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Visualizing Central Asia: "The Architecture of Almaty, Kazakhstan: A Research Abroad Adventure" (Alexa Black)

Alexa Black is a senior undergraduate student from Northern California pursuing a double major in History and English literature and a minor in Russian language. Alexa studied abroad in Almaty, Kazakhstan in the summer of 2019 in a Russian immersion program. She is currently participating in the Russian Overseas Flagship capstone year "abroad," taking online Russian language classes from Kazakhstan. After graduation, Alexa plans to pursue a graduate degree in International Development and a career where she can live abroad and contribute to international cooperation.

About “Visualizing Central Asia”

During the summer of 2020, the UCLA Program on Central Asia invited students to create short videos about the Central Asian region. These projects explore the students’ connections with the area, drawing on relevant courses, study abroad, research, and/or issues of personal concern. The videos cover a range of topics including politics, society, language, food, architecture, and gender. Together, they offer a portrait of Central Asia from a variety of perspectives, contributing to our understanding of a region that is often overlooked.

Video Transcript

(music: traditional Kazakh throat singing) 

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, yet it remains a country Westerners know little about. I studied and conducted research in Almaty, Kazakhstan in the summer of 2019 through UCLA’s Russian Flagship Program, participating in a summer immersion program, living with a Kazakhstani family and attending KazNU, Almaty’s premier university. I had the chance to experience daily life in Almaty, as well as many exciting cultural excursions exploring the natural world, history, and culture of the Almaty region. While in Kazakhstan, I conducted  research for my honors thesis in the UCLA history department in Almaty’s government archives and libraries. I set out to learn about the city, both through Soviet archival documents, all in Russian, and exploration of the physical urban space, and began my research interested in Stalinist architecture of power in Almaty. My thesis topic developed with my research, as I uncovered documents about the planning of Almaty from Moscow, underscoring the connections between the Sovietization of Kazakhstan and architecture of the capital. Kazakhs were traditionally nomadic pastoralists, living in transportable yurts like those pictured here before Russian colonization and Soviet collectivization. There were also urban settlements in the region, with much of its architecture inspired by Persian and Islamic influences. The borders of today’s Kazakhstan come from the borders drawn by the Soviet Union, but Russian colonization of Kazakhstan began as early as 1750 in the tsarist era. In the 1890s, colonization dramatically increased as Russian peasants flooded the north looking for new agricultural land, and military units established forts along the eastern border with China, including Verniy (circled here).

In the 1920s the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war reached Kazakhstan, and eventually Bolsheviks managed to consolidate power. Verniy, the former military fortress populated mostly by Russians was chosen as the new capital in 1927 and renamed Alma-Ata (today’s Almaty). Logistically, Alma-Ata was a city already settled, and containing many architectural vestiges of the tsarist imperialist past, including the Ascension Cathedral, pictured here. However, in 1911 the city had been rocked by a magnitude 8 earthquake, flattening much of the old city and creating something of a clean slate for the new Soviet government to plan a new socialist built environment. Roman Khiger, a Soviet architect and theorist believed that with mindful city planning the architect might mold society, “allowing him to gradually, in accordance with the basic aims of the new social system, to alter radically the structure of human life -- productive, social and personal.” In this way, Sovietization via city planning was also an adept tool of assimilatory imperialism. In the construction of Alma-Ata, it is evident by the iconographical use of Russian and new constructivist and Socialist Realist Soviet architectural styles, that a degree of cultural assimilation -- indeed Sovietization --  was viewed as desirable in Kazakhstan. Stalinist theorists and politicians viewed the cityscape as a place to manifest and perform state power via architectural design, building socialism and Soviet culture starting with the physical environment. Attempts to impose and create a new Soviet culture in Kazakhstan began with the city and city planning. Almaty’s first “official” city plan was created in Moscow by Russian architects, emulating Moscow’s own cityscape and creating visual uniformity with the center. Hallmarks of Stalinist architectural style included monumental architecture designed to awe and reflect the power of the central state. Stalinist Socialist Realism embraced a neoclassical style inspired by Greece and Rome, in doing so subsuming the history of Western civilization into the Soviet teleological worldview. The frieze details we see on these neoclassical buildings depict scenes of workers, elevating Soviet ideology. Neoclassicism was imposed throughout the Soviet Union, often erasing regional architectural histories and influences. In today’s Kazakhstan, monumental architecture remains important, but reflects the values of the independent Kazakhstani state, embracing national and cultural pride. For example, the Kazakh National Museum in Almaty reflects Islamic architectural influences and the ceiling of the international airport in the new capital of Nursultan is designed to look like the ceiling of a traditional yurt. Nursultan is known for its impressive and fantastical monumental architecture, seen here, but the buildings are thoroughly modernist, the emphasis on modern technology evident in that Nursultan was designed to be viewed from the sky. Overall, my experience researching in Kazakhstan was fascinating, and allowed me to appreciate both unique natural beauty and impressive and interesting cityscapes you can’t see anywhere else.