Its spare Soviet-era grounds lack the gothic spires of Britain’s Eton College or the Romanesque facades of the great Paris lycées. But the graduates of Fizmat, a math and physics academy in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital, probably wield more influence in their native land than do graduates from any single elite school in the West in their respective countries.
Karim Masimov, Kazakhstan’s prime minister, is an alumnus, as are Timur Kulibayev, President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s businessman son-in-law, and Kairat Kelimbetov, the chairman of the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund.
“Maybe there’s no other school in the world like this, if you look at the number of graduates who have become really prominent in their country,” says Headmaster Kairosh Makishev, himself a ‘Fizmatovets,’ as the school’s graduates are known.
At the building’s entrance, Makishev has created a display honoring the school’s 35th anniversary. It amounts to a “Who’s Who” of Kazakhstan. Alongside are biographies of the top businessmen and politicians in the Fizmat Alumni fund, which, since students pay no fees, helps the school supplement its state funding in order to attract skilled teachers.
Last year, Makishev lured Kelimbetov back to speak to the students, along with Kairat Kozhamzharov, the head of Kazakhstan’s Financial Police, who graduated in 1983 and went on to attend Leningrad State University with Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s current president. “The idea of the meetings is to let the future graduates see that they can themselves achieve the same,” says Makishev.
One face on the display in Fizmat’s main corridor, however, acts as a warning that the country’s commanding heights are sometimes a dangerous place. This month Mukhtar Dzhakishev, a 1980 graduate and a former chairman of Kazatomprom, the state uranium company, completed the first year of a 14-year sentence in a high security prison.
Gulshoban Sabolova, one of the few teachers left from when Dzhakishev graduated in 1980, is moved to tears upon hearing his name. “He was my favorite student,” she says. “He was a favorite of many teachers and many children. It’s terrible what’s happened.” Dzhakishev was convicted of embezzling billions of dollars from Kazatomprom. He maintains the charges against him were politically motivated.
Dzhakishev is not the only Fizmatovets to fall from grace. Roman Solodchenko, who until 2009 was chief executive of BTA, a leading Kazakh bank, is presently in exile in London, accused of aiding an alleged $5 billion fraud, an allegation he denies. Another Fizmatovets in London exile -- Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov -- was BTA Bank’s deputy chairman. Solodchenko graduated with Prime Minister Masimov in 1982.
“We were quite close,” Solodchenko says of Masimov, speaking by phone from London. “Not now, since he is trying to hunt me down. But until my departure from Kazakhstan, we were on very good terms, as we say. I wouldn’t go to him on personal issues, but whenever we had a meeting with him, we would chat for quite a while about classmates, who went where, and these kinds of things.”
The success of Fizmat graduates seems connected to both the quality of its education and the vast network of contacts that come into play after graduation. When Masimov and Solodchenko were studying, students received as many as 11 hours of math instruction a week, and Orynbek Zhautykov, a prominent mathematician who founded the school, pulled strings to attract the country’s brightest teachers to the school.
If generations of British leaders found their fighting spirit on the ‘playing fields of Eton,' Fizmat’s alumni found theirs amid math Olympiads held all over the former Soviet Union. “It was the best school in the republic, by far the best school,” Solodchenko says. “They really put your brains in the right way. And with your brains honed for physics and mathematics, it’s easy to go anywhere. You have your mind structured.”
Fizmat -- officially the Zhautykov Republican Specialized Physics and Mathematics Secondary School -- was the seventh and last specialist math and physics academy opened in the former Soviet Union, when Kazakhstan was a Soviet republic. Its ostensible purpose back then was to train young minds to eventually go to work in Soviet space and weapons programs. Some students had prominent parents: Kulibayev’s father was a Communist Party boss in Almaty, Masimov’s was the director of a local brick factory and Kelimbetov’s was a renowned historian, writer and professor.
Kulibayev’s father in particular helped the school, teacher Sabolova recalls: “If we had to host to a graduation party, we could use the Russian Drama Theatre. If we needed to take people to the graduation party, they would give us the city buses.” Despite this, his son got no special treatment. “He was a very simple boy,” Sabolova said. “He never said, ‘my father is the chief of the Communist Party.’”
The quality of its education has helped Fizmat graduates prosper outside Kazakhstan, as well. The founders of Yandex, Russia’s rival to Google, both attended the school. Given that there are about 6,000 alumni in the school’s database, Fizmatovets have spun a complex web of activities and connections in Kazakhstan.
The anti-corruption campaign that dragged down Kazatomprom’s Dzhakishev, BTA deputy Zharimbetov, and Solodchenko, followed the appointment of their fellow Fizmatovets, Kozhamzharov, as head of the Financial Police at the end of 2008. Yet Fizmat’s alumni are often on the same side, as shown by their collaboration in setting up an alumni fund.
Two years ago, the fund enabled the school to increase teachers’ salaries by 72 percent above the national norm.
Now, the fund may be needed to help the school stave off competition from the twenty new elite “Nazarbayev intellectual schools” to be set up by the president. “There will be two Nazarbayev schools in Almaty,” says Headmaster Makishev. “But our teachers aren’t going to work there, if only for the simple reason that here they’re better paid.”
Richard Orange is an Almaty-based journalist specializing in Central Asian affairs.