Sunday, 12 November 2017

Quick and Dirty: Almaty, Kazakhstan (Night's Black Agents)

Last week it was the most expensive city in the world, and this week it's the least: Almaty, formerly Verniy, the largest city in Kazakhstan, a former possession of the Soviet Union.


                                     Night view of Almaty. Image sourced from WikiVisual.

Almaty can trace its past back to the Bronze Age, with artefacts, tumuli and other archaeological evidence of riches and sophisticated development. The Golden Man, now a Kazakhstan symbol, dates back to the 3rd or 4th Century BC, and was buried with over 4,000 gold adornments, warrior's equipment and other funerary goods signifying wealth and importance, but he, or she, is only one of many valuable finds.

During the Middle Ages Almaty grew in importance thanks to its strategic position on the Great Silk Road, linking the West with China's markets. Almaty even produced its own coins, with its own mint. The city's name is first mentioned in sources from this period, books published in the 13th  Century. There's some dispute as to the meaning of Almaty, but many scholars believe it refers to the apples which grow here so plentifully, and is usually taken to mean Apple Mountain, or Father of Apples. Due to the genetic diversity of the apples grown here, this region of Kazakhstan is thought to be the ancestral home of the fruit.

However when shipping routes overtook the Great Silk Road in importance as a means of getting to China, Almaty's influence and importance declined. There was considerable infighting up to the 18th Century, between ethnic Kazakhs and their neighbors, and between different Kazakh groups, all of which came to a head in the 19th Century when the Russians finally conquered the Kazakhs.

The Russians began their occupation with the construction of Fort Verniy, with much the same intent as the English had when they build castles in Wales: domination of an aggressive local population. Russian peasants and other migrants soon flocked to the village the fort protected, despite such disasters as an earthquake which levelled the place in 1887, and by the turn of the 20th Century Verniy was almost 30,000 strong, mostly ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.

With the 1918 Revolution came great changes. Verniy became a regional powerhouse, and changed its name to Alma-Ata. Rail and road links were soon built, and Alma-Ata became the central city of the Turkestan Autonomous Socialist Republic. For a brief moment it even attained transitory fame as one of the places Trotsky was sent to live in exile, before Trotsky finally found his way to Mexico City. However it was the Second World War that really saw Almaty grow. When vital industries and resources were withdrawn from the Front, many of them ended up in Almaty, provoking helter-skelter industrial growth and expansion. It became one of the Soviet Union's most important industrial cities as a result.

The years following the war saw further development, to the tune of 300,000 sq m year-on-year growth. Care had to be taken to build in such a way that earthquakes couldn't easily destroy the city, but apart from that the sky was the limit. Today it's known as a center of industrial, educational and ecological development - particularly the latter, and the current plan is to grow Almaty as a kind of ecological showpiece, or garden city. It's no longer the capital city of Kazakhstan - that honor went, in 1997, to Astana - but it's still the most important city in the state.

                                                            Image taken from Wikipedia.


Over 1.5 million live in Almaty, which makes it roughly the same size as Philadelphia, Penn. Population density is very low, even in the cities; the capital, Astana, has about three quarter of a million people, making it only slightly larger than Seattle, Washington.

The vast majority - over 49% - of the country is between 25-54 years old. Living beyond 64 is common, and life expectancy is above 70, male and female.

Sunni Islam is the majority religion. About a quarter of the population are Russian Orthodox, and few other religions have much more than a toe-hold. The country considers itself secular and tolerant, though it's wary of proselytizers and extremist groups.

Literacy is over 95%, and unemployment is very low, less than 4%.

The country is over 60% ethnic Kazakh, with a substantial minority Russian population, and a scattering of other ethnic groups. Kazakh is the official language, though Russian is widely spoken, and is considered the language of business.


Until fairly recently Kazakhstan spent a lot of money - comparatively speaking - on its air force, army and navy, but in 2016 spending dropped to less than 1% of the country's GDP. This coincides with a switch from a conscripted to a contract military; until now, military service was compulsory, with a 2 year contract from the age of 18. Kazakhstan has ongoing border issues with Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and China, which are being resolved diplomatically, more or less. Kazakhstan is a member of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, among other groups, though its human rights record is, to put it politely, spotty.

Kazakhstan's relations with Russia have been tested in recent years, thanks in part to disagreements between Putin and Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev - the only President independent Kazakhstan has ever known. President Nazarbayev is in his late 70s, and has received over 90% of the popular vote in recent elections. He and his cronies are known to be corrupt and authoritarian; it's anyone's guess what will happen when he resigns or dies. At time of writing he seems likely to cling to power with both hands, come what may. Many Russians think Kazakhstan is but an experiment, not a real independent nation, and are of the opinion that the experiment can be terminated at any time - most likely when President Nazarbayev dies.

