From Astana to Nur-Sultan: Why the capital changed its name

Akmolinsk, Tselinograd, Astana. These are just some names that Nur-Sultan was once known as. Kazakhstan’s capital is the youngest one in the world — it became the country’s capital only in 1997 — but the city has already seen its fair share of changes. 

The capital was moved once, and had its name changed several more times. Each change reflects the evolving history of the country, a former Soviet republic which claimed independence in December 1991.

To appreciate the history of Nur-Sultan requires a retracing back to the 1820s, when the barren town in the steppes was founded as a military fortress. It was subsequently granted town status, and given the name Akmolinsk. Through the years, as more merchants resettled in Akmolinsk, investments began pouring in and trade flourished, with factories and banks setting up shop in the town. 

In 1961, the place was renamed Tselinograd, a Russian name which meant the city of virgin lands. The name change was a nod to the Soviet authorities’ “tselina” or “Virgin Lands” campaign launched in 1954. The 10-year campaign was aimed at boosting Soviet agricultural production to counter food shortages. Though the effort did not take off due to reasons such as unfavourable weather conditions, the campaign led to a transformation of the city, with monumental public buildings, sports venues, and an airport being built. 

More changes were to come. 

After the Soviet Union dissolved and Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, Tselinograd was renamed Akmola the following year. What did Akmola mean? Till today, there are several theories regarding the name, with one saying that the name referred to a white limestone hill in the city. 

Photo by Alexandr Kuznetsov

In 1997, Kazakhstan’s first president, Mr Nursultan Nazarbayev, moved the capital from Almaty to Tselinograd. A year later, the city was renamed Astana, which means the capital.

When Mr Nazarbayev made a surprise announcement to retire in March 2019, the Kazakh parliament voted to rename the city Nur-Sultan after him. The move is a tribute to his contributions, such as steering the country to stability and economic growth during his rule that spanned nearly 30 years. 

Today, the city is home to over a million citizens, and its numerous architectural marvels are a testament to its rapid growth and modernisation.

Top photo by Alimbek Ulan

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