Kids born in Astana in 1997 have had the peculiar experience of growing up with their city as it has transformed from a town of a few thousand into Nur-Sultan — a glistening trophy cabinet of ostentatious architecture curated by the former President in whose honour it was recently renamed, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Yet ask any young Kazakh how they feel about their capital and you’ll likely be met with grave indifference.
The “Dubai of Central Asia”, it seems, just can’t keep up with the savvy youth of today. “For such a futuristic city, it’s ironic that most Gen Zers do not see their future in Nur-Sultan,” says Ira Lupu, whose photos charts the fraught relationship between Kazakh youth and their capital. “It’s a temporary place for them to finish their studies and then move abroad or to the more culturally vibrant city of Almaty.”
“I’ve always had the feeling that I don’t belong here”
How did this generation grow up connected to the rest of the world, yet detached from the cityscape around them? Nur-Sultan is criticised for being variously “too sterile”, “too busy”, and “too hostile” (as much a reference to everyday interactions as to the extreme climate). “Nur-Sultan is soulless,” was the phrase Lupu heard most of all during her time in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh capital shares more than just glitzy skyscrapers with other oil-rich metropolises like Doha, Dubai, and Kuwait; as in the Gulf states, urban modernity goes hand in hand with conservative social traditions, making the city a stifling place for its younger population.
Lupu’s original reason for visiting Kazakhstan was incidental. Travelling from South Asia back to Odesa, where she is based, the photographer decided to make the most of her layover in Nur-Sultan, writing to one of her Instagram followers to arrange a meeting. Fascinated by the city, she returned a few months later for a longer stay.
Over this time, she photographed the city’s prized landmarks, including David Foster’s Blade Runner-esque Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, and visited Barabai — a nature resort a three-hour drive from the capital, where young people go to escape. She decided to dedicate the series to the Gen Zers she scouted and interviewed through friends. It was important for her to build a relationship with everyone she photographed. As one of her interviewees, and fellow photographer, Balnura Nusipova put it: “Ukraine has had a cultural revolution, and now it’s our time.” “I left with the feeling that Kazakhstan was on the brink of transition,” says Lupu.
Below, the photographer introduces some of the young people she met, to show the different perspectives of Kazakhstan’s youth. Read on to hear Aidana, Zhanel, and Alexandra reveal the reality of living in Nur-Sultan.
Aidana studies translation and has a strong interest in anthropology. She calls herself “a radical feminist”, which is a brave thing to do in a country where women still have to meet conservative standards. Kazakh society tends to look down on women who have professional ambitions, ignore expectations about marriage and children in their early twenties, and love to party. Aidana does it all, and is happy to sha re her feminist views among her community. She is deeply concerned about the problems in Kazakhstan, but, like many others, she wants to emigrate after she graduates.
“Nur-Sultan is a business centre, and the typical citizen here is a so-called ‘white collar worker’. From the outside, it may seem as though there’s gender equality, but in reality, you’re unlikely to get a promotion at work if you are a woman. My personal feminist achievement has been overcoming my own inner misogyny. Now, I would never let a man talk down to me from a position of superiority, and I hate being treated like I’m fragile and dependent. Being strong and independent are female qualities. But it’s not about ignoring males too. I have feminist friends who have criticised me for having a boyfriend. To me, it’s a misunderstanding of the whole concept of feminism. It’s a political movement: who you date shouldn’t be a part of it.”
I met Zhanel at a small techno party where she was DJing. Her stage name was Nemezida (the Russian word for the goddess of revenge). Her style is bold and daring, as are her views. The first thing I noticed was the “No Gods” tattoo above her knee. For our second meeting, she invited me to the area around the Keruyen mall and Baiterek tower, the most recognisable skyscraper in the city and a place she feels “very much in tune with”. Though she is very outspoken, she revealed her vulnerability when it came to fitting in with her family, her local community, and Kazakhstan in general.
“Our parents rule us with an iron fist. Everybody has tensions with their parents here. The younger you are, the more you are made to feel different. They are more ‘authentic’ and religious, and we are ‘the lost generation’. There’s this shame among ethnic Kazakhs. You’ll often hear someone say: ‘Decent people don’t act like this’. Such words are the reason why I have tattoos and lead a somewhat indecent lifestyle. My dream is to make music, it has always been my inspiration. I pay attention to music everywhere I go. Nor am I locked to one specific genre. If I feel it, I love it. My other dream is to find a home, a place where I can finally fit in. Thus far, I’ve always had the feeling that I don’t belong here. I often find myself wondering what else is out there.”
Alexandra is a rarity in Kazakhstan: a trans girl currently going through hormone therapy. When I met her, she had only just started transitioning. Alexandra is not her officially-recognised name, and she hopes to change her name on her passport soon. For now she goes by the unisex ‘Sasha’, which helps her to fit into Kazakh society. During our meeting, Alexandra was cheerful and enthusiastic about her love for beauty and photography. As with Zhanel, I only learned more about her after the shoot, when we started communicating over messenger. She told me she was only able to pay for hormone therapy through sex work. She was fired from her office job when her boss discovered her private Instagram account. She told me about the numerous occasions where she was beaten on the street for the way she looks. She struggles financially, but plans to go to Almaty next summer to overcome the complex bureaucratic obstacles involved in changing her passport. If all goes to plan, she hopes to she can get sex reassignment surgery in Bishkek, and “leave this goddamn country”.
“My hormone therapy is not going well at the moment. I’ve been suffering from panic attacks, emotional breakdowns, mood swings. I guess that’s how PMS feels. I can’t seem to establish my love life. My goal is to become stable, and financially independent. Free time? I don’t have it. I use every spare minute to learn photography, retouching, and graphic design, in order to become financially able to drop sex work. On Saturdays, I go to a modeling school founded by a male model who walked Kazakhstan Fashion Week runways in high heels. I was sad to hear they are going through a difficult time and could shut down. I hope to grow more confident, but for now, I have to lead a double life and it feels terrible. Even in my close circle of friends, I feel like I’m a hypocrite. I already came out to mother, but I can’t imagine telling my grandmother.”