The Soviet city of the future or the subjunctive mood of history (Almaty city)

city 04.10.2017

The Soviet city of the future or the subjunctive mood of history (Almaty city)

Anna Guraevskaya

Illustrations: Toto Murzakhmetov

Article from the magazine “City: made by …” (Bishkek, 2017)

The history of the micro-district about which I want to tell touches my heart in a special way, and every day passing through its streets, I like a child fantasize about how everything would have turned out for Samal if in August 1991 the largest country in the world has not ceased to exist. But we know that history does not have a subjunctive mood, so I’ll just draw a parallel between what should have happen according to the project and what was actually implemented.

In the early 80’s, a construction of a new residential area began in in Alma-Ata, which was supposed to put an end to the monotonous buildings of residential micro-districts. To begin with, the Samal construction project was quite costly. Its realization became possible due to the good personal relations of the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, Dinmukhamed Kunayev, with the USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev. Architect Almas Ordabayev recalls that the project was approved at the Union level. It was assumed that a new city center would be formed here, with advanced residential development and a number of large cultural, sports, public and administrative facilities. Architects have tested new types of houses here, which provide a relatively high quality of life. It was assumed that the habitable area of apartments in houses would be increased to 12-20 square meters per person. This is almost twice the standards of that time – 9 square meters per person. The construction of houses was characterized by high durability.

The architects of Samal have developed many innovative solutions for the technical and utility services of residents. The most daring ideas, like the pneumatic removal of garbage, have not been implemented, but something has been. “It was intended that all communications of the district, including light, water and gas, to be located in underground canals. These are tunnels tall as a man and having outlets. Thus, in order to repair the pipes, builders would not have to dig up yards and streets, as is done now. A foreman would have to go through the tunnel and replace the necessary section. Several similar tunnels were built in the Samal-1 area,” recalls architect Mels Safin.

One of the main differences of Samal from other areas of the city is a partial return to the quarterly type of building houses. The micro-district development assumes a free dispersion of houses across the territory and the formation of large public spaces between them, not tied to specific houses. For many years, this approach was considered justified, but over time it became clear that these spaces are perceived by residents as “no man’s land,” they are not set up and improved but become neglected, or are spontaneously fenced off. Unlike the micro-district, the quarterly planning assumes that the district is divided into small sections by a grid of intraquarter passages, pedestrian and city streets. Houses of the quarter standing along the perimeter form closed courtyards. When planning Samal, architects paid serious attention to rational planning of courtyards. They were clearly divided into sports and play areas, as well as parking spaces for cars. Another characteristic feature of Samal is the wide sidewalks with settlement gardening. They were laid at the expense of a large indentation of apartment blocks from the red line of streets. This approach is most clearly expressed in the Samal-1 micro-district, where a pavement, a bicycle path, places for rest and playgrounds are placed along a wide avenue along Zholdasbekov street.

In the mid-80’s, it was decided to build a universal sports and entertainment complex, designed for 10,500 seats. It was designed by the architects of “Almatygiprogor” – A.S. Kaynarbaev and M.F. Zhaksylykov. Its hall was designed for various competitions, filling the ice rink for hockey matches and figure skating, organizing large-scale concerts. The structure had a unique design – the cable-stayed roof was attached to four posts, without creating a load on the building. In 1995 the construction was frozen. The building was already in a rough finish, the stands were ready. Despite this, it was demolished in 2006. Instead, they built a shopping mall Dostyk Plaza, a shopping center with an area of 134,000 square meters, which is visited by up to 35 thousand people every weekend.

Another unrealized project is the school of the Komsomol, which was supposed to be located at the corner of Furmanov and Zholdasbekov streets. The unrealized nature of the project is understandable – the era has changed, and the self-determination of the Higher School of the Komsomol (HSK) seems to be an archaism in our time: “The Higher School of the Komsomol is a higher educational institution, training cadres for work in Komsomol organizations, zonal and republican Komsomol schools, youth newspapers, radio and television, etc.”

The first HSK was opened in 1969 on the basis of the Central Komsomol School (CKS) under the Central Committee of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League (AULYCL, founded in 1945). Admission to the HSK was carried out according to the recommendations of the Central Committee of the LYCL, the bureau of the regional and krai committees of the Komsomol. As part of the first HSK, there were several faculties: the Faculty of History and Communist Education, the faculty of Komsomol work; Postgraduate studies and 14 departments (including the theory and practice of Komsomol work, history of Komsomol, mass-political and cultural-educational work, pioneer work, etc.). In addition, the school was equipped with research laboratories for specific sociological research, generalization and analysis of information (with a computer center) and history of Komsomol. On the territory of the school there was a sports complex – a stadium, swimming pool, summer sports camp, etc.; a library (more than 300 000 books). Graduates of the Faculty of History and Communist Education defended the thesis, passed the state examinations and received a diploma of a teacher of history and social studies, a methodologist in communist education.

It is clear that for such a project in the 80’s there was “no basis, nor superstructure” anymore.

The choice of the building that appeared on the site of the Komsomol School that has lost its meaning was dictated by time – a shopping center. That is how “Ramstore” appeared in Samal. The project was revolutionary, and the new building did not fit into the people’s ideas about the place where purchases are made. Almaty citizens and guests of the city who managed to visit “Ramstore” said with enthusiasm: “There’s a cinema inside! And a skating rink!” Kazakhstanis were surprised and thrilled, the reaction of visiting foreigners was somewhat different. They were not surprised by a cinema, a skating rink, bright show-windows with goods unfamiliar at that time to the people of Kazakhstan. Their attention was attracted by something entirely different – guards with automatic rifles were on duty in the supermarket. “What is it for?” – foreign guests asked in horror. “So that there was no theft,” – calmly explained the locals. The answer raised a new question: “And what happens if a person grabs a sausage stick and runs away? Will they open an automatic gunfire on them?” This small example shows that the specific period and its characteristics inevitably affect not only the choice of projects in the construction, but even how the buildings are organized and how they look from the inside.

I would like to mention one more building of the micro-district Samal – the school #131 named after B. Momyshuly. Most of the schools in the USSR were built according to standard projects. Consequently, those who studied at a Soviet-era school could easily feel themselves as the character of the film “The Irony of Fate” – moving from school to school, or even moving from city to city, students changed only classmates and teachers. School buildings, their internal structure and even desks with chairs remained the same. Did it make adaptation in a new school easier? Maybe. Did it also make students’ thinking standard? Quite possible. Did it (in combination with the total lack of bright colors) make the learning process more boring and less effective?

So, the Almaty architect Marat Zhaksylykov, apparently, thought about this when he designed the school #131 named after B. Momyshuly. Atypical school building was designed for 44 classes, in the middle of the school there was a courtyard, the school was equipped with roof lanterns.

In the 1990’s and 2000’s, they began building business centers and residential complexes in Samal, absolutely not corresponding to the style of the original buildings. Developers bought any free piece of land in a prestigious area.

From an exemplary “micro-district of dreams” Samal gradually turned into an unremarkable residential development. Thus, the prototype of the Soviet city of the future did not become a reality, but unequivocally, it became the beginning of a completely new history.



  1. Antonov, Svyatoslav. 2016. Alma-Ata that never was: Microdistrict Samal. Vox Populi. Almaty
  2. Ordabaev, Almas. Photographs and sketches from personal archive.