Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is the largest city in the northern part of the country, located on the Ishim River in the endless steppe surrounding it. The history of the city, which changed its name several time, dates back to the 1830s and covers its expansion from a small fortified trading settlement to the contemporary metropolis.
The original name of the city — Akmolinsk — derives from a trading settlement founded by the Russians in 1824 as a transmission point for the transit of grain from southern Asia. In 1862, the fortified town was granted a town charter, which boosted its intensive development in the following years. During World War II, Akmolinsk, which was the administrative centre of the district already then, was of great strategic significance for the USSR because of the process of transferring factories and plants from the areas occupied by the Nazi Germany to the city. From 1940 Akmolinsk and the nearby towns became a location centre for the Soviet forced-labour camp system. The Soviet forced-labour camps located near the city were chiefly meant for the families arrested by the NKVD. A large group of inmates consisted of Poles who were deported to Kazakhstan from the areas of the Second Polish Republic occupied by the Red Army troops. The city was also a resettlement point for exiles of various nationalities as part of mass deportations deep into the USSR. After the end World War II Akmolinsk won the reputation of a large industrial centre and a major road and rail hub in the Kazakh SSR. In 1961, the city was renamed by Nikita Khrushchev into Tselinograd and became the centre of a project launched by the USSR authorities with a view to transforming large steppe area into arable land, chiefly for cereal crops. Since then, the city started to record a major growth of its population, which was connected with the migration of the people expected to carry out the project, and entered into the next stage of its dynamic development. In 1992, after the proclamation of Kazakhstan’s independence, the name of the city was changed to Akmola, which means a “white grave” in the language of its indigenous inhabitants. Three years later, the Kazakh authorities decided to move the capital from the former Almaty to Akmola. Upon the completion of the process in 1998 the city was renamed again and given its current name. In our times Astana is a large cultural and industrial centre geared chiefly towards the production of agricultural machines and supply of the food market. The capital city status entails the city’s permanent urbanization. On the left bank of the Irtysh River, in the heart of Astana, a prestigious financial district was built with representative ministerial buildings of state authorities and other countries’ diplomatic representations located there. The implementation of bold architectural projects contrasting with old districts located on the right bank of the river reflects the dynamic growth of the city. Astana has a population of some 600,000, including chiefly Kazakhs and Russians, but also representatives of minorities such as Uzbeks or the Kirghiz. Sunni Islam and the Orthodox faith are the dominant faiths, but a considerable group of local residents consists of Roman Catholics, including Poles and Germans. A large Roman Catholic Church dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help was built in the city. It is being ministered to also by priests from Poland. Other representatives of the Polish community in Astana are primarily descendants of the people deported to Kazakh areas between 1936 and 1937, when the Soviet authorities decided to carry out their resettlement plan from the area referred to as the “Polish ethnic region” in the Ukrainian SSR. A small group of the city’s residents is composed of the families or elderly people of Polish descent who remained in the USSR after their release from Soviet forced-labour camps or work camps for deported families (specposiołeks) where exiles were kept during World War II. The Polish community is Astana is grouped around the Roman Catholic Church and the Local Union of Poles. The Union publishes a newspaper for the Polish community, organizes cyclic Polish language lessons, and co-organizes trips to Poland meant chiefly for the youth. The number of Poles in the Akmolinsk District is now put at more than 12,000, every tenth of whom lives in the capital of the region. In 2008, the Polish authorities decided to move the Polish diplomatic post in Kazakhstan to Astana, leaving a trimmed Polish consulate in Almaty. As a result the Polish community in northern areas of Kazakhstan gained an easier access to assistance extended by the Polish embassy, including support in obtaining the Polish Charter, which is a great improvement, especially for the young people, making it possible for them to start education in Poland, have their studies subsidized, or get legal gainful employment.