The Suitcase (Kazakhstan)

The Suitcase (Kazakhstan)

After emigrating to the United States, the Soviet-born writer Sergei Dovlatov published The Suitcase (Chemodan), a short-story collection based on objects he had taken with him. The titular suitcase was a mobile repository—literal and figurative—for his “lost, precious, only life,”* carefully packed but quickly forgotten upon arrival. Like Dovlatov’s, this suitcase, found next to a dumpster in Almaty in 2015, carried the preserved memories of its owner. It contained hundreds of personal photos, a wedding album, and assorted odds and ends, presumably discarded after a postmortem apartment clearing. It was easy to identify the woman, I’ll call her Janar, who once saved these photos. She featured prominently and often marked the reverse with the year, location, and the names of the subjects. The oldest photos were from Kazaly/Kazalinsk (Kyzylorda region) in 1968, but most were from Almaty in the 1970s and 80s.

Like both their nomadic ancestors and their Soviet contemporaries, Soviet Central Asians often lived mobile lives, traversing the geographic and cultural space of the Soviet Union for education, work, and pleasure. Janar was no different. Born in 1951 and likely raised in provincial Kazakhstan, she moved to Almaty to study math at Kazakh State University, graduating in 1974. The photographs detailed far-flung travels to Tbilisi and Leningrad, sunbathing with friends, New Year’s celebrations with ample shampanskoe and zakuski, an office tipple with female coworkers, and a seemingly endless stream of wedding invitations. She herself married in 1983. The red velour album traced the day from signing documents and exchanging rings at Almaty’s wedding palace to the requisite pilgrimage to the Lenin statue and the Panfilov monument. The collection stops abruptly around 1990, about the time the Soviet Union met its fate.

Janar’s photos offer insight into the code-switching of late Soviet life, especially for non-Russians. On one hand was her professional life, in which she worked, it seems, in computing. Her travels came mostly from this world, in which she went by the Russian name Zhanna and appeared in multiethnic group photos, which were often dated in Russian. A perfunctory card from her workplace on Women’s Day was similarly written in Russian. In contrast, her personal life took place primarily among fellow Kazakhs, with photos dated on the back in Kazakh. Most photos were taken in Almaty, but she greeted 1971 at a party in Jambyl, hiked in Almaty’s surrounding mountains, and traveled with relatives to Turkistan and Kentau in 1986. The birthday and wedding cards tucked away with her photos carried warm greetings in Kazakh, and wedding invitations and the writing on the back of photos were similarly predominantly in Kazakh. Judging by the photos, she operated comfortably in both worlds, which coexisted in her photographic record. Tucked away in the suitcase, her memories could be either conveniently stashed away or taken onward on her life journey. Or, in this case, taken out with the trash, offering the stranger who stumbled upon the suitcase but a glimpse into her late Soviet life.

Anna Whittington is a historian of citizenship and inequality in Soviet Eurasia. In 2021–22, she is a Title VIII Research Scholar at the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan in 2018.

*Russian original: пропащая, бесценная, единственная жизнь