Culture & History

Present-day Kazakhstan has for much of the past three thousand years been the homeland of a number of peoples: Scythians, Mongols, Turks, and other nomadic peoples. The modern Kazakh people are a Mongol-Turkic people, and the name Kazakh means "free people" in Turkic languages. (Russians use the same word for that famous warrior tribe of Slavs, the Cossacks, but there is no ethnolinguistic link between the two.)

Don't feel ashamed if this is new to you, few people are familiar with this part of the world and I learned a lot on my trip. What you should know is that the Kazakhs were traditionally nomads who settled the vast steppes between Russia and China. As both of those powes expanded towards Central Asia, the stepp became a vital pivot of geopolitical power and has remained so 400 years -- even today Kazakhstan is a major oil exporter. After the Russian Revolution and brief independence, Kazakhstan became a republic of the Soviet Union until declaring independence in December of 1991. Compared to most of the other former Soviet Republics, it has had measured success. To quote from the CIA Worldfactbook:

Native Kazakhs, a mix of Turkic and Mongol nomadic tribes who migrated into the region in the 13th century, were rarely united as a single nation. The area was conquered by Russia in the 18th century and Kazakhstan became a Soviet Republic in 1936. During the 1950s and 1960s agricultural "Virgin Lands" program, Soviet citizens were encouraged to help cultivate Kazakhstan's northern pastures. This influx of immigrants (mostly Russians, but also some other deported nationalities) skewed the ethnic mixture and enabled non-Kazakhs to outnumber natives. Independence has caused many of these newcomers to emigrate. Current issues include: developing a cohesive national identity; expanding the development of the country's vast energy resources and exporting them to world markets; achieving a sustainable economic growth outside the oil, gas, and mining sectors; and strengthening relations with neighboring states and other foreign powers.

Quite an important place. Compared with much of the rest of Central Asia, Kazakhstan is doing remarkably well. But first, an introduction:

Kazakhstan during the 20th Century

Russia expanded into Central Asia in the late 18th/early 19th century, making the Kazakhs are the most Russified of all the Central Asia peoples. But as the Bolsheviks took power in the Kremlin, many of the Central Asian people decided they wanted to be free of Russian rule and fought for their independence. A bloody war was fought from 1917 to 1920, ending with the new communist government "liberating" the Central Asian peoples from any ideas of self determination.

The quesiton of nationality remains the most graphically visible effect of Soviet rule, since Moscow drew the borders. The demarcation of the republics of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic began in 1924, and each line was carefully drawn to contain pockets of differing nationalities. Thus today's Central Asian republics are the product of this "divide-and-rule" policy that relied on a strong central government to maintain order. Russia remains the official language of "inter-ethnic communication" in many countries including Kazakhstan, but the government is encouraging the native language. For example, half of all television programming must be in Kazakh.

A memorial to the many wars of the 20th century can be found in the park in the center of the city adjacent to Zenkov Cathedral.

Six decades of Soviet planning wrought economic and environmental disaster. The Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is now only a third its size half a century ago due to irresponsible and inefficient irrigation. Vast regions of the steppe were converted into giant cotton plantations. And Kazakstan was the location of most of the Soviet Union's nuclear testing. So Kazakahstan, along with the other former Soviet republics, had little to lose by declaring independence when glasnost and perestroyka led to the disintegration of the USSR in December of 1991. This is the Independence monument in front of the old Parliament building. (Almaty was the capital of Kazakhstan until 1998, when, for a variety of reasons, it was moved north to the small city of Astana. Click here for more info.)


In the center of Almaty adjacent to the aforementioned war memorial is an orthodox cathedral built entirely out of wood, Zenkov Cathedral. Built in 1903, it is 54 metres and made entirely out of wood (including the nails!), making it the second-tallest wooden structure in the world (the largest being Todaiji in Nara, Japan). During Soviet Times the cathedral was converted into a theatre, but after independence it was returned to the church and reopened in 1995. It is now a thriving religious community. Visiting during the daytime on a weekday, I found it full of people praying before icons. It was so silent you could hear the echo of the candles, crackling as they burned.

And of course, there was a mosque. Kazakhstan is about half Orthodox Christian and half Sunni Muslim. The top of the minarets and the dome are blue, similar to the 'Blue Mosque' in Turkey. More on that in The Turkic Link section.

Post-Soviet CCCP Nostalgia

One of the most surprising things about my trip was the overwhelming sense of what can only be called "CCCP Nostalgia." After giving a guess lecture on Legal Research and Writing at KIMEP, I spoke to two students who said how great the old Soviet education system was and how they disliked the new "accreditation" system. The national cola is called CCCP COLA, a foul, brown concoction with a taste that only a former communist state could invent. I saw a music video of a pop band singing a song called "Euroasia" (as opposed to "Eurasia") that showed three Russian teens dancing and singing in fron of a map scribbled in red from Britain to Japan. And one of the trendiest downtown bars was modeled on a Soviet theme, with a gigantic sickle carved into the ceiling.

There's no love for communism. Kazakhstan's a pretty free place and opening up to the world. But there appears to be great nostalgia for the former glory and worldwide influence that came with being a republic of the Soviet Union.

And finally, the Kazakh taxi. Getting around town in Almaty is easy -- just stick out your hand and it will take just seconds for someone to pull over to drive you to your destination for a hundred Tenge or so (Tenge is he Kazakh currency: 140 T = $1) ). There aren't many registered taxis, this just seems to be a way for drivers to earn cash on the way to their destination, and in some cases, they just drive around looking for customers.

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