Years ago I discovered that Kazakhstan was the ninth biggest country in the world and considered the above. For such an enormous place, where was it in world events? Why does the West never hear about it? Something must happen there, surely? And so began a fascination about it. I will admit that I am not very well read on the country, and have never visited it, but I wish to share a little of what I know, because in an unexpected way, the country is under attack.
Kazakhstan is a former member of the Soviet Union, independent since the fall of the Union in December 1991. It has enormous reserves of oil and gas, vast tracts of Central Asian steppe, and is home to 15 million people - there are more people in Burkina Faso, a country that is ten times smaller. So far, so CIA factbook. Presented with independence, Kazakhstan, as a young nation, had it all to do. Ravaged by the Soviets, it needed to find an infrastructure and an identity, and, at the same time, do something about all of those nuclear weapons the Soviets had left behind*. It was scarred, reliant on Russia for its money; it ran the risk of being a puppet of the wounded Russian Federation. Should it remain communist, or copy the ways of the West and embrace capitalism? Areas of the country were off limits owing to Soviet nuclear testing. Kazakhs were a minority in their own country. Meanwhile, the threat of invasion from China in the East loomed. It was a testing time.
Now, Kazakhstan is wealthy. Furthermore, it is a seemingly happy country that is peaceful. The same cannot be said for its neighbours: Uzbekistan has an appalling human rights record; until his death in 2006, Turkmenistan was ruled by the extremely odd 'President for Life' Saparmurat Niyazov, who banned gold teeth and ordered television presenters not to wear make up, claiming he couldn't tell men and women apart; and Tajikistan, ravaged by civil war, is a crippled, undeservedly neglected country.
In 1994, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan took the decision to move the capital from Almaty in the south west to a crumbling Soviet town in the middle of the steppe. The new capital was to be called Astana, Kazakh for "capital". It was a widely unpopular move, but a necessary risk. In the long term, Kazakhstan needed to populate and protect its interior - Russia and the densely populated China were perceived as eager land grabbers. In the short term, Almaty was becoming overpopulated and over polluted, and the government seemed to be seizing up, the older politicians refusing to give up their roles. So by moving, a fresh, young and eager government started in order to serve a brand new country, ready to become part of the outside world. Astana was a demonstration to the people of Kazakhstan that now you could own private property - the state no longer owned it all. When the politicians moved in, leaving their families behind, many had to sleep ten to a room. There was one, shabby restaurant, run by people unused to such business. Astana grew slowly, but it had ambitious plans.
By 2008, 750,700 people called Astana their home. The growth and scale of the city, a lonely outpost in the steppe, has been staggering. It is still a giant construction site, and will be for some time, but it has made itself a world city in a very short period of time. Its architecture is one of its remarkable features: a brand-new mosque donated by Qatar; a giant synagogue paid for by a Jewish Kazakh aluminium billionaire; a Russian Orthodox church built by public subscription; a showy Presidential palace; a centrepiece symbolic tower, the Bayterek tower, a 97-metre-high structure nestling a glass and aluminium ball, a monument to a Kazakh fairytale of a bird that every day laid an egg bright as the sun in a holy tree, only to be devoured by a dragon - one day the Kazakhs grew tired of this, slew the dragon, and ever since the sun has shone 'eternally'.
Nothing can be more striking, structurally or conceptually, than the Pyramid of Peace and Harmony. The pyramid is, as British architect Norman Foster says, "a contemporary reconsideration of religious architecture ... dedicated to the renunciation of violence and the promotion of faith and human equality." In the basement is a 1,500 seat opera house; above it offices for every ethnic group in Kazakhstan and chapels for 18 of the 46 religions in the country; and at the top, a chamber where the world's religious leaders meet in a triennial congress. Far from a dingy, sinister basement where secretive megalomaniacs plot the next world movement, it is a light, open chamber, with doves on the stained glass windows, intended for peaceful and productive inter-faith discussion. It is a multi-faith cathedral. It is probably the first such purpose-built structure in the world, and rather than being in a Western superpower or historically influential state, it is in a brand new city in little-known Kazakhstan. This is the boldness of Kazakhstan's and President Nazarbayev's vision.
"It is true I chose the shape of the pyramid, but as a call to energy, not as a tomb for another pharaoh1", says Nazarbayev, in answer to accusations of megalomania. "The pyramid of Giza is 18,000 years old, while the pharaohs lived only 5,000 years ago. Nobody knows who built the pyramids or why, but for some reason it is a symbolic shape that has great meaning for human beings. It seemed to me the perfect shape for a temple of peace and harmony. Akbar the Great had a dream of building one big temple for everyone. He was Muslim himself but was tolerant of all religions. His vision was that everyone would enter the great temple through one big gate, and once inside they have their own temples in which to pray - Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim. So everybody entered and prayed to their own God, but they arrived and departed through the gate shoulder to shoulder. I'm building that temple now."
