“They Had Been Naturalized But Rebelled All the Time.” How Does the Border Town of Uralsk Live Nowadays?

What do the town’s residents think about their future?

Uralsk is the administrative center of the West Kazakhstan region. It’s well known for its brilliant architectural heritage built throughout the Russian Empire rule. The town has a lot of fresh air, high prices for houses and low costs for living. Kursiv reporter from Uralsk describes how the town lives under the Real Kazakhstan project by Kursiv edition and Chevron.

My name is Akmaral Shayakhmetova. I am 27 years old and for 24 years, I lived in a settlement 25 kilometers away from Uralsk. However, I used to commute there daily when I was a student and again when I found a job in the town. Now I live here and work for a local newspaper. In 2018 I had moved to Almaty to work in a nationwide edition. Even though I liked my work, I lived there for only two months. I came back to Uralsk because I didn’t want to spend hours commuting to my office and back home every day. In Uralsk, which is much smaller, you can cross the entire town in just forty minutes by taxi.

Here I want to share my vision of what makes life in Uralsk so attractive, explain how youth can achieve their life goals and identify why re-urbanization in Uralsk is trendy. 

Who Are the Residents of the West Kazakhstan Region and What Do They Do?

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One of the industrial sites in Uralsk. Photo: Philipp Leptsov

There are 660,000 residents in the West Kazakhstan region; 312,000 of them live in Uralsk. In terms of ethnic groups, the vast majority are Kazakhs (76%), with smaller groups of Russians (19%), Ukrainians (3%), Tatars (3%) and others (2%).

The developed oil production sector is a main driver of the West Kazakhstan region’s economy. The biggest company here is Karachaganak Petroleum Operating, which is a consortium of prominent oil companies aimed at oil and natural gas production in the Karachaganak and Aksayoil fields. The second player is Zhaikmunai. Both companies are the biggest taxpayers in the entire region. 

Other natural resources the region relies on are clay, sand and limestone, which feed the local building material industry.

Among reprocessing businesses are two main groups: «the Soviet heritage» and new self-made businesses. The first group includes plants that have worked for years. For example, Zenit plant, which produces ships for Kazakhstani Caspian fleet; Agroremmash, which produces special equipment for farmers; Bereke milk factory and Nurzhanar brewery, which produces beer and lemonades. The second group includes Stekloservice (produces double-glazed windows); Kvant furniture manufacturing and the network of metal storage facilities Agran. All these businesses pay taxes and provide locals with jobs.

Thanks to motley grass, the agriculture in the region is thriving. Livestock farming is very popular among both large and small farms. Locals are very experienced in this area, so the meat and milk products from the region are quite tasty. Farmers also produce a lot of high-quality wheat, which is well known abroad. However, because of the sharp continental climate, some types of crops are not so popular here. 

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Ural River has been shallowing for decades; in some places, it can even be forded. Photo: Philipp Leptsov 

Fishery used to be the third most important source of cash in the past. Many years ago, Uralsk merchants supplied the tsar the best sturgeons but now the river is shallowing and fish are under the threat of extinction. The local deputies want to save the river by alarming the society and parliament.

Many locals run their small businesses; in the Asian part of the region, they process wool and produce korpe – a traditional patchwork blanket; in the European part of the region, they make various types of cheese and curd. All these products are available at the local marketplaces. 

Another group of local producers is prisoners who make benches and gazebos for public gardens as well as national-style coffers, which are very popular in the region.

According to the Department of Statistics of the West Kazakhstan region, in 2020 locals earned about 206,000 tenge on average ($485). Those who work in the oil or mining industry can earn about $2,356; in the industrial sector with an average salary of about $919; in the construction sector – $532 and in the art, leisure and entertainment industry – $249. The highest average salary is in the Burlinkiy district where the Aksay oil field is located – $947. However, for those who are not involved in the oil industry, the salary may vary from $353 to $424.

Uralsk History 

To make a long story short, the modern Uralsk was established in the early 17th century by Cossacks, who fled from the tsarist rule because of high taxes and lack of freedom. The very first part of the town is called Kureni, which means kuren – the traditional house of Cossacks.

kak-zhivet-prigranichnyj-gorod-uralsk (12).jpgCathedral of the Archangel Michael, who is considered a heavenly patron for Uralsk. This place used to serve as a shelter for young Ivan Krylov, who later became known as the famous Russian fabulist. Photo: Philipp Leptsov

Initially, Cossacks lived as an autonomous society; they did fishery and farming with no tensions with local nomadic Kazakhs.

However, they were naturalized by the Russian Tsar Peter the Great. Even though they accepted the tsar’s rule, they did rebellions all the time. In 1773-1775 Uralsk served as the capital of the rebellious forces of self-proclaimed Tsar YemelyanPugachev. Cossacks gave Puchagev all their support; one of them even decided to marry off his 16-year-old daughter to Pugachev. Later, for those 17 days of marriage with the leader of rioters, she was imprisoned for the rest of her life.

Another big rebellion this time by Kazakhs was led by SyrymDatov, who was a participant inPugachev’s riot. He declared war against Russia but failed. After that, life in Uralsk became more peaceful. Local merchants started to build their expensive houses (many of them are still there), banks, exchanges, churches and mosques. The first prison in the town was built after the Pugachev’s riot; before that local Cossacks used to punish people by lash or gibbet.

kak-zhivet-prigranichnyj-gorod-uralsk (7).jpgThis building initially served as Russian Trade and Industrial Bank. After the 1917 revolution, it was used by local deputies. Now it’s the Uralsk mayor’s office. Photo: Philipp Leptsov

When the Bolsheviks came to the region, local Cossacks opposed them and the Civil War began. Two prominent Soviet war leaders Frunze and Chapayev fought here. They took over the town after 50 days of siege. 

During World War II, Uralsk was very close to the Stalingrad front (now Volgograd); therefore, many hospitals and industrial enterprises were moved there. The main task was to provide the army with ammunition and food. After the war, the region’s life was the same as in other parts of the Soviet Union. It was a time of expansion in agriculture and the construction of new buildings.

kak-zhivet-prigranichnyj-gorod-uralsk (3).jpgHouse of merchant Vanyushin. Photo: Philipp Leptsov

In the early 1990s once the Soviet Union collapsed, most of the ethnic Russians left Uralsk for Russia. Even though they sold their apartments, they couldn’t sell their dachas (tiny cottages outside the town), because no one wanted to buy them. Later, these suburban dachas became a very attractive area for those who couldn’t afford an apartment in the town. According to official statistics, there are about 310-320 thousand people in Uralsk. Locals argue with this data, however, as they believe the number of residents is much bigger. The exact figure will be known this year after the nationwide census.

Is It Expansive to Live Here?

It’s much harder to buy an apartment in Uralsk now than ever before because of skyrocketing prices. For example, in 2015 a single-room apartment costs about four million tenge ($9,427), but the cost is now up to 10 million tenge ($23,569). A three-room apartment cost $25,926 in 2015 and $42,424 now.

The construction of the new apartment houses never stopped during the past decade. Recently, the authorities allocated $18.8 million for the construction of eight new houses. However, many locals often violate the rules and build houses on their own exactly where they want. As a result, in the 2011 flood, many cottages in Samal settlement were destroyed. The average price of one such cottage was about $117,846 though.

If you want to rent an apartment, you have to pay about $141 per month for a single-room apartment excluding utilities. The rent of a three-room apartment may cost about $235 per month.

Utility payments are no so high. For instance, for a single-room apartment, you have to pay about $20 a month including heating. For a two-room apartment, this payment might be about $25 and for a three-room apartment – $35. The internet services cost $11 per month on average and cable TV – $4.70.

In March 2021, one kilogram of the main food products cost about: 

• Beef, fillet – $4.24
• Ground beef – $4.70
• Sazan (type of fish) – $2.83
• Carp – $1.18 
• Chicken – $2.83
• Cucumber, tomato – $2.36
• Bell pepper – $4.24
• Potato, onion and carrot – $0.35
• Bread – $0.33
• Flour – $0.52
• Butter – $1.89
• Milk – $0.66
• Homemade milk – $0.71
• Homemade sour cream – $3.54 per 0.5 litre
• Homemade curd – $2.36
• Homemadecheese – $5.89
• Bananas – $1.18
• Apples – $0.94.

«prinyali-rossijskoe-poddanstvo,-no-bastovali-regulyarno».-kak-zhivet-prigranichnyj-gorod-uralsk.jpgBeef, the Altyn Alma marketplace. Photo: Akmaral Shayakhmetova

«prinyali-rossijskoe-poddanstvo,-no-bastovali-regulyarno».-kak-zhivet-prigranichnyj-gorod-uralsk (2).jpgVegetables, the city market. Photo: Akmaral Shayakhmetova

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Locally produced flour Beles. Photo: Akmaral Shayakhmetova

«prinyali-rossijskoe-poddanstvo,-no-bastovali-regulyarno».-kak-zhivet-prigranichnyj-gorod-uralsk (4).jpgChicken is supplied by three local firms Akas, Uralsk poultry farm and ZhaiykKus. Photo: Akmaral Shayakhmetova

«prinyali-rossijskoe-poddanstvo,-no-bastovali-regulyarno».-kak-zhivet-prigranichnyj-gorod-uralsk (5).jpgDuring the lockdown the sunflower oil prices have risen. Photo: Akmaral Shayakhmetova

Among the most popular supermarkets are Leader (the brand chain from the town of Atyrau), local Altyndar and Anvar; Russian Svetofor and Dina from Atyrau. Usually, people prefer to go there to buy some household chemicals or such rare goods as sushi products. Meat and milk products are usually bought at the local markets: Altyn Alma, Ayazhan, El-Yrysy, Sultan, Urartu, Zhaiyk and Merey.

The cost of clothes and shoes in Uralsk depends on quality. You can buy clothes by prominent brands in the local mall City Centre. Shops over there offer high-quality but pretty expensive things. For example, sneakers may cost about $70, jackets $94, dresses and shirts $35, and pants $47.

If you are okay with cheaper brands such as De Facto, Koton, and LC Waikiki, you can buy shoes for just $35, a shirt or dress for $23, and jeans for $16.50. Of course, as these things are much cheaper the quality of them is also lower. 

The public transportation is cheap ($0.19 per ride) but is often dirty and uncomfortable. Taxis, another popular type of transport, cost from $0.94 to $3.54 if you are going to cross the entire town from one side to another.

kak-zhivet-prigranichnyj-gorod-uralsk (13).jpgRussian Drama Theater. Photo: Philipp Leptsov

There are several parks with attractions for children in Uralsk; three big movie theaters (ticket costs $1.89) and two theaters (Russian Drama Theater and Kazakh Drama Theater). They both are well-known for their high level of performance. Also, these theaters often act as a stage for touring companies from Nur-Sultan or Russia.

kak-zhivet-prigranichnyj-gorod-uralsk (5).jpgPugachev’s museum in Uralsk. Photo: Philipp Leptsov

All museums in Uralsk are cheap to visit, just about $0.47. Among them are Pugachev’sMuseum, which demonstrates how Russian Cossacks lived in the past; the museum of SakenGumarov, a famous Kazakh artist; and Pushkin Museum – he stayed in the town for several days while he searched for information for his book; etc.

Stay or Leave?

kak-zhivet-prigranichnyj-gorod-uralsk (14).jpgCathedral of Christ the Saviour in Uralsk. Photo: Philipp Leptsov

To stay in Uralsk or to leave? This question is very controversial. Young people leave the town for three main destinations: Almaty, Nur-Sultan and Russia. They chooseAlmaty because it is the cultural capital of our country; Nur-Sultan for money and the Russian city of Samara because it’s huge with good opportunities for education and career.

Also, Uralsk authorities explain about deurbanization, when a bunch of residents leave for the countryside. This trend became obvious last summer. The summer was extremely hot, while the water supply system didn’t make it and many preferred to leave for dachas or visit relatives who live in the countryside. People got tired of small apartments and were excited to be a little bit closer to nature. 

Another reason is «Rural Mortgage.» The government wants young people to move to the rural areas and support their mortgage with just 1-3% interest.

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Chagan River bridge in Kirov Park. Photo: Philipp Leptsov

I like my life here in Uralsk because even amid the pandemic, I was able to work as a reporter. I can expand my knowledge by just using online courses while all-day shopping is waiting for me in neighboring Samara. There are a lot of shopping centers and huge markets. Of course, I am not excited by our theaters, but I can travel to Almaty or Saint Petersburg once a year. 
If someone wants to make a career in a traditional office here in the West Kazakhstan region, he or she should be fluent in English. In that case, this person can work in the oil industry for a foreign company. However, fewer and fewer young people want to work in an office. They dream about their own small businesses such as a pizzeria or flower shop.
There are several national and private institutes in Uralsk. One of them is M.Utemisov West Kazakhstan State University, which is focused on creative jobs such as dancers, art critics and movie makers. The second is West Kazakhstan Agrarian-Technical University named after Zhangir Khan.

I like swimming in the Ural River in hot summers and walking around in Kirov Park or local groves. Of course, I don’t like all these inconveniences in our town, especially the poor public transportation system and dirty sidewalks. But for me, these are not enough reasons to leave the town. I love the soul that I see in Uralsk, it makes a huge difference for me, because I can’t see the same in other cities.

The only reason that is capable to move me out of the town is the climate. It’s a very sharp continental climate with -40 Celsus in winter and +40 in summer. The winters are so long and cold that it can be really hard to live here.

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