The casual observer would be forgiven for thinking Kazakhstan as two pinpoints on a map: fast-growing Astana, the strange new capital on the steppe, and Almaty, the country’s largest city and mecca of cool – with between them, perhaps, a sea of oil, for all that is reported on the country. But fewer than 3 million of the country’s 17 million people live in those two urban centers – the rest live out of range of the international lens: roughly 6 million in the country’s smaller, seldom-visited cities; the rest in the vast countryside.
A gulf separates city life from village life, but it isn’t one of disrespect, we were told. City dwellers appreciate the quiet of the countryside and its traditions and family networks. Villagers and townspeople are impressed by the knowledge and political awareness cityfolk accrue – and very, very envious of their clubs and movie theaters.
Quiet cities, bustling villages
“These days, I miss the quiet pace, the quietness [of a small town],” Mira Beisenova, 33, told EdgeKz. Beisenova grew up in a town a few hours from Kyzylorda, in southern Kazakhstan. She eventually moved to Almaty, then to Astana, where she lives now. “There is not the hectic daily panic, all the crazy things happening here in the big cities. … When I was young, living in Kyzylorda, I dreamed about finding myself in the corporate jungle. I was romanticising that, I think. I wanted my brain to work.”
Now, she says, she’s been there, done that. “I’ve felt what it is in Almaty and here; I know what big competition is like. Now, I’m at the stage of asking myself, ‘Is this really what I want?’”
The peace and quiet is also what Nurbek Kamenov, 29, appreciates about his hometown of Kokshetau, a city of about 130,000 in north-central Kazakhstan. “You can enjoy peace, you can enjoy a calm life there,” he told EdgeKz.
Some of this peace is blissful ignorance of Kazakhstan’s labyrinthine politics. “When I used to live in Kokshetau, I knew nothing about anything that was going on in Kazakhstan,” Kamenov said. “I was not interested in politics. Now I’m interested, but I have to know now, because it is always surrounding me. But in Kokshetau … we didn’t care.”
Of course, back then, he loved visiting the big city. “I remember when I was 14, that was in 2000, I visited Almaty and for the first time I saw big malls and learned what a real movie theater is, what good sound is, and for the first time tried the Internet. And coming back to Kokshetau, it was like coming back from space, or from a space ship,” he said. “‘I know how everything works, I know what’s happening.’ At the end of the 1990s, I visited Astana, when it was established as the capital for the first time. And judging from my emotions at the time, it was as though I’d visited a megapolis, a mega city.”
While Astana has exploded onto the scene, its population tripling in fewer than 20 years and futuristic buildings springing from empty steppe, the pace of change has been slower outside of the country’s big urban centers. “Kokshetau is more like a Soviet-times city,” Kamenov said. “Roughly, everybody knows each other. I could go there and in half an hour, there will be around 20 handshakes.”
At the village level, however, some of this idyllic peace begins to evaporate, broken up by the need to make do in an environment where far fewer products to fulfill needs and want are at hand.
Megan Levanduski, 29, of Maryland, lived in Zhelezinka, a village of about 8,000 people north of Pavlodar, from 2008–2010. “People would come from the city and go to the village … to relax, to get away from the city, and they’d say ‘Oh, it’s so great here in the village, I always get such a good rest,’ and then they leave and everyone in the village would say ‘Oh, I wish I could go to the city to relax, that’s when I get to relax.’”
Life in a village is full of constant, frequently communal, work: doing those things that in the cities just seem “to happen,” Levanduski pointed out.
“It did feel like everything in the village, whether it was preparing for winter or preparing for a holiday, took so much more work,” she said. “So when springtime comes around, everybody, all the kids in the village and even some of the adults, they’re all going out and raking the streets and the yards and the parks from all the dirt and trash that’s accumulated over the winter … and then during the winter, everybody is helping each other out, whether it’s getting coal or chopping wood, weatherizing your windows … everybody is doing that to the houses and the schools and helping each other out. And in the summer, everybody’s repainting their homes or getting their gardens together. And then in the fall, everybody’s harvesting what’s in their gardens.”
“Free time” in the village is filled with what city folks would call work – but out there, it doesn’t feel like drudgery. “First of all, you have nothing else to do except sit around and watch TV, so going out in the garden and picking berries is actually quite enjoyable. And it was just a nice way to be involved in life. For me, that was how I met people and became ingrained in my community,” Levanduski said. “Every time I saw people out, say, decorating for a holiday or doing spring cleaning and cleaning up the trash along the streets, I’d go and join and help out. And people would say, ‘Well, you don’t really need to do that, you’re not from here, you’re a foreigner, you can just go home and have a break,’ and I’d say, ‘What am I going to do? Everyone else in the village, literally, is out here, putting up decorations on the town square or cooking … in the kitchens for the party.’ So if I’m not involved in that, what else am I going to be doing?”
Doing this work is also when people talk about life and discuss or spread the latest news, she pointed out, and cleaning a park or working in a garden provided a nice break from everyone’s usual work routine.
