This week’s post is about Kazakh Los Angeles. Since it is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the primary focus is on ethnically Kazakh Angelenos. However, as Kazakhstan is a multi-ethnic society, a few “white” Angelenos with roots in Kazakstan are included too.
I first became aware of Kazakhstan (Қазақстан) as a child when I spied it on a globe that depicted (unlike most) the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics. Here was a massive but unfamiliar country, just west of the massive but familiar Mongolia. Its other neighbors varied in familiarity: Altai, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Xinjiang (spelled Singkiang, as I recall, on this particular globe). Like any child reasonably interested in space exploration, I recognized Kazakstan’s name when I got a book that covered the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world’s largest spaceport. It was from there that Sputnik 1 and Vostok 1 were launched. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Baikonur Cosmodrome was used by the Federation as a shipyard.
Kazakstan’s obscurity in the west was, it seems, the whole point when it would occasioanlly surface in popular culture, as it did with the film The World is Not Enough (1999) and the video game, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon 2: Summit Strike (2005). Of course, both Kazakstan’s nonrecognition in the West and the ignorance of Westerners were both part of the joke with Sasha Baron Cohen‘s satirical creation, Borat Margaret Sagdiyev, who became famous and in turn, made Kazakhstan at least infamous after he appeared as a regular character on Da Ali G Show.
Thanks to Cohen, many more people now recognize the name, Kazakhstan, if have almost no actual knowledge of it. My friend, artist James Reitano of TFU Studios and his wife, judicial candidate Anna Slotky Reitano, are so far the only people I know personally who’ve ever visited the country, which they did after James was invited to come there and paint. I have seen a few Kazakhs in Los Angeles, too — at least people I assume were Kazakh. One was a group of athletes in tracksuits that had Kazakhstan written on them and were in line for a ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. Another time was riding the Metro B Line when a man with pink camouflage pants and a bleached blonde fauxhawk, and accompanied by two pretty young women, asked me if they were on the right train to get to Hollywood & Highland. I assured him that they were on the right train and asked where they were visiting from. “Kazakhstan!” he said with pride.
“Almaty?” I asked, naming the only Kazakh city I’d heard of and he said, with even more enthusiasm, “Yes! Have you been?” I told him that I had not. “It’s beautiful!” he added and I wished them luck, not telling them that Hollywood & Highland is, in my opinion, the perfect place to begin a visit to Los Angeles because being the lamest spot in all of California, everything else one sees afterward will be an improvement.
If you or someone you know is a Kazakh Angeleno, please sound off in the comments and if you’re involved in any sort of creative field, let me know and I will add you to this piece. Dziękuję! Just kidding. Рақмет сізге!
Kazakhstan is a country in Central Asia. Since 1997, Kazakhstan’s capital has been Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana). Before that, it was Almaty, the country’s most populous city — and according to ate least one Kazakh, a beautiful one. The territory that is now Kazakhstan has historically been occupied by various people. In antiquity, it was part of the Scythian homeland. Later, the Persian Achaemenid Empire and Turkic Khaganate inhabited the country. In the 13th century, the territory was subjugated by the Mongolian Empire.
Kazakhs emerged as a distinct people under the Kazakh Khanate (1465–1848), when when several tribes (Argyns, Dughlats, Naimans, Jalairs, Keraits, Qarluqs, and the Kipchaks) under the rule of the sultans Zhanibek and Kerey split off from the Khanate of Abu’l-Khayr Khan. The Russian Conquest (1839–1895) of Kazakstan forced it into the Russian Empire. In 1936, it was designated the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. It was the last of the former republics to declare independence following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, ending almost a century of Russian subjugation of the country.
After Kazakstan regained autonomy, many ethnic Russians began to leave the country. Today, Kazakhstan is a multi-ethnic society. Roughly 64% of Kazakhstanis are ethnically Kazakh, 24% are Russian, 3% are Uzbek, 2% are Ukrainian, 1% are Uyghur, 1% are Tatar, and 1% are German. A large percentage are of mixed ethnicity. Outside of Kazakhstan, the country with the largest population of Kazakhs is China, followed by Uzbekistan, Russia, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, and the US.
An estimated 24,636 Americans were born in Kazakhstan. Kazakh emigration to the US began in earnest after World War II. Subsequent Kazakh immigration included populations from Turkey and China. The bulk of Kazakh Americans arrived in the US, however, after the collapse of the USSR. Kazakh immigrants to the US, like most Central Asians, largely eschew Los Angeles for east coast metropolises like New York City and Washington, D.C.
I couldn’t find any estimates, reliable or otherwise, of how many Kazakhs live in Los Angeles. Viktor Khrapunov, a former Äkim of Almaty and native of northern Kazakstan. He was accused, with his family, of defrauding the city of Almaty of at least $300 million. I won’t pretend that I have followed the case closely or am keeping up with it but he purportedly owned a mansion in Studio City and three in Beverly Hills that he used to launder money. In other words, I don’t even know if he lived in Los Angeles (he also owned homes in New York City and elsewhere) but in 2014, his daughter, Elvira Kudryashova, sold the Studio City property to pop singer Peter Gene Hernandez (professionally known as Bruno Mars).
