Nazarbayev to Stay

17 Sep

Ending months (years?) of speculation, President Nazarbayev will run in 2012.

Alien Embassy?

15 Sep

A conspiracy-minded Marine at the Embassy was the first to tell me about this.

I’m still not sure if it is true, and I haven’t been able to find a reputable English language source to confirm it. Although I suppose we may have to consider the National Examiner legit these days, after the Enquirer broke the John Edwards story. Here is their English translation. (As a side note, I think it’s hysterical that “UFO Examiner” is apparently an actual job title. How do I get that job, please?)

I write about this only because it provided us with an endless source of amusement over the summer. And I would not be in the least surprised to find that it is entirely true.

Also, it gives me an opportunity to mention that Kazakhstan is home to the Baikonur, which is still one of Russia’s primary space launch-sites. So it makes a strange kind of sense.

Operative word being strange.

The Polygon

12 Sep

First of all, this is the vehicle the GOK scientists use to get out to the site:

(It made me incredibly grateful for our Suburban …)

I won’t say a lot about the Polygon, except to say that a lot of nuclear material was dispersed here, and the clean-up is ongoing. But here are some pictures of what happens when you nuke things:

The conditions out here are extremely austere, and the radiation poses a real ongoing risk. I think the scientists who work here every day are heroes, and the world owes them a great debt.

Kurchatov II

12 Sep

Needless to say, the GOK is not very interested in making Kurchatov and the test sites accessible to the public at large. Most of our nine-hour trip was off-road, across the steppe, with only a Google map to guide us. We quickly left civilization behind:

There is only one hotel in Kurchatov, and it requires special permission from the government to make a reservation — talk about cornering the market! Entering the hotel was like stepping back fifty years into the Soviet Union, complete with old Russian ladies providing tea and lots of attitude on each floor!

My hotel room

But I was just glad we weren’t staying here:

No longer a working hotel ...

In fact, Kurchatov was filled with remnants of Soviet-era life:

But walking down to the river, we could clearly see why this was once a highly sought after place to live:

Next post: trip to the Polygon …


12 Sep

In July, I traveled with a Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) team to the Semipalitinsk Nuclear Test Site, where the Soviet Union conducted much of their nuclear testing between 1949-1991.

We stayed in the mostly-abandoned nearby city of Kurchatov, which is named after the Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov, also known as “The Father of the Soviet Atomic Bomb.”

Statue of Igor Kurchatov

The site was selected by Levranti Beria himself. You may remember Beria as one of the most infamous KGB chiefs in Soviet history. A fellow Georgian and close confidante to Stalin, he was responsible for campaigns of terror that frightened even the highest-ranking members of the Politburo. (As an aside, if you’re interested in Beria, I recommend that you read Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Montefiore. It’s a painstakingly researched account of the personal lives of Stalin’s inner circle.)

Needless to say, Beria is not the most popular guy in Russia. I came across this statue of him in his trenchcoat in a graveyard for Soviet statues in Moscow a couple of years ago:

Kurchatov was once a closed city that housed the elite nuclear scientists of the Soviet Union. Beria even had a mansion there, which he used for approximately six days. In a fitting piece of irony, the house is now a Russian Orthodox Church:

Still, Beria’s house has fared better than much of Kurchatov. Despite a recent influx of investment by the GOK in the hopes of making it a center for the study of nuclear nonproliferation, the city is basically falling apart:

More posts on my trip to come …

Back in Cambridge

12 Sep

It’s September, and I am back in Cambridge. I’ll be posting a few more times, just to round out my reporting of my experience.

It’s nice to be home. I spent the first few weeks traveling through the South with HKS friends, gorging myself on all-American food. (For those of you following my food adventures: I also bought a Costco-sized tub of peanut butter, probably originally intended for a family of eight.)

My summer experience has also guided my course selection for the fall semester. I’m taking a class at Fletcher on the “Globalization of Central Asia and the Caucasus”. I’m also enrolled in Meghan O’Sullivan’s “Geopolitics of Energy” and I am excited to report that Ambassador Morningstar, the Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy, will be a guest speaker later in the semester.

And my big news: I am scheduled to take the written portion of the Foreign Service Exam in October. Fingers crossed!


4 Aug

A while back, I mentioned the fireworks we had for President Nazarbayev’s birthday.

Here are some pics:

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(Kinda cool!)


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