The Changing Names of Astana

I know. It’s been too long since I last wrote. I have been surprisingly busy trying to get projects and papers done before our big arrival in June. That doesn’t mean I have forgotten about the blog. In fact, I often have so many ideas, I cannot decide which to write about! And I unfortunately seem to get my best ideas while I’m walking, so I don’t write them down and I forget by the time I’m home again. Alas.

But today, I have a fun history lesson for you brought to you in part by my Russian tutor! A few weeks ago during our lesson, I asked if she had anything we could read about Kazakhstan (our book goes on and on about really random bits of Russian history and culture, including things like fast food chains or songs about loving borsht. As much as I’d love to go to St. Petersburg or Moscow, I am not sure we’d be able to get a visa with the current state of things. I’d much rather learn about the place in which I’m actually living). Luckily, she came through and we got to read about the different names Astana, our city, has had over time. With as modern as it is now, sometimes it’s hard to remember it has been around for a century and a half and has seen a lot of change in its time.

The first name of the city was Akmolinsk (Акмолинск) (origin to 1961), coming from the Kazakh words “Ak Mola” (Ақ Мола), which means “white grave.” At first this sounds very ominous, and my husband and I both assumed it referred to the cold, snowy winters the area experiences. Surprisingly, the name actually refers to the kurgan burials (really large mound burials) in the area. The best known of these is a large one covered in light limestone belonging to Kabanbai Batyr, a famous Kazakh warrior from the 17th/18th century – if you’ve mailed us anything in Astana, you’ll recognize this is also who our street is named after! While Kazakhstan was part of the USSR, attempts were made (unsuccessfully) to develop the Steppe into vast farmlands. The monumental grave of Kabanbai was destroyed in the process. A new monument was later erected in the spot of the original grave and is now believed to have healing powers! (For those of you who know about my dissertation, you can assume correctly that I want to visit this place ASAP!).

Even after the grave was destroyed, the name stuck for a while, but the meaning behind it was altered to refer to all the “white products” one could find at the large a dairy bazaar that attracted people from the region. However, during the farming “hay”-day (haha!) the name was altered again to Tselinograd (Целиноград) (1961-1992), a Russian name meaning “untamed city,” (perhaps a bit self-fulfilling since efforts to farm the area were unsuccessful). If anyone looks for flights to Astana, you’ll notice our airport code is “TSE” – it dates to this period.

After Kazakhstan declared their independence in 1992, the name reverted back to the original Kazakh name, Akmola (Акмола) (1992-1998). Once it was decided that the city should be the new capital of the country, the name was changed for a final time to Astana (Астана) (1992 to present), which literally means “capital” in Kazakh.

The changing names for this city illustrates what a complicated history this country has. It is Kazakh, to be sure, but heavily influenced by its ties to Russia. It also illustrates how history can be rewritten to prioritize different spheres of importance at different times.


4 thoughts on “The Changing Names of Astana

  1. Deb Rockenbach says:

    Oh I’ve missed you! I’m very jealous and impressed that you’re learning to speak RUSSIAN – wow you are incredible! How you feeling lil mama – how bout some pictures???




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