Soviet Union

Ode to the Antonov-24

         I’ll hear no grumbles about bumpy flights on twin-prop planes from regional airports in the U.S., (such as Charleston’s Yeager).  No sighs about the robotic sign-off from the cabin steward, “Thank you for choosing United” (as if you had a choice).  No, you have no grounds for complaint because you don’t know how terrifying such flights can be.  You have not had the Antonov-24 experience.  

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

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          The Antonov-24, a Soviet 44-seater turboprop which made its debut in 1959, was designed to take off and land on rough air strips in remote locations; over 800 of the aircraft manufactured are still in service, mostly in the former Soviet Union and Africa.  Most look as if they have had a tough life and are ready to go into assisted living in a nice warm hangar.  Despite cosmetic surgery on the wings and fuselage, the dents are visible.  When you board, you just hope that the ground crew tighten up the bolts and kick the tires before take-off.  

           The interior décor is standard Soviet, circa 1970—fluorescent lights, faded curtains and worn carpet runners that look as if they were salvaged from the remnant section.  The seats have only two positions—slightly reclined (when occupied) and fully forward.  When the plane lands the backs of all seats without passengers crash forward.  The overhead luggage bins are like those on trains and long-distance buses—shallow with no doors.  The standard warning about opening the bins carefully “because luggage may have shifted during flight” is irrelevant.  If the plane banks abruptly, all of the luggage on one side will fall out anyway.  

            My first flight in 2009 was from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to Almaty in Kazakhstan, over the most spectacular mountain scenery of Central Asia—the towering Pamirs and the Tien Shan mountains, which occupy over 90 per cent of the land area of Kyrgyzstan.  Flying at about 20,000 feet on a clear day, you seem to skim the tops of the snow-capped peaks.  The Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia describes the approach to Dushanbe as through—that’s through, not over—the Pamirs.  

             We circled three times over Dushanbe so that the pilot could gain enough altitude—and maybe enough courage—to take on the Pamirs.  And then we were over them—just a few thousand feet above snowy peaks, glaciers shining bright in the morning sun, and deep in the valleys, winding dirt roads and scattered dwellings.  We crossed the mountain ranges of Kyrgyzstan and then turned northeast, parallel to the Zailiysky Ala Too range, for the rest of the trip.  It took almost twice as long as the outbound trip, but it was the most spectacular flight I’ve ever experienced.  You don’t get views like this from a modern jet at 30,000 feet.  At the time it made me almost hope they’d keep the Antonov-24 in service.

           My view started to change on my second experience in 2011—a night flight from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, to Aktau, Kazakhstan’s main port on the Caspian Sea and the center of its (at that time) booming oil industry.  

          The flight was on a regional Kazakhstan airline with a disconcerting name—SCAT (probably branded in a vodka-soaked brainstorming session).  The digital age had not yet arrived at SCAT; in Tbilisi, the single agent was laboriously writing down passenger names in a ledger and seat numbers on boarding cards.  SCAT did not merit prime gate space.  We boarded a bus that drove to the far end of the airport, and then tramped through the snow to the plane.  One of the ground crew steadied the slippery, rickety steps (they looked like the aluminum steps you find in swimming pools) as we struggled on board.  

         There were some standard announcements over tiny speakers, almost completely drowned out by the noise of the engines.  All I caught was “Uvazhayemy passazheri …Spasibo za vinimaniye” (“Dear passengers …thank you for your attention.”)  Attention to what?  Well, the only thing to look at during the two-hour flight (even though it left at 1:00 a.m., the fluorescent lights were on for the whole trip) were those carpet runners and the occasional swinging seat back.  I was thinking about life vests.  This plane was crossing the Caucasus Mountains and then the Caspian Sea.  I was wondering what the flight attendant had said about the emergency exits and the “unlikely event of a water landing.” The Antonov-24 could fly, but could it float?


Long-lost Postcards from Stanland jottings discovered

All right, all right. I’ll confess to taking literary license in that subject line (but I had fun doing so).  No, this “discovery” is not exactly in the same league as unearthing an ancient religious text or an unpublished Shakespeare sonnet.  And to say that the jottings were “lost” implies that I had been looking for them, which I hadn’t.  Perhaps “long-forgotten” would be more appropriate. Nevertheless, I felt a frisson of excitement when, on unloading the contents of a file drawer in my office (a chore I’ve successfully avoided for many years), I found a manila folder that had fallen under the stack. It was labelled “Kyrgyzstan 1995,” so it evidently had something to do with my first trip to Central Asia. I expected to find hotel receipts, or perhaps a copy of my project report. Instead, I found handwritten notes I’d taken during the adventure. 

Some of my impressions were familiar, and are recounted in my book, Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016).  If you haven’t read it, there’s still time to order from Amazon or another online bookseller before the holidays!  Great reading for those long winter nights.  Other notes recorded places and episodes I had forgotten, so I decided to write about them in a new two-part travelogue.

