It is also one of the newest, an agglomeration of glass, steel and gold sprouting implausibly from the flat wilderness of the Central Asian steppe.
But there is a certain logic to the choice of Astana, which has emerged over the past two decades to become not only a showcase for Kazakhstan’s grand ambitions but also for Russia’s expanding global aspirations. One result of the peace talks this week is that Astana is to be the headquarters of a military mechanism to monitor the shaky cease-fire that it is hoped will pave an end to the Syrian war.
Until 1997 it was a tiny village, a remote outpost of the former Soviet empire renowned mainly as the site of one of Stalin’s notorious Gulag prisons because of its forbidding climate. Its former name, Akmola, meant “white grave,” summoning images of the icy death that awaited those condemned to internment there.
Kazakhstan became independent in 1991 after the Soviet Union broke apart. Russia was keen nonetheless to keep it from falling into the clutches of neighboring China, which was eyeing Kazakhstan’s considerable oil reserves to fuel its expanding economy. So in an act of post-imperial bombast, the capital was moved 750 miles from its previous location near the Chinese border, Almaty, to Akmola, which is close to Russia — and not much else. It was renamed Astana, which means, simply, “the capital.”
Over the next two decades, no expense was spared to transform “the capital” into a world-class city. Glittering skyscrapers rose from the empty landscape. Top world architects were recruited to lend pizazz to the emerging metropolis.
Astana became a showcase also for some of the wackier expressions of post-Soviet architecture. One of them is Khan Shatyr, a giant, translucent shopping mall designed in the shape of a tent by the British architect Norman Foster and built from a kind of fiberglass that helps trap warmth. Inside is an artificial beach, where families lie under parasols on sand imported from Dubai while snow falls on the roof above them. Illuminated at night in various shades of mauve, it hovers over the city like a glowing purple spaceship.
The buildings, like the ambitions, are vast. There’s a glowing blue pyramid called the Palace of Peace and Accord, also designed by Foster, that houses a 1,350-seat opera house. The parliament buildings are flanked by two giant gold cylinders that recall Ancient Egypt but have been nicknamed the “Beer Cans.” The 344-foot Bayterek, or “Tree of Life,” monument looms over the skyline like a golden lollipop and features inside a gilded handprint of the country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Many of the structures are built to glorify Nazarbayev, who took office in 1991 and is Kazakhstan’s first and only president. Though the constitution stipulates that presidents should serve no more than two five-year terms, it exempts the first president from this requirement. Nazarbayev has now won five consecutive elections, the most recent by a margin of 97.7 percent.
That’s an election performance paralleled by the Assad family, which has run Syria since 1970. President Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000, and one of his sons, now-President Bashar al-Assad, have between them won eight consecutive elections, by similarly impressive margins.
One of the issues not on the agenda for the Syria peace talks is the fate of Assad, whose hold on power has been assured, at least for the foreseeable future, by Russia’s military intervention. Now Russia is hoping Astana will be the place where the terms of ending the rebellion that sought to topple him are negotiated.