Intel

Kyiv’s ‘Yurt of Invincibility’ Highlights Kazakhstan–Russia Rift

January 13, 2023Nolan Peterson
A look inside the "yurt of invincibility" in Kyiv's Shevchenko Park on Jan. 13, 2023. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

A look inside the "yurt of invincibility" in Kyiv's Shevchenko Park on Jan. 13, 2023. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

KYIV, Ukraine — Ivan Peron, Regina Sherman, and Tetiana Prohur encountered an unusual sight as they walked through Kyiv’s Shevchenko Park on Friday, Jan. 13. Adjacent to a towering Christmas tree stood a traditional Kazakh yurt, a round tent used by nomads on the Central Asian steppe.

The threesome, all in their 60s, approached the open door to the yurt, curiously peered inside, and observed a circular space elaborately decorated in Kazakh patterns and designs. Like spokes on a wheel, an array of wooden beams supported the domed ceiling. Embroidered banners crisscrossed the overhead void.

More passersby bunched up at the yurt’s entrance to have a look within. A pair of curious police officers strolled up, too, while Serhiy Nagornyak, a Ukrainian member of parliament, fielded questions from the gathered crowd about this “yurt of invincibility.”

yurt

Curious onlookers gather at the entrance to the "yurt of invincibility" in Kyiv's Shevchenko Park on Jan. 13, 2023. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Nagornyak, who heads the Ukrainian parliament’s group for inter-parliamentary relations with Kazakhstan, explained that starting Saturday, Jan. 14, this tented space would be available for any citizen to come and enjoy generator-produced heat and electricity, hot food, tea, and coffee, as well as Starlink internet access.

“This is the place where you can charge your phone, warm up, drink some hot tea, and hang out. This place is proof that Kazakhstan is our friend and that they support us,” Nagornyak told Coffee or Die Magazine during an interview at the Shevchenko Park yurt.

Following Nagornyak’s initiative, Kazakh businessman Daulet Nurzhanov paid for the yurts and their transportation to Ukraine, Forbes Ukraine reported. Each yurt reportedly costs about $25,000 and can hold at least 30 people at a time. The first such yurt recently opened in Kyiv’s Bucha suburb, with more planned for the cities of Kharkiv, Odesa, and Lviv.

“I addressed a business in Kazakhstan, and they paid for the yurts and transported them from Kazakhstan to Ukraine,” Nagornyak said.

Russian missile and drone strikes have repeatedly targeted Ukraine’s power grid, causing frequent blackouts and interrupting access to heating and fresh water across the country. Standing at the Shevchenko Park yurt’s engraved wooden doors, Sherman said international aid projects do a lot to boost Ukrainians’ morale as they face a hard winter of relentless Russian strikes, as well as the grim reality of another year at war.

“We have support from around the world. We are hanging in there. If we didn’t have all the support, it would be extremely difficult. We are extremely grateful,” Sherman said.

yurt

Serhiy Nagornyak, the Ukrainian member of parliament who spearhead the "yurts of invincibility" project in Ukraine, stands outside the yurt in Kyiv's Shevchenko Park on Jan. 13, 2023. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

“We want to be part of Europe, and the West. We want to be in a civilized world,” Peron, who also stood at the yurt’s door, told Coffee or Die. “We want democracy to be in our country and to live by democratic rules. We share European values, global values, which are humane and democratic — not the assholes’ values, which Russia tries to impose on us.”

When it comes to Ukrainians’ morale, Russia’s attacks on civilian infrastructure this winter have backfired. Recent polling shows that Ukrainians remain confident that their country will prevail.

“We are unbelievably scared during every attack, but we are holding on, and we go to work. If there is an attack, we go to the shelter, but always come back to work. We need to support our country,” Prohur said.

She added: “We are all participants in this battle and resistance. Morally, we can’t leave our country. It is hard, it is scary, but we keep working as we think we can contribute to our victory and defeat our aggressor.”

With winter in full force and temperatures consistently below freezing, officials across Ukraine have created hundreds of “points of invincibility” where civilians can go for heating, electricity, internet access, mobile connection, and warm food and drinks. On its website, Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs described each point of invincibility as “an island of safety, stability, warmth, and unity in the event of an emergency power outage for more than 24 hours.”