At the risk of sounding romantic and slightly away with the fairies, how beautiful is that? Given the number of historic and contemporary conflicts that have existed and persist because of religious differences, from all branches of religion and all levels of piety, I for one think it is a brilliant idea that somebody has taken the initiative to construct somewhere for world religions to sit down and talk things through. Worshipping alongside each other is a tremendous dream to have, and regardless of my or your religious persuasion, the first step to people realising their own truth is peace. And if people want to evangelize, conflict and persecution is hardly the wisest first tactic.
"All the major religions insist there is but one God", continues Nazarbayev. "Well, in my opinion that is so - but we all approach him in our own way. The Koran states that if you kill one person you have killed everyone in the world, and the prophet Mohammed has said it is the duty of Muslims to spread love among the people. I want to disprove the Huntington theory which says that the clash of civilizations is inevitable because we are all different. Yes, you can prophesy disaster and apocalypse, or you can think that humans are smarter than that and will not push themselves to that confrontation."
"We have 46 different religions in Kazakhstan operating in peaceful co-existence**. No one is restricted from building his own house of prayer. No one is afraid to pray to his own God. And there is not a hint of one group deliberately offending another."
Now I can see that some people might not like this. They may think that it is a foolish waste of money, a concept that won't work. Maybe Nazarbayev is, to some, a bit of a dreamer. Maybe some might object on principle as they may wish to worship alone.
But to some, Nazarbayev is the Devil himself.
I do not refer to political dislikes and objections to his rule (he has been in power since before independence and many feel he has too much power), although he has courted controversy over time (nonetheless, whether elections have been truly fair or not, he has the support of the majority of the country, and such support is not under duress). No, this week I discovered that, among conspiracy theorists, Nazarbayev is considered to be Satan himself and the Pyramid of Peace and Harmony is a temple of the New World Order, riddled with symbols of the occult and the Illuminati***.
The first site I read got to the point immediately. "The result is astonishing: a futuristic occult capital, embracing the New World Order while celebrating the most ancient religion known to man: Sun Worship. The city is still a huge construction site, but the buildings that are already completed already sum up Nazarbayev’s occult vision. ... Norman Foster has said that the building [the Pyramid of Peace and Harmony] has no recognizable religious symbols to permit the harmonious reunification of confessions. In reality, the pyramid is a temple for the occultist’s only TRUE religion: Sun worship." Repeated sun-like symbols, open air areas and natural lighting convince the author that this is a temple for the 'illuminated', allowing them to contemplate how to reach godliness. Its true objective? "The replacement of all religions by a form of neo-paganism". The pyramid is supposedly proof of Pythagoras' teachings, so pivotal in occult society (apparently), the division of the universe into the supreme, superior and inferior worlds. The pyramid is the "representation of the philosophy of the initiates" (whatever that means). Other designs lead the author to accuse Nazarbayev of being a "free and accepted mason".
When I read this, I thought it was a parody. Surely nobody can honestly believe that this building project is actually a malevolent, secret plot to destroy all governments of the world and, then, destroy mankind itself? But then I found more, just by image searching for the pyramid.
The second site I found deeply offended me.
This, in the name of Christian prophecy, suggests (although never explicitly saying it, the suggestion is strong enough) that Kazakhstan is indeed the seat of the antichrist. They begin by using Revelation 6:1-2, from which Christians believe the antichrist will "come in the name of peace and even conquer in the name of peace as symbolized by the white horse". Kazakhstan, as a member of the UN, the NATO peace program and other security committees, is a peaceful country, both in practice and politically. Apparently such willingness to be cooperative and a leader in peaceful negotiation makes the country suspicious.
Even more suspicious, and once again I stress apparently, is the fact that the eastern part of the Golden Horde, one of the three divisions of the Mongol Empire shared by the sons of Genghis Khan following his death, was called the White Horde. Yes, that's right, it is one letter from White Horse. Be afraid. A staggeringly well-researched point, I feel. The use of White Horde throughout Kazakhstan, a country proud of its heritage, is also apparently suspicious, as is the fact that the country is shaped a bit like (albeit tenuously) the Hellenistic world (ancient Greece), supposedly also the seat of Satan. The article also lays into the country's flag (a sun on a sky blue background, with an eagle); the fact that the President, like all leaders, sometimes gets a bit angry; the Bayterek tower; and the President's decision to ban the Wahhabi religious sect, who frankly I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alleyway. Amazingly, the article finishes by talking about aliens.
Now, I do not underestimate the power nor importance of prophecy. Sin and evil are important to look out for and protect against, but this is pure and dangerous nonsense. The Illuminati? A joke. The New World Order? A laughable conspiracy theory. The pyramid may have had symbolic significance in the past, but it is a symbol not owned by any of the world's religions. We all identify with it. At most, we think it is cool.
And then I found this video: propaganda at its best. There is even spooky chanting music to help the reader imagine the horrendous, satanic rituals that must go on behind the opera.
