Kazakhstan: big country, great leader? | VPRO Documentary

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Kazakhstan: big country, great leader? | VPRO Documentary

On the freezing steppe, between former gulag camps lies the new capital of Kazakhstan: Astana It was built from nothing and paid for with the huge oil and gas reserves found in the Caspian sea in the 1990s In a place where you’d expect nomads and yurts there are futuristic buildings designed by Norman Foster Here we go. One, two Once more. Smile Great The tower is in it too Wonderful Do you want the residence in the background? Nazarbayev’s? – The White House Have you decided who you’ll vote for? The elections are coming up, right? – Yes. Nazarbayev, of course Who are the other candidates? – No idea. I haven’t seen any yet Is this your office? Must be cold in winter – Cold? Yes How do you keep warm? – I have a heater Oh, good. Was it a thousand? – Yes, please Super the back yard I borrowed my driver’s map We are now in Kazakhstan Funny. It’s a country many Dutch have never heard of But it’s the same size as all of western Europe We are in Astana now, the capital of Kazakhstan The capital used to be here, in Almaty But Nazarbayev moved it north, probably for strategic reasons Because Kazakhstan borders on Russia in the north They share a border 7,000 kilometres long And a lot of Russians still live in northern Kazakhstan 21% of the population is Russian One man has been in power ever since Kazakhstan’s independence: President Nursultan Nazarbayev, possibly longer in office than anyone All elections are manipulated There is no opposition Compared to Nazarbayev, Putin is a democrat He rules the country like he owns it Parks are named after him, statues of him are seen all over All babies born on his birthday get a free romper suit We hear there will be elections soon Do you know who you’ll be voting for? Of course Who will it be? We’re happy with the way things are going Who are the other candidates? We can’t seem to find out There’s a few – A few? I see You can ask at the polling station if you’re interested Yes, I am interested We’ll see. Can we go up? Yes, the entrance is on that side – That way. Take the elevator This is a palm print of… who else President Nazarbayev If I place my hand here, something will happen I thought the national anthem would start Normally this start off the anthem, but the hand is out of order They’ll repair it now

for the generation for the country for our native land may our prosperity and unity lead to our independence In 2005 I went to Kazakhstan to report on the elections Nazarbayev won with 90% of the votes One of the few Don Quichottes fighting for a democratic Kazakhstan is Jasaral Kuanyshalin The only real opposition candidate died just before election day The police said it was suicide He shot himself three times, in the most deadly places Each time he thought: Am I dead yet? No? I’ll shoot again Where was this? – At his home He shot himself in the heart, in the head and in one other place that I can’t remember. Three times Then he lay down, pulled a sheet over himself, and died Aren’t you afraid that something will happen to you? Everyone’s afraid of that But what can you do? Keep quiet? If you’re afraid of wolves, stay away from the woods. We’re prepared I survived two attacks on my life They burgled my house twice, taking everything What can you do? They try to pressure us in many ways so we will give up the fight But we’re not like that Have you ever met Nazarbayev? Yes, several times when I was a parliamentary candidate He even invited me into his office We talked for two hours After that conversation I was one hundred percent convinced that this man had to go First of all, he came to power illegally He took advantage of his position as first secretary of the Communist People’s Party In Kazakhstan we don’t talk about democracy We’re living in a surrogate democracy here. An illusion There are no democratic institutions here at all There’s only a regime creating that illusion It’s in the constitution, people talk about it, but it doesn’t exist Kazakhstan was colonised by Russia in the 18th century That’s when the misery started for us There was no state anymore, and people who have no state become the subjects of another state and another nation They lose a great deal: Their language, their traditions, their culture When we talk about our nomadic culture we should know that we did much more than just move around Much more. And that’s what our rich culture is based on We had literature, we had everything But we lost it all when we became a Russian colony When the Kazakhs lost their independence and their state they also lost a very valuable characteristic: Their sense of citizenship And now it’s three centuries later. We were a Russian colony for 270 years Obviously we need to restore many things Hello

