearly happy to see us, and after inquiring if I were Jewish (he did not ask Anton, who looks very Slavic) hands both of us a yarmulke and invites us into the prayer hall.
My guess is that the room sits approximately 50-100 people at the main level and another 20 or so on each balcony dividing the space into separate sections for men and women. Men can not focus on higher thoughts and prayers when women are too close, he explains. I think he is right about that.
After he finished explaining the building attributes, I see that his excitement is starting to grow as he informs me that a big mitzvah is about to be performed. He runs to the back and promptly returns holding a black box containing a tefillin. I am a little bit squeamish, but he is so persistent that I submit and let him wrap my left hand with a flat leather rope, while placing a wooden box on my head. I repeat his words of prayer as he performs the procedure.
When he is done, he informs me that he knows of 200-300 Jews that live in the city. For a city of 700,000 this is indeed a minority. Regular services usually gather 3-6 people and they only achieve minyan on Saturdays. Despite of a small congregation they publish a woman’s magazine and Jewish calendar. After giving Anton and I a copy of each, and asking us if we want something to eat or drink he politely escorted us back to the entrance. Please, come back whenever you are in town, he said to me. You as well, he said to Anton.
Trip to ALZHIR
Before coming to Kazakhstan I knew that if I only could visit one site in Astana it would be ALZHIR. The camp lies 20 km East of the city in a village that was called Molinovka (meaning made from raspberries). It was part of Soviet Gulag system from 1937 until shorty after Stalin’s death in 1955. The system is commonly referred to as Gulag Archipelago due to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. ALZHIR’s significance is not that it housed political prisoners convicted under Article 58 of the NKVD code, but that it housed their wives and children under the age of 3 (children that were 3 years old or older were separated from their mothers and their siblings and sent to a ‘det dom’: a children’s house that is roughly equivalent to a penitentiary for juvenile delinquents).
The road to ALZHIR (Akmolinki Lager’ Zhen Izmennikov Rodini: Akmolinsky Camp for the Wives of Traitors to the Motherland) is a deteriorating Soviet era asphalt road with enough bumps and cracks to ruin the suspension system of a modern tank. After about 30 minutes of bumping and grinding we arrive at the camp. As we approach the main building, the first item is in the front right – a Soviet rail car used in transporting women from all over the Soviet Union to ALZHIR.
These wagons were manufactured in Odessa, Ukraine from 1928 to 1929 and women spent more than two months inside while being transported to ALZHIR. The wagon is approximately 7×3 meters (23×10 feet) and housed over 70 prisoners. Many had to stand and sleep on top of each other.
To the left, a monument commemorating the victims.
The barracks have been destroyed and the only surviving structure is the guard tower with the museum building in the back.
Over 17,000 women were held in the camp, many have died from malnutrition and 18 hour work days. Their bodies were dumped into a mass grave behind the camp. Among the prisoners were noted Russian intellectuals and artists including Rachel Messerer, the mother of a famous Russian jewish ballerina Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya.
Inside the museum the story of the prisoners unfolds. While still in Moscow, the women were told by the authorities that a rendezvous with their husbands was being arranged and asked to come to the prison building for the meeting. Many were so happy that they wore red dresses and makeup in anticipation. When they arrived, they were escorted to the ‘waiting area’. Many never saw freedom again. They were read their charges, asked to admit that their husbands were traitors, separated from their children, and packed into wagons for transport to ALZHIR.
While at the camp they built their own barracks from straw and clay that could be found on the outskirts of the camp. The women also made their own clothes and later made uniforms for soldiers during the Second World War.
One day, while collecting straw, a group of local Kazakh men and women came by. They watched them work and then started throwing what appeared to be small bricks and stones at the prisoners. The guards were laughing. Even the locals know that you are traitors, they said. One of the women picked up a small brick. It was made out of bread.
When we left the camp, I asked Anton to stop in the middle of the steppe.
In March the steppe is still covered with ice as temperatures can fluctuate between -30 (c) and -10 (c). I walked on the other side of the road and stepped onto the brittle snow. Even though it looked solid, my legs went in knee deep. For a while I just stood there breathing cold air and getting lost in the serenity of infinite spaces stretching for thousands of miles in all directions. The Kazakh flatland is calming and magnetic. How was it, asked Anton when I got back in the car. It was magical, I said. Finally, I felt like I was in Kazakhstan.