Astana: the Kazakh capital that keeps changing its name

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The Kazakh capital of Astana has changed its name a record-breaking five times in just six decades. We take a look at the reasons why.

High view of Astana
Kazakhstan changed the capital’s name back to Astana in 2022 (Shutterstock)

Fast facts

Name: Astana
Location: Kazakhstan
Founded: 1830
Population: 1.4 million

Origins of Astana

Astana was initially founded in 1830 as the settlement of Akmola when Kazakhstan was ruled by Russia. In 1832, the settlement was granted town status and renamed Akmolinsk.

In 1920, Kazakhstan became part of the USSR, initially as the Kirgiz Autonomous Republic and then, from 1925, as the Kazakh Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (ASSR). The capital of the Kazakh ASSR was Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan.

A wide shot of Astana showing a green city park
Astana is known as the “Singapore of the Steppe”(Shutterstock)

And so it begins…

In 1961, when Nikita Khrushchev was premier of the USSR, Akmola was renamed Tselinograd which is Russian for “virgin lands city”. The name change was in honour of Soviet expansion in the region.

In 1991, following Kazakhstan’s independence after the collapse of the USSR, the name was changed back to Akmola. However, the capital of the newly independent Kazakhstan remained in Almaty until December 1997, when Akmola unexpectedly became the official capital of Kazakhstan.

At the time, the move was widely criticised due to Akmola’s relative isolation in the northern steppe and notoriously cold winters in which temperatures can drop as low as -51°C (-60°F).

A view of Almaty with mountains behind
Almaty is the former capital of Kazakhstan (Shutterstock)

Kazakhstan’s president at the time, Nursultan Nazarbayev, said he wanted the capital to be located closer to the geographical centre of the world’s 9th largest country. Almaty is located close to the country’s southeastern border.

The new capital was completely revamped with glitzy new skyscrapers transforming the tiny outpost into a modern city with a surrealist skyline earning it the nickname the “Singapore of the Steppe”. One such development was the Bayterek Monument, a 97m-high white latticed tower crowned with a large glass orb where visitors can place their hands in a print of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s.

Bayterek Monument in Astana
Bayterek Monument (Shutterstock)

Today, Almaty, with over two million inhabitants, remains the most populous city in Kazakhstan as well as the country’s commercial, financial and cultural hub. It is also widely considered the most cosmopolitan city in Kazakhstan.

In May 1998, Akmola was renamed Astana which means “capital city” in Kazakh. The city’s name remained Astana until 2019 when it was named Nur-Sultan in honour of the outgoing Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Nazarbayev had ruled the country since independence until 2019 when he voluntarily stepped down. He passed the presidency to his chosen successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. By then the city was already in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most changes of name in the 20th century.

A futuristic bridge in Astana
Astana is a showpiece for 21st-century Kazakhstan (Shutterstock)

However, it wasn’t over. In September 2022, the name reverted to Astana again when Kassym-Jomart Tokayev agreed to restore the former name just three years after he renamed it in honour of his predecessor. The move came following pressure from a group of MPs and violent street protests over fuel prices.

In total, the Kazakh capital has changed its name five times in just six decades from Akmola to Tselinograd; back to Akmola, then to Astana; then to Nur-Sultan; then back to Astana again. Let’s see what happens next…

Kazakhstan limits presidential term, renames capital, Aljazeera
Kazakhstan, Britannica
Guess which city holds the record for the most name changes?, The Economist
Kazakh capital renamed again as ex-leader’s legacy fades, Reuters
Astana exposed: eight reasons to visit Kazakhstan’s gleaming capital, Lonely Planet
Bayterek Monument, Lonely Planet
Kazakhstan to change name of capital from Nur-sultan back to Astana, The Guardian

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