Kazakhstan Is Still Very Poor, in Places

by Joshua Foust on 5/28/2009 · 10 comments

One of the strangest things about studying Central Asia is grappling with the severe inequalities. The big cities in a country like Kazakhstan are bastions of wealth sometimes difficult to comprehend.


 For example, this is a photograph I took of the waterfront along the Ishim River in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, in July of 2003. Five years ago, apartments in those pastel towers were renting for $700 a month—in a country whose GDP per capita at the time was around $2,000.

That year, when I was in a cab in Almaty—the country’s enormous, beautiful city nestled up against the Tien Shan Mountain in the southeast—the Turk driving the car explained to me that there were such wonderful opportunities there that he and several of his friends had left Turkey for Kazakhstan because the pay was better. Things have only gotten worse since then, as oil (and, moreso now, uranium) money has flooded into the country, making its politics rather more Russian in character, if you get my drift.

But Kazakhstan is also home to truly shocking poverty. Venture a half-hour outside the limits of any noticeable city (“big” doesn’t apply to most of them) and you can find people still eking by on almost nothing—whether scraps from a failed collective farm, the toxic remains of a slowly draining overpolluted lake (the Aral Sea, sadly, is not alone), or even encroaching desertification in what was once Khrushchev’s vaunted “Virgin Lands.” 

All of this is an introduction for a fascinating RFE/RL video of what life is still like in rural Kazakhstan. The reporter said the 21st century hadn’t reached this isolated village… but it sounds more like the 20th hadn’t either:

How sad. But it’s also not surprising—as Nathan and Michael could elaborate, I’m sure.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Michael Hancock May 29, 2009 at 4:01 pm

I’ll be taking my digital camera and DV camera with me to Kazakhstan, so we’ll see what kinds of fun things I can bring back. Granted, I’m not a journalist, but I’ll be in Kazakhstan for 2 months, so we’ll see what I see!

areke May 29, 2009 at 5:09 pm

It is not real which seems like in this movie… exaggerated…. did you see she has gold teeth, nice. Of course nice when foreign guys as you pay her green money 🙂

Michael Hancock May 31, 2009 at 3:57 pm

I understand, but have finite patience for, Kazakhs living in cities like Almaty, or even Shymkent, saying such people are not real, that their life is not representative of Kazakhstan. And it isn’t representative of everyone, but there are literally millions of people that live like this. I say this not because I watched this video, but because I’ve seen it myself, and not in one tiny little aul, but in many. And it’s many times worse in Uzbekistan and other countries, but Kazakhstan is not without its poverty.

Turgai Sangar June 1, 2009 at 3:27 am

I agree with Michaël. Many ‘city Kazakhs’ have not the slightest clue about reality outside of their own surroundings, and I do not even mean in remote villages in more ‘extreme’ areas like Kyzyl Orda but also on the very outskirts of Almaty.

ChrisM June 1, 2009 at 11:02 am

Re. the gold teeth, this isn’t the same as when you American/UK music stars showing off their bling. At points, it was the only decent option for false teeth/implants/crowns etc.

Note for Michael, I’m sure you’re aware already, but just in case… if your DV camera uses DVDs you might want to consider an alternative. Despite the ludicrousness of the situation, customs can give you a hard time taking optical disks out of the country, unless they’ve been inspected first, though memory sticks/mobile phones with huge capacity memory cards in them, and even portable hard drives don’t seem to ever be picked up. Thats assuming you haven’t already been and gone of course.

ChrisM June 1, 2009 at 11:13 am

^^oops, American dating confused me once more, I glanced up at the last comment and assumed 6/1/2009 was 6th January 2009. I’ therefore assuming you’ve not yet been on your trip.

Oldschool Boy June 1, 2009 at 10:32 pm

These guys are not the poorest. They have the house millions of immigrants in USA would ever dream about. And a horse! Little girls around America would kill for that.
It is not that I am saying that there is no poverty in Kazakhstan. It is just ridiculous how everything is relative. In America you have water and electricity but you will own your house only after you paid all your mortgage when you are like 60 and you can never dream about having land or a horse, but you do not think that you are poor. Then you look at these bitching peasants, who have their own house, some land, even a horse and a few cows, and think “what poor people”:(.

Frederick June 2, 2009 at 3:31 am

Also let’s recognize it isn’t as if the cities in Kazakhstan are wealthy. There are some astoundingly wealthy people, of course, but even with the wealth in cities here, on balance the people in cities are also quite poor. Lots of disparity in wealth. Of course, Kazakhstan is not alone in that–the US has its own problems in that area, as do others.

Narcogen June 2, 2009 at 5:37 pm

The urban/rural split out of KZ’s 15m population is about 50/50 at last I read.

And somehow the rural poor are the “real Kazakhstan” while the urban/suburban middle and upper classes are not?

What’s the “real America” then? The Ozarks?

Turgai Sangar June 3, 2009 at 2:21 am

“the rural poor are the “real Kazakhstan” while the urban/suburban middle and upper classes are not?”

They’re BOTH the real Kazakhstan. It’s just that the money and the development that ones sees in Almaty is not representative for ‘the country’ as a whole.

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