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A 2019 Kazakh song about Nur-Sultan reads like news commentary in January 2022

Categories: Central Asia & Caucasus, Kazakhstan, Arts & Culture, Censorship, Digital Activism, Freedom of Speech, Music, Kazakhstan’s illusory stability has cracked

A screenshot from the Alibek Narimanov's YouTube channel [1] displaying some of the lyrics of the song “Я умираю в Нур-Султане (I am dying in Nursultan”). The lyrics captured here read as “Отпусти меня из этого рая” (Let me out of this paradise).

In June 2019, the Kazakh band Opia x Kisa v kolese [2] released a song called “I am dying in Nur-Sultan,” referring to the capital of Kazakhstan but also to the cult of personality surrounding its historical leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. Less than three years later, the lyrics of the song sound prophetic in view of the turmoil and violence affecting the country [3].

The current capital of Kazakhstan has changed its name four times already: from Akmolinsk under Tsarist Russia, to Tselinograd under Soviet rule, to Astana (meaning capital in Kazakh) after independence in 1998, to Nur-Sultan (which can be translated as “radiant sultan”) on March 23, 2019, after the first name of Nursultan Nazarbayev who had led the country for three decades. Nazarbayev stepped down as president in March 2019 but remains a key figure in Kazakh politics and recent history. He was given the title of Elbasy, “Leader of the Nation,” and is the chairman of the ruling Nur-Otan party [4].

The original band Opia [5] was founded in 2019 by siblings Ilya Menshikov and Yekaterina Zagorovskaya, who now operate under two separate labels, hence the double name Opia x Kisa v kolese. According to their producer Ruslan Yakupov [6], who created Qazaq Indie [7], a label for alternative Kazakh music, and was interviewed by Global Voices over WhatsApp, the intent of the song is not political but rather ironic.

As the lyrics [8] show, the message is one of mockery:

Мой Елбасы, отпусти меня из этого рая
Мой народ никогда не востанет
Я не знаю серой степи края
Я умираю в Нур-султане

Заблокируй интернет, вдруг я выложу это в сеть
Арестуй меня, я не должна была петь
Нарожу десять детей, назову их Нурсултаны
И пускай они правят в Нур Отане

Это мой газ и моя нефть
Из путей для нас здесь только смерть
Я пытался найти смысл жизни, но не смог
Черт бы побрал Алматинский смог
Скорей свяжите вы меня уже на площади
Мои слова так много значат, но не слышно их
Вывешу и напишу на своем чистом плакате на мосту

My Elbasy, let me out of this paradise
My people will never rise in revolt
I do not know the end of the gray steppe
I am dying in Nursultan

Block the internet, in case I would post this
Arrest me, I am not supposed to sing
I will give birth to ten children, will call them Nursultan
And let them guide the Nur Otan party

It is my gas and my oil
The only way out for us is death
I tried to find meaning to this life, but couldn't
To hell with the smog in Almaty
Just tie me up on the square
My words are so meaningful  they can't be heard
I will write them up on a clean poster and hang it on the bridge

The song does strongly echo the general feeling of many Kazakhs who have experienced corruption and an increasingly authoritarian government for decades now. Thus it comes as no surprise that it seems to describe the January 2022 events [3] that rocked Kazakhstan and did lead once again to internet shutdowns, arrests, and censorship.

As the internet is gradually restored in Almaty where she lives, media expert, Gulim Amirkhanova started a long Facebook post [9] on January 11 by quoting the line of the song that says “Elbasy, let me out of this paradise.”

As she told Global Voices:

Ну эта песня как раз передает настроение и атмосферу нашего состояния. «Отпусти нас из этого рая». Только рай в кавычках тут должен быть, и вместо Нур-Султана – Алматы. Состояния сегодня – после всего, что мы пережили и как прожили эти дни.

This song precisely conveys the mood and atmosphere of our current situation. “Let us out of this paradise.” But here paradise must be written in quotation marks, and instead of Nur-Sultan, we have Almaty. It is our situation today, after all we went through, how we made it through those days.

The song is also available on Spotify:

Find more song recommendations and playlists on Global Voice's Spotify collection [10].