Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan, with a population of about 2 million. It was the capital of Kazakhstan from 1929 to 1997, when the government relocated the capital to Akmola (renamed Astana in 1998, and Nur-Sultan in 2019).
Almaty is still the major commercial and cultural centre of Kazakhstan, as well as its most populous and most cosmopolitan city. The city is located in the mountainous area of southern Kazakhstan near the border with Kyrgyzstan in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau at an elevation of 700–900 m (2,300–3,000 feet), where the Large and Small Almatinka rivers run into the plain.
The city has been part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in the area of music since November 2017. The city was the host for a 1978 international conference on Primary Health Care where the Alma Ata Declaration was adopted, marking a paradigm shift in global public health.
During 1000–900 BC in the Bronze Age, the first farmers and cattle-breeders established settlements in the territory of Almaty. During the Saka period (from 700 BC to the beginning of the Christian era), these lands were occupied by the Saka and later Wusun tribes, who inhabited the territory north of the Tian Shan mountain range. Evidence of these times can be found in the numerous burial mounds (tumuli) and ancient settlements, especially the giant burial mounds of the Saka tsars. The most famous archaeological finds have been The Golden Man, also known as The Golden Warrior, from the Issyk Kurgan; the Zhalauly treasure, the Kargaly diadem, and the Zhetysu arts bronzes (boilers, lamps and altars). During the period of Saka and Wusun governance, Almaty became an early education centre.
In the 15th–18th centuries, the city was in decline as trade activities were decreasing on this part of the Silk Road. European nations were conducting more overseas trade by shipping. This period was one of crucial ethnic and political transformations.
The Dzungar invaded, dominating the Kazakh people for a period. The Kazakh fought to protect their land and preserve independence. In 1730 the Kazakh defeated the Dzungar in the Anyrakay mountains, 70 kilometres (45 miles) northwest of Almaty. During the eighteenth century, the city and region was roughly on the border between the Khanate of Kokand and Qing Empire. It was then absorbed as part of the Russian Empire in the 1850s.
To defend its empire, Russia built Fort Verny near the Trans-Ili Alatau mountain range between the Bolshaya and Malenkaya Almatinka rivers. Construction began on 4 February 1854 and was nearly completed by the autumn of that year. The fort was a wooden palisade, shaped like a pentagon, with one side built along the Malaya Almatinka. Later, the wood fence was replaced with a brick wall with embrasures. The main facilities were erected around the large square for training and parading.
In 1855 Kazakhs displaced from their nomadic territory appeared in Verny. Since 1856, Verny started accepting Russian peasants. They founded the Bolshaya Almatinskaya Stanitsa (Cossack village) near the fortification. The inflow of migrants was increasing and led to the construction of the Malaya Almatinskaya Stanitsa and Tatarskaya (Tashkentskaya) sloboda. It was the place of settlement for Tatar merchants and craftsmen.
In 1867 Verniy Fort was developed as a town called Almatinsk; the town soon returned to the name Verny. According to the First City Plan, developed by administrators of the Russian Empire, the city perimeters were two kilometres (1 mi) on the south along Almatinka river, and three kilometres (2 mi) on the west. The new city area was divided into residential parts, and the latter into districts. Three categories of city buildings were defined. Category I and II buildings were of one or two-storied construction with a high semi-basement; they were erected around and in the centre of the city, others on the outskirts.
On 28 May 1887, at 4 a.m., an earthquake almost totally destroyed Verny in 11–12 minutes. Brick buildings were damaged the most, as they broke apart because of lack of flexibility. As a result, people were afterward inclined to build one-storied buildings made of wood or adobe.
In 1918 following the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Bolshevik government, Soviet power was established in Verny. The city and the region became part of the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (RSFSR). On 5 February 1921, Verny was renamed to Alma-Ata, one of the city’s ancient names, by a joint consultation of regional government representatives, professional trade associations, and local faith-based groups.
In 1926, the Council of Labor and Defence approved the construction of the Turkestan–Siberia Railway that was a crucial element of the future growth of Kazakhstan, especially in the east and southeast of the region. The Turkestan–Siberia Railway construction also had a decisive economic impact that strongly influenced the destiny of Alma-Ata as the capital of the Kazakh ASSR. In 1930 the construction of the highway and railway to Alma-Ata was completed.
On 29 April 1927, the government decided to transfer the capital of the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic from Kyzyl-Orda to Alma-Ata, within the RFSFR. This attracted more trade and people working with the government, stimulating intensive development in the city.