KAZAKH ANGELENOS IN FILM
There are several Kazakhstani filmmakers, actors, or other film figures who live or have lived in Los Angeles, including Ainamkoz Yemzharova, Albina Kim, Anila Nugmanova, Bakyt Zhumadilova, Dana Ziyasheva, Danel Azimova, Elina Dmitrieva, Kuanysh Stakhanov, Mariasha Altynbaeva, Marzhan Khaidar, Tatyana Kim, and Timur Bootzin.
There are relatively few opportunities, though, to see Kazakh films in Los Angeles. When I was the film buyer at Amoeba, I ordered Darezhan Omirbaev‘s 1998 crime drama, Killer, for the store. John Woo‘s celebrated film of the same name was then out of print in the US and I saw that the title was available from a distributor in Hong Kong. When it arrived I found that it was the Kazakh film, unknown to me. It sold respectably, though, perhaps because the writing was all in Chinese and it was filed in Asian Cinema (but not, of course, in the John Woo section). When a used copy came back, I watched and enjoyed it. When Gulshat Omarova‘s Schizo (Шиза) came out in 2004, I ordered that for the store too, and watched and enjoyed it. The same cannot be said for Nomad: The Warrior ( Көшпенділе)– a big-budget, commercial Kazakh film that bizarrely stars Montebello-born actor Jay Hernandez and Mexican actor Kuno Becker in the lead roles as Kazakh heroes. I did order it for the store, mind you, but let’s just say that there are better Kazakh films out there, should you want to buy or rent them.
There have been, in the past at least, screenings of Kazakh films in cinemas. Kazakhstan: A Kaleidoscope of Pictures seems to have taken place in 2012 at the Hammer Museum. In 2016, the documentary The Eagle Huntress, about a thirteen-year-old Kazakh from Mongolia, garnered some positive attention and screened around town. In 2017, a Kazakh cultural program called The Spirit of the Great Steppe had a film showcase titled Days of Kazakh Cinema. Films screened at that even included Kyz Zhibek (Қыз Жібек Qyz Jibek), Diamond Sword, Road to Mother (Анаға апарар жол), and The Sky of My Childhood. In 2019, Kazakh films The Golden Throne, The Guardian of the Light, and The Secret of a Leader were screened at the Asian World Film Festival.
KAZAKH MUSIC & DANCE
There are occasional opportunities to hear Kazakh music and musicians in Los Angeles. Again returning to Amoeba, there was a great series of compact discs from Smithsonian Folkways called Music of Central Asia. Vol. 4: Bardic Divas: Women’s Voices in Central Asia included great traditional music from Kazakh, Azeri, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek musicians.
The Symphony Orchestra of the Kurmangazy Kazakh National Conservatory, founded in 1949, performed in Beverly Hills’ Saban Theatre (the Saban Theatre hosts many such events) in 2009 with folk ensemble, Turan Ensemble. In 2019, the Astana Ballet performed in Los Angeles for the first time. Other Kazakh artists who’ve performed in Los Angeles include the Kulansaz Folk Ensemble, the KazNUI Eurasian Symphony Orchestra, violinist Aiman Mussakhajayeva, and singer Dimash Kudaibergen.
Los Angeles is home to several Kazakhstani musicians, both Kazakh and otherwise, and who performa and compose in a variety of styles. One, local composer Timur Bekbosunov and his band, Timur and the Dime Museum, performed at REDCAT in 2014. Ivan Shapovalov is a Bellflower-based piano teacher. Katharina Boger is a pop singer-songwriter who for many years lived in Germany. Sana Nodelman (S.F.H.) was born in Karanga. Aliya Kan (Marty Crown) was born in Almaty.
OTHER KAZAKH ANGELENOS
Los Angeles is home to several Kazakhs and Kazakstan-born artists and entrepreneurs including artists include multi-media artist duo Eldar Tagi and Lena Pozdnyakova, Igor Artyomenko of Riot Games, fashion designer Dina Kabdolla of AYA by DK, model Deana Vera, and personal trainer Jade Kanapina of Body By Jade.
KAZAKH LOS ANGELES ORGANIZATIONS
Los Angeles is home to organizations including the Kazakh Society in the United States, Los Angeles, California; USC‘s Kazakhstan United (formerly the Kazakh Students Association); and the Facebook page, Kazakhs in Southern California. The Kazakh Honorary Consulate in Los Angeles, United States, despite its name, has an address in the South Orange County city of Irvine. And according to AZAQ TV, the Kazakh Language Center opened in Los Angeles in 2021 under the directorship of Raushan Mukhtar and with Kazakh teacher Karlygash Shynybayeva, although I can’t find and address or even a mention of it anywhere else.
Lastly, whilst there aren’t any dedicated Kazakh restaurants, food trucks, carts, caterers, or home chefs (that I know of), those familiar with Kazakh food will likely recognize and enjoy a few items on the menus of Dolans Uyghur Cuisine, Kalinka Russian Cuisine, and Mante House.