Occupied by Mongol and Russian Empires and forming part of the USSR, the question of independent Kazakh identity has always been fraught with complications. Soviet repression in the 1920s and 30s, resulting in crises of starvation, mass emigration, and purges of the Kazakh intelligentsia, led to a 38% decline in the population of Kazakhstan. Described in J. Melich's article on nation-building and cultural policy in Kazakhstan as Stalin's personal "dumping ground for ethnic groups whose loyalties were in doubt", in the 1930s and 40s millions of Russian political prisoners and "alien" ethnic groups were exiled to Kazakhstan.
Decades of war, famine, and Russian resettlements took their toll. By the 1960s, the native Kazakhs were an ethnic minority on their own soil, comprising just 30% of the population. Ethnic dominance became mirrored in linguistic dominance, and, even today, Russian is the dominant language of Kazakhstan.
Twenty five years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the country's Communist-era leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is still in power. Severely criticised for his authoritarian style of leadership by Human Rights Watch, Nazarbayev has also been implicated in numerous human rights scandals, most notably his harsh suppression of political opposition.
In the country's 2004 elections, opposition parties which were officially permitted to participate in the elections won just one seat. Subsequent victories in 2005, 2011, and 2015, saw Nazarbayev attain landslide victories of 90%, 96%, and 98%. Nevertheless, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe declared that the Kazakhstani elections fell short of international standards. While standards of living for ordinary Kazakhs continue to worsen, according to The Guardian, Nazarbayev has "amassed a fortune, making him one of the richest men in the world".
The government's attempts to legitimise itself and its present power are implicit in the attempts to both reconnect with its traditional past and look to future in creating a modern vision of Kazakhstan. The government's concern with establishing a sense of Kazakh heritage is reflected in the rise in the number of national museums from 87 to 224 in the years 1995-2013. As an institution promoting patriotism and heritage, the inauguration of national museums in Kazakhstan within the context of nation-building is hardly surprising.
Another manifestation of this nation-building is the country's young capital, Astana. Awash with futuristic architecture, Astana, meaning “capital” in Kazakh, certainly gives the sense of a purpose built capital. Naming the capital after Nazarbayev himself, the most popular alternative after "Astana", reflects the President's centrality in this creation of a national brand.
The Bayterek monument and observation tower in Astana is one of the most spectacular expressions of this nation-building. 105m in height, enormous white girders branch out like arms of a tree to support a 22m wide golden sphere. The structure symbolises the ancient Kazakh folktale of a mythical tree of life in which a magical bird lays an egg containing the secrets of happiness. An observation deck inside the golden "egg" offers a panorama of Astana's skyline, dominated by President Nazarbayev's sumptuous presidential palace. After soaking up the view, visitors are invited to place their palms in a gilded hand print of Nazarbayev and make a wish.
Another example of Astana's cutting-edge architecture is the Khan Shatyr shopping centre. Alongside its own flume ride and a 500m long monorail, the centre also boats of an artificial beach, complete with sand straight from the Maldives. The centre's yurt-like silhouette can be seen, like the Bayterek monument, as part of the deliberate fusion of neo-futurist innovation and ancient Kazakh tradition that is key to the national "image" sculpted, from above, by the Kazakh government.
You need only drive a few kilometres out of the city, before the utopian skyscrapers and shiny glass structures come metaphorically crashing and crumbling down and you are confronted with the crushingly flat, undeveloped, expanse that characterizes most of Kazakhstan's remaining landscape.
With such disparity between city and provincial life and between standards of living for ordinary citizens versus government leaders, the question arises of to what extent Kazakhstan's top-down nation building is in fact based around the needs, desires, and traditions of the Kazakhstani people.