Kazakhstan's relationship with the United States has been cordial since the 2001 terror attacks, and Kazakhstan has been a partner in the war against terror. However there has been considerable unease, particularly in China and Russia, about the possibility of the United States establishing air bases in Kazakhstan. So far, that possibility has yet to become more than theoretical.

Islamic fundamentalist groups are a significant problem, and Al-Qaeda is but one of a number of different organizations suspected to be operating in Kazakhstan. There have been several terror incidents, particularly in recent years. However the Kazakh government is not above using intimidation and terror tactics, particularly when it comes to silencing journalists. It has also been accused of assassination on at least one occasion.

The country is a conduit for drugs smuggling from Afghanistan to Europe, and a producer of cannabis on an industrial scale. Government interest in cracking down on drug smuggling is low. Opiate addiction is rife in Kazakhstan.


Big Almaty Lake, only a few kilometers north of the city, is a tectonic lake whose waters feed the Big Almaty River. It is part of a natural park, and hosts the Tien-Shan Astronomical Observatory.

Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Almaty is a city of fountains, boasting 125 fountains all told. The Oriental Fountain, part-pictured here, is based on the Chinese calendar, and is a popular stop for tourist walking tours. There are twelve animals all told in the Oriental Fountain

                                                      Image sourced from TripAdvisor.
The Almaty Television Tower, commonly called the Almaty Tower, is the tallest free-standing steel tubular structure in the world. It's designed to withstand earthquakes rated up to 10 on the Richter scale, and has two observation decks at its uppermost level, which are not open to the public.

                                                   Image sourced from WikiVisually.
Story Seeds

As part of its bid to be recognized as a major sporting center, Kazakh officials and wealthy friends of the government have put together a bid to host a major martial arts international tournament in Almaty. So far everything seems set for a publicity and sporting triumph - though many Western journalists are barred from attending, for various reasons. Several new venues for the tournament are being built for the occasion - and one Conspiracy front seems to be winning some of the best bids. Why is the Conspiracy so interested in building sports venues all of a sudden? Is this merely an attempt to hide or transfer ill-gotten funds, or is there something more important going on?

[This seed may change depending on whether your game is set pre or post 2015.] Almaty is/was in close competition with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. It's a very tense race, and every single International Olympic Committee vote is being courted assiduously. Some would argue, too assiduously; China's Room 452, its Vampire program, is known to have become involved in influencing the vote. Yet still Almaty remains a strong contender. Who, or what, is on its side? If this is post 2015, and Beijing is known to have won, then what happened to those 15 IOC committee members who didn't vote - and what kind of blowback can be expected on the losing side?

An Islamic militant attack in Almaty's financial district has the world on edge. So far it's just the usual suspects hitting the usual targets, but Tradecraft or similar knows that at least one organized group is gathering material - and explosives - for a hit on a major target. Yet those same sources seem to think the terrorists are after an archaeological site, not something more obviously political. The question is, why?

Thrilling Elements

  • The Zelyonni [Green] Bazaar and the flea market at Dostyk Avenue is the best place to pick up Soviet-era collectables, fake Gucci and Louis Vuitton, sweets, fruit and other items - and it's always packed out with bargain hunters, making it a difficult venue for a Chase scene.
  • Almaty's party central if you're a well-to-do and hedonistic Russian or Central Asian, and can afford to spend $100 a throw for a table. The rich and corrupt reel from nightclub to nightclub with wallets stuffed with cash - and, in some cases, their minders follow on behind to protect them from themselves.
  • Almaty is a city that remembers its heritage, whether Soviet or ancient. Plaques and memorials are everywhere in the older parts of the city, commemorating the artists, scientists and other famous citizens of the city.
  • Since the 2005 Venice Biennale, Almaty has become moderately famous as a home for video art. A swanky art gallery or less exclusive venue can house the latest in Almaty expressionism.
  • Many monuments dot Almaty's streets and parks, some of them less obvious than others. A group of tourists gather around the Beatles Monument at Park Kok-Tobe Mountain, a favorite park for locals and recent arrivals alike.
  • A group of old World War Two veterans gather at the Monument of Fame, looking for all the world like a gaggle of moth-eaten buzzards.
  • A hushed group of high-minded Russians move slowly through the Central State Museum, admiring the scientific exhibits in particular.
  • Cheerful tourists and locals settle in at a local outdoor eatery, for steaming bowls of beshbarmak - horse meat, noodles and soup.  

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