30 May 2013

ALZHIR - Remembering the Gulag

During the Stalinist years of the Soviet Union Kazakhstan became a centre for labour camps for political prisoners.  These were mostly situated around Karaganda which is about 250 kilometers south of Astana.  The Kazakh steppe is a harsh and difficult place to live – freezing in winter with howling winds and driving snow, hot and dusty in summer and as such it proved an ideal location for these camps – the geography prevented escape.    A joke from all those years ago even refers to this – Karaganda rhymes with the Russian word for where so if you asked someone where and they would respond Karaganda they were indicating that they were literally going to the ‘middle of nowhere’ "Где?" — "В Караганде!".

Map showing the distribution of Gulag camps.

I understand that there is a very good Gulag museum (called Karlag short for Karaganda Lager, here in Kazakhstan) just outside Karaganda, unfortunately we have not yet had the opportunity to visit.  I have, however, had the opportunity to visit the Alzhir camp which was located just a few kilometers outside Astana.  This camp has now been converted into a museum and shows one of the most insidiously awful aspects of the labour camp system.

A wagon used to transport prisoners stands in stark contrast to
the beautiful flowers in the museum gardens.
The Stalin Wagons slept a minimum of 70
and were heated with a single stove.
Alzhir (АЛЖИРАкмолинский Лагерь Жён Изменников Родины) the Akmolinsk camp for the wives of traitors to the motherland was the largest women’s camp in the Soviet Union.  The women who were sent here were guilty of no crime other than being the wife, sister or daughter of a man found guilty of being a traitor.  Even very young children were transported to the camp – those under about the age of 4 or 5 staying with their mothers before being taken to separate state orphanages.

Alzhir during operation.
Although the museum is not far from Astana it takes about an hour to drive.  The road is in the process of being extended from a single carriageway to a proper motorway and the roadworks can cause extensive delays.  The museum is in a small village just to the side of the road.  As you enter the complex there is a display of a ‘Stalin Wagon’ used to transport the women in groups of 70 or more across the vast distances of the Soviet Union.  A small plot of land next to the wagon has been surrounded by barbed wire and has a representation of a watch towers so that visitors get a sense of how the camp was enclosed.  

The Arch of Sorrow marks the entry to the museum.
To get to the museum we walked under the ‘Arch of Sorrow’, designed in the shape of a traditional wedding headdress.  It is a stark, beautiful and unusual memorial and a sign invites all who walk under it to bow their head in memory of the suffering of the innocent victims who lived in Alzhir.  Walking on there is a selection of memorials to victims of different nationalities and then two bronze statues.  One, a man, looks at his feet, despair is written large on his face but the other, a woman, stares contemplatively into the future – seeing a life beyond her current suffering.  The path then leads to the memorial museum itself. 

Hope for the future
The first floor is dedicated to an exhibition on the fight for Kazakh Independence over the past 150 years, there are some interesting items on display – a mail shirt from the time of Kenessary Khan, some knives and pistols but the majority of the exhibits are photographs of those who stood up to the Russian and Soviet occupation.  The commentary on the exhibits is, however, fascinating and very well written and available in English as well as Kazakh and Russian.

The original door to an interrogation cell forms the centrepiece to a thought provoking sculpture
The second floor is dedicated to an exhibition of the lives of the women who lived in the camp.  The first thing you see, at the head of the stairs is a sculpture set around the original door to an interrogation room.  A diorama and some other displays show what life was like for the women.   It was disconcerting to see the personal effects – handbags, clothes etc that had been donated to the museum, they could have been my grandmother’s – the same style, the same designs as items I have seen in her attics.  Probably the most heart-breaking display showed letters that the women received from their children and the small items they made for them in return.

Women were told they were to meet their family members so they wore
their best clothes to the prison.  This cruel joke marked the
start of their prison term.  
Several factors helped to make the life of the women more bearable.  The commandant was, by most accounts, if not a gentle man then not a sadist.  The camp was located very close to a Kazakh village and the villagers did all they could to help the women – giving them extra food to supplement their meagre camp rations.  The first time this happened the women thought the villagers were throwing stones at them – closer inspection showed the ‘stones’ to be kurt – small hard balls of traditional dried cheese.

