Later in the same day, the republic’s vice president invited me and a few colleagues over for a meeting to discuss plans for our institute. As a top member of the Soviet Communist Party until just a few weeks before, he was entitled to an immense office with 15-foot ceilings, a conference table that sat 25, and one wall covered by a vast relief map of Kazakhstan and its environs, each industrial facility marked by light bulbs. Portraits of Lenin and Gorbachev hung on the wall behind his desk. (When I returned to his office a few weeks later, Gorbachev had vanished, but Lenin was still there.)
At the end of our discussion, I happened to ask the vice president about some colorful fabric swatches lying on a table in one corner. “Ah,” he said, “I’m the head of the design committee for the new flag. They were in here a little while ago, and we were tossing around some ideas.” Kazakhstan had declared its independence the day before, but the new country could hardly hope to take its anticipated seat at the United Nations without having a decent flag at the ready. He showed us several versions, finishing with the one he liked best. It soon became the official flag, and I think of that day every time I see it.
So that was one problem solved. But figuring out national symbols certainly didn’t offer answers to all the questions. I was reminded of that a few weeks later, in mid-January 1992, when I paid a visit to the Almaty residential registration office. My Soviet visa was about to expire, and I needed to get it renewed.
The bureaucrat in charge gratefully accepted the proffered box of expensive chocolates, and then we got down to business. Sure, she could issue my new visa, but she’d have to impose some new conditions, just to be on the safe side.
It took a while to understand her caution. Did it have anything to do with the fact that Russia, which until just two weeks before had been part of the same country, now registered as “abroad”?
“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging apologetically. “We don’t really know yet. We haven’t really figured it out.”
Top photo credit: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images