by Mike Malloy
Calvin Conkling and Suzie Hatchet were strolling the warm paving stones of Almaty’s “Arbat,” the popular nickname for Zhibek Zholy, the pedestrianized central boulevard in Kazakhstan’s former capital. It was a bright sunny day in May, and Calvin and Suzie were down in the city for the holiday weekend, having taken an Air Astana flight south the night before. They were staying in the Hotel Otrar, a breezy modernist building in marble with concrete beehive balconies layered across its edifice. They were Americans.
Calvin was admiring the artwork for sale on the Arbat. Suzie was drinking fresh-pressed pomegranate juice she had bought from a young man operating a juice press. The husks of spent pomegranates, oozing juice and spitting seeds on the sidewalk, had been an irresistible advertisement.
Young men passed by in short sleeves and blue jeans. Women had nose rings and dyed hair—not many of them, but some. A teenaged Kazakh kid with poofy black hair was strumming a cheap Russian-made nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, warbling bard songs. Calvin held Suzie’s hand.
“How civilized,” he said.
Suzie smiled. She was wearing sunglasses.
“You want to get some coffee?” asked Calvin. Suzie held up her half-full glass of pomegranate juice in response.
“Well, I want some,” said Calvin.
They made a beeline for an American-operated, ostensibly hip coffee shop they had heard of thanks to the Lonely Planet guidebook. The shop was hard to find, the guidebook’s map holding a tenuous relationship to reality, like Marxist theory to Soviet practice. But eventually they found it, a charming stucco building with big glass windows looking out on a quiet tree-lined street. They stepped inside, seeing the usual assortment of backpackers, expatriates, and hipster Kazakhs.
Hipster Kazakhs, thought Calvin—to think there was such a thing! It was like finding radical Iowans, or Sarah Lawrence Young Republicans.
He set his messenger bag down on the table and walked up to the counter.
“Ya hochu…” he began.
“We can speak English,” said the bearded, evidently Yankee barista.
“Oh, thank Jesus,” said Calvin. “Medium latte, please.”
The barista bustled behind the counter, shooting steam and pouring frothy black liquids from one receptacle to another.
Now this was a coffeeshop, thought Calvin. It put Astana, with its grainy Nescafe half-dissolved in Turkish teacups, to shame.
Calvin and Suzie were visiting Almaty from Astana, where they were ESOL teachers at an American school. They were down for the long weekend—Victory Day, the day the Soviet Union defeated the Axis Powers. The guidebook—and other expats—had promised that this was the day when everybody busted out their old hammers and sickles, and Calvin hadn’t wanted to miss it. Everybody said the holiday was better in Almaty, the city that used to be the capital, before President Nursultan Nazarbayev moved it in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union fell.
They also said Almaty itself was better. When Nazarbayev moved the capital from the temperate south to the frozen north, many people chose not to follow: artists, hippies, creatives of all sorts. Anybody who appreciated reasonable weather, fine architecture, and culture. Anybody who didn’t have to leave. It was the bankers, businessmen, and apparatchiks who moved north to Astana, a charmless town that had once been called Tselinograd (virgin lands city), and before that, Akmola (white tomb).
Of the two older names, thought Calvin, white tomb was closer to the mark. Astana was situated in the northern Kazakh steppe, just below Russian Siberia, where winds were strong and temperatures could hit forty degrees below zero (Celsius and Fahrenheit—they met around there). As if to compensate for the climate, President Nazarbayev went on a building spree, financing elaborate modern architecture with the state’s oil and natural gas money. The end result was sometimes called “the Las Vegas of the steppe” by people who had never been to Astana or Las Vegas.
It was a hard city to describe. Calvin liked to say that, although he had never actually seen “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome,” Astana was Thunderdome.
It was cold. The people were cold too. Nobody smiled. The men wore black suits, like they were going to a funeral. The women dressed like conservative, status-conscious telephone operators from the mid nineteen forties. Everybody drove fast, like they had someplace else and better to be.
Almaty was another world. A great deal looser. Calvin was breathing easier. He felt like he used to in college, when he had backpacked across Europe. He had hoped that working in Kazakhstan would be more like that. Instead, it was more like—a job.
He got his drink and sat down. He tasted it. Not bad at all. Not up to Brooklyn standards, but then, what was? Not even Brooklyn.
Suzie was reading a novel, a vintage hardcover in English she had found for sale by the steps leading to a pedestrian underpass (pop-up book markets, another plus for Almaty, thought Calvin). It was a book by a Kyrgyz writer, Chingiz Aitmatov: The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years. Calvin could never remember the title, so he referred to it as One Hundred Years of Kyrgyz-tude. She had learned a bit about the writer, a hero in his native land and quite beloved in Kazakhstan, also.
“He put all this commentary about the late Soviet period in the book,” said Suzie. “About the way the government repressed Central Asian culture and spent money on its space program while shortchanging its poor people. It’s a good book. Kind of a dissident book.”
