Heroes of coal

Heroes of coal

When I would ask my interpreter what Karaganda was like, since she had studied there for a year, she would only say “industrial city.” So the picture in my mind was pretty grim as we left Astana in a hired taxi for the three-hour drive south, crunched in the back seat of an old VW Golf, Pink Floyd edition. But after a week of the capital’s empty shine, I was ready to move on, even if it did give me black lung.

After what seemed like an eternity on a road straight as a steel rod but disconcertingly dotted with memorials to fatal car crashes, complete with photos of the deceased, a smudge appeared on the horizon. Thank heavens we’re there, I thought, retangling my legs into another position. That relief turned to horror as the very epitome of industrial squalor began to come more clearly into view.

A jumble of smokestacks, the biggest one spewing a thick cloud of black smoke, was rising up from the empty steppe like some malevolent oasis. I must have made some sort of “oh” sound because my translator said, “that’s not Karaganda, don’t worry.” Whew.

Turned out, it was Temirtau, one of the world’s largest steel plants, built back in the Soviet era and still carrying all that

Insalubrious

Insalubrious

period’s charm. It’s also one of the country’s biggest polluters, has a very high accident rate, and according to the UN, has dealt with a major intravenous drug problem, with a syringe of the local drug mix cheaper than a bottle of vodka. The lure of a blissful narcotic escape from those hellish surroundings is understandable enough. I snapped a shot from the window, which was about all the interaction with Temirtau I was interested in.

The arrival in Karaganda was a much happier event, although this city built on coal and prison labor is not likely to win any beauty contests soon. It has its share of giant, Soviet-style apartment blocks in various states of decrepitude, there are older buildings from the 1930s and 40s that line its main tree-lined thoroughfare. Several parks and greenbelts give it some breathing space. And the people are friendlier, it seems, than in Astana.

It sits on top of an enormous coal basin, and coal, along with prisoners, are what built the city. It’s renowned, or notorious, for the KarLag prison camp system set up by Stalin to send those who fell out of favor with him or his regime. It was a whole network of camps, which got going in 1931 and whose last admin center didn’t close until 1961. At its peak, the system covered an area bigger than France.  One afternoon we visited a memorial to those who died in the camps.

Gulag cemetery

Gulag cemetery

It’s a mass grave out on the steppe, marked with crosses and small monuments from countries whose citizens died here – from Romania to Germany to Korea and Japan – hundreds and hundreds of thousands. Somewhat chilling, besides the cold, cutting wind blowing over the flat landscape, were the military exercises the Kazakh military were holding about 40 feet behind us. The sound of rumbling tanks kind of overwhelmed the solemn atmosphere of the place.

When those prisoners weren’t being taken to giant pits dug in the frozen ground, they were breaking their backs building much of what is now Karaganda, or digging coal for the Soviet state. After the camps were shut down, many people who had been sent to the region decided to stay here. And many of those walking on the city’s streets today are descendents of the one-time prisoners. Karaganda used to have a large ethnic German population, since many of the Germans who had emigrated to Russia centuries before were exiled to remote Kazakhstan when World War II broke out. There are still some around, although many have left, a good percentage having gone back to Germany under a repatriation program offered by the German government.

Despite all that history, and the fact that the eastern Karaganda state region is radioactive thanks to Soviet nuclear tests, the city seems to be getting on with things. Miners are still around and the city’s local heroes, although the pits are out of town and their numbers are declining.  There were a couple of decent restaurants that served food that wouldn’t take five years of your life. One hip café we frequented, Chic Orange, had a photography exhibition going on and seemed to be the gathering place for Karaganda’s hipster scene.

The people at the TV/Radio station are really on the ball, and their work is admirable. It’s an independent station that

Still standing

Still standing

ran afoul of government censors and got its news programs jerked off the air. It’s going back on next month and is determined to go ahead with its mission, although admitting it will have to dance a little cautious two-step with the authorities, since it doesn’t want to see suited men from the National Defense Committee (shudder) descending on its premises again.

One of things I liked was all the Soviet-era imagery left around the place, like murals and statues and mosaics – all featuring those valiant workers striding toward a socialist Utopia. Fun stuff. The biggest Lenin statue in Central Asia is here, which was going to be taken down after Kazakhstan gained independence but Communist die-hards held protests and sit-ins, and the statue stayed. This week, there was always a little bouquet of fresh flowers propped up in front of Vlad.