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A Ukrainian takes a trip to Kazakhstan to meet nostalgic Ukrainians


Romko MALKO recently travelled to Kazakhstan, one of the states that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What follows is some of his impressions.


If you develop a wild wish to travel in time, you can try going to Kazakhstan to see how the people of a country, enveloped in the communist fog, used to live in the mid-twentieth century. Youll find a lot that can give you an idea about the soviet model of socialism, about soviet mentality and about the way dozens upon dozens of various nationalities, peoples and ethnic groups co-existed in one huge melting pot that used to be called the Soviet Union, a country that occupied once sixth of the land on the globe. A visit to this enormous, living museum of soviet-style socialism may be particularly useful for those who still think that there was something in soviet communism, something that could be worth trying to implement. On the other hand, tourists coming to Kazakhstan will not find themselves completely cut off from the civilized world and will even be able to enjoy some creature comforts.



It took the plane I was on only five hours to carry me and other passengers from Kyiv to Almaty, the former capital (Alma-Ata) of Kazakhstan and, probably, the most beautiful city in that country. The airport did look imposing indeed; the scenery was enhanced by the magnificent mountains that rose in the south  they are part of the Tien Shan Range (the range extends about 2,414 km east-northeast through western Kirghiz, extreme southwest Kazakhstan, and northwest China; it rises to 7,443.8 m  24,406 ft  at Pobeda Peak).

Thanks to its advantageous geographical position, Almaty, shielded in the south from the hot winds by the mountains, and protected in the north from the cold winds by the desert, has a mild climate which makes life there pleasant weather-wise. The climate is also good for agriculture and tourism. The hotels that I stayed at or saw in Almaty are all of them of a good, or even high standard. I even wished they had more of a national colouring. These hotels are probably the only visual link in Almaty to the west and European standards. Once you step out of the hotel door, you find yourself in the world of soviet Asia. The locals have long lost their national features in everything except their faces. Probably, only in some distant villages you can still find people who preserve their national traditions in dress, food and lifestyle. The only yurta (a sort of Kazakh wigwam), the traditional Kazakh dwelling, that I saw, stood in front of a museum in Almaty. It turned out to be a kiosk selling souvenirs. In search of local national colouring I went to the bazaar but it was a far cry from the oriental bazaars I had seen in Turkey, Egypt and the Arab Emirates.

There are some sights in Almaty that are worth seeing but there are very few really old architectural landmarks. The city that served as the capital of Kazakhstan from 1929 to 1997, was founded in the 1850s as a fort and a trading centre but in the early twentieth century it was practically completely ruined by a devastating earthquake. Only a handful of old buildings, churches and mosques survived. I only found the old Chechen mosque in the old section of town and the big new one built with the money donated by President Nazarbayev to be of any interest to me. The only thing that, as far as I am concerned, is really worth seeing is a skating rink, Medeu, which was built in 1972 high up in the mountains. In fact, it is the only skating rink in the world which is situated at an altitude of 1,691 meters. In the soviet times, all kinds of prestigious competitions were held there, and the leading soviet ice hockey players came to Medeu for training. 120 world records were set or broken at Medeu. Still higher up on the mountain, at an elevation of 2,200 meters, there sits a mountain-skiing resort, Shimbulak, to which you can get either by car, travelling along the winding road, or by cable car. Skiing there will get the adrenalin going since the slope is steep though not long.

The prices in Almaty food stores and restaurants, as I discovered, were rather moderate, and the selection of foodstuffs and dishes was good enough even for the rather choosy. In spite of the fact that the capital was moved to Astana, Almaty remains the cultural and commercial centre of the country. I was told that many officials had refused to move to Astana from Almaty, even though they were offered high-ranking posts in the new capital. Some officials accepted jobs in Astana, but retained their home base in Almaty, commuting back and forth by planes.


Pavlodar and further

From Almaty I moved on to the city of Pavlodar. From the planes window I saw the Martian-like landscape, steppes without end, Lake Balkhash, which is half fresh and half sea water, and the great Irtysh River. Pavlodar dates from the year 1720 when a fort was founded which later developed into a town named after the Russian tsar. Its advantageous geographical position on the bank of the Irtysh River was conducive to the towns fast development. In the soviet times, a number of big factories (tractor-building, metal producing, oil refining) were built in Pavlodar and they were a boost not only for the local economy but for the whole of the Soviet Union. The population of the city grew 360,000, among whom there were 34,000 Ukrainians.


From Pavlodar I took a trip to Ekibastuz, the place that boasts the worlds biggest open pit for quarrying coal whose deposits come up very close to the surface. Bulldozers shove the coal right onto the platform cars of freight trains. The road to Ekibastuz runs through the unending steppe, dotted with villages and herds of sheep. I also saw quite a lot of abandoned, empty and gutted buildings, and buildings with their windows and doors boarded up. Walking around such places gave me creeps  and some other feeling which I would not be able to describe.

On the way to Karaganda I saw fewer villages, with the steppe winds blowing freely over the immense plains. Karaganda is the centre of Kazakhstans coal production, but in the soviet times it was the hub of Gulag concentration camps (the Russian word Gulag stands for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerey  Central Administration of Camps). According to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, (Soviet writer and dissident whose works, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, exposed the brutality of the Soviet forced labour camp system; he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970), there were years when there were at least 12 million people held at a time in Gulag concentration camps, most of them on trumped-up charges, or no charges at all. I shudder to think that millions of people suffered and died for no offense whatsoever other than falling under a vague suspicion of soviet authorities.


