“Land of Wanderers”
Kazakhstan is bounded on the north by Russia, on the east by China, on the south by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and the Aral Sea, and on the southwest by the Caspian Sea. A “landlocked” country means a country with no direct access to oceans or ocean-accessible sea such as the Mediterranean, which makes Kazakhstan landlocked even though it has access to both the Aral and the Caspian. Its landscape is dominated by the Kazakh Steppe, a belt of dry grassland which covers a third of the country and which is connected to the vast Eurasian Steppe that extends from Hungary in the west to Manchuria in the east.
There is no consensus among scholars about the etymology of the word “Kazakh”, but one theory says it comes from the ancient Turkic word qaz, which means either “to wander” or “to conquer”, which may also be the root of the word “Cossack”, referring to a member of self-governing military societies south of Russia. (Omeljan Pritsak discusses the etymology in more detail in “The Turkic Etymology of the Word ‘Qazaq’ ‘Cossack’” published in Harvard Ukrainian Studies.) The Persian suffix -stan means “land” or “place of”, so Kazakhstan can translate to “land of the wanderers” or “the land of conquerors”.
Kazakhstan under the Mongolian Empire
Looking at Kazakhstan’s ancient history, it was indeed a land of wanderers and conquerors. It was in the steppes of Central Asia where man first tamed wild horses (based on 5,500-year-old findings of horse fossil in northern Kazakhstan) for speedy transportation, and used its meat and milk for sustenance. Horse meat and milk are ingredients that can still be seen in modern Kazakh cuisine.
In the early centuries (1st to 8th centuries) nomadic tribes invaded and settled in what is now Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Islam was introduced to the region when the Arabs arrived in Central Asia in the 8th century. Islam remains the religion practised by a big majority (more than 70%) of Kazakhstan’s population.
In 1219, the region was engulfed by Genghis Khan’s vast empire, which at the height of its power covered 23 million square kilometres (9 million square miles), stretching from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Persian Gulf in the west. In 1259, the empire fractured into four territories: the Golden Horde in the northwest, the Chagatai Khanate in the middle, the Ilkhanate in the southwest, and the Yuan dynasty in the east based in modern-day Beijing. Kazakhstan fell under the polity of the Chagatai.
The Kazakh Khanate
A group of 200,000 nomads became increasingly dissatisfied with the rule of the Uzbek khan Abū al-Khayr (whose rule was preceded by the Golden Horde’s) and in 1456 moved out of his khanate and into the territory of the Chagatai.
These nomads became known as Kazakh Uzbeks, to distinguish them from the Uzbeks under Al-Khayr. In the late 15th century, they successfully established an independent Kazakh khanate and developed their own distinct identity and culture. Under the rule of Kasym Khan (1509–18) Kazakh territory covered land from what is now southeastern Kazakhstan to the Ural Mountains.
But similar to what happened to Genghis Khan’s empire before it, the Kazakh khan’s authority weakened and the khanate became divided into three separate “hordes” (zhuzes) in the early 17th century. These were, covering territory from east to west: the Great Horde, the Middle Horde, and the Little Horde (also known as the Elder, Middle, and Lesser Zhuzes).
Each horde was led by a khan, but the khan’s authority continued to be undercut by the power exercised by tribal chieftains and clan heads. This weakening of the khan’s central power made the hordes vulnerable to raids from Mongol tribes, primarily the Dzungars (dson, “left”; gar, “hand”) who formed the left wing of the Mongol Army. The Great Horde was hit the hardest by the raids, and the Middle and Little Hordes moved westward towards Russian territories. In 1730, Abūʾl Khayr, khan of the Little Horde, swore allegiance to the Russian Empire’s Empress Anna Ivanovna (1730-1740).
Kazakhstan under Russia
The Russian Empire, undoubtedly also helped by the political schisms in the Kazakh khanate, had been steadily moving southward, and some Kazakhs were starting to think Russian presence might help them against the Dzungar raids. In short order, the hordes accepted Russian protection. The khan’s autonomy was indeed protected from the Mongol tribe but their new protector had other plans. By 1848, despite uprisings from the Kazakhs, all three khanates were abolished by Russia and incorporated into the empire. Russian and Ukrainian migrants were brought in to settle in new Russian-controlled land.
The tsarist regime fell in 1917 and was replaced by the Bolsheviks, which occupied Kazakhstan in 1920 and established the Kirgiz Autonomous Republic (later the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, or Kazakh ASSR). Under Stalin, the nomadic Kazakhs were forced to settle. The agricultural sector was collectivised, during which, as described by Prof. Sarah Cameron, “[i]f you were a peasant, what this generally meant was that you were stripped of your land and your livestock and shunted into a collective farm, where a set portion of the production of that farm was given over to the state.”
Moscow demanded huge shares of the crops so the Soviet government could use the sale to buy machinery. The resulting famine, which began in the summer of 1930 and lasted until 1933, led to the death of 90% of the nomads’ animal herds and more than a million ethnic Kazakhs. Thousands more fled the famine, and those who managed to survive the journey settled in China, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
Kazakhstan became a constituent republic of the Soviet Union in 1936. In the early 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev launched a campaign to develop Kazakhstan’s “virgin lands”, and two million people, mainly Russians, moved to the region, making ethnic Kazakhs a minority in their own country. Riots broke out against the Soviet Union in 1986 when Mikhail Gorbachev appointed Gennadiy Kolbin, an ethnic Russian, to become the head of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (CPK), replacing Dinmukhamed Kunayev, an ethnic Kazakh, who had headed the CPK since 1959.
Upon dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan declared its full independence as a republic in 1991. Nursultan Nazarbayev has been its president for three decades.
Travelling to Kazakhstan
Visitors to Kazakhstan come for its natural wonders and unique culture. Travelling to the largest landlocked country in the world promises diverse landscapes and incredible vistas. It is also a great place to visit for those more comfortable with city delights. Kazakhstan has abundant reserves of oil that provided the country economical advancement (to compare, Kazakhstan’s GDP of US$160B in 2017 was triple that of Uzbekistan’s) and this wealth is apparent in its largest city, Almaty, with its shopping malls, expensive restaurants, and vibrant nightlife, and in the capital Astana (which in Kazakh literally means “capital”) with its flashy architecture, complete with an artificial beach. (On March 23, 2019, Astana was formally renamed to Nur-Sultan to honour its longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has resigned that month.)
Kazakhstan, with government backing, is gradually moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, procuring electricity from renewable energy sources at international auctions to drive down domestic electricity costs. In 2016, it announced a plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2030, and in 2017 hosted an international exposition in Astana (Nur-Sultan) with the theme “Future Energy” focused on sustainable energy development.
This is an ambitious move for a country with an economy built on oil profits, but with Kazakhstan and the rest of the world being hit by extreme weather events brought by climate change, it is also a necessary move.
Let’s look at the places to visit in Kazakhstan.