(the former) Museum of the President's Cultural Centre of Kazakhstan
[UPDATE 2022: since Nazabayev stepped down as president, and has by now also been stripped of his former privileges, this cultural centre has been turned into something altogether different, namely a national military museum. Hence the text and photos below are OUTDATED, and at some point soon I should move this chapter into the lost places
section. For now I'll let it stand, but be aware that it's history, no longer in existence!]
A large exhibition in Astana
celebrating the ancient as well as modern history of Kazakhstan
and the achievements of its president. The latter involves a good measure of cult of personality, while the 20th century history sections include parts that were sinister enough to be of interest to dark tourists of any ilk.
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
What there is to see:
as you enter the centre you first get to the bottom of the huge circular hall under the central dome. The floor consists of elaborate tiling, and the columns around it are adorned with blue panels with gold writing, all in Kazakh, so I could only make out the figures – namely the years 1990 to 1997, with 1994 and 1996 missing. Possibly these recall important events in the genesis of the independent state of Kazakhstan
This statehood and its "architect", the country's first (and so far only) president Nazarbayev, are duly celebrated: through national symbols in glass cases such as the flag, the constitution and the text of the national anthem, as well as the country's currency, the Tenge. Behind specimens of the national dosh (safely behind glass!) is also a photograph of Nazarbayev holding up a big fat wad of it, presumably in celebration of the newly independent country's freshly introduced legal tender at the time it was first released. But it could also invite more malicious misinterpretations –
it's partly the broad grin on Naz's face that makes it look more like he's showing off the "lolly" from a bank robbery.
Models of the Ak Orda and the Baiterek Tower stand between columns representing the new capital's glamour – as does a symbolic key to the city. There's also an enormously huge book: the chronicle of Astana
as the capital of independent Kazakhstan, as a small label informs the curious visitor. Given that it's dated 2002, and Astana was made the new capital only in 1997, there must have been an awful lot happening here in just five years to fill the oversized pages of such a super-sized tome.
The rest of the central ground floor space is filled with a range of exhibits including, in particular, gifts to Nazarbayev, not just from other world leaders but also from petroleum companies, who presumably had even better reasons for such gift giving than most countries' governments. "Uncle Naz" is also shown on photographs together with various former or current heads of state, such as Jacques Chirac from France
's chancellors Schröder and Merkel and US
ex-presidents Bush, both senior and junior.
The largest gift on display is only from "round the corner", as it were, namely from the mayor of the city of Karaganda
, but it's an exceptionally blunt example of barefaced toadying: it's a bronze Nazarbayev on which various little gold trinkets are balanced, such as toy-sized reproductions of, again, the Ak Orda presidential palace and the Baiterek Tower (for the originals see under Astana
In comparison, the remainder of the centre's museum is on a more sober side. Still on the ground floor, there are side wings off the main central hall which are filled with musical instruments, jewellery, rugs and suchlike. A complete yurt is there too, of course.
There is more culture and history on the upper floors, in the circular galleries around the central hall. A lift goes up the side of one of the hall's columns. Right on the top floor was an exhibition of Kazakh paintings at the time of my visit, which may or may not have been a temporary exhibition. I skipped this section altogether in any case, so I couldn't comment on it.
On the floor below the focus is on religious artefacts, such as copies of the Koran, photos of mosques, and icons representing Orthodox Christianity, and there's also a collection of bric-a-brac such as old samovars and things like that. Somewhat amusing is the display of kiddie clothes produced at an Akmola garment factory around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union
. They're of such strikingly bad design and poor quality that you have to wonder whether it was perhaps rather this sort of fashion sense that brought the old system to its knees.
More history follows on the second and first floor. While much of the older history will be of lesser (if any) interest to the dark tourist, some of the 20th century sections especially about phases of Soviet rule represented here are particularly noteworthy from a dark tourism perspective: revolts and revolution in the early part of the century, the reign of Josef Stalin
, the glories of the Red Army, the Virgin Lands Campaign (through which the steppes around Astana
, then called Akmola and subsequently Tselinograd, were to be transformed into collective farmland to feed the Soviet empire). There are patriotic wartime posters and plenty of Soviet medals and Lenin
pennants and so forth, in addition to photos and documents.