I suspect the truth is much closer to this: Astana wants landmarks that we will recognise. It also wants to be a world class city without the problems of cities that have come before. Most of all, Nazarbayev's dream is, genuinely, to foster the tolerance of world religions. He wants us all to get along. That is not a bad thing at all. As for sun worship, well the sun is one of God's inventions, in fact his third after the heavens and the earth, and therefore, I quite like it. It lets me see. It allows plants to grow, and thereby initiates the food chain that lets me eat. I'm quite fond of the sun myself; it is certainly one of my favourite things that God has done for me. Given the choice, I'd quite like to worship in the sunshine (as opposed to worship the sunshine itself).
I wonder if Kazakhstan's ambition to foster peace is borne out of its history. From the days of the original Turkic peoples and Kazakh Juzes (hordes)**** to modern day Kazakhstan, this country has been roughly treated. The first horsemen of the steppe, the Cimmerians, were pushed out by the Scythians (and therefore the Sarmatians and the Alans). The Scythians were greatly feared in the ancient world, and it is to they that Herodotus used the term 'barbarian' (although without the modern connotation). The Scythians were pushed out by the Huns, and the Huns by the Mongols when Attila the Hun died. In modern days, Russia has frequently tried to grab land from its neighbour. Kazakhstan was then a member of the Soviet Union, which greatly distrusted the traditional way of life of Kazakhs, so stole their land and destroyed nomadism. Half a million were resettled - to places without homes, land or water. Collectivization was intent on destroying their way of life, and them if necessary. Resistance led to a quarter of the entire population being slaughtered in some way; tradition vanished without a trace.
Kazakhstan was obliged to assist Russia in the First World War, forced to fight the Turkish, a fellow Turkic, Muslim people. Resistance to enforced conscription in 1916 met with violence. The Kazakh population was halved. Kazakhstan was home to some of the biggest and worst Gulags, where indescribable and unreported atrocity and mass murder occurred. Stalin ordered mass deportations to Kazakhstan: all Chechens, a million Volga Germans, Pontic Greeks, all Ingush, all Kalmyk, all Karachai and Balkar peoples, then Meskhetian Turks from Georgia, Tatars and Koreans. Anyone too sick to make the long journey was simply killed, and their names never recorded. Kazakhs became a minority in their own country (in many respects they still are). All Kazakh tradition was lost. And yet modern Kazakhs do not resent the Russians.
And that's the amazing thing, and why I believe the vision of Astana is sincere. It is their time to shine, without complaint of the past. They're not advocating one world government. Twelve foot lizards will not be running the world from a secret bunker below the Pyramid of Peace, secretly picking off Jews. Kazakhs want everyone to get along for a change, and at the same time, they want to cherish their past and be left alone.
You might think that comments about Astana being linked to the occult and Satan are just silly. I suppose the comments themselves are, especially the bit about alien invasion. But they are also dangerous - read enough of this kind of talk, and it only takes one person to be intrigued and it starts to spread, like a virus, in the same way newspaper bias trickles down to its readers. I can't let this go and neither should you. If you want a real conspiracy theory, try this: search for 'astana' and 'occult' on Google blog search. Every single entry contains the same quote - it is almost as if free speech has been erased and a single message is being inscribed into our brains by a malevolent, existential being.
These comments about Astana are an attack on an entire people and what they stand for. The comments are racist. They are offensive. They lead people to do silly things. And, most of all, they exist because Kazakhstan is an easy target. The West knows or hears very little of this country, and the authors of the conspiracies know this. They can play on the ignorance of others. Borat worked on the same principles - Sacha Baron Cohen could not have gotten away with it if his target were Jews or the French - but Borat was a joke. I really hope this is too, but it is too elaborate and too pernicious.
Calling somebody the Devil is not a trivial thing. None of these accusations are.
And that is why I care.
Is Kazakhstan the "Seat of Satan"? No. Grow up.
*This is an entire story unto itself, but to summarize: the West was instantly scared of Kazakhstan - a Muslim state with nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan had no intention of remaining nuclear or a threat, nor did it wish to give its weapons to any former allies the West might distrust, so it began a covert clean-up of ridiculous proportions and secrecy with the help of the US. I might write on this another time.
**Kazakhstan is 47% Sunni Muslim, 44% Russian Orthodox, 2% Protestant, 7% Other. Despite this, tradition overules ritual at times - for example, a kobyz monument to Korkut, which pre-dates Islam, is a Muslim holy place and Muslims and Christians alike make wishes there.
***I acknowledge that these are two separate conclusions but they are both equally shocking and unjustified.
****There were three original hordes, across the vast territory. To this day, although Kazakhs proudly discern each other's hordes (peacefully, with no racist connotations), regional dialects do not exist. All three hordes spoke the same language, despite the distances involved.
1In Search of Kazakhstan: The Land that Disappeared by Christopher Robbins, my principal source for information for this post. See also internet sites and Once in Kazakhstan: The Snow Leopard Emerges by Keith Rosten.