Models aim to give a sense of what life was like for the prisoners.
Photographs help to show life as it was.
Women came from all walks of life and all corners of the USSR.
The women came from all walks of life – famous actresses, accomplished doctors and intellectuals, the sisters of Marshal Tukachevsky and ordinary women from every part of the Soviet Union.  These women served their 5-8 year sentences and were then rehabilitated.  Some never found their way back to their families, their relatives and children having died in the system and many of them built new lives for themselves in Kazakhstan.  The last remaining Alzhir survivor still lives in Astana.  If you ask the museum attendants they will put on a video about the camp which has interviews with survivors and their children, it is in Russian but has English subtitles.

Women were separated from their children who
were sent to live in state orphanages.
A replica accommodation block.  The first inmates had to build the huts
themselves in the freezing Kazakh Winter.
Outside the museum there is a replica of the accommodation blocks.  This gives a sense of the cramped, miserably cold conditions the women had to cope with.  The exhibit shows a guard coming to take a child from his mother - too old to stay in Alzhir he will be sent to the children's orphanages in Karaganda this was a sad way of life for the inmates and their children.  To the rear there is wall of remembrance listing the name of every inmate.  It takes some time to walk around, even if you just read one name per panel.

The memorial wall lists the names of all the inmates.
The number of names is sad and frightening.
The camp was closed following Stalin’s death.  In 2007 the memorial complex was opened, as a nation Kazakhstan has worked hard to acknowledge what happened on Kazakh soil in the name of the Soviet Union and keep the memory alive so that it can not happen again.  To this end every 31 May is dedicated to the memory of the victims of political repression.

The victims of political repression are remembered each year.
There is a strong determination to ensure the tragedies of Alzhir never happen again.

Click on the picture for more information on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

27 May 2013

Astana's Circus - a fabulous family treat.

The old Soviet circus tradition has proved enduringly popular in Kazakhstan and Astana has a permanent, all weather Circus building set in a park with a fountain and statues that echo the circus theme.  Some are normal statues but some are green sculptures with plants placed on a wire frame.  These green sculptures cannot last the winter so during that time they are covered with ‘coats’. The circus itself is shaped like a flying saucer with flashing lights peppering the roof it is a dramatic part of the Astana skyline.  

The Flying Saucer Circus

The statues in the park have a circus theme

Green giraffe statue still wearing his winter coat
Inside there is an outer ring complete with popcorn and cotton candy stands, when animal shows come to town many of the performers showcase the animals in this part of the building and people line up for photographs with snakes or performing dogs.  The inner part of the circus has a large ring and 2,000 seats.  The best seats face the entrance, these fill up first while the seats at the ‘back’ tend to be less well liked.  Shows typically run for a few weeks with performances at weekends and on public holidays and are always popular.  We will usually go towards the end of the run when there is a greater choice of seats for a lower price  (Tickets cost about $15).

People buy toys and sweets before a performance.
The ring is huge and the arena can seat 2,000 people - here people are just arriving for a show
There is a large permanent staff at the circus but the real treat comes from the touring circuses.  In recent years Astana has hosted a number of Russian shows as well as a Tibetan and a Ukrainian circus.  Just the other day we saw advertisements for a Vietnamese Circus – it was, apparently the first time that this particular circus had toured to Central Asia and the flyers promised a spectacular.  Most importantly for us we heard that there were no animals.

Animal acts are popular.  The Camels are favorites and give rides after shows
Animal acts remain very popular here and people are genuinely surprised when we explain that we do not enjoy watching performing animals.  Some expatriates feel so strongly that they decide not to go to the circus at all.  We feel that the quality of the acrobats is usually so high that it would be a shame to miss what is a genuinely enjoyable event.  We tend to go and enjoy the show but leave after the first act if we know that there will be a lot of animals in the second.

The animal acts range from the terribly sad to the bizarre to the downright strange.  We found the dancing yaks terribly distasteful (they were obviously in pain) and I hate to see the performing bears as they look so very unhappy.  One act displayed 12 performing domestic cats – each one had mastered just one trick and we got the impression that they had trained the trainer to give them treats rather than the other way round.  The most bizarre act we have ever seen was a dog and duck balancing spectacular.  We watched for a rather bemusing five minutes as two Dalmatians sat calmly with ducks on their noses before the dogs took hold of each end of a pole and the ducks walked between them.  All the animals looked perfectly happy and the audience loved the show – we were the only people who did not seem to ‘get it’.

