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Almaty was founded in 1854, when the Kazakhs were still nomads, as a Russian frontier fort named Verny on the site of the Silk Road oasis Almatu which had been laid waste by the Mongols. Cossacks and Siberian peasants settled around it, but the town was twice almost flattened by earthquakes, in 1887 and 1911. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was a place of exile, its best-known outcast being Leon Trotsky.

Renamed Alma-Ata (Father of Apples), it became the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan in 1927, and was connected to Siberia by the Turksib (Turkestan–Siberia) railway in 1930. The railway brought big growth and so did WWII, as factories were relocated here from Nazi-threatened western USSR, and many Slavs came to work in them. Large numbers of ethnic Koreans, forcibly resettled from the Russian Far East, arrived at the same time.

In the 1970s and early ’80s Kazakhstan’s leader Dinmukhamed Kunaev, the only Central Asian member of the Soviet Politburo, managed to steer lots of money southeast from Moscow to transform Alma-Ata from a provincial town into a worthy capital of a Soviet republic. Hence the number of buildings in relatively adventurous late-Soviet styles such as the Arasan Baths and Hotel Kazakhstan, and the stately piles such as the Academy of Sciences and the old parliament, now the Kazakh-British Technical University.

Almaty saw the first unrest unleashed in Central Asia by the Gorbachev era of glasnost. Thousands took to the streets in December 1986 to protest against Kunaev’s replacement as head of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan by the Russian Gennady Kolbin. A counterdemo of workers armed with metal bars turned the protest into riots, police opened fire and possibly as many as 250 people were killed.

In 1991 Almaty was the venue for the meeting at which the USSR was finally pronounced dead, when all five Central Asian republics, plus Azerbaijan, Armenia and Moldova, joined the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), founded by Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The name Almaty, close to that of the original Silk Road settlement, replaced Alma-Ata soon after.

Almaty lost its status as Kazakhstan’s capital in 1998 but remains the country’s commercial, social and cultural hub. In an ongoing property boom, ever more office towers, apartment blocks and shopping centres are pushing skyward, especially in the south of the city. The tarnished side of this shiny middle-class coin is represented by the shabby settlements of rural migrants and Kazakh returnees on the city’s outskirts.