Kazakhstan History and Key Facts
Like most countries in “The Old World” Kazakhstan has a fascinating and sometimes complex history, with various countries invading it, and shifts in borders over the centuries.
Don’t worry, there isn’t an exam at the end of this section! Indeed, you can skip reading it entirely if you wish, but we find in our own travels that often we get more out of a place if we understand it a bit more to start with.
The history of Kazakhstan dates back as far as a million years, with the extinct precursors to modern humans being present in the Karatau Mountains and the Caspian and Balkhash areas. They were superseded by Neanderthals from 140,000 – 40,000 years ago, and “modern” humans appeared 40,000 – 12,000 years back. After the last ice age (12,500 – 5,000 years ago) human settlement spread across the country, leading to the extinction of the woolly rhinoceros and mammoth.
The Botai culture (3600 – 3100BC) is believed to have been the first in the world to have domesticated horses.
During the fourth century (AD) the Huns controlled Kazakhstan, amalgamating separate steppe and forest peoples into a single state. The Hun empire dwindled and the Huns moved west, with the next invaders/rulers being the Turkic Khaganate. It became part of the Mongol Empire in the early 1200s during the leadership of Genghis Khan, an empire that became the largest contiguous land empire in history, originating in Mongolia and stretching to Japan and Siberia in the east and north, south to India, and west to central Europe. This empire fractured and the Kazakhstan region became part of the Golden Horde.
Ethnic Kazakhs, a mix of Turkic and Mongol nomadic tribes with additional Persian cultural influences, migrated to the region by the 13th century, and the land became part of the Kazakh Khanate, an entity that grew out of the remnants of the Golden Horde, from the mid 1400s and survived until the early 1800s, covering most of the lands now making up Kazakhstan. The cities of Taraz and Turkestan in particular grew to prominence as trade cities along the Great Silk Road between China and the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
As the Kazakh Khanate began to break up in the 1700s, the area was conquered by Russia. When Imperial Russia fell in 1917, Kazakhstan experienced a brief period of independence during the complex Russian civil wars for the five or so years that followed, and was known as the Alash Autonomy. In reality, it wasn’t really autonomous, it was under control of one of the White Russian groups, and had its capital in the city of Semey (then called Alash-qala). In 1920 the Soviet Government established the Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, which was renamed to the Kazak Autonomous SSR in 1925 and to the Kazakh SSR in 1936. The Kazakh SSR was the second largest republic in the USSR, with only Russia being larger. Its capital was in Almaty (then called Alma—Ata).
Repression and starvation associated with forced agricultural collectivization led to a massive number of deaths in the 1930s. Many others emigrated; some estimates suggest that up to 40% of the ethnic Kazakh people either died or emigrated during this difficult time.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the agricultural “Virgin Lands” program (created by Nikita Krushchev, encouraging Soviet citizens from other republics to settle in the virgin lands of the Kazakh SSR and hopefully to boost agricultural production as a result) led to an influx of immigrants (mostly ethnic Russians, but also other nationalities). The combination of the famines and emigration, and then immigration meant that at the time of Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, ethnic Kazakhs had become a minority.
On 25 October 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Kazakh SSR declared its sovereignty on its own soil, and elected Nursultan Nazabayev as president – a role he maintained for 29 years until stepping down in March 2019. The Kazakh SSR renamed itself the Republic of Kazakhstan on 10 December, 1991, and declared its independence six days later, on 16 December 1991. It was the last republic to leave the USSR, which then disbanded ten days later. Five days before that, Alma-Ata was the site where former Soviet nations created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an organization that continues to this day.
Non-Muslim ethnic minorities departed Kazakhstan in large numbers from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s and a national program has repatriated about a million ethnic Kazakhs back to Kazakhstan. As a result of this shift, the ethnic Kazakh share of the population now exceeds two-thirds.