Is she afraid? – No I’m Jelle. Nice to meet you – You too You have sheep, right? – Not a lot. Only 50 Are you a nomad? No? Are there any nomads left? Not anymore. Some people roam the mountains with lots of cattle Like a thousand sheep or so We heard that the Kazakhs are a nomadic people They only call us that because we ride horses But we’re not really nomads – And in the old days? I’m not sure. My father lived to be 85 He died 30 years ago, but he was not a nomad Do you enjoy your work? I’m actually a chief engineer by profession We used to have technology I was ground staff During the Soviet time? – I was a chief engineer After that I had my own lands and a farm. My own technology I have hay, wheat, and cattle I see. Is it hard to find that kind of work now? It’s hard for anyone over 40 I have my own farm and I employ ten people We work for ourselves now – Where do your children work? I have three daughters and a son The girls work in town, for a bank They are economists In Almaty? My son works for me He drives the tractor and the car Does he enjoy it? – Yes That’s good Since the annexation of Crimea, Nazarbayev is afraid he might lose the independence of Kazakhstan. And his palaces Kazakh patriotism is on the rise This year the 550th anniversary of Kazakhstan is suddenly celebrated The date was chosen randomly But people should be proud of the country again and fight for it You want the light there? I want it to look like candlelight Oh my, that’s really hot Sadly we lived in a different system during the Soviet era We were told our history began in 1917 Starting with the revolution and Lenin and bolshevism But now that we have the opportunity to bring books, or copies of certain photographs, into the country we can familiarise ourselves with our own culture For example, this used to hang in the homes of Kazakh sultans But it was found in Switzerland After 20 years of independence and the search for our identity our own cultural borders should be getting clear now Yes, there are state borders But we have to preserve and restore our lost cultural traditions We have to piece it together again bit by bit so the next generation of Kazakhs will understand where this huge territory came from Where are the roots of what is now Kazakhstan, our state? Are you afraid Kazakhstan may lose its independence? Not afraid as such, but I think that should it be necessary I would fight for independence Literally if I have to, but also with the help of my film This independence has cost us We’ve come a long way It took us 300 years. No one can take away our independence now And that’s the truth I swear on this sabre – Is it yours? Yes, it was a gift to celebrate the start of this film

Is it old? – No But it was made in the traditional way Its shape is exactly like the original The Kazakhs saw plenty of wars during the Dzjengis Khan era We live in different times now A time of technology and cultural warfare We would join that war, obviously, but I hope it won’t come to that We’re in Pavlodar, in northern Kazakhstan This is a noisy truck stop You can’t see it here, but Pavlodar is one of the cleanest Kazakh cities Kazakhstan was conquered from here by the Russians in the 18th century The majority of the local population is still Russian Why do you sit on those tubes? – Because they’re warm These are heating pipes They keep our butts and balls warm Oh, yes. Great – Sit down Oh, that’s wonderful – Sit until your balls boil No, I want to have children later It’s just nice and warm. Don’t worry One hour on these pipes and you’re good to go again Is it nice out here in winter too? Are you here when it’s 20 below zero? No, it’s far too hot then It’s great What’s this game you’re playing? – Throwing rocks Is it backgammon? Oh, I see It’s your turn now. You won Are there many Russians left? – He’s Russian So is that one over there I’m a local. My grandfather was born here, my father, and me too I’m 65 now. We were born here Where can I go? I’m the only newcomer here Hey, he admits it at last I never said I was born here Kazakhstan was treated like the drain of the Soviet Union Hundreds of gulag camps were built on the freezing steppes and filled with millions of Russians Very often nothing was built at all and the prisoners had to dig a hole One in three prisoners was dead on arrival They kept one of the transport wagons They were used to carry prisoners here from all over the Soviet Union One wagon had 70 people in it, it says here The trip took up to two months 70 of you together in one wagon for two months And you arrived here on the steppe, in winter. Minus 40 degrees And then you had to build your own camp These are the people once imprisoned here, not the deceased So they’re not dead? – No, these were the prisoners Any relatives of yours? – Just my mother Yakovenko Yefrosinya Vasilyevna It’s her first husband’s name She’s your mother? – Yes, that’s right Would you tell us what that is? – I had to ask myself It’s an arch, an arch of sorrow You walk underneath – Symbolic, is it? It looks more like a rocket to me