“These locations of safety and humanitarian shelter will operate around the clock and free of charge,” the ministry reported in November.

yurt

Curious onlookers gather at the entrance to the "yurt of invincibility" in Kyiv's Shevchenko Park on Jan. 13, 2023. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Russia has not given up on its strategic strike campaign, and Ukraine’s yurts of invincibility have drawn Moscow’s ire. On Jan. 10, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova pushed Kazakhstan’s government to disavow any official support for the project.

“In order to avoid further unwinding of this topic in order to damage the Russian–Kazakh strategic partnership and alliance, an official comment by our friends is highly desirable, which would put an end to these speculations,” Zakharova said, addressing reports that Kazakhstan’s government supported the yurt in Bucha, according to a readout posted to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

Aibek Smadiyarov, a spokesman for Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dismissed Zakharova’s remarks. “The yurt was placed there. So, what is the problem? It is there. The help was provided,” Smadiyarov told reporters in Astana on Jan. 11, Radio Free Europe reported.

Nagornyak said the exchange between Zakharova and Smadiyarov highlights the growing discord between Kazakhstan and Russia over the war in Ukraine.

“Russia is very jealous about this project, and their propagandist Maria Zakharova addressed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, but they replied in a very Kazakh way that they are very proud of their yurts, and they are glad that some of them are in Ukraine,” Nagornyak told Coffee or Die.

yurt

Serhiy Nagornyak, right, a Ukrainian member of parliament, answers questions at the entrance to the "yurt of invincibility" in Kyiv's Shevchenko Park on Jan. 13, 2023. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Rising gas prices spurred deadly protests across Kazakhstan in January 2022, just weeks before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Following a request for military support by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Russia sent troops to help quell the unrest as part of a deployment by the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance comprising six post-Soviet countries: Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.

The January protests spurred Tokayev to distance himself from the policies of his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev. In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Tokayev has tried to distance his government from the war while not overly antagonizing Moscow.

“This conflict has caused very big grief in our society. It has not left anybody indifferent in Kazakhstan because we have good relations with both Russia and Ukraine,” Kazakhstan's Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko told the German news outlet Deutsche Welle in October.

According to Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, more than 60,000 ethnic Kazakhs live in Ukraine, and some 300,000 Ukrainians live in Kazakhstan.

Ethnic Kazakhs make up about 70% of Kazakhstan’s population of 19 million people. Of that share, about 70% do not support Russia’s war against Ukraine, according to a joint poll by the Kyiv School of Economics and Gradus Research, a Ukrainian polling agency.

At a conference in St. Petersburg in June, Tokayev told Putin that Kazakhstan would not recognize the independence of Russian-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine.

“The move was widely seen as a very deliberate and very public snub to Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” the Atlantic Council reported in November, describing Tokayev’s declaration.

Despite their differences over the war, Tokayev reassured Putin in November that the ties between their two countries remained strong.

“For Kazakhstan, Russia is and always has been a strategic partner,” Tokayev said during a press conference alongside Putin in Moscow.

yurt

A look inside the "yurt of invincibility" in Kyiv's Shevchenko Park on Jan. 13, 2023. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Apart from galvanizing Ukrainian resistance, Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 also strained ties between Moscow and Central Asia’s post-Soviet states, Umarov, the Carnegie fellow, wrote in a Dec. 23 article.

“Just one year ago, Russia’s positions in Central Asia were so solid that even China’s growing presence in the region was not a threat,” Umarov wrote. “That all changed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With every missile it fires at Ukrainian cities, the Kremlin is destroying Russia’s influence around the world, above all in the post-Soviet space.”

Back in Kyiv’s Shevchenko Park, Peron, 63, said he planned to return to the yurt on Saturday, Jan. 14, to observe the opening day festivities, which will include traditional Kazakh songs and dances, as well as a generous spread of Ukrainian and Kazakh food.

“Russia lives for the past, we live for the future, and that is a crucial difference between us,” Peron said. “We do remember the USSR — standing in a huge line to get toilet paper, washing powder, soap, and buckwheat. It was like the Middle Ages. That’s not how we want to live.”

Read Next: Ukraine Refutes Russian Mercenary Leader’s Claim of a Battlefield Win

Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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