On 31 January 1928, Leon Trotsky, leader of the 1917 October Revolution, accompanied by his wife Natalia Sedova and his son Lev Sedov, was exiled to Alma-Ata by Joseph Stalin, then head of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in Moscow. Trotsky was expelled from Alma-Ata to Turkey in February 1929, and went into exile in Mexico City.
The Alma-Ata airport was opened in 1930, opening up a direct connection from Alma-Ata to Moscow, the center of the Soviet government. Alma-Ata became the main entry by air to Kazakhstan, a status which it retains today. Transformation of this small town into the capital of the Kazakh SSR was accelerated by the large-scale construction of new administrative and government facilities and housing. The Great Purge of 1936–38 extended to Kazakhstan, where numerous intellectuals, activists, leaders, teachers and others were killed. The Soviet government dominated the population. During the 1930s Kazakh nomads suffered starvation after disruption of their traditional living patterns.
In 1936 the Architecture and Planning Bureau developed a plan to enhance Alma-Ata as the new cultural capital of the Kazakh SSR. The plan was based on the existing rectangular system of districts. They were to be strengthened and reconstructed
During World War II the government dramatically affected the city’s population and structures. To better organize the home front and concentrate industrial and material resources, the government evacuated 26,000 people and numerous industries from the European theatre of war. Alma-Ata hosted over 30 industrial facilities removed from the European section of the USSR, eight evacuated hospitals, 15 institutes, universities and technical schools; and around 20 cultural institutions. Motion picture production companies from Leningrad, Kiev, and Moscow were also moved to Alma-Ata at this time. This brought in so many ethnic Russians that the Kazakhs became a minority in the region.
Over 52,000 Alma-Ata residents received the title: Gratitude for Your Self-Denying Labour. Forty-eight residents were granted the title of Hero of The Soviet Union. Three rifle divisions were raised in Alma-Ata, including the well-known 8th Guards Rifle Division ‘Panfilov’ (originally the 316th rifle division), along with two rifle battalions and three aviation regiments that were raised on the bases of the air club of Alma-Ata
After 1941, due to the mass evacuation of factories and workers from the European part of the Soviet Union during World War II, Alma-Ata became an administrative and trading centre. Although it had an underdeveloped industrial base it became one of the largest industrial centres of the Soviet Union. It was to the rear of the wartime fronts.
During the years 1941–1945 the industrial potential of the city increased significantly. Development increased during the postwar years. The population of the city grew from 104,000 in 1919 to 365,000 in 1968. By 1967 the city had 145 enterprises, with the bulk of these being light and food industries.
The main industries in Alma-Ata were: food processing (36% of gross industrial output), based largely on locally abundant fruit and vegetable raw materials, light industry (31%), and heavy industry (33%). The main products of the region were:
From 1966 to 1971, 1,400,000 square metres of public and cooperative housing were built. Annually, around 300,000 square metres of dwellings were under construction. Most of the buildings constructed during this time were earthquake-proof multi-story buildings. The Soviet government tried to diversify architectural forms to create a more varied cityscape. During this period, many schools, hospitals, cultural, and entertainment facilities were constructed, including Lenin’s Palace, the Kazakhstan Hotel, and the Medeo Sports Complex.
The Medeu Dam, designed to protect the city of Almaty and the Medeu skating rink from catastrophic mudflows during flood season, was built in 1966. It was reinforced a number of times in the 1960s and 1970s.
The supersonic transport Tupolev Tu-144 went into service on 26 December 1975, carrying mail and freight between Moscow and Alma-Ata in preparation for passenger services; these began in November 1977. The Aeroflot flight on 1 June 1978 was the 55th and last scheduled passenger flight of the Tu-144.
Alma-Ata was the host city for a 1978 international conference on Primary Health Care. The Alma Ata Declaration was adopted, marking a paradigm shift in global public health.
On 16 December 1986, the Jeltoqsan riot took place in the Brezhnev Square (now Republic Square) in response to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s dismissal of Dinmukhamed Kunayev.
On 7 September 1988, the subway Almaty Metro project started construction; the subway was opened on 1 December 2011 after 23 years.
Kazakhstan declared its independence from the Soviet Union on 16 December 1991 (Kazakhstan Independence Day), and one year later, on 28 January 1993, the government renamed the city from the Russian Alma-Ata to the Kazakh name Almaty.
In 1997 the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev approved the decree to transfer the capital from Almaty to Astana (now Nur-Sultan) in the north of the country. On 1 July 1998 a law was passed to establish the special status of Almaty as a scientific, cultural, historical, financial, and industrial centre.
