Astana may just be the world’s strangest city. Like the metropolises created in a game of SimCity, it is made
out of buildings that rise suddenly out of flat grasslands. And the population has appeared seemingly out of nowhere tofill those buildings.

Astana began in 1830 as the town of Akmoly, and became first Akmolinsk, then Tselinograd, then Akmola. At one time, it was best known as the nearest town to a notorious Soviet women’s gulag.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s leader since its 1991 independence from the old Soviet Union, designated it in 1994 as Kazakhstan’s national capital and conferred its present name in 1998. ‘Astana’ translates rather prosaically as ‘the capital’.

A city built on oil

Though parts of Astana have been privately developed, the Kazakhstan Government has poured an estimated US$10–30 billion into the city, paying for everything from architects’ fees to civil servants’ apartment subsidies. As any software city-builder knows, that requires extensive resources. The money mostly flows from the country’s exports of oil, especially since 2004 when the oil price began a decade-long boom.

The boom has now ended, and some critics would prefer this still-poor nation had invested the money elsewhere. The average Kazakhstani earns about one-seventh of the income of the average Australian.

Nursultan the survivor

Nazarbayev came to power under communist rule and went right on running the place when the Soviet Union crumbled. His 97.7% vote at the last election speaks of Kazakhstan’s, um, embryonic democracy. He declared 6 July ‘Astana Day’ and a national holiday; it’s also his birthday.

Fast facts:
835,000 population of Astana

The presidential palace is the focus of the city centre. Yet, he has neatly managed the pressures of the greater powers around Kazakhstan, created a peacefully multi-ethnic and multi-religious state, and maintained an apparently genuine popularity.

Why a new capital?

Astana ranks with Washington, St Petersburg, Canberra, Ankara and Brasilia as national capitals where empty fields became city centres. Though sources disagree, Nazarbayev’s decision to move the capital from the southern border city of Almaty seems to have been in part a bid to keep the heavily Russian northern territories away from a Crimea-style secession. If so, the bid succeeded. It also let Nazarbayev burnish his image as father of this huge country.

Architecture on overdrive

The post-Soviet style of the new city centre is a wild mix of cutting-edge modernism, postmodernism and Very Large Shiny Things, some of it designed by big-name architectural practices. Vast, neat plazas are swept each winter by far sub-zero winds.

The new city’s main organising concept is the dome shape that appears on buildings such as the palace, parliament and airport, echoing the domes of traditional Kazakh mosques. Various modernist shapes have nicknames such as the ‘Dogbowl’, the ‘Beer Cans’ and the ‘Cigarette Lighter’ (whose top once spectacularly caught fire).

City of youth

Migration has slashed the average age of Astana’s residents to the low 30s; an entire generation of young public servants has moved to the city in the past 15 years and started having children.