Dancing Acrobats
Most shows follow a standard format and popular acts include jugglers, unicyclists and hula hoop girls.  Sometimes these acts will combine in unique ways – one act showcased some double-dutch skipping unicyclists.  Some of the circuses concentrate on showcasing their individual stars or use a gimmick (one ‘Water’ circus flooded the ring and had a lot of synchronised swimmers performing while the main stars performed on a small stage just above the water), other circuses tell a story.  The clowns are usually excellent, talented acrobats in their own right but with a great sense of comic timing.  Our children are desperate to sit in one of the front rows so they stand a chance of being chosen to ‘help’ the clowns in one of their acts but we have become wise to this danger and buy seats towards the back.

Clowns invite children to participate.
The stars of the shows are almost always the aerial artists.  It is quite something to see people somersaulting 30 meters above the ground with nothing but a wrist or ankle strap to keep them safe.  The safety equipment is there and some acts do use it, we have found that tightrope walkers usually clip on or use a net.

The Vietnamese circus lived up to the billing – from a spectacular opening to an outstanding closing with some truly wonderful acts in-between.  The aerial  artists were possibly the best we have seen, many performing the most amazing gymnastics hanging in the air and holding on with just their teeth.

Vietnamese Circus
Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

19 May 2013

How to make sun-dried tomatoes and substitutes for creme-fraiche

There is a restaurant chain in the UK called Zizis which does a particularly tasty creamy chicken dish.  It has recently been posted on their website and the family requested that we eat it over the weekend.  Unfortunately the recipe called for two ingredients that are simply not available in Astana – Red Pesto and Crème Fraiche. 

Normally sour cream is not a good alternative to crème fraiche because it is less stable at high temperatures and can split during cooking.  Here in Astana dairy products come in a bewildering array of fat percentages and the greater the fat content the more stable the cream so a cream with about 30 or even 40 % can take the place of crème fraiche in a cooked recipe.  Marscapone is also a possible alternative for crème fraiche.  By choice I use marscapone in sweet dishes and sour cream in savoury. 

We can get green pesto here but red pesto is an unknown quantity in our supermarkets.  I tend to make my own pesto in any event because I prefer the fresh taste.  I rarely measure out the ingredients but put equal parts of basil, parmesan and pine nuts, a clove of garlic, some salt and pepper (I like pink pepper) in the processor with some extra virgin olive oil and it is done.  I have not yet tried making the pesto with rocket but a friend mentions that it is very tasty and my guess is it would work with almost any fresh herb in place of basil. For red pesto I add a similar measure of sundried tomatoes.

red pesto in uzbek bowl
Fresh red pesto

Sundried tomatoes are also not readily available in our supermarkets but can be made at home.  The cookery shops in Europe sell fancy dehydrators to do this but an oven works just as well.  I halve some baby tomatoes and scoop out the seeds.  I sprinkle the cut sides with salt and leave them for about an hour to draw out the moisture.  I then wash and dry them before spreading the cut sides with a mix of minced garlic and zaatar (you could use oregano instead) and then drizzle olive oil over the top.  The tomato halves go into the oven at 100 degrees for about three hours.

Once they are ready they can be used to make red pesto or put in a sterile jar in extra virgin olive oil.  They are also devilishly moreish and make a good snack.

Sadly the substitutions and the need to make the sundried tomatoes turned what would have been a quick throw-together recipe into quite a protracted day of cooking.  That said the results were delicious.  I made some extra sundried tomatoes so the next time the recipe will come together much faster.  I might also try the recipe with a green pesto sauce.

Click the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat cooking.

Ersatz Expat

16 May 2013

Traditional Kazakh Children's Games

One of the biggest challenges of Expat life is finding enough reading material.  As a family we can easily get through at least 100 books a year each and I suspect many families will get through more.  When I was a child we traveled around the world with a travelling library of about 3,000 books, dropping some off at our European base and refreshing the collection each time we had a European posting.  We were the bane of the packing companies who used to refuse to pack them, it was my particular job, each move, to pack and unpack the books in their proper order.

