Karaganda, Kazakhstan

From memoir A Soviet Union of the Mind

The 1996 Lonely Planet guidebook entry on Karaganda begins, “No-one comes to Karaganda who doesn’t have to.” I’m here to tell you someone did

Karaganda, Kazakhstan once had the paradoxical honor of being the most educated city in the world and having the largest number of prison inmates. In the 1930’s, intellectuals throughout the Soviet Union were arrested and shipped off to Karaganda’s Gulag penal colony as part of Stalin’s reign of terror. 

Decades later, the prison camp was disbanded. The cell blocks became homes. The dirt alleys, streets. The German prisoners-of-war at the camp were not returned to Germany post WW-II and Karaganda once boasted a German population of 140,000. The remaining former inmates found themselves living in a hotbed of higher learning.

But in the last 20 years, there was a diaspora of scholars. Now, a city tourism website for Karaganda boasts that it is an, “internationally-known city,” because, “every third working man is a miner.”

I arrived at 5 am or so on the redeye train through the steppe. The yellow Siberian prairie repeats itself over and over like a Microsoft Flight simulator background when you veer off course. When I read Chekhov’s novella The Steppe in college, I was bored just hearing about Eurasia’s grasslands, but living it was something else.

Still, I had gazed out the windows to avoid my suffocating compartment. The people in my coupe included a quiet, young couple and a fat, smelly gentleman who insisted I get drunk with him out of respect. He kept saying, “Ice! Ice!” upon discovering I was American.

While he was in the bathroom, the young couple explained why. Apparently, in the 1990’s there was a re-dubbing of the Dentyne Ice chewing gum commercials. In the original American commercial, a woman chews gum so refreshingly minty that when a man kisses her, his glasses frost over. The slogan: “Nothing’s cooler than ice.” In the Russian version, the slogan was Eto ne ice, meaning something like, “I can’t believe it’s not ice!” Anyway, this explains why ice was the only word this guy knew in English, and he repeated it ad nauseum. 

At 1 am we stopped in a little town for 7 minutes where women with firecrackers leapt into the train cars, selling cigarettes, glow-in-the-dark necklaces and spinning tops with little blinking LEDs. My berth-mate ducked outside to get more vodka. 

When the train started to move, he clambered into the compartment followed by a stout, middle-aged conductor who was haranguing him that it was illegal to drink booze on Kazakhstan Railways and she could fine him. She was wearing a pristine blue button-down uniform and folded sailor’s pillbox hat. 

She was also running numbers in a little single-car lottery. She tried to get him to buy tickets by joking about being a woman in uniform and insinuated that he might get lucky. When she returned 20 minutes later, he had the vodka bottle to his lips. She blackmailed him into buying 10 tickets.

This fat guy moaned out songs all night and took off his clothes. He had bright red briefs with the phrase “Don’t touch… with your hands” written on it (this is the phrase usually written in museums beside valuable pieces of art.) Just before dawn, he lost consciousness. His belly, glistening with sweat, rose and fell like a male frog’s inflating vocal sac. 

We arrived around 5:30 am. From the train station to the center of Karaganda, it was a four-mile walk between identical brutalist apartment buildings. I took what could be called a leisurely stroll around the lake at the Central Park of Culture and Leisure. The park gave way to a tiny train station with half-sized trains run by kids vying for a future working as railroad conductors. A few children were hand painting the train cars with the light-blue of the Kazakh flag. 

Once the malls opened, I trekked the length of the city in search of vegetarian food. Outside one mall I found a deserted junk market: a greasy pile of gizmos and sprockets beyond my comprehension. 

The city center was a bit more cleaned up, with a round theater complete with a glowing “I <3 Karaganda” sign for selfies. It didn’t look like a prison camp at all. A restaurant’s banner in a newly constructed building touted the city’s slogan: But Where? But Where? In Karagand-there!

The Ethnographic Museum had just opened for the day. Life-size dioramas explained the history of dinosaurs and wooly mammoths that had once reigned the steppe. Flash forward millions of  years and the museum displayed a contract signed between the nomadic Kazakhs, who had no sense of borders, with the Russian Imperialists. The Russians bought Karaganda for 250 rubles ($5 in old times money), according to the museum. It reminded me of the Indians selling Manhattan below Wall Street to the Dutch for a song.

Also on display was astronaut food. When I was a kid when my dad took me to museums we would buy freeze-dried astronaut ice cream in the gift shop. 

But the Kazakh cosmonauts had red and green soup in old metal toothpaste tubes. Red was borsch, beet soup, and green was schi, cabbage soup. 

