Laszczkowski, Mateusz. 'City of the Future': Building Space, Modernity, and Urban Change in Astana. New York: Berghahn, 2016. xiv + 205 pages. Hardcover, $95.00.
Cities are notoriously difficult places for anthropological fieldwork. They may be home to a rich tapestry of cultural groups that offer a range of ethnographic opportunities, but that very richness creates an enormous challenge for researchers attempting to capture the overarching culture of the city. This is why anthropologist Mateusz Laszczkowski's 'City of the Future': Building Space, Modernity, and Urban Change in Astana is such a fascinating work. Its ostensible focus may rest with Astana, the new capital of the Republic of Kazakhstan, but its implications reach into a variety of urban settings. Rather than play it safe and focus on one or more narrowly-defined groups living in the city or rush headlong into the impossible task of trying to make broad claims about the entire urban community, Laszczkowski takes a more open-ended approach. "The perspectives explored in these chapters," he explains, "are all partial, all more or less loosely connected fragments" (p. 23).
The six chapters in this text take on different aspects of culture in Astana, yet they form a surprisingly coherent whole. What ties them together are a set of research questions centered on particular themes, including the divide between urbanity and rurality, the relations between local natives and the waves of distinct migrants into Astana, and, most importantly, the dynamics between space, place, and social formation. Together, these themes reveal much about how the changes inherent in a city's ongoing pursuit of modernity shape the politics, culture, and social relations of the city's diverse groups of inhabitants.
Astana is an extraordinarily attractive site for exploring these sorts of questions. It began as a tiny 'tsarist outpost' named Akmolinsk, but it quickly achieved cityhood in the 1960s. Since that time, the city has undergone two dramatic transformations. The first witnessed its birth as a Soviet regional industrial center renamed Tselinograd, where a number of major factories aimed to produce an agricultural revolution in this provincial backwater. Then, in the early 2000s, a decade after the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of an independent Kazakhstan, the city became Astana, the so-called city of the future and a shimmering new capital for the young nation. At the time, government...