When we moved to Kazakhstan we had a limited allowance so we only took a small library of about 400 books, mostly academic texts for work but luckily the kindle means that we are never stuck for reading.  I do sometimes visit the bookshops here though, usually to buy Russian easy readers for the children.  I rarely look at the English section of the bookshop because the imports are expensive compare to the kindle but this time I did browse and was lucky enough to find a translation of a guide to Kazakh traditions and ways.  It was written with the aim of introducing the younger generation to the traditions of their country and makes interesting reading.

During the time of the Soviet Union many Kazakh traditions were lost.  Forced collectivisation meant that the traditional way of life ended and many cultural and religious practices were banned.  The Kazakh language was also sidelined – so much so that many people have to take special lessons to learn Kazakh.  The younger generation is more fluent and there is a growing interest in reviving ancient customs.  It is for this reason that Nauruz has become such a popular festival.  The bookshops are filled with guides to ancient traditions and ‘teach yourself Kazakh’ courses but finding one translated into English is a rare treat. 

I started to read up on some traditional Kazakh games, I was amazed to read about some games that are almost identical to games played in England and Europe.  It shows how similar children are the world over. 
When I first came to England as a young child I learned a game that my friends called ‘Red Rover’.  Children form two teams and line up, holding hands in a row.  The first team calls a specific rhyme asking the other team to send a competitor over.  The player must run as fast as they can and try to break the line.  If they succeed they return with a member of the loosing team, if they fail they have to join the other team.  This game can go on for hours and is great fun.  I was amazed, on reading my new book, to find that ‘Red Rover is also a traditional Kazakh game although here it goes by the name ‘Ai Kerek’ meaning by moonlight as it was often played in the evenings.  Here in Kazakhstan it was, apparently, notable for being a game that bestowed nicknames because children would often be called to run, not by their own name, but by reference to some remarkable attribute.  The nicknames given in these games would then often stay with the children for life.

Hide and seek and blind man’s bluff are also played in Kazakhstan.  Hide and seek is called zhasyrynbak.  Here if one of the ‘hidees’ get to the goal post without being ‘found’ the seeker will lose the game.  The game was, apparently, much praised for encouraging logical thinking. Blind man’s bluff goes by the colourful name of sokyrteke meaning blind wild goat and was praised for teaching children to be careful and escape difficult situations.

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

13 May 2013

Meeting Astronauts in Karaganda

Mention that you live in Kazakhstan and the first thing that people associate with the country is Baikonur – the massive space complex in the steppe.  Gagarin left the earth from Baikonur and it is now the only launch base for manned space missions to the International  Space Station.  It is possible to take a tour to Baikonur - watch a launch, stay in the cosmonauts hotel and visit the historic launch pads and museum.  Sadly the costs of the tours are very high and beyond our pockets, even with just the in-country costs to consider.

Luckily there are some other opportunities to find out more about Kazakhstan's role in space exploration.  Due to the return of the current  ISS crew this week a large number of astronauts have gathered in Kazakhstan to form the welcome home team.  We heard that they were holding some meet and greet sessions in Karaganda – one of our neighbouring towns- over the weekend so we arranged to go down to participate.

Kazakhstan is vast, it is very easy to forget how large it is but we are reminded every time we leave Astana – Karaganda, our nearest large neighbour is about 220 kilometers south on the main north south highway, we had to leave the house at 6am on a Sunday to make the event in time.  The highway cuts through the steppe, which is endless with small villages every now and then before reaching Temirtau, a metallurgical center and some small hills just outside Karaganda.   The road is decent but single lane which means that the speed is limited to 70kph for much of the distance.  

