Somewhere on Kazakhstan’s vast steppe, about halfway between Almaty and the new capital in Astana, a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin stands alone, staring at a vacant old military facility and the empty horizon. The forlorn monument is one of many Soviet relics at the Sary Shagan Polygon, a partially abandoned missile testing range on the west bank of Lake Balkhash.
Established in 1956, Sary Shagan hosted tens of thousands of Soviet military personnel and their families during the height of the Cold War, when Moscow and the United States raced to build anti-ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the area lost most of its financial support, many residents, especially non-Kazakhs, left. Homes and military buildings were abandoned along the Balkhash lakeshore. The polygon remains active, though: Some of the territory is still leased to the Russian Army, and both Kazakh and Russian military personnel are stationed in the area.
Priozersk, Sary Shagan’s administrative center, is technically closed to foreigners. Though visitors need permission to enter, on a recent visit the city gate stood open and unstaffed. Even local officials, unconcerned by the visit, were uncertain about what permits a visitor needs.
Like many former military towns throughout the former Soviet Union, the city is economically distressed, its infrastructure in dire need of maintenance. Last winter, for example, when temperatures dropped below -30 °C (-22°F), thousands of residents lost their central heating.
Kazakhstan’s government is now trying to improve Priozersk’s economy by pouring 12.6 billion tenge (about $86 million) into the city, according to local press reports, as part of a three-year social and economic development plan.
Even so, Lenin hangs on, for now. Residents have dismantled surrounding buildings in search of scrap metal, but have left Volodya untouched, perhaps out of a wayward respect for the old days.
Ikuru Kuwajima is a freelance photojournalist based in Almaty.