Urban Development and Modernization in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan


A review of Post-Socialist Dreamworlds: Housing Boom and Urban Development in Kazakhstan, by Alima Bissenova.

The relocation of Kazakhstan’s capital from Almaty to Astana and the Nazarbayev-led modernization project have attracted considerable interest from social scientists in the region and in Western academia. Alima Bissenova’s addition to this literature is one of the most valuable contributions to the field of anthropology of social configuration. It is also a significant contribution to the study of the real estate boom, and of authoritarianism, modernization and the transformation of the social classes in the field of post-Soviet and post-socialist studies.

At the core of the study is the modernization project of post-Soviet Kazakhstan – the promise of greater and more advanced development and economic growth in the aftermath of those unfulfilled promises of the Soviet state. Bissenova analyzes both sides involved and interested in this modernization project – “the aspiring middle classes striving, among other things, to better their housing conditions, and the state/government promising improvement and designing policies to enhance the quality of life for its citizens” (p. 11). Through a detailed analysis of both state and social transformations, the dissertation reveals an important societal change – the emergence of a new type of middle class driven by consumption and aspiration to own in spite of insecurity for its future.

In a very detailed and insightful analysis, Bissenova blends her findings from 26 months of fieldwork in both Astana and Almaty with existing theory on class transformation, extensively contributing to the field. This is done with findings and reconsiderations of theory using the example of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet development. Her ethnographical work in AstanaGenplan – a governmental research institute that overlooks the development and implementation of urban planning regulations, policies, and norms in Astana – provide a very detailed and insightful account of the rapid transformation of the city. Case studies on the new urban middle class, and the extensive historical and personal insights (“anthropology at home”) on Kazakhstan’s recent development, contribute to this study of the real estate boom and continued projects of modernization.

On the basis of these valuable findings and analyses, Bissenova convincingly argues that aspiration for modernization and better ways of living and for improved material consumption standards, prompted a convergence of both the state’s and the aspiring middle class’ interests. New “ideals of normalcy” that stem from the Soviet formula for success consistent with the ideals of Western consumerism (owning an apartment, a car and living in the city) were upgraded during the boom and urban transformation period of the 2000s. This was facilitated through the growing urban transformation of the new capital Astana and continuing processes of urban transformation in the former capital, Almaty. In four detailed chapters describing and analyzing this transformation, Bissenova argues that expectations and opportunities for “normalcy” and consumption were upgraded to larger living spaces and better, shiny, spectacular new urban environments. While the state is building on the ideals of modernization (e.g., development, stability and ways of providing better opportunities for one’s advancement) and creating new urban and housing “dreamworlds” for the growing urban middle class, it also sees this population strata as its main legitimating and supporting group. Modernization ideals are transcribed into the cityscape and new luxurious housing on the one hand, and represented as an overall discourse of economic and socio-economic development and growth on the other. The political leadership has to promise and fulfill the modernization and development ideals in order to stay afloat. By focusing on Astana, which Bissenova rightly describes as the post-modern utopia of “the people’s and the state’s desire to stay on modernization path” (p. 24), she also reveals the strong continuities between “new” projects of modernization and Soviet projects of “old Socialist utopia.” Moreover, in the absence of domestically produced visible and tangible products, Astana and Almaty’s boom during the 2000s was the state’s main symbolic reminder of domestically produced success as much as the state’s ability to provide for its citizens.

In chapter 1, “The Master Plan of Astana: Between the “Art of Government” and “Art of Being Global,” Bissenova offers a very detailed and in-depth ethnography on the transformations of Astana’s General Plan. From the initial plans of Astana’s development to Kisho Kurakawa’s triple principles of symbiosis, metabolism and “abstract symbolism,” the chapter offers rich insights on the processes of borrowing, acceptance, contestation and the transformation of Astana’s architectural and urban development into a “global” and “modern” city. The core of the chapter is the exploration of Astana’s character and foundation as a global – but also a national and local – city through the process of borrowing from world-renowned and established brands and architects. Bissenova also demonstrates how Astana was envisioned as a Eurasian city, in compliance with the Presidential program of strategic development, as well as a global city. The chapter offers an expert analysis of Astana’s transformation and construction that developed in line with a strategy to attract investors and foreign expertise that was appropriated in the form of cultural capital. Bissenova shows how the General Plan of Astana and its reworking and contestation of Kurokawa’s initial “abstract symbolism” plan –the strategy to “re-invent” the Kazakh traditions of nomadic culture and ornaments in architecture – was contested and put the idea of a global city into question. However, this did not stop Astana from spectacular further development as a showcase for both domestic and international audiences, and for more investment to boost both political support and international investment. Through this very interesting analysis she argues that the transformation of economic capital into cultural capital is not something to be taken for granted.