Dissident. It was a cool word, suggestive of serious young men in neoclassical Soviet buildings smoking shitty communally-produced cigarettes and discussing in hushed tones the possibility of revitalizing communism following the death of Stalin. It suggested bootlegs of the Beatles carved into old x-rays (because that was a thing they did, right?). It suggested being a badass.
Calvin didn’t feel much like a badass. He also felt, strangely, that the time for dissidents was over. The Soviet Union had fallen. The country simply existed under Nazarbayev now, as a corrupt but contented kleptocracy funded by petrodollars and dedicated to the proposition that great power interests could be balanced and business could be done. It was better than Islamic extremism, poverty, or civil war. It was probably, on the whole, good enough.
It was to such a diminished world that he had come, the previous summer, on a Lufthansa flight, to teach English. Knowing nothing of Central Asia. Not even really knowing how to read the Cyrillic alphabet. He was a bit less ignorant now. A bit.
Suzie was busy slurping up the last remnants of her pomegranate juice.
“Hey,” she said, “did you ever figure out what song Meruert is going to play for the concert?”
Meruert. Three syllables: mare as in a female horse, ooh as in an exclamation of surprise or delight, and yurt as in the nomadic dwelling place of rural Kazakhs. Mare-oo-yurt. She was a student in Calvin’s eleventh grade (their terminal year) English class, and a member of his guitar club. He had started a guitar club because everyone was expected to do at least one extracurricular, and he had played a little as a young man, in high school, in an anarchist punk band that fell apart due to lack of organization.
Meruert was good. In addition to the guitar, she played the kobyz, a Kazakh relative of the violin, played standing up vertically in the lap, bowed.
Meruert liked American punk rock, the stuff that was popular enough to have made it to Kazakhstan. So, you know, Green Day. But that was fine. That was the punk that Calvin himself had listened to in high school. Kazakhstan was far enough behind culturally that their pop music neatly intersected with his own nostalgia. It was a good match.
Meruert was also a big fan of Viktor Tsoi, the part-Kazakh Soviet rock star who had died tragically young and had written a great many brilliant songs that criticized the Soviet system in simple Russian and simple metaphor. “Trolleybus,” “Elektrichka,” “Changes.” His work made quotidian Kazakh bleakness feel bearable for Calvin.
“I think she is going to play a cover,” said Calvin. “Something by the Clash, maybe.”
Suzie nodded. She went back to her book.
Calvin had not told her the whole truth. He hadn’t lied. He had just—rather like the old Soviet publishing houses—omitted.
Meruert had written a song of her own, one critical of the President. She had expressed sympathies with certain striking workers from the west who had been shot by government soldiers while they had been protesting. People had died. Calvin remembered when it happened, how afraid he had been. Perhaps the country was unstable. It was all well and good to sling a guitar and sing about revolution, but revolutions in this part of the world had a way of leading to civil war, Russian intervention, or Islamic extremism. He was a Yankee imperialist. He would probably get shot.
But things had stayed quiet. Kazakhstan, like an old Lada well-maintained, just kept humming, however reluctantly. Calvin kept teaching English, avoiding controversial topics like democracy and focusing on non-controversial yet still irritating grammatical topics, like the various sorts of English conditionals. It was all education, wasn’t it? They were getting the tools they would need to read whatever they wanted some day, if they’d ever be allowed to.
Meruert’s song had been good, an unconscious evocation of Billy Bragg, Woody Guthrie, and Florence Reece, filtered through the musical aesthetics of late nineties pop punk. It had activated something in Calvin, made his step lighter as he walked home after school that day, made the frigid steppe winds feel a little less biting.
But he still advised her not to sing it in front of the school. Important parents would be in the audience. People who controlled, well, pretty much everything. That was the thing about these post-Soviet states. They really did have shadowy elites who pulled all the puppet strings. And Meruert was supposed to be going to a university named after—you guessed it—Nursultan Nazarbayev, first President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
So Calvin had suggested something else. Maybe “I Fought the Law.” Keep the rebellion present, but general. Sneak your sympathies out there, like Aitmatov had managed to do in his books. Be a dissident, in half measures. It was better than no measures at all.
All the same, though, Calvin was ashamed of himself. He finished his coffee. They sat in the café for a long while. Then they got up and left, walking to Panfilov Park, in the impressive shadow of a pale yellow Orthodox cathedral made entirely of wood and looking rather like some fantasy citadel in an old Dell paperback. The sun was shining, and the Kazakh people they saw, despite or perhaps because of their comparative lack of civil liberties, seemed pretty happy. It was a warm day in May.
Somebody sold Calvin a ribbon, striped in yellow and black. He pinned it to his chest. Veterans walked the park, silver-haired, their blazers overloaded with medals and ribbons. An old man was playing “Katusha” on the accordion, prompting circuitous folk dancing from the admiring crowd. Somebody else was carrying an oil portrait of Joseph Stalin. It felt weird to be an American celebrating alongside so many hammers and sickles. But, after all, thought Calvin, we were all on the same side back then.
About the Author:
Michael Malloy is a writer and teacher living in Philadelphia, PA, and have previously been published in venues like Toasted Cheese, Eclectica, and Dans Macabre Du Jour.