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Happy 20th Birthday Kazakhstan!

On December 16, 2011 Kazakhstan will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its independence. Kazakhstan was the last Soviet Republic to declare its independence and the build-up to this 20th jubilee has been immense. For months now the streets have been adorned with colorful banners and all concerts and construction projects have been dedicated to Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary. No government speech passes without a reference to the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence.

Two major construction projects that were recently unveiled here in Almaty in honor of the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence are the Metro and restoration of the Republic Palace. With the Republic Palace just across the street from the university where I am taking Kazakh language classes and metro stations both a block or so from my host family and a block from the university, I have been fortunate to experience both.

Artwork at one Station in Almaty's New Metro SystemAlmaty’s metro, which opened on December 1, is nothing short of spectacular. The inside of the metro is immaculately clean and every station appears to have a different theme. The one near my house, Auyezov Theater, is adorned with beautiful artwork depicting Kazakh culture and traditions. Almaty’s metro is 8.6-kilometer and has seven stations so far, with plans to expand in the future. I am told the metro is the deepest in the world, reportedly for safety reasons due to Almaty’s location in an earthquake prone region. The opening of Almaty’s metro is the result of 23 years of work, as construction began in 1988, when Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union. Travelling on Almaty’s metro will cost you 80 tenge (about 55¢), slightly more expensive than the city buses which are 50 tenge (33¢), but the comfort and speed of the trip make the extra expense for the metro well worth it.

The Republic Palace also reopened at the beginning of December, reportedly with a concert in presence of Kazakhstan’s president. Prior to its closing, the Palace was a place to hear concerts of Kazakhstan’s most talented musicians and performers, a tradition poised to continue now that it is again open. I haven’t been inside yet, but the outside is gorgeous and I had the good fortune to stumble upon the lighting of Almaty’s New Year tree on December 1 in front of the Palace. Attending that event gave me the opportunity to gawk in amazement at the high-tech computer billboards that have been placed on the façade of the building. At present, these are intermittently displaying patriotic messages and holiday greetings – one minute the billboard says “Our motherland – Kazakhstan!” and the next minute there are dancing snowmen. The New Year’s Tree Lighting event was attended by countless famous Kazakh figures, including Olympic medal winners, Miss Kazakhstan, and famous Kazakh singers, who later preformed. Of course no such event would be complete without Деда Мороз (Father Frost) and Snow Girl (Снегу́рочка), who were also in attendance. The keynote speech was given by Almaty’s mayor, first in Kazakh and then in Russian, and highlighted the manifold achievements that Almaty and Kazakhstan have attained over the last 20 years. The event was capped off with a fabulous fireworks display.

As December 16 draws near, I am eager to see what else Kazakhstan has in store for its long-awaited 20th birthday. It will be hard to beat the beautiful fanfare, such as the opening of the metro and reopening of the Republic Palace, that has led up to this day. It’s been great to be in Almaty as part of the Eurasian Regional Language Program for this year in particular, and to witness firsthand Kazakhstan’s growth, development and the celebration of all of its achievements. And it’s been all the more enjoyable because I have been able to interact firsthand, in Kazakh, with the people of Kazakhstan. This is something that a year or two ago I never fathomed would be possible. Thank you to American Councils and the Boren Fellowship Program for making this experience possible.

Happy Birthday Kazakhstan and I wish you many years of peace and prosperity in the future!