If you read Postcards from Stanland, you will know the December 1995 trip was the event that changed the way that I look at the world and my place in it.  I had been hired by the United States Information Service and UNESCO to establish a training and resource center for journalists in Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. It’s the second largest city in the country and was the scene of inter-ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks before independence in 1990.

When I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, almost exactly four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was in deep trouble.  Factories and collective farms had closed, inflation was rampant, pensions were almost worthless, and many teachers, doctors and government workers had not been paid for months.  There were power cuts every day.  Most shops were closed, with all commerce moving to the bazaars.  Out on the sidewalks, people spread out household goods on blankets, selling what they could to buy food.  It made a deep impression on me, and over the next 20 years I returned to Central Asia frequently for teaching, training and research.  Here are a few scenes from that first trip.

Arriving in Almaty

In 1995, there were no direct flights from European airports to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, so I flew on Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Kazakhstan’s capital Almaty, 150 miles by road from Bishkek.  As we walked down the steps from the plane, another passenger surveyed the dimly-lit terminal building. “Just like Sofia,” he said. “All these Soviet-era airports were built the same.”  We tramped across the tarmac. Snow was in the air, and I was regretting having packed my wooly hat and gloves in my checked bag. At the entrance we passed a line of uniformed cops, their peaked caps seeming to sit unnaturally high on their heads.  They eyed us suspiciously without speaking. The interior décor of the terminal was, if anything, more depressing than the outside—hard, wooden benches and walls lined with faded plastic panels broken by occasional examples of Soviet realism, an oil painting or bas relief of heroic peasants or factory workers gazing towards some misty socialist nirvana, with a uniformed commissar looking on approvingly. My driver from the US embassy in Bishkek was waiting, holding a “Professor David” sign. His name was German (in Russian, some “h” sounds become a “g,” so we would translate his name as Herman). It was too late to make the drive to Bishkek that night.  We would stay overnight at the Hotel Almaty, at that time the only “business hotel” in the city where foreigners were allowed to stay.

The Hotel Almaty--a business hotel?

The Hotel Almaty--a business hotel?


At 11:00 p.m., the lobby of the Hotel Almaty—a massive structure, with all the trappings of ostentatious Soviet public architecture—was deserted.  There was no one at the reception desk. German banged on the counter and shouted.  After a few minutes, a clerk dressed in his robe emerged from a back room, yawning. German helped me complete the registration form. In Soviet hotels, the reception desk does not hand out room keys.  These are the jealously-guarded property of the dezhurnaya, the “floor lady” who serves as the queen of her one-floor domain, handing out and receiving keys, fetching blankets and pillows and, if you’re lucky, rustling up tea.  Olga was snoring in front of her TV when German and I emerged from the tiny elevator on the 8th floor. I handed her the ticket from reception and she found the key in her desk drawer.  “It’s the only key,” she warned. “Don’t lock yourself out of the room.”

Because it was the only “business hotel” in town, the Hotel Almaty could charge ridiculously high prices and get away with it—$90 a night for a small room with a hard bed, rickety furniture, noisy plumbing and AC outlets loosely attached to the wall by electrical tape.  (Over the next few years, more hotels opened in the city, and when I next stayed at the Hotel Almaty in 2001, I paid $40 for the same type of room).  I flicked through the 50-plus channels on the TV remote, but only two had signals.  The image and sound on the old Russian movie were breaking up, and the other channel offered color bars, so I gave up on TV watching.  A switch on the wall activated the wired radio system, which offered muzak versions of American country classics, including some Hank Williams favorites.  There were two phones. One was a rotary dial, presumably for local calls. The second, the white “international satellite line” came with a “buyer beware” warning on a card. “After the 35 seconds, irrespective of the fact that whether you have succeeded in getting through or not, the computer starts counting the elapsed time, which you will have to pay for. Which means that after the 35 seconds it will not matter whether you have talked to your opponent or not, you will have to pay as it for conversation.” You were instructed to pay in cash within one hour of the call. I didn’t relish the thought of rousing the clerk or dezhurnaya again that night, so resolved to call Stephanie in the morning.

I woke up early as the sun streamed through the windows.  I walked out onto the balcony and was rewarded with a panorama of the snow-covered Tien Shan Mountains, shimmering in the morning light. Not worth $90, but still a spectacular view.  I called Stephanie, paid at the front desk, and joined German for breakfast. Hank Williams was still on the radio.  Surreal.

