Museum of the First President, Astana

  
  - darkometer rating:  2 -
 
A cult-of-personality shrine to the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, housed in his former presidential palace.  

>What there is to see

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What there is to see: the building housing the museum used to be the presidential palace until this function was transferred to the new bigger and grander Ak Orda in the new government quarter to the south of the city (see under Astana). President Nazarbayev's old palace was then turned into the present museum. The museum's name is a slight understatement, since Nazarbayev is not just the first but so far also the only president that the independent state of Kazakhstan has had and it looks like he's to remain in that position for the foreseeable future.
 
The building used to be not so much a residence but rather the place where the president conducted his governmental business. Hence you'll see his study and various meeting rooms, but not, say, his bed or his bathroom – although a dining room does form part of the exhibition, featuring a meticulously laid large dining table complete with all manner of cutlery and crockery, but sans any food or drink.
 
The spots where Nazarbayev would have sat or stood are carefully fenced off, so no posing for any disrespectful snaps! Well, that's ruled out anyway as you're not allowed to take any pictures of any sort.
 
The exhibition extends over three floors and will delight both genuine Nazarbayev fans and admirers of any OTT cult of personality in general. Others may get somewhat less out of this type of museum.
 
Predictably, there is a section about the earlier life of the man before he became president, including his career in the Soviet communist party and, especially glorified, his days as an apprentice and metalworker in Ukraine and, in particular, the steel combine in Temirtau near Karaganda.
 
The meeting rooms still sport huge oval or round tables with plenty of empty chairs, otherwise the exhibited items are in glass display cases and constitute an eclectic collection of objects, most of which were gifts to the president. As usual with such displays of gifts that world leaders tend to exchange, many items are veering on the kitschy side of things and quite a few leave you scratching your head wondering what sort of thought process (if any) went into the decisions about what would make a good presidential gift.
 
The origins of some of the gifts are on occasion more noteworthy than the actual nature of the gifts – e.g. a spiky golden souvenir object that would not be so remarkable were it not for the label saying that it was a present from the Bin Laden Group of Saudi Arabia! Similarly there's a set of coasters on display that would be utterly yawn-inducing if it wasn't for the fact that it was a gift from Donald Rumsfeld (how thoughtful of good old Rummy, eh?). Henry Kissinger left a glass bird, making you wonder what symbolism may be involved in that. At the other end of the scale and much easier to interpret in its simplicity is a Christmas card from Tony Blair.
 
A number of items are gifts from the sporting world and include, for instance, a pair of gloves from Formula One racing star Lewis Hamilton as well as a whole bicycle – apparently from the winner of the Vuelta Espana (Spain's equivalent to the Tour de France).
 
A whole section is comprised of ceremonial gowns from various universities around the world that have given Nazarbayev honorary degrees, complemented by all manner of awards given to the great man by various other heads of state.
 
The most hair-raising item amongst the parade of gifts is to be found in the former meeting room of Kazakhstan's Security Council, where the gifts on display are, fittingly enough, mostly items of weaponry: amongst the ornate daggers and such like is also a gold-plated full-size multi-barrel heavy machine gun! Apparently this was an extra-special gift on the occasion of the 2007 celebrations of 15 years of independent Kazakhstan's army.
  
One recently added section of the exhibition was devoted to Kazakhstan's Chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010 and especially to the summit held in Astana in December of that year. On display are, for instance, the Ministerial Council decision that paved the way for Kazakhstan's OSCE Chairmanship and the gavel with which Nazarbayev opened the summit meeting.
 
Of particular interest to the dark tourist is a section about Nazarbayev's closure, in 1991, of the Polygon test site – including reference to the pressure from the "Nevada Semipalatinsk Movement", the first NGO founded in the former Soviet Union (in 1989), whose anti-nuclear demonstrations played a significant part in bringing about the closure of the site – whereas the same movement has so far been less successful in the USA with regard to the NTS, which is, in theory, still operational.
 
The most full-on cult-of-personality item of the entire exhibition, however, has to be the mould of Nazarbayev's hand – apparently the one used to cast the handprints on display at the Baiterek Tower in Astana as well as at the Independence Monument in Almaty.
 
Books penned by that hand are also on display, including translations into a number of foreign languages, as are various books that were, again, gifts handed to the man himself.
 
There are also rooms for temporary exhibitions, which included at the time of my visit in August 2011 one about chess – which more or less failed to impress me, despite the several ornate boards as well as winners' certificates on display – and another, especially glorious one celebrating 20 years of independence of the Republic of Kazakhstan. The latter was housed under the central dome, which gave it an almost mosque-like air of solemnity. On display were, for instance, paintings, photos and models of the splendid modern architecture of the new Astana that is either already in place or still in the making.
 
Back on the ground floor, where you are even allowed to get your camera out (!), there is just a single portrait of Nazarbayev (hand on the constitution) set in a glass plate in front of a map of Kazakhstan, as well as, in a corner, two cars, apparently models made in Kazakhstan. Otherwise there's only a small souvenir shop selling the usual range of Kazakh kitsch items.
 
Outside on the plaza in front of the main entrance, but within the perimeter of the fence, is a set of panels with photos showing Nazarbayev with various other heads of state or dignitaries (such as the former SG of the UN Kofi Annan). The panels are arranged in a circle under a golden-arched structure that is reminiscent of the frame of a yurt, although I'm not sure what the meaning of the central silver object is supposed to be that looks uncannily like a giant gyro.
 
 
Location: in the centre of the "old" town of Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan. Just behind the city Akimat (city administration) building, in a park between Central Square and New Square. The entrance is on Abai Avenue.
 
Google maps locator:[51.1672,71.4185]
  
 
Access and costs: somewhat restricted but free.
 
Details: the building of the museum is easy enough to locate – it's a blue-domed white-marble-clad edifice facing the park beyond New Square and stands back to back with the city's Akimat, which is on Central Square. The plaza in front of the building is fenced off (as if the president was still in residence here), and to get in you need to first go to the little guardhouse on Abai Avenue to the north of the complex. Here you have to pass through an airport-like security gate (metal detectors and all) and are then directed to the main entrance of the building. Museum wardens welcome you, give you stern instructions about the no-photography rule and "encourage" you to leave your camera, as well as any coats or jackets, in the cloakroom. Next you have to slip on blue plastic shoe covers, apparently to ensure your filthy tourist sneakers, sandals, boots, etc. can't soil the hallowed (formerly) presidential floors.
 
Contrary to what it still said in the Bradt guidebook to Kazakhstan, I found out that you're no longer obliged to take a guided tour but can just visit on a self-guided basis at any point during opening hours. However, a sound knowledge of Russian (or Kazakh) is more than helpful if you're going unguided, as there is rather little labelling in English (only in the form of a few general trilingual panels at the beginning of some of the sections). Guided tours, on the other hand, seem rather rushed and highly selective in what parts of the exhibition they stop at, i.e. they don't give you the full picture either – for that you have to go on your own.  
 
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 12:15 and 2 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. Guided tours in English and/or for groups need to be pre-booked and take place at 10:30 a.m., 12 noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
   
Admission free. Tours are free of charge too.
  
No photography is allowed in the exhibition (you can only take a few snaps on the ground floor and from the outside). And that really means strictly no photography at all. In fact they seem to be especially paranoid about visitors taking any kind of record. Not only are there museum wardens everywhere, dozens of them, guarding every corner of every room, to ensure no one sneakily takes a photo, they even tell you off for taking notes on paper – as I found out when I resorted to that traditional method of aiding one's memory. Apparently you're welcome to see the museum but are not supposed to take anything in. Bizarre concept! Maybe it's just one of those post-Soviet relics of overzealous display of authority, which makes as much sense as such Soviet rules of conduct use to make in the past, i.e. none at all.
 
   
Time required: one hour to an hour and a half – if visited on an individual basis. I didn't go on a guided tour and was glad I didn't, mainly because the tours I witnessed during my visit all rushed past me at a pace that clearly didn't allow for taking the contents of the museum in properly. Instead they seemed to cherry-pick just certain parts and ignore others. Of course, you could first take a guided tour and then go through the exhibitions again at your own pace to fill all the gaps (if they let you – I didn't try that approach myself, but can well imagine that it would at least raise a few suspicious eyebrows). In that case you may have to add an extra half hour or so.
  
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: thematically in line with this museum is a second one in Astana, which picks up the Nazarbayev cult of personality but extends it to a more general patriotic ode to Kazakhstan at large: the Museum of the President's Cultural Centre.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see Astana.
 
  

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