The Central State Archive of Film, Photo Documents, and Sound Recording of the Republic of Kazakhstan
was set up almost 80 years ago but has recently expanded to include new collections available in digital form, allowing it to reach wider audiences. How does it strive to present the visual and audial history of Kazakhstan? Askar Alimzhanov, director of the Archive, explains in this interview.
Askar Alimzhanov graduated from the journalism department of the Kazakh State University named after S. Kirov. From 1986, he worked as a correspondent for the daily republican newspaper Leninskaya Smena. He also served as the editor-in-chief of the news service of the TV company “Tan.” In 1991, he worked as a reporter for the daily Cape Cod Times in Hyannis, Massachusetts. For a series of articles about Kazakhstan in the foreign press, he received an award from the Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan.
From 1997, he worked as editor-in-chief of the news service of the Khabar agency. Later, he held various positions in the administration of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Mazhilis of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Embassy of Kazakhstan in the Russian Federation, the TV and radio corporation “Kazakhstan,” the Interstate TV and radio company “MIR,” and private analytical centers. He is currently the director of the Central State Archive of Film, Photo Documents, and Sound Recording of the Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
Please tell us about the archive itself. What period does it cover, how was it assembled, what categories does it have? What is the access to the materials?
The Central State Archive of Film, Photo Documents, and Sound Recording of the Republic of Kazakhstan has the objective of ensuring the acquisition, storage, and use of film, photo, video, and audio documents that form part of the National Archival Fund of our country. Simply put, we collect, store, process, and restore everything that is of value in photo, film, video, and audio media. Despite the scale of its tasks, the archive is small and compact.
The archive was founded during the most difficult years of war. In 1943, by governmental decree, an archive of film and photo documents of the Kazakh SSR was established. Perhaps one of the drivers of the creation of such an institution was the evacuation of the leading figures of cinema to Alma-Ata. If you recall, that was when the TsOKS (the central united film studio of the country) was created. Initially, the archive was run by the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs: the Soviet police and secret police) archive department. And since that time, every documentary film about Kazakhstan that appeared onscreen, every picture published on the pages of newspapers and magazines, photo albums, collections, radio broadcasts or events of historical significance captured on magnetic film—all of them, in theory, should have found a worthy place on the shelves of the archive. But you know, this is an ideal. In real life, not all documents ended up on archival shelves, for different reasons: this remained in private collections, that was not transferred to the archive in time—and there’s a human element to this as well. Nevertheless, a huge heritage of audiovisual material on the history of Kazakhstan has been preserved. In terms of the number of film, photo, and sound documents, our archive ranks first in Central Asia.
In the first days of the archive, the first 30 direct positives were received here. And today there are about 300,000 units of storage of audiovisual documents that are of particular importance for the history of the country.
Next year the archive will celebrate the 80th anniversary of its establishment. So it brings together more than a century of illustrative history of the country in motion and sound! And all this wealth is in the public domain. You can register on our website and explore the entire catalog. Without leaving your home, you can place an order and receive all the materials you are interested in.
The history and culture of Kazakhstan is often represented in the museums and archives of other countries. Are there any plans for cooperation with foreign archives—especially in Central Asia and Russia? How challenging is this?
Yes, you are absolutely right, many interesting and important audiovisual documents are located abroad.
There are many reasons for that. The fact that it was established in what once was a single large country and the fact that, it must be admitted, the art of photography, audio, and cinema came to us much later than, for example, Europe. Kazakhstan is currently implementing a comprehensive program, Archive 2025, that was developed as the result of a well-known article by the country’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, on the problems of studying Kazakhstan’s heritage. The program was approved by governmental decree in 2019 and essentially funds the technical re-equipment of the archive industry.
The same program also provides for research in the archives of foreign countries of documents that are important for the history of the country. Our employees travel to the largest archives in Russia, where, for obvious reasons, there are many interesting documents. We also plan trips to other countries.
This year, our archive has been replenished with a new collection of digital copies of phonograms made on wax cylinders, which are stored in the Berlin Phonogram Archive of the Museum of Ethnology and Visual Anthropology. This is the earliest audio recording of Kazakh folk music, made in 1905 by the German ethnographer R. Karutz on the territory of Western Kazakhstan. The history of this collection is fascinating and reflects almost all significant events of the twentieth century.
Already this year, the archive has signed cooperation agreements with a number of major film, photo, and audio archives, so our plans are ambitious!
Tell us more about the work to reconstruct photos and other materials.
