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  • Jerome Kocher

82. I Started in Kazakhstan

Armenia is the last country on my route. Kazakhstan was the first. Thirty-five days on the Silk Road have been rigorous and intense with few days off to replenish. It's been an endurance feat like running a marathon. Even more of an achievement was finding time to write my travelogues. I would have to carve out time either late at night or early morning when I could have been asleep. But writing energized me. It allowed me to "digest the day's meal of sights and sounds" to make room for the next feast. It took me a couple weeks to find my rhythm. Because of this I neglected to record some major events in the very beginning. So I have three final posts, starting with the Soviet influence in Kazakhstan. Next I will recall the Lights of Uzbekistan. And then give a few final thoughts.

One of my major questions before coming here was: "What had the most influence in these countries. Was it Persian? Hellenic Greek from Alexander the Great? Was it Islamic? Mongol? Or more recently Russian, then Soviet Union?" It's all a tossed salad, but to no surprise the most recent layer of domination by the USSR left the biggest footprint. Most everyone here speaks Russian. I was fortunate enough to be in Almaty, Kazakhstan on May 9th, Victory Day, which told me a lot. It's the Soviet Union's victory over German Nazism to end World War II. And the outpouring of emotion and patriotism to a former occupier or benefactor was astounding.

The center of Victory Day celebration in Almaty was in Panfilov Park. Besides the festive ice cream stands, pony rides and family refreshments, there were no lack of socialist monuments dedicated to the sacrifice of soldiers from the USSR. Kazak children and adults were dressed in Soviet fatigues and head gear.

A giant black marble slab with the eternal flame was draped in roses and carnations devoutly placed by parents and children. This was our Memorial Day and Fourth of July all rolled into one. The one difference was that here these memories were all too fresh like an open wound, while in the US it is often just a Summer holiday with fun in the sun. Ironically, like rows of votive candles in an Orthodox Church, here flowers and bowed heads paid homage to a victorious and former atheistic Soviet State.

The eternal flame was guarded by what seemed teenage girls from the Soviet era Pioneer Youth Clubs. But this is 2024!

Others carried signs with photos commemorating the loss of loved ones in WWII.

Almost eighty years after WWII, this tragedy still resonates deeply in the soul of a people that actually did not see war in their lands, even though family members were lost on foreign ground. Kazakhstan was a second front. The Soviet Union had moved a lot of their manufacturing here to support the frontlines. And the Soviets sent a lot of German prisoners of war to the "Stans." I often heard the phrase "this was built by German prisoners of war." And their construction was still standing as a testament. And of course there's the younger generation taking photos with war veterans. Is this reverance or Instagram? Tik Tok maybe?

There was one very somber family group from Ukraine near the memorial for a WWII wartorn Kiev. Are they Soviet sympathizers? Hard to believe. But from them I learned that I was looking at this through the wrong lens. Yes, the majority of people may have been of Russian descent, but for many this was not a showcase of national patriotism nostalgically given to a former communist overlord or current aggressor. It might be more simple. More authentic. It was a "memorial day" to honor family and grandparents who had gone before them.

Let's not forget that the USSR lost 20 million in WWII after Europe and the West had invaded Russia for a second time since WWI. This is not lost on the Russian psyche today. Although few here would support the current war against Ukraine, the fact is that the West and NATO have been pushing further eastward into what was originally the homeland of the traditional "Rus" people. The phrase "Never Again" is not only a rallying cry for the Jewish Nation of Israel, but Russia can also lay claim to its deep tragic symbolism.

Victory Day in Kazakhstan is a reflection of that. A week later I saw Victory Day banners still flying in Kyrgyzstan. The further West I went through the "Stans" it seemed this Soviet memory became less and less important.

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