Almaty vs. Alma-ata

by Nathan Hamm on 10/26/2004 · 4 comments

Today’s Eurasia Daily Monitor reports that a dispute over the spelling of the name of the former capital highlights the tensions caused by trying to “Kazakh-ify” a country with a very large Russian minority.

Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital city, has been drawn into the bitter debates between Kazakh nationalists and the Russian-speaking community. Recently a resident of Almaty sued the popular Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty Kazakhstan for spelling the name of the city as “Alma-Ata,” ignoring the officially adopted post-independence Kazakh spelling of the name, “Almaty.” In response, the staff of the paper launched a massive campaign against the charges, mobilizing opinions from well-known public figures and intellectuals in favor of the old Soviet-style name of Alma-Ata. But Almaty’s Medeu district court ruled against the newspaper.

For the majority of the population, the spelling of the city’s name is not a top inter-ethnic issue. Careless public statements by several prominent figures close to official circles apparently triggered the fuss. Speaking at a festival of traditional songs in September, Dariga Nazarbayeva, daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, said it would be nice to return the old name of Alma-Ata (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, September 7). Her comments were picked up by intellectuals from the older generation, nostalgic for the past.

Not really knowing Kazakh, I can’t tell you which of the two spellings is a better way to say “father of apples”. To my Uzbek-biased ears, “Alma-ata” sounds better though. To my English-biased tongue, “Almaty” is easier to say.

However, I don’t have a stake in the battle.

Passions were further heated by calls from the Russian community, supported by the city’s mayor, Viktor Khrapunov, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Almaty. Nationalists, however, argue that Almaty is at least 1,500 years old and was settled long before the erection of the Verny military fort as a symbol of Russian colonization. While the dispute is widening the existing rift between the country’s two major ethnic communities, official ethnic policy is hardly conducive to building trust between them.

The last twelve years have seen a shift in the staffing of government posts. Currently, all but one Cabinet-level minister and one governor are ethnic Kazakhs.

That being said, Kazakhstan has a more rational, though controversial, approach to granting citizenship to those who aren’t Kazakh.

Not long ago President Nazarbayev approved a set of amendments to the citizenship law that allows foreign workers employed in Kazakhstan to obtain Kazakh citizenship. Presumably, this decision was dictated by the need to fill the gap in training local specialists in the oil and energy sectors. But the revised law has aroused fears. Political scientist Azimbay Gali believes that the law throws open the doors to Russian specialists who will take up the best-paid jobs, creating an ethnic division of labor. “This is nothing less than a legalized form of colonization,” he warns. Even Bolatkhan Taizhan, a diplomat and advisor to the deputy chairman of the pro-presidential Otan party, could not conceal his critical attitude: “When I first heard of the law I came to the conclusion that it was prepared by people who do not bother about the future of Kazakhstan as a state. There are many migrants in our country who live and work here, and who disrespect our laws” (Turkestan, October 14).

I understand their concern, but cannot fully back it. When I was in Bishkek, I ran into more than a few Russians who had once lived in Uzbekistan. Some were former residents of Navoi and/or the mining cities of Uchquduq or Zerafshan. The attitude towards Uzbekistan was fairly uniform–the government was absolutely insane. The word “fanatic” came up a lot to refer to Uzbeks in general, and it referred to Uzbek nationalism. There were also whispered complaints in Navoi from Russians and Russified Uzbeks about the unfortunate loss of so much of the highly-trained workers from the region’s factories and mines.

I certainly understand and support the desire to create a highly-trained workforce made up of the local population, but the Uzbek approach struck me as fairly self-defeating in the short term.

Kazakh nationalism is officially a civic nationalism. The country has little other choice.

Both moderates and nationalists understand very well that building a mono-ethnic society in Kazakhstan, even in the distant future, is not realistic. The official policy line boils down to fostering a feeling of civic patriotism irrespective of ethnic origins. Addressing a session of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, President Nazarbayev put forward an idea of creating “a Kazakhstani nationality,” an entirely new and highly controversial notion, designed to give a sense of unity to all citizens of Kazakhstan. Many political scientists have already expressed their deep skepticism about uniting all peoples of the country into an artificially created “Kazakhstani nation.”


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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 4 comments }

Asrorbek October 26, 2004 at 6:10 pm

Nathan, one of my former teachers, he was a good specialist, left for Kazakhstan. He used to work at the Navoi Mining Institute i.e. “Gorny Institut” as an economics teacher. He studied in Germany and his knowledge was perfect. Sure he was ethnically kazakh but the staff of the institute didn’t value his knowledge. Now he is in Karaganda.
As for spelling of “Alma-ata” I agree with 100% even though I am not a citizen of Kazakhstan, but I am Turkistanian:)
P.S. Yes, in Uzbek Alma-ata means “the father of apple”(we say this city “Olma-ota”, however we often say “Almaty”)

Janibek June 30, 2005 at 1:03 pm

The better way to say “father of apples” has no relation to the name of our city. The historical name is Almaty, as can be seen from the reports written to the Russian Tsar by the explorer and founder of Fort Vernyi – Major Peremyshelsky. The reports are all dated, and the location name is specified by his hand as ALMATY. The papers are located in the Kazakhstan State Museum.

After the founding of Fort Vernyi, the city was called Vernyi and the name Almaty was not used. However, in 1921, the communist party voted to return the historical name back. The council has incorrectly determined the historical Kazakh name to be Alma-Ata, and that is how the city was known throughout the Soviet era.

The incorrect name Alma-Ata is not mentioned in any historical documents before 1921. Every Russian, Tatar, Chinese, Arabic, and other document that refers to the location uses the name ALMATY, alternatively written as ALMATU.

The name Alma-Ata is not a Russian version of Almaty. It is an incorrectly determined Kazakh version. It does not even mean the father or grandfather of apples. Any of these phrases would be a way to say that – “Almaly Ata”, “Alma Atasy”, “Almanyn Atasy”. But “Alma-Ata” means absolutely nothing – it is simply two words put together without any grammatical connection.

ALMATY, on the other hand, conforms perfectly to the Kazakh tradition of naming locations. There are settlements with similar names, such as Qayraqty, Ashytasty, Bulanty, Moyinty, Buldyrty, Burkitty, Baqty, Balyqty, Aqtasty, Bakbaqty, Qamysty, Arshaty.

ALMATY is not a phrase, but a name for a city which has always been famous for its apples.

Whoever wants the city to be called Alma-Ata is simply nostalgic for their childhood. There can be no ethnic, cultural or linguistic arguments to support the name Alma-Ata. It is simply a matter of historical inaccuracy.

Yerden September 19, 2005 at 1:18 am

Almaty is the only right name, it goes back to the history of ancient city Almatu.

Alma-Ata is an artificial name that was invented by Bolsheviks in 1921.

Those who understand Russian, read this article: http://www.geocities.com/Almaty_name

It explains all.

Yan April 10, 2006 at 9:28 pm

by the way Alma-ata
Alma- apple
Ata-grandfather not father!!!!

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