Dachas outside Karaganda
Karaganda City Center - monument to miners 
It is always fascinating to see other parts of the country.  We had been to Karaganda before, an autumn trip two days before the first snowstorms.  No place looks good in October and Karaganda was no exception, the fountains were boarded up for winter, the flower beds dug up and the riverside park was closed.  It was a pleasure, therefore, to see the city in the spring.  There are beautiful tree lined boulevards and some stunning buildings.  Sadly our trip coincided with one of our rare but fierce rainstorms meaning we were not able to enjoy our planned picnic by the river.
Karaganda in the Autumn
Karaganda is an industrial and mining center and this is evident wherever you look, even the local football team are called the miners.  It was once the second city in Kazakhstan and was a candidate for the new capital city when the decision was made to relocate north from Almaty.  Karaganda is also infamous as being a large Gulag (Karlag) administration center during the Stalin years, many of the residents were Volga Germans and Poles, forcibly relocated because of their ethnicity and a large proportion of these people have left in recent years. The net result of this is that the city gives the impression of being a little too large for its needs and it lacks the bustle of Astana.

The meet and greet was held in the American Cultural Corner in the Karaganda research library and comprised a large panel which include Michael Surber who is in charge of manned spaceflight and Kirk Shireman the deputy manager of the ISS.  Eric Boe and Kenneth Cockerill, two shuttle pilots with extensive experience of trips to the ISS, gave us a presentation on the development of the ISS and how it has changed over the past 15 years before taking questions on just about every subject related to space.  It was a once in a lifetime chance and well worth the horrible early morning and 6 hour round trip.

Eric Boe gives a presentation on Discovery's last mission
After the meet and greet we took the opportunity to visit the regional museum next door.  The first floor has some interesting exhibits on the history of the Karaganda area from prehistoric times up to about 1900.  The second floor concentrates on more recent history including the early mining industry, Soviet times, the Great Patriotic War, space exploration from Kazakhstan and the country since independence.

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

8 May 2013

Celebrating May, Men and Victory Days in Kazakhstan

The early days of May are full of special celebrations.  May day was, in Soviet times, a day of workers’ solidarity but today, in Kazakhstan is celebrated as a day of unity amongst nations.  The main square in front of the Pyramid Palace is closed to traffic and filled with yurts showcasing national produce and there are displays of traditional dancing and sports.

Just a few days later, on 7 May, everyone celebrates Fatherland Defender’s Day.  This day was originally instituted as, Red Army Day, a Soviet holiday commemorating the establishment of and the first mass draft into the Red Army in Petrograd and Moscow.  In Russia and many other  CIS countries it is celebrated in February. Since independence Kazakhstan has celebrated the day in May, commemorating the date when the decree forming the Kazakh armed forces was signed;  from this year it is a public holiday.

The day acts as a counterpart to International Women’s Day (8 March) and women make a particular effort to do something nice for the men in their lives - our children’s school held a party for all the male staff complete with games and competitions.  This year there was a military parade which was extensively televised, fireworks and many concerts at various venues across the city.  We visited Astana’s spectacular war memorial - Otan Korgaushylar to see families coming together – young and old, to pay their respects to the military.

Otan Korgaushylar
Otan Korgaushylar Monument
The monument is spectacular - a central pillar supports a woman holding a bowl to symbolise peace and prosperity.  She is bracketed by two bas reliefs, one on the right shows Kazakh warriors while the one on the left shows soviet soldiers.  We celebrate the Commonwealth 11 November remembrance day at this part of the memorial.  An eternal flame sits at the front of the complex.  While there we were very privileged to have the opportunity to meet with, and talk to, a 90 year old veteran who had fought at Stalingrad as a young man.  It was humbling to talk to this man who had done so much in his youth and seen so much change in the intervening years.

Astana's Eternal Flame
People pay respects at the Otan Korgaushylar monument

Bas relief showing Kazakh warriors
Two days later we celebrate Victory day, 9 May being the day when the German’s surrendered. At the end of World War II or the Great Patriotic War as it is known here.  There are parades in cities around the country, ceremonies at the war memorials and and veterans are honoured at lunches, concerts and visits to key venues.

This spate of holidays combined with lovely spring weather lends a very festive air to the city.  In the lead up to May the city billboards are covered with photographs of veterans of World War II – 291 are registered in Astana, banners go up and the fountains are switched on.  The day has a very different feel to Remembrance Day in the UK but serves the same purpose.
Banners around the city celebrate the day of great victory.
Victory Car Sticker
People show their appreciation in many ways - one car sported this sticker '
Added to Amanda Mulligan's monthly Expat Life Blog Link up - a great way to read interesting blogs about expat life from a multitude of different perspectives.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat