Kazakhstan, the Soviet: “Stalinkas” and “Khrushchevkas”, Afghanistan and the Red Army Holiday

Save the Houses

Photo by Adam Kesher

Blogger Adam Kesher is displeased: the “Stalin's” house next to his own is going to be replaced by a new fancy building. These houses, built before the Second World War (1935-1938) or after (till 1955) are notable for their scale, high ceilings so rare in later Soviet block houses, huge halls and thick walls. They have nice backyards and old-style lifts. Situated mostly in the centre of Almaty, “stalinkas” for a long time represented quality and well-being.

Adam wrote (RUS): “This is my yard, as Americans would say – my “community” – which I want to keep for my children and grandchildren. The construction companies say that the replacement is inevitable. This is not true. Anyone who has been to the countries where people cherish their history and their old districts knows that. I would really like the city authorities to spend a part of the budget to renovate the 1930-1950ss buildings, maybe adding some new details to their facades – mosaic, wall-painting, balconies art nouveau … I must be an idiot.”

What Adam is talking about is a part of a bigger government campaign on demolition of the old houses in the city, which is itself just over 100 years old. The maps, which indicate the districts to be demolished, circulated around for a while, even when they were not made public.

The houses, built at the time when Khrushchev was the First Secretary of the Communist Party, from 1953 to 1964, are to be destroyed too. The district with lots of “khrushchevkas” is dubbed “The Golden Square”, and each house is marked with a memorial desk about an artist or a writer that used to live there. Its inhabitants went on a hunger strike, as wrote KUB blog (RUS), demanding fair compensation for their flats. After several days of striking and negotiating, the inhabitants of the houses were promised higher compensation and ended their protest.

Kazakhstanis in Afghanistan

On February 1989, the last Soviet troops were deployed from Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union supported Afghanistan's Marxist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government against the Mujahideen insurgents and suffered considerable losses, with hardly any results achieved. Around 22.000 Kazakhstanis took part in this Cold War game, being sent to Afghanistan as conscripts (1.5 years for soldiers and 2 years for officers). 761 people died and were buried in Kazakhstan, 21 dissapeared, according to the Kazakh Military Office's data for 1 January 1990.

neweurasia's Vitaly Mantrov interviewed (RUS) the veteran of the war in Afghanistan, an “Agfhani”, as Kazakhs would say. Sharipzhan Utegenov was 19 when he was drawn to the army and sent to Afghanistan:

“There was an ideology, the need to protect the Southern borders of our Motherland. To say “no” meant to get a public dissaproval. Many didn't want to go, but because of friendship and soldiers’ honor, rarely anyone dared to refuse… I didn't even think about staying, knowing that all my friends would go to war. We were brought up like that …

We didn't realise what Agfhanistan was like, that there was a war. How could it be possible? 1982 was a year of stagnation in the Soviet Union. Peaceful life. The first time I began to comprehend that I was going to war was when we were crossing the Afghan border. On December 12, when we approached the border in the trucks, we were told: “We are now crossing the Soviet-Afghan border. There are combat activities of the opposition. We have to give our brotherly support. We will possibly be shot at. Don't panick, don't jump off the car. Just lie down”. We laughed at it. In half an hour the shooting began… After a while, I had a feeling that I spent all my life in the army, and I had no life before, and I would stay there forever”.

“In 1985 I came back home and I was lost. 1882 was calm and quiet. Then there was “perestroika”. We left the Socialist country and returned to a chaos, pseudo-democracy. Anyone could shout whatever they wanted. There were queues everywhere. No jobs, no salaries. Soul-searching. We came back thinking that the state was waiting for its heros. No one cared, many didn't even know there was a war … There is a feeling that we were used: dropped in the middle of fire when everyone was peacefully studying, earning money, making careers – and then forgotten.

Young people now don't know anything about that war. I was in one school recently. For 40 minutes I spoke about the war in Afghanistan, about politics and its victims. When I finished, one of the pupils said: “How many Germans did you kill?”.

The Red Army Day is still the day …

… when they congratulate men in Kazakhstan.

nemtschin wrote (RUS): Guys, happy holidays! I am from a military family myself. My father was a senior warrant officer, operator and is now a pensioner, my uncle was a Captain, grandfather – a Colonel, ended his service as a head of medical supply of Central Asian military district. I spent my childhood on a military object in DDR, where soldiers and officers visited us, at home we had uniforms, caps, shoulder-straps, and belts, which were often used on me for not observing the subordination … 23 February was always a holiday for my family, even when it was not anymore in Kazakhstan. I was proud when the USSR Minister of Defense was saying in his speech: “Comrades officers!”, I thought he was saying it to my father.


  • Jerry Huffman

    I read Adam Kesher’s remarks on historic housing in Kazakhstan with great sadness. Two of the happiest years of my life were spent in the “stans” and I was always touched by the sense of history in the area as well as sincerity of most of the people we met. On my last visit in 2005 it was upsetting to see how much of the history is giving way to shopping malls and other inevitable “progress.” There’s nothing wrong with progress as long as it is not entirely at the expense of preserving your past.

  • John

    Those old poorly-constructed buildings are just that — old, poorly-constructed building. Which, unfortunately, now will be replaced by new fancy-looking but still poorly-constructed buildings. Kazakhstan should cease any attempt to demolish or rebuild until they are in a position to do it correctly. The capital city, Astana is a shame. It is supposed to be the CAPITAL CITY, yet still most of the housing buildings which are not recently built do not have indoor plumbing and have to go down to street corners for water. This, when the weater gets down to as low as -50 in the winter. These old buildings need be demolished, but replaced by good-quality affordable housing in order to raise the standard-of-living and establish a non-nomadic life for the average citizen and not only those who drive expensive Mercedes with blacked-out windows.

  • David Duggins

    I grew up in Kazakhstan and when I got married, I moved into one of these Stalinkas with my wife and her mom. These are beautiful buildings that were VERY well built. They are large and roomy (compared to the newer style buildings that were put up in the 70’s and 80’s. Also, just a side note: Astana was a freaking village before it was renamed to Astana (Kazakh for capital) It originally was called Tselinegrad and then it was renamed to Aqmola (White Grave) Obviously, the housing that was there already would not have been up to par with housing in a larger city. Almaty was the capital….it is a very European city. There is a huge difference in the buildings of the two cities. It has been a while since I have been home, but I do believe that there are Stalinkas in Astana as well….these would have indoor plumbing my friend.

  • John

    You are of course correct, Mr. Duggins, in principle. I disagree, however, that Tselinograd/Aqmola was a “freaking village” prior to being named the capital. Tselinograd was the center of Krushchev’s virgin lands initiative. It had a population of 180,000 long before it was renamed Astana and became the capital city in 1998. I would hardly call a city of 180K a “village” (notwithstanding the “freaking” part). I can tell you definitely that many of these Stalinka’s in Astana do not, in fact, have indoor plumbing — or at least the residents elect not to use it. This is clear by the number of people waiting to use the outhouses every morning, or those standing on street corners with their empty bottles to carry water back up to their 4th floor flat. In addition to simply being horrible for the residents, it is also dangerous as the water just runs out of the pumps and then immediatly freezes.
    Almaty a “very European city”? My friend, as you say, it HAS been awhile since you were home. I wonder what European cities you would compare it to. Dresden? Bucharest? Chisinau? Certainly not Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Vienna, Brussels, Amsterdam? Until Almaty city management decides to resolve the numerous problems, it is a disservice to compare it to any true European city. These problems include, but are not limited to: horrible air quality due to lack of regulations and people burning garbage; awful traffic and many accidents due to corruption of police and gov’t officials who are unwilling to enforce order on the roads). There are many other issues to deal with before Almaty can be considered much more than a backwater, but some if described, although truthful, would begin to become offensive to readers.
    But anyway, Almaty and Astana are beside the point. I personally don’t care how well the wealthy and priviledged live in these major cities (even if you can call it “living” in the Astana weather) — what I want to know is how well they are living 15 kilometers outside these city centers, and I can tell you it is not good for the average Kazakhstani, my friend.

  • John

    You know, in retrospect maybe the old stalinkas and Khrushchevkas weren’t built so poorly after all — compared to the current construction. Take two of the most recent “pokazukha” buildings in Astana: the Ministry of Transport cigarette lighter (zazhigalka); and the Stalinist ‘seven sisters’ style “Triumph of Astana” housing complex.
    The zazhigalka, a newly-constructed approximate 30–story buiding which is shaped like a cigarette lighter (hence the name). Since it’s completion it has burned down three (3!) times. Mostly recently in mid-2006 when the fire started on the upper floors, and Kazakhstani firefighters could not put it out because their equipment was able to reach only upto the 9th floor. Locals have taken to calling the circular area at the bottom of the building the “pepel’nitsa” (ashtray) as a joke. I don’t think either burning down three times within it’s only-several years life, or locals making a joke of this highly-photographed and touted building is what the Kazakhstani government had in mind when they built it and started showing it off.
    The second is the so-called “Triumph of Astana” building which is built (for some unsane reason, particulary in Kazakhstan of all places) in the Stalinistic style similar to the Moscow seven sisters buildings (Hotel Ukraina, et al.). This place is a monstrosity and way over-priced for any honest Kazakhstani. Alas, even the wealthy who live in the building will have to do without cars, since the underground parking had to be filled in with concrete to keep the building from colapsing. Seems the construction was done so well that huge cracks formed in the upper foundations even before the building could be completed. Rather than tear it down, identify who was responsible and re-build to a normal quality, the powers-that-be decided the best thing to save the building was to fill the underground garage with concrete. So, in essence, the garage no longer exists. I have no idea how many apartments are in this building, but in the typical Soviet tradition the outrageous size of the place is clearing compensating for someone’s insecurity. Unfortunatley, for me the large size of this building and high number of apartments just means that more people are going to die or be injured when this building eventually does collapse onto itself. And I suspect this will occur far sooner than it will to any “eyesore” Stalinka or Khrushchevka. ….even if they still don’t have indoor plumbing.;)

  • […] Снос старых домов и замена их новыми – вопрос трепетный для многих алматинцев. Упоминание Адама Кешера сноса “сталинок” в Алматы, вызвало реакцию не только местных блоггеров в его онлайн-дневнике, но и “забугровых”, когда его пост был переведен на Global Voices Online. […]

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