Kazakhstan: anthems in dictatorships

This is Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, in a subway station with some flowers!

Nazarbayev in the subway

And this is him by a road!

A poster of President Nursultan Nazarbayev in the countryside outside Astana

And here he is in a bookshop!

Nursultan Nazarbayev the bestseller!

And this is his song!

The little picture there is of him playing dombra with his children, one of the many photos on his fantastic website.

Nazarbayev, as the book makes clear, is a bit of a musician. And by ‘bit of a musician’, I don’t mean like that annoying friend of yours who brings a guitar along to picnics and forces everyone to listen to earnest Radiohead covers. This is Ush Konyr by the Kazakh boyband MuzART with lyrics by the president.

While in the country, I met Saken, one of that band’s members who insisted over and over again that the president was a better musician than he’d ever be, and told me numerous anecdotes that seemed to back up the claim.

Nazarbayev also claims to have written the words to this song (music by Bekbolat Tleuhan, who also features in the book) although some question that (p145-146).

Nazarbayev apparently originally wanted that to be his national anthem, and if you go to the top of the Bayterek tower in the capital Astana you can get to hear it with an anthemic makeover. All you have to do is put your hand in Nazarbayev’s golden palm print and wish hard enough.

The Bayterek tower in Astana, supposedly representing the 'bird of happiness's' golden egg sitting in the 'tree of life'

Bayterek, which is meant to look like the ‘bird of happiness’ has laid a golden egg in the ‘tree of life’

A baby being held up to have their photo taken with their hand in President Nazarbayev's

A baby putting their hand into Nazarbayev’s

Here‘s the ‘anthem’ being played:

If you want to make up your mind whether Nazarbayev did a good job with his anthem, this is the song it replaced, the rather boringly named National Anthem of the Republic of Kazakhstan. In the player below, you should just about be able to see the wonderful Zhadyra Daribayeva, who features in the chapter (p137-139( and is one of the few women ever to have been involved in writing an anthem.

Nazarbayev isn’t the only dicta… sorry, authoritarian ruler, to have toyed with anthems, as the book shows on p129-133 (hello Pol Pot!). But perhaps more interesting are those that didn’t or only did so reluctantly.

Mao for instance. During the Cultural Revolution, he was basically forced to change China’s anthem from The March of the Volunteers to The East is Red after his wife ‘purged’ the composer of the original song. The East is Red is a tune that almost deifies Mao in a way Nazarbayev would never dream of doing for himself (“From the east rises a Mao Zedong / He strives for the people’s happiness”).

The case of North Korea is even more surprising. None of the Kims has so far gone in for anthem writing, or even tried to shove their name into the country’s anthem, known as Aegukka. Although academics told me the de factor anthem there isn’t the official one, but the Song of General Kim Il-Sung, which asks such difficult questions as ‘Immortal guerrilla warrior, who is he?’ and ‘Outstanding patriot of the nation, who is he?’ The chorus gives the inevitable answers. I’ll leave you to decide which is better.

Finally, for anyone who’s been reading this page thinking, “Hang on: Kazakhstan and anthems. Isn’t he forgetting something?” Stop worrying: here’s what you’ve been after!

Go to chapter 6

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