The new general plan of Almaty for 2030 was released in 1998. It is intended to create ecologically safe, secure, and socially comfortable living conditions in the city. The main objective is to promote Almaty’s image as a garden-city.
It proposes continued multi-storied and single-housing development, reorganization of industrial districts or territories, improving transport infrastructure, and expanding the Almaty Metro. The first line of the Almaty metro was launched on 1 December 2011, two weeks ahead of schedule. The extension of the line to Qalqaman was opened in 2015.
Nevertheless, Almaty has developed a major problem with air pollution. Already in 1995, particulate emissions, then mostly from the city’s thermal power station, exceeded Kazakh and EU standards by over 20 times. In 2008, Almaty was ranked the 9th most polluted city in the world. A 2013 study identified cars as a major source of pollution, and it was noted since 2003 and 2013 morbidity had increased by a factor of 1.5, and that the city takes the first place in the republic on respiratory, endocrine and blood diseases, cancer and bronchial asthma, even though there are no major industrial installations. An independent local air quality monitoring system with a mobile app was launched in 2017.
The area of the city has been expanded during recent years with the annexation of the suburban settlements of Kalkaman, Kok Tube, Gorniy Gigant District (Mountain Giant). Numerous apartment blocks and office skyscrapers have transformed the face of the town, which has been built into the mountains. Squatter settlements such as Shanyrak have resisted eviction in the face of these development plans.
Almaty was the site of a notorious terrorist attack in July 2016, when Jihadist Ruslan Kulikbayev killed eight police officers and two civilians in a shootout and car chase. Kulikbayev was wounded during the shootout and later sentenced to death for the attack.
In January 2022, Almaty was plunged into unrest as part of a national political crisis
Almaty is largely considered to be the heart and soul of Kazakhstan’s classical and popular cultures. The Almaty Region and the city itself have a distinct vibe and pace compared to other regions and cities in Kazakhstan. Contemporary Almaty has a more European vibe due to more cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating and public green space. Kazakh culture and zeitgeist identify as the genetic origin, or fatherland, of the wild apple Malus siversii. Almaty is the historical and contemporary capital of intellectualism in Kazakhstan as a result of Almaty’s location along the Ancient Silk Road and that many Russian intellectuals were exiled to the region and to Karlag. The Abai Kazakh State Opera and Ballet Theatre has anchored the city’s theater scene since 1934 and was founded around a community of local performance artists. The Kasteyev State Museum of Arts was founded in 1935, is the largest museum in Kazakhstan, and has the largest collection of artworks by Kazakh classic and contemporary artists.
Theatrical art began to develop in the city of Verny a few years after the foundation of the military fortification. On 21 November 1872, the first city production was presented–the play by A. N. Ostrovsky Don’t Get in Your Sleigh, which was staged by the Society of Dramatic Art Lovers. Plays in Verny were performed at public, military or commercial gatherings. The first opera in the city was staged on 23 February 1913 at the Commercial Assembly to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the reign of the Romanov dynasty. It was Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar in an abridged form. It was staged by the Kolpakovsky three-year city school. The flowering of theatrical art in the city fell on the Soviet period of Alma-Ata. This is due to the transfer of the capital of the Kazakh SSR from Kyzylorda to Alma-Ata. Thus, the Kazakh Drama Theater, the first Kazakh professional theater, moved to the city. In the 1930s, the Opera and Ballet Theater (1934) and the Puppet Theater (1935) were established in the city. Also, many Kazakh theaters founded in different cities of the republic began to move to the capital. These are the Russian Drama Theater (1934 from Semipalatinsk), the Uyghur Musical Comedy Theater (1962 from Chilik), the Korean Musical Comedy Theater (1968 from Kyzylorda), and the German Drama Theater (1989 from Temirtau). After Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, a large number of new independent theaters appeared in the city. Often these are modern youth concert venues created by enthusiasts. They face funding problems as maintaining a permanent troupe is a costly process.