Of course. This is one of our main tasks. Technology has advanced tremendously. When I was a student, we studied video recordings on VCR devices that weighed over 800 kg. (I know, because we dragged the machine to the third floor!) Then there were VHS, SVHS, Betacam, DV, DVCPRO…and now a simple mobile phone is sufficient to take 4K pictures. Our archive preserves the entire documentary film stock of the Kazakhfilm and Kazakhtelefilm film studios. Film stock can become moldy over time. Before digitizing such material, it must be cleaned. Here we have some of the finest technologies—I won’t go into detail. And all this is restored, restored, and even digitized for longer and more reliable storage. Our specialists (without false pathos, I can say this is the pride of the industry) can convert the original film material into 4K format, which is most in demand today. By the way, almost 40% of the total volume of stored documents have already been digitized. And this work continues.
Occasionally, public activists and private collectors may also help collect photographs, private photos, postcards, and other materials. One such project is https://ca-photoarchives.net/. How do you feel about such collaborations?
Most of our archive is made up of private collections. We are open to any collaborations because people should see this heritage, study and use it not only for scientific purposes. Moreover, we encourage people to bring us interesting documents of historical or artistic value. We will digitize the source materials and return the originals, if necessary. It is usually impossible to store rare photos or videos or audio materials at the right temperature and in special conditions at home, while our archive could ensure that your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have the opportunity to see it!
In general, do you agree that there is a lack of materials on the visual history of Kazakhstan? Do you think that these should be available to the public (sometimes it is difficult to find even a photograph of the decoration of a yurt in the public domain)? Could the opening of archives contribute to the popularization of Kazakh culture at home and abroad?
To be honest, I don’t quite agree that there is a lack of materials in the visual history. It seems to me that the term “lack” is not quite applicable. The visual story is what it is. What is preserved is preserved. Another thing: maybe it is not how we would like to be represented in the virtual space. Here we can agree. But many collections of major archives have been digitized and are already in the public domain—including ours. You just need to go to the website and go through the registration procedure to start your journey into the past. So the archives in our country are open and accessible. It seems to me that the issue is a lack of demand. A real serious story is yet to be uncovered. So far, so-called folk history and myth-making are popular. Claims that everyone descended from the Kazakhs, that our history has been carefully rewritten and hidden, are very common … And it would be fine if it were only on social networks, but we even publish books that claim to prove that Genghis Khan, Attila, Tomiris, and even the Golden Man were purebred Kazakhs. It’s funny, of course, but what will it lead to? I really hope that these are the growing pains of our society.
What interesting collections have you discovered in the archive? What topics do you think could be explored more with visual materials?
To be honest, I started my job quite recently. But before my appointment, I had many projects where I had to conduct research in the archives of different countries. And then we were surprised that few people are genuinely interested in these collections. Take, for example, a yurt donated by the Kazakhs to the then-future Emperor Nicholas during his famous journey from Japan. It has never been exhibited in Kazakhstan! Or take the aforementioned wax rollers from Berlin. After all, no one was interested in them. The ethnographic records of Akhmet Zhubanov, which he made in his student years, are still not in demand by anyone. And there are many such examples.
As for the interesting collections of the archive, have you ever heard the voice of Mukhtar Auezov? His 1965 radio speech dedicated to the freedom-loving people of Ukraine and Taras Shevchenko is simply amazing in its relevance! Have you ever seen the youthful joint photograph of famous Kazakh writers A. Tazhibaev and B. Momyshuly? The arrival of the first steam locomotive in Alma-Ata is a spectacle in no way inferior to the Lumiere brothers’ famous documentary “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station”! So there are many topics for research. But all this requires knowledge and serious preparation.
Kazakh culture and Central Asian culture (which often overlap) are very visually impressive. What else can we do to promote them to the rest of the world?
I agree that a unique culture has developed in Central Asia. But to be honest, I am a supporter of a slightly different approach. There is no need to insist that the world recognize our culture. Our culture is self-sufficient. And it will become interesting to the rest of the world only when we ourselves become immersed in it. After all, culture is not only concerts and exhibitions abroad, not only the publication of expensive volumes and expensive shows. Culture is, first of all, a process of self-knowledge. As soon as we rethink ourselves in culture, realize ourselves as part of a vast and diverse world, stop being isolated in our cocoon, then we will become interesting to others. We often try to make the world look at us, but in my opinion, we must first learn to look at the world with our own eyes!