Kazakhstan had been the launchpad for the Soviet Space program, and famously Sputnik was launched from this country’s abundant wilderness (the world’s 8th-largest by area). There was a deserted prairie in the Southwest called the Baikonur Cosmodrome that the Russian Federation leases for its space program to this day. 

Soviet General Vasily Voznyuk, designer of the R-7 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), had chosen this desolate area because it was relatively free of radio traffic and was closer to the Earth’s equator (and would thus exhibit higher rotational speeds.)

One of my students, a professor of botany, did his field work near the Baikonur Cosmodrome every summer. He’d camp in the wilderness for two months and dig up dirt in search of scientifically unclassified seeds and plant life. When he did find something new, he’d scour villages with his preserved specimen, interrogating villagers to find a native Kazakh word for it. He was compiling a dictionary of flora. 

He said that he saw “a lot” of UFOs on the outskirts of the Cosmodrome. He couldn’t make them out from so far away without his glasses, but in his mind this qualified them as “unidentified.”

The other museum in Karaganda was the Ecomuseum. It was founded by all the nuclear and environmental scientists that involuntarily relocated to Karaganda during Stalin’s Great Purge.

A poster next to the door showed a woman’s foot in high stiletto heels and read, “Stiletto heels are forbidden in this museum!”

Inside, the two-story room with a grate-metal balcony hugging the walls was totally devoid of people. Clearly, stilettos would fall through the grate, and the prohibition of heels felt justified. I heard someone in an office talking on a phone and decided to look around unsupervised. 

Rusty machines that had once been working parts of early computers in nuclear power plants shied in the corners. Even the paint on these machines was stripping itself off by the force of gravity. Sitting on the floor was a 1’ x 2’ metal box with weird plugs coming out the top that looked like Cybermen helmets from Dr. Who.

There was a diorama of uranium mining constructed of paint and sand. The scene was about the size of a sheet of printer paper and was built into the wall. Another artistic rendition of a tranquil landscape showed the inside of the mountains and bottoms of ravines chock-full of nuclear detritus, represented by brownish-green paint. I tripped over a gas mask and toppled into a barrel of nuclear waste. 

An exclamation point accented a triangle sticker glued to the front of the barrel. The container teetered back and forth but settled on its bottom. It had looked so plain and unthreatening, like something from a movie set.

The person in the office came out. It was a 30-year-old woman who was both excited and flabbergasted that someone had come to the museum. She asked me if I wanted the tour. And when I did, she went back into the office to comb her hair.

She eventually described off-shore oil rigs, showed me a real boar-sized drill bit that dug into the ocean floor. Kazakhstan owned about 5-10% of their oil claim in the Caspian Sea, she explained, and the rest went to international oil conglomerates. This seemed like a pittance if it was, after all, their oil.  

For decades, the Caspian Sea’s oil reserves had been divided amongst different Soviet Republics, and the Kazakhs wanted to carve out their share once the Soviet Union collapsed. Though some outdated Soviet equipment had been marooned on-site at oil-wells, what the Kazakhs really needed was a state-of-the-art foreign oil enterprise to collaborate with ASAP. Once a drill started boring under the Kazakh flag, it would be harder for Russia or Turkmenistan to legitimately claim that source as their own. 

The reason for the urgent update in equipment was that Kazakhstan had a claim to Tengiz, a colossal Caspian Sea oil field. The former Soviet states were wholly unable to profitably extract fuel without modern equipment. This was illustrated by the #37 explosion at Tengiz.

The Soviets had founded the Tengiz oil field on Kazakhstan’s western coast. On June 24, 1985, oil well #37 at Tengiz exploded due to poorly managed pressure, spewing toxic gas into the air, along with a 623-foot column of oil. The Soviet newspaper Izvestia wrote that a, “continuing flow of unburned toxic gas could poison every living thing within 100 kilometers.”

So the Soviets did what they did best: find a cheap, solution to a real problem. They set the oil column on fire.

This converted the gas into the less poisonous gas, sulfur dioxide. Workers reported that a pot of hot water boiled simply by being within 150 feet of the well. A French technician working 100 miles from the site noted down his sighting of the flame tower in his diary. 

The blast dispersed, amongst other things, the remains of ducks that had exploded, as well as what became known as “Tengizite”. This was black-obsidian-like glass that usually requires the heat of a volcanic eruption to produce. 34 million barrels of oil were lost before the blaze was contained over a year later, and, amazingly, only one person died, sucked in by the inferno when he got too curious and decided to take a peek.