The appropriation of cultural capital through status and ownership is also discussed in Chapter 2 “From ‘Common Yard’ to Condominium: the trials of the emergence of the new ownership society in Kazakhstan,” which focuses on new social configurations and the implications that the economic boom had on the transformation of class structure in Kazakhstan. The chapter demonstrates how the emergence of the “new bourgeois ownership society” – based on the consumption or aspiration to consume and own elitist and improved housing – stem from the Soviet class of urban intelligentsia as the main possessors of cultural capital. The transformation of the Soviet intelligentsia into a new middle class after the collapse of the Soviet Union also clashed with their own growing desire to consume and their criticism of the nouveau riche, which was seen as incapable of “cultured” consumption. The exploration of the parallel between the state that plans and provides the urban development, and the individuals who engage in the laborious and expensive rituals of remount (renovation) inside their own apartments, is an interesting aspect of the social transformation discussed in the chapter. Bissenova analyzes in detail the transformation of expectation and demand for the new “normalcy,” e.g., bigger kitchens, parking lots and windows with nice views. Whilst playgrounds lose space in competition to unplanned parking lots, apartment owners are those making major decisions within the public sphere of a particular housing project and space. Through useful and vivid case studies, Bissenova illustrates how the urban boom and ownership of new housing in Astana has created a space for a new social order, and transformed friendly neighborhood relations into property ownership, responsibilities, demands and micro policies within a given neighborhood or courtyard.

How ownership became a focal point – sometimes even an obsession – for the vast majority of Kazakhstanis in times of post-socialist transformation and widespread anxiety is analyzed in Chapter 3, titled “The Discourse of Material Progress and the Housing Boom.” Bissenova goes into great detail in explaining the social anxieties that led to the investment during the boom. She does so by exploring the context of her analysis meticulously and in great depth, clearly demonstrating the potentialities of “anthropology at home.” Many interesting examples and case studies of Zigmund Bauman’s “liquid” modernity in opposition to the Soviet type perceptions of “solid” modernity can fully inform both domestic and international audiences about deeply embedded social transformations in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Bissenova rightly ties together the example of the inflated mortgage market with explanations of the psychological comfort of owning a property and fulfilling one’s goals and status. Bissenova’s sophisticated analysis of the case studies demonstrate that mass consumption corresponds with growing anxiety about a future that is no longer as predictable as it was under socialism. Although, as the chapter explains in detail, there is vast anxiety and a loss of trust in institutions, state and political actors, the state nevertheless tries to project the ideals and hopes for modernization through the construction and provision of opportunities to buy and own houses and apartments, not only to upper middle class members who are capable of consuming, but also to the lower strata aspiring to become middle class (Chapter 4). As Bissenova writes: “Perhaps construction has actually become a substitute for missing sites of domestic production in this de-industrialized economy ‘sitting on the pipe’” (p. 139).

The problem of the boom’s excesses, the crises that followed and the bail-outs of “frozen” construction is the focus of Chapter 4, “The Boom, the Bust and the Mediating State: Housing Bail-Outs and the Discourse of Fairness in the Wake of Financial Crisis in Kazakhstan.” Followed by a detailed exploration of the mediating state policies that opened up the space for lower middle class consumption of subsidized housing, the chapter offers clear explanations of why and how such decisions were made. These include “shareholding participation” based on the working place profile (e.g., hospitals, universities, etc.) and status according to which one would be allocated housing, and the state’s re-financing of the frozen construction projects post-crisis. Bissenova focuses on forming three convincing explanations. Frozen construction sites, the elite apartment buildings of promised “Post-Socialist Dreamworlds,” would have been visible sites of the state’s failure “to deliver on its promise of modernization” (p. 146). Moreover, the middle class who invested in the boom and who would have lost the most as a result of the bubble bursting could potentially mobilize against the state. Throughout the dissertation and in her conclusion, Bissenova precisely demonstrates that the state has oriented its projects and some type of modernization ideology exactly at the urban middle class whom the state sees as the backbone of its support. The middle class seeks social and political stability in order to continue stable development along the proclaimed modernization plan that will allow them to continue their consumption and lifestyle enhancement. Stability – a ubiquitous concept in the public discourse of post-Soviet Kazakhstan – rests on the state’s ability to deliver and satisfy the needs of its main supporters, the middle class. Finally, Bissenova contends that the collapse of the construction industry would have led to a criminalization of the migrant workforce employed by the construction companies. The analysis brings insight to the Soviet legacy of state mediation towards specific class-based needs and the efficiency of allocating housing. In her conclusion, Bissenova provides interesting insights on the study of popular authoritarian regimes such as President Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan – a paradigm that will hopefully be discussed further in Bissenova’s forthcoming manuscript.

“Post-Socialist Dreamworlds” is a rich study of class, state, society and urban transformation in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, a study that provides a framework for further exploration of post-socialist transformations beyond the region. It will hopefully inspire more research specifically on class transformation and the role of consumption on the transformation of legitimacy, social relations and identity. Once it is published, it will become a must-read for a wide range of social scientists and policy makers interested in a very accurate and balanced overview of post-socialist transformations in Kazakhstan.

Diana T. Kudaibergenova
PhD candidate
Department of Sociology
University of Cambridge

Primary Sources
Official documents, reports and regulations concerning urban development of Astana.
Author’s participant observation over 26 months of fieldwork in Almaty and Astana, interviews.
More than 10 life stories.

Dissertation Information
Cornell University. 2012. 178 pp. Primary Advisor: Marina Welker.

Image: A riverside promenade in Astana, the mixture of residential and recreational areas. Photo courtesy of Vladimir Kurilov.

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