One section is remarkable in that it is devoted to the desperate, dirty and ultimately interminable war that the Soviet Union fought between 1979 and 1988/89 in Afghanistan. In between photos and uniforms, conscripts' letters sent home from the front are especially moving.
One historical chapter within the ailing Soviet Union that was of particular significance for Kazakh independence were the events of December 1986, which is the usual designation for the demonstrations and general revolt in the then capital Alma-Ata (today's Almaty
) that were brutally crushed by the Soviet authorities, then headed by the new first man of the USSR
Mikhail Gorbachev, who at first had replaced the Kazakh SSR's First Secretary with an outsider Russian rather than an ethnic Kazakh (namely instead of the up-and-coming Nazarbayev, who subsequently made it to that position only a couple of years later). Amongst photos and documents are also a few artefacts, such as a police truncheon.
Exhibits in some further rooms on the first floor are more archaeological in nature … and the pots and items of gold from those olden periods are, again, at best only mildly exciting, as are the models of various mausoleums that (to me at least) all look rather similar. The most remarkable exhibit is probably the copy of the "Golden Man", arguably the most significant archaeological find ever discovered in Kazakhstan.
However, there's also an astonishingly gory section here, namely items from another burial mound that include body parts of a horse, preserved in jars, such as bits of liver, a rib, and a piece of small intestine (with food remains). That's rather icky archaeology, if you ask me …
Most of the museum's contents are labelled in Kazakh and Russian only, but fortunately some parts of more interest to the dark tourist in the history sections also have some labelling in English. All in all, this museum is quite a worthwhile place to come and see when in Astana (even if it would hardly be enough reason to travel there for this alone).
in a fairly central spot in Astana
, on the corner of Respublika Avenue and Baraev Street near the eastern end of the bridge taking Kabanbai Batyr Avenue across the Ishim river.
Access and costs: fairly easily accessible, free.
the centre's location may not be the most central, but it's still not to far out of town and walkable from the old centre – e.g. down busy Respublika Avenue or, for a quieter and more pleasant stroll follow the river promenade in a south-easterly direction and then turn left at the yellow and blue building at the bridge head opposite the southern end of the City Park. At a push, you can even walk it from Astana
's new government centre in the south.
The big blue central dome of the centre is clearly visible from the lower part of one of Astana's main thoroughfares, Respublika Avenue, and from the Ramstor shopping centre opposite. Note that the entrance to the museum part of the centre is round the back of the complex, looking onto Baraev Street and the footbridge, and NOT at the main entrance facing Respublika Avenue.
Opening Times: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily except Mondays and the last day of the month (which, according to the sign by the entrance, is "sanitary day").
Note that photography is restricted: the official policy is that you are allowed to take pictures but have to pay 250KZT per shot! However, this is not made clear from the start. There aren't any no-photography signs on the ground floor (though there are on the upper floors), so I was just firing away, even under the eyes of some laid-back museum wardens by the entrance who just carried on chatting away on a sofa without getting up. It was only in an adjacent room when one stern woman suddenly approached and stopped me taking pictures – and informed me of the fees. At least they didn't make me pay for the pictures I had already taken (nor did they make me delete them) …
Time required: personally I found one hour sufficient, but then again I skipped a lot, including whole sections (e.g. the paintings) and rushed through the older cultural bits at an almost disrespectful speed. So other visitors, especially those who come with a greater interest in Kazakh culture in general, may want to allocate much more time to this museum.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see Astana
. Those in search of an even heftier dose of Nazarbayev cult of personality should visit the Museum of the First President
in the centre of the "old town" of Astana as well. Those wanting to look deeper into the darker legacy of the Soviet gulag
system on Kazakh territory could do an excursion to ALZHIR
not far from Astana, or – further afield – to KarLag
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
- Cultural Centre 01
- Cultural Centre 02 - entrance
- Cultural Centre 03 - main hall
- Cultural Centre 04 - independent Kazakhstan celebrated
- Cultural Centre 05 - the great Nursultan Nazarbayev in oil
- Cultural Centre 06 - five years worth of Astana chronicles
- Cultural Centre 07 - boring part
- Cultural Centre 08 - heady jewellery
- Cultural Centre 09 - history
- Cultural Centre 10 - legacies from the communist era
- Cultural Centre 11 - Kazakh achievements on display