Kazakhstan History and Key Facts

Fountain and colonnade at the entrance to the Park of the First President of Kazakhstan in Almaty

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  They were superseded by Neanderthals from 140,000 – 40,000 years ago, and “modern” humans appeared 40,000 – 12,000 years back.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.

After a brief dip from the mid 1990s until 2002, the population of Kazakhstan has resumed a slow but steady growth.  In December 2017 it was estimated to have 18.14 million people, and at the end of October, 2019, this had grown to an estimated 18.62 million.

Kazakhstan is the 63rd largest country, by population, in the world (and the ninth largest by land mass).

The first ever census was held in 1897.

Year (January)  Population (‘000)  Rural, %  Urban, %  Source
18974,000n/an/acensus
19266,198n/an/acensus
19396,0817228census
19599,2955644census
197013,0015050census
197914,6854654census
198916,5374357census
199914,9534357census
200915,9824654census
201818,1374456estimate

Kazakhstan’s main ethnic group, the Kazakhs, date back to the 15th century or thereabouts, when a number of Turkic and Mongol tribes united to establish the Kazakh Khanate.  They established a cohesive culture and a national identity, and remained the predominant ethnic group until Russian colonization.

During the period of the Soviet Union, it was Soviet policy to send many minority groups (and Russians) to Kazakhstan, especially dissident groups.  It wasn’t quite the fabled “exile to Siberia” but it was a similar concept.

Although the circumstances of such forced migration were often unhappy at the time, there has been an unexpected and happy outcome.  These days, Kazakhstan has a very rich and diverse makeup of different races and cultures, and all live happily alongside each other.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been a reversal in population flows.  Kazakh people have returned home, while Russians, Ukrainians and Germans in particular have also returned back to their historical homes.

Nationality    1897 %  1911 %  1926 %   1939 %   1959 %   1970 %   1979 %   1989 %   1999 %   2009 %   2014 %   
Kazakh73.960.859.538.030.032.636.039.753.463.165.5
Russian12.827.018.040.242.742.440.837.429.923.721.5
Uzbek1.31.13.21.71.11.71.82.02.52.83.0
Ukrainian**12.410.88.27.26.15.43.72.11.8
Uyghur0.60.91.01.11.41.41.4
Tatar1.11.10.71.61.52.22.12.01.71.31.2
German0.71.57.16.66.15.82.41.11.1
Korean0.80.60.60.60.70.60.6
Belarusian**0.51.21.51.21.10.80.40.4

According to the 2009 Census data, almost all the Central Asian Turkics are Muslims and Slavs are Orthodox (although more than 1% of Russians are Muslim), while Koreans are mixed between various different faiths including Christianity, Buddhism, Atheism, and Islam :

Ethnic Groups   IslamChristianity  Judaism  Buddhism  Other  Atheism  NA
Total70.20%  26.32%0.03%0.09%0.02%2.82%0.51%
Kazakhs98.34%0.39%0.02%0.01%0.02%0.98%0.26%
Russians1.43%91.64%0.04%0.02%0.03%6.09%0.75%
Uzbeks99.05%0.39%0.01%0.01%0.02%0.37%0.16%
Ukrainians0.94%90.74%0.03%0.01%0.02%7.31%0.94%
Uyghurs98.35%0.51%0.02%0.01%0.03%0.61%0.47%
Tatars79.57%10.24%0.02%0.03%0.06%8.11%1.97%
Germans1.58%81.59%0.05%0.04%0.11%13.96%2.68%
Koreans5.24%49.35%0.21%11.40%0.14%28.51%5.16%
Turks99.13%0.30%0.01%0.01%0.02%0.33%0.21%
Azeris94.81%2.51%0.02%0.02%0.03%1.86%0.76%
Belarusians0.79%90.16%0.04%0.01%0.03%7.82%1.15%
Dungans98.93%0.37%0.01%0.03%0.04%0.34%0.28%
Kurds98.28%0.53%0.03%0.02%0.02%0.74%0.38%
Tajiks97.78%0.91%0.01%0.02%0.08%0.85%0.35%
Poles0.69%90.07%0.04%0.01%0.13%7.30%1.76%
Chechens93.69%2.99%0.02%0.01%0.05%2.08%1.16%
Kirghiz96.67%0.89%0.03%0.03%0.02%1.51%0.86%
Others34.69%52.32%0.82%0.91%0.13%8.44%2.69%

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Almaty City Tour

Almaty is simultaneously ancient and modern, and always an interesting city.

Our tour of the city will show you 19th century architecture, monuments, and magnificent street art, large distinctive modern buildings, and smaller historic structures.

The tour is a great opportunity to understand the history of the city and to see the magnificent landscapes of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountain range immediately outside the city!

During this tour you will reach a height of 10,000 ft (3200 m) above sea level, where you can take unforgettable photos over the city and beyond.

The guided tour is available in a selection of languages and typically starts between 9-10am when you are collected from your hotel, and you’re returned back at the end of the tour, usually between 5-6pm.  The tour is a mix of walking and being driven.

Among highlights are traveling a short distance out of town to the Medeo ice skating rink and Shymbulak ski resort (both fascinating all year round), and within the city, visiting Republic Square, the Panfilovsky Park of 28 Heroes, and the Green Bazaar.

Tour Details

All day (8 hours)

Activity Level

Easy/moderate

Tour Price

$70-120 per person