This book is the result of the Leverhulme Trust funded project ‘Reconstructing Urban Life in the Cities of post-Soviet Central Asia’ awarded to C. Humphrey, C. Alexander, and V. Buchli. Its collection of articles deal with four different cities ― Almaty, Astana, Tashkent, and Ulan-Ude ― selected for representing contrasting aspects of the urban life in the former USSR. The destiny of these cities during the past thirty years is conspicuous by its variety: whence Ulan-Ude in Buryatia has been considerably impoverished by the end of its connection with Moscow, Tashkent, since the eighteenth century the principal city of Central Asia, has given economic primacy to Kazakhstan’s capitals. As to Almaty and Astana, unrepresentative of the plethora of collapsed cities in Kazakhstan, they provide illustrations of the symbolic, economic and social importance of cities and city-planning in the post-Soviet era. All four cities demonstrate different responses and adjustments (or lack of adjustment. . .) to the end of the Soviet Union. On the basis of this sampling, the authors have endeavoured to propose a combined approach of anthropology and to the theories and practices of the city and its planning. Their observations all contribute to underline the sharp variation in contemporary urban planning between Tashkent, Almaty, Astana, and Ulan-Ude. In the Soviet period ― and till our days as far as Ulan-Ude is concerned (Manzanova Galina, “City of Migrants: Contemporary Ulan-Ude in the Context of Russian Migration,” 125-35; Hürelbaatar Altanhulu, “The Creation and Revitalisation of Ethnic Sacred Sites in Ulan-Ude since the 1990s,” 136-56; Baldayeva Irina, “The Homeless of Ulan-Ude,” 157-74; Humphrey Caroline, “The Homeless of Ulan-Ude,” 175-207) ― , despite the variety of environmental conditions common bureaucratic control of urban expansion impacted on the common layout of the national Soviet capitals. One of the questions to which the authors have endeavoured to answer is “where and how genuinely new urban forms have arisen in terms of moral orders, urban sociability, spatial configurations and materiality” (Alexander Catherine, Buchli Victor, “Introduction,” 1-39, esp. 33).
The main contribution of the book is the revelation of the diversity of responses to the Soviet Union’s disappearance. In the most dramatically new of these cities, Astana, internationalism with a Russian face has given way to internationalism with a Kazakh face. The ideas of Kisho Kurokawa, the Japanese architect chosen to design the new Kazakhstani capital’s master plan, resonate with the notion of ‘Eurasianism’ that have become popular among late Soviet and post-Socialist élites through reprints of the works by Soviet ethnographer Lev Gumilev. How it looks to bureaucrats and planners is extremely significant for getting the project of Kazakhstani independence and modernisation right. In his article on the city, V. Buchli examines the social effects of these semiotic configurations, and tries to understand how space and time are understood by varied planners and inhabitants of the capital (Buchli Victor, “Astana: Materiality and the City,” 40-69, ill.). As for Almaty, Catherine Alexander shows how the officials’ opinion has been divided in the 1990s and early 2000s over whether welfare support for citizens or encouragement of commercial enterprises should take preference. The simultaneous opening of the economy and the city has allowed in foreign investment and escalating migration from the rural areas. Both have provoked fears among citizens of the lack of clear control and care over the city. The loss of trust in the state is most marked in the edge of the city, where many recent incomers to Almaty have turned their back on the state (Alexander Catherine, “Almaty: Rethinking the Public Sector,” 70-101, ill.). In Tashkent, the mass restoration of buildings for the administration gives the false impression that the capital is re-building: The authorities improve their houses by using credit given to the country for restoring the economy, whilst industrial areas remain silent. A certain traditionalisation of life is taking place: The educated as well as the non-educated are working as small-time traders, craftsmen or dealers in second-hand goods. Economic activity is pursued at the expense of cultural activities affecting social spheres, particularly education and medicine. In reaction, religiosity is being reborn among the majority of the population, notably as a means towards achieving social justice. In parallel, the houses of Russians who have returned to Russia are bought up by rural migrants who bring country mores with them. These contrasts have started to shape the city’s appearance, with its typical areas resembling an agricultural landscape. If soviet Tashkent is slowly disappearing, it is still unknown whether the Uzbekistani capital will become a well-equipped city or a city of contrasts, like the capital cities of developing countries (Tokhtakhodzhaeva Marfua, “Tashkent: Three Capitals, Three Worlds,” 102-24, ill.). Ironically, the contributions to the present volume underline the emergence of a new uniformity emerging where it is hard to distinguish the house and lifestyle of the ‘new Buryat’ from that of the ‘new Kazakh’ or ‘new Russian’. The lives of the poor are more distinct, such as the ‘traditional lives’ independent from modern infrastructures in Tashkent. As to what appear as ethnic revivals when examining these cities individually, it must be attributed either to common features of Soviet or-present-day internationalism, or to the combined creativity of individuals, groups, and officials.