When the camp was still here, it was just soldiers Soldiers, their families, and guards Most of them were Russians Kazakhs lived in auls When the camp closed, some Kazakhs suddenly turned up Would you prefer it if Kazakhstan were part of Russia? I would, and many others too The border has a demoralising effect We used to spend our lives together, and suddenly it was over Is it better to be one nation? – Of course I don’t know why they had to be separated Is this the centre of town? – Yes The first monument was built by our former director under the Soviet regime The rest of the complex was built later When was that? – Early 1980s Does that say ‘oppression’? ‘In memory of the victims of political oppression. ‘ Didn’t they used to send you to a camp for that? In the old days, yes Things got a little milder by the 1980s Do any of you speak Russian? – I do. We all do What is this monument for? – Victory Day Victory Day? – Yes This coming May 9th it will be exactly 70 years No, this monument is for the victims of oppression The Kazakhs were spared nothing in the Soviet era A nuclear testing ground was built among the camps A total of 468 atom bombs were detonated here Put shoe protectors on immediately – Immediately? Not for radioactivity, but because it’s dirty here Just to make sure There’s no risk of contamination here, only at the epicentre The epicentre has radioactive contamination. It’s mandatory there It’s your decision There’s no radiation here? – No, not here They had a camera in this room It was about two meters wide This was closed off with a lead screen There was a check light for the camera to focus on They recorded the explosions How many atom bombs were detonated here? At this location there were 116 This is the test area, right? – Yes, test location Semipalatinsk How many square kilometres is it? – Square kilometres? About twenty Twenty thousand square kilometres 20,000? Half the size of the Netherlands. That’s huge Is this the radioactive zone? Yes, here you see the effects of the first nuclear explosion and the ones that followed, this side and this

The first explosion, in 1949, was only 22 kilotons In 1955 there was a hydrogen bomb with a force of 1600 kilotons The bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were like the first one here So you can imagine what 1600 kilotons did 70 kms away in Kurchatov the walls of the houses cracked and the roofs were blown off It was 1949 and the Cold War was heating up The Russians needed a working atom bomb, and fast They chose a deserted area in northern Kazakhstan for the tests The last bomb exploded in 1991 But the radiation will last for thousands of years What does that mean? I changed the signal to a different frequency How many millisieverts is it? These are microsieverts It’s 4.7 in the car And what would it be in a normal place? Normally it’s zero 0.12 or 0.10 That would be normal – I see Anything up to 0.15 is normal Can I take a leak here? – No, you’d better not And don’t pick anything up off the ground There are still bits of burnt soil and earth They look like small glass balls. Black You must never touch them with your bare hands Out here it’s 50 times higher than normal For how many more years? – A lot A hundred? Two hundred? – It depends on the radionuclides Radioactive caesium has a half-life of 30 years But for plutonium it’s 25,000 years Here’s a crater That explains the water Was this caused by an explosion? – Yes When the water’s gone, there’s a hole A crater two or three meters deep There used to be a metal mast here thirty meters high with an underground lift, and buildings around it The bomb would be placed high up in the mast and then detonated Down here there would be huge dust clouds and fireballs What bomb was it, and what year? – In 1949, 1953 and 1955 All in this spot? – Yes, all here Are you from Semipalatinsk yourself? – No, I’m from Kurchatov Kurchatov? Did your parents work at this test location? My mother did animal testing at the Radiation Safety Institute My grandfather worked there too, but not at the test location But when they were children, at the time of the nuclear tests they lived in a village just across the river Irtysh In the Beskaragay region They saw those nuclear tests They felt the Earthquakes? – Yes, they saw it all very clearly Have you ever considered moving away? No, I like it fine here – You do? What do you like? The pleasant climate, it’s warm, I like the scenery and the clean air

