Russians flee the outposts of empire

Settlers fear for future in Kazakhstan

IF Vasily Osipenko - and many more like him - had acted on first impressions when in December 1958 he arrived to help settle the frigid "virgin lands" of northern Kazakhstan, Moscow's exit from empire might have been easy. "I'll remember the day all my life. The train stopped. The moon was full. In a minute I was frozen stiff," says the former Komsomol (Communist Youth League) zealot "My first desire was to get back on the train and go home."

He and another newcomer - "his face turned black from the cold" - nearly perished when their truck broke down in the snow. A Kazakh herder saved them by offering shelter for three days in his hut.

The survival of the more than 800,000 settlers sent to plant grain across Nikita Khrushchev's "virgin lands" was an epic of endurance. In less than a decade, they put to plough 100,000 square miles of land in Kazakhstan - more than twice the area under crops and grass in Britain.

Also planted, though, was an ethnic timebomb along what has since become one of the most fragile fault lines left by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Last year the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev declared the city of Akmola - known in Soviet times as Tselinograd or "City of the Virgin Land" - the future capital of his new country in place of Alma-Ata, 650 miles to the south. Few, including Mr Osipenko, now deputy head of the Akmola administration, believe the move will ever take place. A far more pressing concern is movement of another kind.

From being the terminus of the last great epic of Soviet economic and ethnic engineering, this bleak city of concrete and tired slogans has become instead a staging post for a wrenching mass migration. In the past three years, more than three million people, mostly Russians and Ukrainians, have fled Moscow's relinquished domains - nearly a third of them from Kazakhstan.

"Each person has their own reason to leave, but everyone shares one thing in common: they don't see any future here," says Arkady Filipov, head of Lad (Concord) an organisation that helps Russians and other Slavs emigrate from what, since 1991, has been the independent state of Kazakhstan.

The group's single-room office in the Akmola unemployment bureau is crowded with would-be emigres, watched over by an oil painting of Lenin and posters of Russian Othodox saints. On a table by the door lie scores of red Soviet passports, freshly stamped by the Russian embassy in Alma-Ata and waiting collection by migrants.

Among those waiting for advice are Vyacheslav and Tatiana Shapkin. They came to Lad to plan their escape from the Central Authority Collective Farm, a bankrupt relic of the "virgin lands" programme. Unpaid for the past six months, their chief worry is economic, but they also fret about their two children growing up in what is now a foreign country. "Here we are hanging between heaven and earth," says Mr Shapkin.

Though far from a strident Kazakh nationalist, President Nazarbayev has only increased the unease of many local Russians with his talk of Akmola one day becoming the new capital. They see an attempt to anchor the region more firmly in Kazakhstan and worry about a future clash between the irreconcilable demands of Russian and Kazakh nationalism.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, himself born in Alma-Ata, wants the whole of Kazakhstan back. Alexander Solzhenitsyn talks of redrawing the map to place the northern half - what he calls "southern Siberia" - inside Russia's borders. Kazakh nationalism has so far been muted by the pro-Russian sentiments of its political elite and the demographics of a country where Kazakhs make up barely half the population of 17 million.

The Prime Minister, Akeshan Kazhegeldin, considers himself a Muscovite, is married to a Russian and says Kazakhstan must find common cause with Russia: "If anyone tries to stop us entering through the front door, we'll try to slip in through the side window."

But pressure for a more assertive brand of Kazakhstan-for-the-Kazakhs politics is building. Typical of this is the response of one group of nationalists to Mr Solzhenitsyn's calls for a new border: it held a mock trial and sentenced the writer to death.

In northern Kazakhstan, ravaged by starvation during Stalin's collectivisation, used as dumping ground for deportees from Chechnya, the Crimea and other parts of the empire branded as disloyal and flooded with settlers during the "virgin lands" programme, only 20 per cent of the population is Kazakh. "We all still feel like Soviet citizens," says Mr Osipenko. He is Ukrainian by birth, Russian by virtue of language and a career in the Communist party, and a reluctant Kazakh by the flag that sits on his desk.

After 36 years in Kazakhstan, he knows only one phrase in what is supposed to be the official language: "Hello, esteemed comrades." (Russian has been relegated to the status of "language of inter-ethnic communication".)

Still marking the entrance to Akmola is a crumbling celebration of the settlers who once poured in: a statue of a young pioneer couple next to a rusting tractor. "Hail to the Hands that Smell of Bread," croaks a peeling billboard across the road.

Mr Osipenko says he can understand why so many are leaving: "The average person worries about today. Tell them there will be lots of oil in five or 10 years and huge deposits of gold in another 15 and they don't care. If people live better in Russia, that is what matters."

He has no plans yet to join the exodus. But this could easily change: "If I feel any discrimination, I'll leave in a moment. Most people in government feel the same way. Normal people are needed everywhere."

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