 Then there was the colossal Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea. About as far from land as you can get, Kashagan sits on a 47-mile-long, 26-mile-wide reef that formed about 400 million years ago.

Together, Tengiz and Kashagan were the largest oil discoveries in 30 years, and Kashagan alone was the second-biggest known oil field ever at the time of its discovery. In the early 90’s, the US wanted to assert its interests, and Chevron felt it could rely on President Clinton’s backing, should they be victim to political hostility from any other nation. 

Chevron sent Jeet Bindra, an ethnic Indian, to head talks with Moscow, naively believing having a non-white non-American leading negotiations might make the Russians more receptive. The Russians did not seem to have an ethnically motivated dislike for Bindra, but rather an incongruence of business mentality. Bindra tried to sell Chevron’s proposal to oversee Caspian oil exploration as a “win-win”, but the Russian oilmen wouldn’t buy it. “There is no such thing as a win-win,” one of the Russians told Bindra. “If you win, I lose. And I don’t know how to lose.” 

So Chevron tried working with Kazakhstan. Kazakhstani president Nursultan Nazarbayev invited the oilmen up to his mountain ski retreat at Medeo where they courted him like dukes negotiating their daughter’s hand in marriage. The President asked the oilmen if they wanted to go fishing, but they wanted to talk business. He asked them if they would sit in the sauna with him and then jump into the snow but they had specific orders to call oil company headquarters that night with a business update. 

Things changed in 1994 when Vice President Al Gore visited a sauna with President Nazarbayev. Afterwards, Nazarbayev, his wife, and daughter sang Kazakh folk songs for Al Gore in three-part-harmony. The US Vice President returned the nicety by singing “Jingle Bells”. Now this was a guy that Nazarbayev could work with. 

Years later, when the oil consortium was ready to drill at Kashagan, Nazarbayev insisted on personally witnessing the groundbreaking. The oilmen couldn’t say no to the President, even though the first days could not possibly produce enough natural gas to light (let alone smear on one another’s faces, as was tradition when oil was struck.)

So the oilmen pulled the old switcheroo. They rigged a tanker to hold regular diesel fuel from another oil field, a good hundred miles from the Kashagan off-shore site. 

When Nazarbayev arrived at Kashagan, he watched the men light the fuel, smiled, loosened open the tap and smeared oil on everyone’s faces, none the wiser that he was pouring diesel fuel, not natural gas. I always imagined Nazarbayev painting his face with exaggerated angry eyebrows. 

But of all the Wild West stories of Kazakhstan’s ecological tragedy, I really wanted to know about the nuclear testing. 

In the museum, there was a decent-sized dent in a weird metal box on the museum floor. The guide told me that it was for transporting nuclear waste and I lunged back. 

“Don’t worry,” she said with unwarranted nonchalance. “You probably can’t make an atom bomb with these boxes. Cancer, though, I dunno. I mean every once in a while one of these containers shows up during an organized crime or terrorist raid or one washes up on the shore of the Caspian.”

“Is that safe?” I asked.

“You know, come to think of it, I heard about a homeless man who got a hold of one and tried to pawn it. He slept on top of it so nobody would steal it. One day he woke up dead, and his prized box of toxic sludge was gone.”

But much of the nuclear testing occurred in the Semipalatinsk Polygon also known as the Semey Triangle. This polygon is a 7,000 square-mile area that was used for nuclear weapons testing until 1991. 

The apparatchik who traveled about the region to warn families about impending thermonuclear tests might have missed a few nomads who were following their herds out in the wilderness. And some peasants did not understand that winds would blow nuclear fallout all around their corner of the country. 

The bomb tests smoothed over the already flat landscape of the steppe. The guide called this flattening of the grasslands, “Scalping the bald man.” The people who survived the blasts lived their lives with terrible cancer. Babies were born with deformities.

It was only in 1992, after the demise of the Soviets, that the Kazakh parliament recognized the injustice and promised to pay survivors extra health and monetary benefits. Over 1 million survivors were given “nuclear passports,” official documents testifying how they had been harmed as a result of this injustice. Most nuclear passport holders received $40 a year. 

I asked the guide if going to Semey was safe. She said probably. I told her I was going for some English-teacher conference, but she wanted to know how long I’d be in Karaganda. She took my hand and wrote her phone number on it. I called her. She never called me back.

The next month, I went to Semey.

Harry Leeds received a McKnight grant to publicize his debut novel. He is editor of 'Mumber Mag' that pays writers well.