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Baikonur (Kazakhstan) (AFP) – Malik Mutaliyev walks past an abandoned amusement park in the winter of Baikonur, a secret town in the inhospitable steppe of Kazakhstan that has appeared next to the eponymous Baikonur Cosmodrome where the Soviet Union’s space program rose to fame.
“Our city has been through a lot: Perestroika, the fall of the Soviet Union, power cuts. We have lived it all,” said the former chief architect of Baikonur, 67 years old.
The colony in the desolate north of Kazakhstan in Central Asia goes by several names: Site No. 10, Leninsk – in honor of Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin – and now Baikonur.
It was nevertheless here and from the cosmodrome some thirty kilometers away that the first satellite was launched into space – Sputnik in 1957 – and both the first man sent into orbit, Yuri Gagarin, and later the first wife, Valentina Tereshkova, were dispatched from this location.
Three decades after the Soviet collapse, Baikonur remains a key facility, especially for manned flights to the International Space Station (ISS). On Wednesday, two Japanese space tourists embarked on the ISS from Baikonur.
“This is all the work of the people, of the many generations of people who have worked a lot,” says Mutaliyev, referring to the city he helped build.
This work began in 1955, when the Soviets established a colony on the banks of the Syr Darya River to house the workers involved in the construction of the cosmodrome.
The site then expanded to accommodate military personnel and their families working on classified space projects.
“I remember when the so-called elites were here. There were a lot of educated people, ”says Oksana Slivina, a teacher who moved to Baikonur when her father was stationed in the city by the military.
For many years the city was closed to foreigners. Even today, anyone entering Baikonur is required to present a permit at the city’s guarded checkpoint.
Located miles from major cities, Baikonur was chosen because of its remoteness in the desert, ideal for testing rockets.
Temperatures are brutally hot in summer and drop well below freezing in winter, but the skies are generally clear and ideal for launches.
“Many are leaving”
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Baikonur became part of what is now Kazakhstan. Residents have left in droves, abandoning their homes in the face of an uncertain future.
Now it is leased by Russia to Kazakhstan under a contract that expires in 2050. The Russian and Kazakh languages are used interchangeably, as are the currencies of the two countries.
“Our aim was not to let the city collapse and to preserve it for future development. I think we have achieved this,” Mutaliyev said.
The city lives and breathes space.
Its streets are named after the heroes of Soviet space. The buildings are decorated with space-themed artwork, and the streets are dotted with monuments to rockets, engineers and, of course, Gagarin, a Russian national hero.
The seemingly frozen city of around 76,000 inhabitants is a well-preserved remnant of Soviet architecture and town planning.
The young generation sees its future elsewhere.
“Many are leaving. In general, parents stay because the wages are good and the children go to Russia or elsewhere,” said Georgy Ilin, a high school graduate.
The 21-year-old said he also plans to leave for college because “there is nowhere to study here.”
Young people, Mutaliyev conceded, “see no prospect here.”
He says the city has gone “dormant” and hopes Russia’s return to booming space tourism, ushered in with Wednesday’s launch, will give it a much needed boost.
Slivina, the teacher, says it would be “a shame” not to use the city’s unique status to attract visitors.
“Of course you have to invest money here – and a lot of money – so that it doesn’t become embarrassing and therefore there is something to show people besides the launch pads,” she said. .
But the 57-year-old said she would always stay true to her home, which for many years was Earth’s gateway to space.
“The city is close to my heart. I’ve spent half my life here. I will love it no matter what.”
© 2021 AFP