I don’t see any ecological problems, so I’m staying for now The machine was switched on by turning two keys simultaneously It showed the starting signal, the time It had a hundred telephone lines and a direct one to the government This machine had more than 200 electromagnetic buttons Five seconds to detonation Four, three two, one Explosion Scary – Yes After the test they would study its impact on various objects and machines, and the effects of the destructive factors Why is the cattle there? – There was a special bisector for studying the effect on living organisms Did the animals survive, in principle? Yes. You can see the effects here in this exhibition OK Here you can see various burns, bleedings brain haemorrhage in a dog, stomach bleeding in a dog coronary in a dog, lung haemorrhage in a dog Are these samples radioactive? No, there’s no contamination The museum samples are clean This rock was in a box during the first test The granite turned into a lumpy melted mass resembling pumice Is this rock still radioactive? – There’s a little radiation, yes That’s why it’s in a special box and we keep our distance Does the box offer protection? – Yes, but keep one meter away One meter? – Yes, that’s fine Normally there’s a tape, but I took it away Normally there’s a tape – I see. Good It’s still an enigma why Stalin wanted to test the bombs here The Soviet Union was big, with plenty of unpopulated areas More than 200,000 people got radiation sickness or died Children are still born with mutations Human lives were not very valuable It’s possible that the Kazakhs themselves were used as guinea pigs This is the radio-ecological map This is the test location After the 1956 tests, the radiation trail shifted It should have gone in a certain direction, but the wind changed The radiation came down in East- Kamenogorsk because it rained Is that in Russia? – No, in Kazakhstan

It’s a regional centre And pretty soon the population began to develop symptoms of radioactive contamination Red spots, inflammation of the cornea They went to the hospital because they felt sick Then the decision was made to allocate ten villages near and around the test location as control areas, and to put them under observation Did they know the people were there? – Of course Not many, but still Maybe that was the whole idea behind the experiment. I don’t know Would you like a man like me? – No, thank you Does your health not allow it? – That’s right. That’s what it is Your blood pressure is normal – Like an astronaut’s? 60 kms from the test location there’s a village called Semiyarka A regional centre We lived there during the tests We were just kids and we cheered and shouted: Mushrooms, mushrooms! as we watched You saw the explosions? – Absolutely We thought it was fun at the time But it turned out differently I want to add that there were mountains five kilometres down the road That’s where all the dogs fled We saw them go Our houses were heated by our ovens, and after the tests the ashes came streaming out As if pushed by an unknown force It was terrible We had a House of Culture The roof caved in It fell down? – Yes It had to be demolished Some of the houses too Did they announce the nuclear tests? – No, they told us nothing Did they say it was an earthquake? – They said nothing at all They said they were doing tests and we had to leave escorted by soldiers But there was damage after all From the radiation? – Window panes, ovens everything had to be replaced My father died My mother died of cancer My eldest brother and his wife died My youngest brother too The children and their children died My son died How old was he? – 37 They used to wait for the right weather The direction of the wind was important It should not blow in the direction of Kurchatov No wind in the direction of the river Irtysh But if the wind blew towards Chubartau, Abraly and Abay that’s when they did nuclear tests In 1953 or ’54 they did some very heavy testing In order to get the population to leave the area they offered them money Enough to move away for good

But the arrangement was fiddled with During the tests the people were taken to a shelter a little further down But afterwards they were told to go home again There they discovered that all the animals had died Even the mice were gone All life was gone Why didn’t they do those tests in their own region? Why in Kazakhstan? Tell me that I have no answer to that – Why not? I can’t imagine what it could be – It’s barbarian Inhuman and cruel Kazakhstan was oppressed by Russia All of Kazakhstan had been made a part of the Soviet Union The Russians did what they wanted and never bothered to ask us Kazakhstan was their back yard – Like they owned the place The Soviet Union may have gone But the mess they left is still in Kazakhstan The era of gulags and atom testing isn’t that long ago The future of this steppe is uncertain But Kazakhstan’s independence cannot be taken for granted