A significant contribution to the study of the history of culture, ethnography of southern Kazakhs in the late 19th–20th centuries was made by Turkestan scientists and local historians, united around the scientific societies and cultural and educational institutions of Tashkent. In 1874, from the private collections of travelers who visited Semirechye with a scientific and regional purpose and with the help of the local intelligentsia, a museum was first created in the city of Verny, which was later transformed into a village museum of the Semirechye Cossack Host. This date is the day of the foundation of the first museum in Semirechye. The foundation of the A. Kasteev Museum of Arts was laid by the Kazakh State Art Gallery named after T.G. Shevchenko, founded in 1935. Its main tasks were to collect the best works of Kazakh artists and organize their creative business trips. In 1936, museums in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) donated a significant number of paintings, graphics, sculpture and applied art to the gallery. By the end of the 1950s, the gallery’s funds numbered over 5,000 exhibits, including paintings, reproductions of works by pre-revolutionary and Soviet artists, Western European and Eastern masters of art. In the 1970s and 1980s, new buildings were built for existing museums, and new thematic museums were opened: books, musical instruments, archeology, and others. A significant contribution to the development of the museum business was the opening of the Museum of the History of Almaty, which created an association of museums in the city of Almaty and the state institution Gylym Ordasy, which united 4 museums, which allows to systematize scientific work.
The first film screening in the city of Verny took place in 1900, when the physicist K.O. Krause arrived in the city. On it, hand-painted glass transparencies were demonstrated with the help of an overhead projector. The film show took place on 25 January in the Pushkin Garden. In January 1911, the building of the first private cinema “Twentieth Century” was opened at the intersection of Pushkin and Gogol streets, which belonged to the entrepreneur A. R. Seifullin. For the demonstration of films, the cinema was equipped with the first power plant in the history of the city, produced by the British company “Petter”, with 14 horsepower. The cinema building burned down in February 1918. Starting in the 1930s, summer cinemas began to appear in the parks of the city, which were later transformed into full-fledged cinemas. Thus, the Rodina Cinema was first opened in the Central Park in 1937. In 1957, it was rebuilt from a seasonal venue into a wide-screen cinema with an auditorium for 712 seats. In another park of the city, the Park of the Federation of Soviet Republics, the Progress Cinema was opened, later renamed to Alma-Ata. By the early 1990s, there were 21 cinemas in the city. All cinemas were divided into first, second and third screens. The cinemas of the first screen, in which the premieres of new films took place, were “Alatau”, “Tselinny” and “Arman”. Film films arrived at the cinemas of the third screen in a deplorable state, with glues and cuts. That is, the quality of showing the film depended on the screening of the cinema. Cinemas in the city were single-screen, two halls were owned by the cinema centers “Kazakhstan”, “Arman” and “Tselinny”. In the 2000s, cinemas began to open in shopping and entertainment centers, and as a result, existing stationary cinemas began to lose popularity and close.
The Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen is a major park in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The park is located in east-central Almaty in the area surrounding Zenkov Cathedral. It is dedicated to and named after the Panfilov Heroes, 28 soldiers of an Almaty infantry unit who died fighting Nazi German invaders outside of Moscow in World War II. The group takes its name from Ivan Panfilov, the General commanding the 316th division which, in spite of heavy casualties, believed at that time managed to significantly delay the Germans’ advance on the capital, buying time for the defenders of the city. An eternal flame commemorating the fallen of the Russian Civil War and the Great Patriotic War burns in front of the giant black monument of soldiers from all 15 Soviet republics.
Almaty city districts
Almaty has a humid continental climate (Köppen climate classification: Dfa) with hot summers and cold winters. It is characterized by the influence of mountain–valley circulation. This is especially evident in the northern part of the city, located directly in the transition zone of the mountain slopes to the plains.
Annual average air temperature is equal to 10 °C (50 °F), the coldest month is January, −4.7 °C (24 °F) (on average), the warmest month (July) 23.8 °C (75 °F) (on average). In average years frost starts on about 14 October and ends on about 18 April, with sustained extreme cold from about 19 December to about 23 February, a period of about 67 days. Weather with temperature above 30 °C (86 °F) is average for about 36 days a year. In the center of Almaty, like any large city, there is a “heat island” – the average daily temperature contrast between the northern and southern suburbs of the city is 3.8% in the coldest days and 2.2% in the hottest five days. Therefore, frost in the city center starts about 7 days later and finishes 3 days earlier than in the northern suburbs. Annual precipitation is about 650 to 700 mm (25.6 to 27.6 in). April and May are the wettest months, during which about a third of the city’s annual precipitation is received.
It is not uncommon to see snow or a cold snap hitting Almaty as late as the end of May. For example, in the last quarter century, such snowfalls were recorded on 13 May 1985, 1 May 1989, 5 May 1993 and 18 May 1998. The record latest snowfall in Almaty was on 17 June 1987.
Almaty sometimes experiences winter rain, despite heavy preceding snowfall and low temperatures. The most memorable winter rain took place on 16 December 1996 during a military parade to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the Independence of the Republic.
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