The Soviet Union—another passing dynasty

The rickety furniture and electrical system in my room at the Hotel Dostuk in Bishkek was apparently inspired by the vision of the Almaty Hotel’s interior designer.  The bed was too short for my six-foot frame.  There was a closet, but no drawers for clothes.  The light switches hung from the walls at odd angles.  At least the TV worked.  It offered CNN International and BBC World Service, along with entertainment channels in Russian and Turkish, TNT, and MTV.  The Indian music video channel featured high-energy, choreographed Bollywood dance scenes, the men dressed in white suits and the women in brightly-colored attire sweeping their long dark locks in front of the camera.  At 9:00 p.m., Kyrgyz public television was offering what appeared to be a lecture on macro-economics, complete with equations and graphs for short-run marginal cost curves. Riveting television.

I spent Saturday at briefings at the United States Information Service. On Sunday, the day before I flew to Osh to begin my project, the embassy public affairs officer, Bruce McGowan, took me for a day out to the foothills of the Tien Shan to see some archeological sites, with Bakhit, a Kyrgyz historian, as our guide.  Soviet archaeologists began excavations in the 1930s, removing their prize discoveries to museums in Moscow and Leningrad; since independence, Kyrgyzstan has been trying to get its history back, with little success.  The archaeological digs have stopped because the government has no money for excavations or restoration, and most sites are unfenced, with sheep grazing on them.  The most-visited site, 50 miles from Bishkek, is the Burana Tower, the 11th century monument on the site of Balasagun, one of the capitals of the Turkic Qarakhanid dynasty that ruled a large region of Central Asia for almost 200 years from the early 10th century until they were overthrown by another Turkic dynasty, the Seljuks.  Archaeologists excavated the citadel of Balasagun and restored the Burana Tower in the 1970s.  At another site, sculpted stones mark the burial places of those who fought in the dynastic wars; by nomadic tradition, a warrior was buried with his horse.

We ended our trip with tea at the Issyk Ata (Warm Father) resort, where hot springs from the mountains are piped to baths. In the Soviet era, factory workers and their families came to these resorts, called sanatoria, for their annual break, to enjoy the clean air, walk the mountain trails, play sports, and relax their tired joints in the steam baths.  Since independence, the only tourists have been local. Many buildings have fallen into disrepair, with stucco peeling and sagging wooden porches.  The lobby of the main lodge features a brass replica of the Kremlin and a sign boasting that “The Collective of the Resort will struggle to uphold the highest quality standards.” It will be an uphill struggle without new investment and an improved economy. Apart from the staff and a few village boys who were sledding in the snow, we were the only people at Issyk Ata on a Sunday afternoon. Near the lodge, an image of Buddha etched on a large rock had been almost obscured by graffiti of the “Sasha loves Irina” variety.  In the driveway, a small statue of Lenin in one of his standard poses, his right arm outstretched, looked out over the resort, a scene of post-Soviet decay.  Like other dynasties that had ruled this region, the Soviets had come, and they had gone.  In the large scheme of historical time, they were really passing through.  The Qarakhanids ruled more than twice as long.

It's a bird, it's a plane. No, it's only space junk.

Excerpt from Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia published by the Ohio University Press (2016)

Mir space station mock-up at Karaganda EcoMuseum

Mir space station mock-up at Karaganda EcoMuseum

Just off the main drag in Karaganda, a coal mining and industrial city in northern Kazakhstan, the EcoMuseum is housed on the first floor of a local government administration building. You have to know where you’re going because there’s no sign on the street, and only a small one on the door. 

The museum features an eclectic mix of artifacts and interpretive exhibits from central and northeastern Kazakhstan, a region exceptionally rich with environmental problems. There are exhibits on mining, manufacturing, pollution, water resources, and energy conservation. The museum is also in the eco-tourism business, offering guided tours of Central Kazakhstan’s mountain and desert regions and Lake Balkhash, the largest lake in Central Asia.  Its signature “Back in the USSR” tour takes visitors back in time to the region’s prison labor camps, the Semipalitinsk nuclear test site, where the Soviets conducted above and below-ground nuclear tests for 40 years, and the village of Aksu, whose claim to fame is its alley of Soviet monuments with busts and statues of Lenin.    

The museum’s flashiest exhibit—and the one most popular with school groups—is the space center, with its mock-up of the Mir space station control room.  It’s like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise or a scene from Dr. Strangelove with banks of monitors, flashing lights, control levers and dials and a throbbing, techno sound track.

On both sides of the space station, the museum floor looks like a junk yard with misshapen chunks of metal, some partly burned, with barely distinguishable Cyrillic markings.  Most of the items were salvaged from the Soviet military base at Lake Balkash in the south of Karaganda oblast.  When the Soviet Army left its bases in Kazakhstan, it abandoned tons of military hardware—trucks, artillery, mortars, ammunition, communications equipment, as well as huts and furniture.  Economic times were hard, and local people moved in to salvage and sell what they could.  Most of the metal went for scrap, but some ended up at the EcoMuseum.

