The Hospitality of the N.K.V.D.

(Continued from here)

On leave from his post in Moscow, Fitzroy Maclean approaches Almaty on the Turksib rail line after several days’ journey in September 1937.

“All day we trundled across the desert towards these distant peaks, Then, suddenly in the early afternoon, we found ourselves once again amid cultivation: apple orchards, the trees heavily laden with fruit; golden fields of Indian corn ripening in the sun; plantations of melons; rows of tall poplars growing by the side of canals and irrigation ditches. After the desert the foliage seemed lusciously, exuberantly green. We were nearing Alma Ata. Already we could see the white houses of the town. Beyond it the tree covered foothills of the Tien Shan rose steeply towards the snow-covered peaks behind them.

I was in Central Asia.”

Maclean arrives and secures a ride from the train station to the town itself. I can only assume he was at the present day Almaty I station, a few miles north of the city center (and its Almaty II station). Immediately he is impressed.

“Alma Ata must be one of the pleasantest provincial towns in the Soviet Union. In character it is purely Russian, being one of the first Russian settlements in Central Asia. From its foundation in 1854 until the Revolution it bore the name of Vierny. In Kazakh its new name means ‘Father of Apples’, an appellation which it fully merits, for the apples grown there are the finest in size and flavour I have ever eaten. The central part of the town consists of wide avenues of poplars at right angles to each other. The houses, whether of wood or stone, are painted white and are for the most part in a good state of preservation. In addition to the ornate pre-revolutionary buildings, a large number of autere ultra-modern constructions have been erected which include a very large block of government buildings, a telegraph, telephone and wireless building, a fine cinema, various scientific and other institutes, shops and several blocks of flats…The population, which to judge by the crowds in the streets was roughly half Kazakh and half Russian, seemed comparatively contented…”

After suffering through Moscow, he is impressed with Alma Ata and the  Kazakh SSR, seemingly free from the purges far away, the prisons deep in the Steppe, and the famine that wiped out millions of Kazakhs just a few years earlier. Of course even Maclean probably didn’t know much about the famine, and he does mention meet a Pole recently released after serving a 5 year prison term for no reason. He credits the very Turksib he rode in on with spurring Alma Ata’s development, reaching a population of 230,000 from one of 50,000 at the beginning of the decade. 

Maclean spends much time and energy trying to secure a place in a hotel, and a means to explore the mountains. He eventually works the bureaucracy and succeeds in both, heading to the nearby town of Talgar, where his NKVD escort generously takes him to a nearby mountain cottage for some local hospitality. 

“It was built of mud bricks and whitewashed inside and out. Sitting in the sun outside it we found a very old Russian peasant woman and her two grandchildren aged four and five. They seemed delighted to see visitors and the grandmother immediately started to prepare a meal while I played in the garden with the puppy, the children and the NKVD man…

A camp near Talgar in the 1930’s.

The meal to which we now sat down after the family had duly crossed themselves in front of one of the numerous ikons, which were hanging in a corner of the extremely clean and quite well furnished living-room, was a good one. There was no meat; but a large bowl of pancakes with sour milk into which we all dipped, eggs, tea and magnificent apples and melons which the children were sent out to pick. After we had finished, we discussed, as always happens on such occasions in the Soviet Union, our respective odes of life. My hosts told me that they worked on the neighbouring collective farm. In addition to what they earned there, they were able to sell on their own account the produce of their plot of ground which they had bought 12 years before. They said that all the peasant in the disrict had been collectivized but that life there was pleasant and prosperity fairly general.

He declines an offer to spend the night and returns at dusk to Alma Ata, on board a lorry with ‘highly sovietized Kazakh girl students returning to Alma Ata after spending the free day in their villages.” Maclean makes one more day trip to the mountains, driving again east to Issik and its mountain lake (not to be confused with the large Issyk Kul in nearby Kyrgyzstan). The next day he departs Alma Ata and Kazakhstan by train, heading to the legendary town of Samarkand, home of the Registan.

Taken from Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. kazaknomad says:

    I remember that building as you go north (downhill) towards the Green Market. I’m glad it is still standing, well as of three years ago it was there. The street car wasn’t there but that building with its unique features still does.

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