Some facts of history

Archeological evidence suggests that humans lived in the territory of the present-day Kazakhstan thousands of years ago, but the first state emerged only in the sixteenth century. The Kazakh khanate was hard pressed by the nomads and sought alliance with Moscow, but it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that it was fully incorporated into the Russian empire. In the 1920s and early 1930s, when the Bolsheviks were establishing their power, the Kazakhs resisted the new rule, often rising in insurrections. Regular troops were used to put them down. As a result of soviet economic policies, collectivization and brutal suppression, over two million Kazakhs died.

Ukrainians happened to have played a role in the history of Kazakhstan. The first Ukrainians known to have settled down in Kazakhstan were Haydamaky, participants of the Koliyivshchyna insurrection movement in Ukraine who, fleeing from persecution, escaped to the distant land in 1768. Cossacks from Zaporizka Sich, exiled to Kazakhstan after the complete destruction of the Sich in the eighteenth century, built fortified places on the vast plains of that distant land. Soon they were joined by Ukrainian peasants who brought with them practiced skills of land tilling and animal husbandry. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Taras Shevchenko, a Ukrainian poet and outstanding cultural figure, was exiled to Kazakhstan where he was forced to serve in the army as a private; the exile was his punishment for entertaining hopes for an independent Ukraine. By the end of the nineteenth century, the number of people of Ukrainian descent living in Kazakhstan was in excess of one hundred thousand people. The names of the villages Ukrainians founded are taletelling evidence of Ukrainian presence in Kazakhstan  Poltavka, Kyyivka, Chernihivka, Hulyay-Pole, Zvenihorodka, Voznesenka, to name but just a few.

At present, Ukrainians are the second largest minority in Kazakhstan. Out of about fifteen million people living in Kazakhstan, eight million are Kazakhs, five and a half million are Russians (32 percent of the population) and about eight hundred thousand are Ukrainians (4.5 percent of the population).

The Ukrainian diaspora in Kazakhstan can be, for convenience of description, divided into five groups. The first group are the descendants of the original Ukrainian settlers  Cossacks and Haydamaky; the second group is made up of descendants of those Ukrainians who were exiled during the Bolshevik collectivization of Ukrainian agriculture in the late 1920s and early 1930s; in the third group we find enemies of the people  those who were put into concentration camps in the 1930s for expressing or harbouring Ukrainian national ideas or for trying to develop Ukrainian national culture, and who after serving their terms were not allowed to return to Ukraine; this group includes, of course, their descendants too. The forth group includes also enemies of the people but those who were arrested and imprisoned later, during or after WWII, mostly fighters of the Ukrainian Insurrection Army; they were also forced to stay in Kazakhstan after they served their terms. And the last group is made up of those Ukrainians, who in the 1950s and 1960s came to Kazakhstan during massive campaigns encouraging young people to go to the virgin lands, cultivate them and build factories so that the foundation of communism will be solidly secured.

The enemies of the people have proved to be the most ardent Ukrainian patriots whom no concentration camps and no tortures could break spiritually, and who preserved and maintained Ukrainian traditions and Ukrainian language. Their children and grandchildren grew up in the atmosphere of respect and love for everything Ukrainian.

Ukrainians and people of Ukrainian descent live in many parts of Kazakhstan, but most of them are concentrated in what used to be the virgin lands and in industrial areas (60 thousand Ukrainians in Akmolinsk Oblast; 78 thousand in Pavlodar Oblast; 95 thousand in Karaganda Oblast; and 110 thousand in Kustanay Oblast). Unfortunately, most of them have lost the Ukrainian language and the younger generations have not studied it altogether. In Karaganda Oblast we find the greatest number of Ukrainian former political prisoners, and no wonder that the Ukrainian spirit is much more alive there than anywhere else in Kazakhstan. A Ukrainian language society, Ukrainian schools, Ukrainian applied art, a League of Ukrainian women, Ukrainian groups in secondary schools and other manifestations of Ukrainianism are easy to discover. The most important Ukrainian national and religious holidays bring together almost all the members of Ukrainian communities. In 1994, the first Ukrainian Greek-Catholic community was established and a wooden church was built. Eleven years later, there were four such communities in Kazakhstan  two in Karaganda, one in Pavlodar and one in Astana. There are not enough priests and those who are available have to be travelling from place to place to conduct services. Orthodox Ukrainians do not have churches to go to, so they either worship at home in front of their icons or go to the Greek-Catholic churches whose congregations do not mind their presence at all.

The Ukrainian communities, of which there are about twenty in Kazakhstan, do not get any support from the Kazakh government to speak of, and they take care of themselves. They run eight Sunday schools, a secondary school of advanced studies in Astana (incidentally, in Moscow where about half a million Ukrainians live, there is no such school), and a Ukrainian department at the school of national revival in Pavlodar; the Ukrainian newspaper Ukrayinsky novyny (Ukrainian News) is regularly published and Ukrainian culture festivals are held once in a while. Ukrainian communities in Astana, Kustanay, Karaganda, Pavlodar, Satpayev, Semipalatinsk, and Petropavlovsk celebrate collectively Christmas, Shevchenko Memorial Days, Easter, and the Independence Day of Ukraine. There are quite a few of Ukrainian amateur dance and song ensembles  Pavlodar Ukrainian Folk Choir; Kalynove Namysto; Krynytsya (an all female group of singers in the town of Aksu); Chervona Kalyna (an all female group of singers in the town of Astana); Marichka (a children dance group in the city of Almaty), to name but a few of the most remarkable ones.



When I asked some of the Ukrainians I met, particularly those who were evidently very nostalgic, why they did not go back to Ukraine, they usually answered, with much sadness and pain, Who will need us there? Who will care? Wholl help us to settle down?

Isnt it a shame that these people who suffered so much because of their views and deeds and desire to see Ukraine independent, feel they will not be warmly received in their native land?


Photos by Romko MALKO

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