Credit for the collection goes to EcoMuseum director Dmitry Kalmykov, a trained scientist.  As a child growing up in Ukraine, he loved to collect scrap metal and bring it home.  “When I moved to Karaganda and discovered there was all this stuff from the military and the nuclear test site, it reawakened my childhood interest,” he said.  Dmitry started picking up metal debris during a 1992 scientific investigation at the Semipalitinsk nuclear test site and hasn’t stopped since.

The gems of the collection are parts of rockets launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, 550 miles away in the semi-desert of southwestern Kazakhstan.  For the Soviet Union, the remote location—far away from population centers and, presumably, the long lenses of U.S. spy planes—was ideal for its military space program.  From the first human space mission in 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s brief jaunt stunned the U.S. into kick-starting its own manned space program, Baikonur has been the launch site for all Soviet and Russian crewed space missions and for rockets carrying satellites.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s space program faced a difficult problem—its launch site was now in a foreign country.  Although Russia claimed that it should still control the cosmodrome, the military installations and forces guarding them, Kazakhstan insisted that Russia not only agree to joint control but start paying rent on the place.  In 1994, Kazakhstan agreed to lease the complex to Russia for about $120 million a year. 

Baikonur is a commercial success—the preferred launch site for most countries and private companies that want to get stuff (mostly communication satellites) into space.  More than 35,000 people work there.  It’s the no-frills discount store of space launch sites, easily beating the European and Asian competition for price.  Most launches use the cheap and well tested Proton rocket, the workhorse of the Soviet space program since its first launch in 1965 and one of the most successful heavy boosters in the history of spaceflight.

The people of central and northeastern Kazakhstan don’t see much from Kazakhstan’s $120 million-a-year rocket revenue.  But they sometimes see the rockets—or parts of them—out on the steppe.  Rockets are launched in a northeasterly direction from Baikonur, with the first stage burning off over an area that can range from 10 to 90 km wide, depending on the size of the rocket and its payload.  A large region of the steppe from Zhezkazgan in the south to Pavlodar in the north is within the ellipse of the rocket flight path. 

What doesn’t burn up in the atmosphere falls to earth—usually on the uninhabited steppe but sometimes near populated areas.  In 1999, a rocket carrying a communications satellite blew up soon after lift-off, scattering debris and fuel over a wide area.  A large section of rocket fell into the backyard of a house in a village near Karkaralinsk.  “This is dangerous material,” said Dmitry. “The nose of the first stage has an engine with rocket fuel.  It’s like a bomb and the fuel is highly toxic.”

After the 1999 crash, Kazakhstan briefly banned launches, demanding that Russia conduct an investigation and offer compensation.  The row delayed a scheduled supply flight carrying food, water and the navigational equipment to the beleaguered Mir space station.

Karaganda EcoMusuem director Dmitry Kalmykov

Karaganda EcoMusuem director Dmitry Kalmykov

Dmitry worries about the authorities’ lack of preparedness and emergency plans.  He pulls out a map of the rocket ellipse.  “The akimat [local government] doesn’t have such a map.  If you ask the authorities where the danger area is, they don’t know.  Maybe it’s here, maybe it’s there.  We need to inform the people of the dangers.  If you’re informed, you’re aware.  Information is protection.”

Dmitry says the annual rent paid by Russia is supposed to cover the cost of safety measures—equipment and training for emergency personnel, medical staff and disposal teams, as well as safety precautions for the general population.   In 2001, a parliamentary committee held hearings on safety at Baikonur, and issued a report with about 30 recommendations.  These included low-cost technical fixes, such as installing radio beacons on rockets so that they can be more easily located in the vast steppe.  If radio beacons were used, says Dmitry, it would not have taken three days in 2006 to locate a rocket that spun out of control and crashed soon after lift-off, causing widespread ecological damage.

Despite the dangers, rural residents have resourcefully recycled the space junk that has dropped from the sky.  Rocket bodies have been turned into garages, animal sheds and outhouses, metal panels used for fencing for livestock, and smaller sections sold for scrap. Dmitry shows me albums of photos taken on tours of the steppe. Half a section of an aluminum rocket body makes a pretty good Quonset hut.  There’s an old Moskvich, parked in a garage built from mud bricks, with a rocket body for the roof.  Livestock standing on top of a rocket buried in the sand.  A herder dozing, his back resting against the nose of a rocket. A summer kitchen, with shelves stacked with canned goods and a cook stove. 

A rocket body makes a pretty good summer kitchen

A rocket body makes a pretty good summer kitchen


I asked Dmitry which government agency was responsible for safety.  “That’s a prohibited question because nobody knows.  The space agency says the space industry is responsible.  The industry says the local akimat is responsible.  The akimat says it’s the Ministry for Emergency Situations.  The ministry says it’s responsible after an explosion or accident, but not before.  In Kazakhstan, no one takes responsibility.”

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore.  Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube,