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History of Kazakhstan

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The territory now known as Kazakhstan was home to nomadic peoples for centuries. Mongol tribes began migrating to the area in the eighth century AD, and in the early thirteenth century, central Asia was conquered by Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde. Their descendants, known as the White Horde, ruled the territory until the Mongol Empire crumbled in the late 14th century. The Kazakh nation that emerged was a mixture of Turkic and Mongol peoples.

From 1511 to 1518, Kazakhs were unified and their territory expanded under the leadership of Kassym Khan. Their language and culture gradually became distinct from those of neighboring Uzbek and Kyrgyz peoples. Following Kassym Khan’s reign, the Kazakhs divided into three distinct groups, each dominating a particular geographic area but maintaining a common language and heritage. Fiercely independent, they avoided relations with outside nations.

Contact with imperial Russia was minimal until the early1700s, when Russia built forts in southern Siberia and northern Kazakhstan. When the Kazakhs were threatened by the Kalmyks, they reluctantly accepted protection from czarist Russia. In the 19th-century Great Game race for territory and influence between Britain and Russia, Russia eventually solidified its control of the area. Subsequent Kazakh uprisings, including one in 1916, were put down with force. In the wake of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, a Kazakh autonomous government was formed and nominally held power from 1917 to1919. By 1920, however, communist forces had gained control; Kazakhstan officially became a Soviet republic in 1936.

Years of war, followed by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s forced collectivization campaign in the 1930s, virtually eliminated the traditional nomadic way of life; one-third of the population and most livestock perished. During World War II (the Great Patriotic War), Stalin deported hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities from European Russia to the forced labor camps and planned cities of the Kazakh steppe.

The postwar period brought industrialization and improved education. Still, tension between Russians and Kazakhs was never far beneath the surface. In 1986, after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev replaced Kazakh Communist Party leader Dinmukhamed Kunaev with an ethnic Russian unfamiliar with Kazakh language and culture, riots broke out in Almaty, which government troops violently suppressed. In 1989, Nursultan Nazarbayev became the party leader.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan declared its independence, and Nazarbayev was elected its first president. He was reelected in 1999 and 2005 amid accusations that the elections were flawed. Nazarbayev has consolidated his personal power while working to implement economic reforms, develop the nation’s oil reserves, and establish closer relations with Russia.


Republic of Kazakhstan.” CultureGrams World Edition. 2008.

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