Lacking entertainment, forcing creativity
The biggest complaints about small town and village life was an absence of entertainment. None of what city people would call entertainment exists in villages, Levanduski said. “There aren’t movie theaters, there aren’t art museums and all those sorts of things, so everything really has to be created,” she said. This means every holiday is given a huge amount of weight. “Even the smallest holiday that here [in Astana] would be just a day off … means everybody in the village getting together to go to the local concert hall or culture house and putting on a concert.”
Making a fuss over holidays with long preparation times and lots of decorations is one way to bring fun and cohesion to small communities – whereas in cities it’s a chore for the city administration. “In the village, it’s much more of a collective responsibility,” Levanduski said. “I was a teacher at a school and different schools would be assigned different responsibilities or tasks on different holidays and different grades would be assigned to decorate for different holidays.”
She loved that aspect of village life, she said. “It made you more involved – instead of a holiday being something that just happened – it was really an experience. And since I didn’t have friends or family there, it was really great for me to feel like I was part of that, and involved. Because if I were back in the States and it were a holiday, I’d probably be doing the same things – preparing with my family or my community for whatever the event is.”
Even in Vishnevka, a town of about 17,000 less than an hour from Astana, where many houses still lack running water, entertainment was what they wanted most, according to Dinara, Yelena and Tatiana, three women who spoke to EdgeKz in a very quiet salon one afternoon. They drive their families to Karaganda or Astana for fun, and what their town could really use is an entertainment complex for kids, they said.
Galina manages a cafe in Osakarovka, a town of about 33,000 halfway on the road between Astana and Karaganda. “For teenagers, for example, there’s no entertainment here. I have a daughter who is 16, and this is a problem,” she said. For fun, they mostly go for walks. “Thank goodness, I can afford sometimes to take her out to the nearest city, Karaganda. We go to a burger place, have a hamburger, go to the movies, that kind of thing.”
Though Galina has seen her town develop – they don’t have streetlights in her neighbourhood yet, but she was happy to announce that they are extending closer – she says there used to be more options for fun back when she was growing up. “When I was young, there were at least discos, but now there isn’t even that,” she said. “The town administration doesn’t want to host them. It’s too complicated – you need to gather people in one place, organize it, have the police there to watch out. It’s not that simple.”
Galina has no hope that her daughter will stay in Osakarovka. All she hopes is that the girl moves only as far as Karaganda, the regional center of 450,000 people, and not all the way to Astana.
Yulia, 22, works as a waitress in Osakarovka. She is unusual in that she wants to stay in Osakarovka. “I want to live here, only here,” she told EdgeKz. But while she loves the fresh air and quiet, she, too, wishes for a bit more to do.
“[In my free time] I do household chores, I go for walks, there’s a park here, so I go to the park. I would like to see more opportunities for entertainment, like an entertainment center for children and for adults. A movie theater would be great.”
Sometimes, however, this lack of entertainment can spur creativity. Growing up in a small city drove Kamenov and his friends to find imaginative ways to entertain themselves, especially playing music. They played rock and roll, mimicking the 1990s and 2000s California punk scene that felt so far away. He and his friends played shows and went to their friends’ shows for fun, Kamenov said. They read about skateboarding and pushed for the city administration to create a skatepark.
Now, cable TV and the Internet pipe music and movies into Kazakhstan’s small towns, and the country’s growing market means that more international acts are finding it worthwhile to play here. An old favourite of his, American nu metal bank Limp Bizkit, is finally coming to Kazakhstan, Kamenov pointed out. “Ten years ago, 15 years ago, we could not even dream of this event, of this day coming. Limp Bizkit and other bands like Papa Roach, Korn – they established our personalities. They were the rhythm of our streets. Two years ago, most of my friends from Kokshetau organized a trip to go see Limp Bizkit in Russia … but now they’re coming here.”
Of course, the increasing entertainment options may actually be deconstructing some of the forces that drove some of the bursting creativity of the country’s small towns. “Since there are lots of options and we are seeing big bands come here from different countries, [people think] ‘Why should I visit local concerts? I want to see big stars,” Kamenov said. Two years ago, he suggested organizing a concert in his hometown with regional celebrities. He was told that there simply wasn’t enough interest in such an event – the young people who would have gone had already left for Almaty and Astana. There is no audience left.
“Nowadays, nobody is interested in anything,” he lamented. “Even the rock and roll life is dead.”
You might go home again
It’s not unusual for young people from smaller towns to leave home to gain access to the education – and dating – options available in larger cities, but to return after they’ve acquired partners and degrees. Both Kamenov and Beisenova have considered returning to their hometowns; both say they are dissuaded mostly by a lack of job prospects. “Sometimes I think of returning, but if I return, I would like to be offered a good job. I don’t want to go there and look for a job. It would be difficult – it’s a tight job market,” Beisenova said.
“I could maybe go back there only if … there were some chances to be employed in a big company,” said Kamenov. “If you have a nice job, I don’t think you would be bored.”
Wherever he goes, Kamenov said, he will always be proud of his small city roots. He doesn’t like it when small-towners arrive in big cities and try to hide where they’re from. “I’m not ashamed – I say with pride, I’m from a small city. You can even call me a villager, and I will be proud of that. Because my personality was established there and I learned lots of things there.”