[Gabby Ongies]

While modern Kazakhstan is barely over 20 years old, the history of the area stretches back millennia. Nomadic peoples roamed the steppes near the first millennium BC, and Turkic nomads migrated into the area several centuries later. These Turkic peoples proceeded to Turkify the region, and by the sixth century AD Kazakhstan and the surrounding regions became fully Turkified. Later Turkic tribes also brought Islam with them, and between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries the traditional Kazakh paganism slowly faded away as many Kazakhs converted to Islam. Even though ethnically-similar, the Turkic tribes inhabiting the region had no sense of unification; instead, these tribes often warred with each other and formed their own small khanates in an attempt to gain power in the region. By the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks, a strong dynasty that conquered nearly the entire region, came into power for about a century, until the Khawrazmshahian and Iran defeated the Seljuks and took all of their territories in Central Asia. These short-lived dynasties fell after the Mongols invaded in the thirteenth century. The appearance of the Mongols brought to the Kazakh steppes even more Turkic nomads, which re-Turkified the nomads in the region and helped create a separate Kazakh identity (Peimani, 122-123).

The Kazakhs ethnic group developed by the fifteenth century and a Kazakh nation first formed with the break between Janibek and Kirai, sons of Barak Khan, and the Uzbek khan Abu’l Khayr. After the Golden Horde and White Horde and other Mongol successor states broke apart, the Uzbek tribal confederation arose under Barak Khan. After Barak Khan’s death, Abu’l Khayr and one of Barak’s chief rivals conspired to make Abu’l Khayr the khan, and Barak’s sons were denied their succession to khan. However, Abu’l Khayr had to worry about the Dzungarian Oirots, Chinese-speaking Muslims, and this allowed Janibek and Kirai to head their own insurrection. Breaking away from the main Uzbek confederation, the brothers formed a tribe of “Kazakh” nomads, and thus the start of the Kazakh nation (Olson, 355-356).  The first Kazakh khanate was formed as a confederation of the different Turkic nomadic tribes such as the Kipchaks, Naimans and Argyns., and became an empire under Qasim Khan during the sixteenth century (Olcott, 4, 9). However, this empire soon fell due to infighting between the Turkic tribes, and divided into three hordes: the Great Horde (Ulu Zhuz), Middle Horde (Orta Zhuz), and Little Horde (Kishi Zhuz). Khan Haq  Nazar, one of Qasim’s sons (Olcott, 24)  managed to reunite these hordes again from 1538 to 1580 but, by the start of the seventeenth century, Kazakhstan fell back into being a fragmented, warring region. Later attempts at unification of the Kazakh tribes came from outsiders, including various Mongol tribes and eventually Russia (Peimani, 123).

By 1848, Kazakhstan was the first of the Central Asian countries to come under Russian rule through both war and diplomacy after Russia rid the area of the remains of the three hordes (Peimani, 123). However, the incorporation of the Kazakhs into the Russian empire avoided violence as tens of thousands of Kazakhs accepted Russian administration in waves in order to protect themselves from other empires interested in the region, mainly Kokand (Olcott, 72 – 73).The Kokan Khanate existed from 1709-1876 and was comprised from territory of modern day eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. With interests in expanding its empire, the Kokand Khanate eventually bumped into Russia and her incursions into the khanate’s territory. Russia continued to advance into the khanate’s territory, until the khanate became a vassal state of Russia in 1868 thanks to a commercial treaty (Wikipedia).  Russia continued to annex the rest of Central Asia, and the conflicts both within the Kazakh tribes and with other tribes throughout the region came to an end. Although the tribes were no longer fighting amongst themselves, there were many anti-Russian movements throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century as the region became displeased with Russian rule. The largest of these movements occurred in 1916 between Kazakhstan and Russia, spurred by ethnic conflict over land and water. The anti-Russian feelings from both before and after this uprising morphed into anti-Soviet feelings after the Bolshevik Revolution. Even though Kazakhstan experienced autonomy from 1917 until 1920, the Soviet Union eventually annexed the country and brought it under its influence (Peimani, 124).

Modern Kazakhstan [Glynnis Stevenson]

In the build up to the First World War, the people of the steppe witnessed a steep deterioration in their quality of life. Immigrant land seizures caused resentment and a rapid decline in agricultural land and livestock. Once war broke out in 1914, conditions further deteriorated. A loss of economic markets forced Kazakhs and Russians alike to sell only in local markets. To further compound their economic difficulties, the Kazakhs were “requested” to give “donations” of food and animal hides and to give their horses to the imperial cavalry. In the first two years of the war alone, the Russians took 260,000 head of livestock at no cost. Though they did not have to fight in the Russian army, the Kazakhs had to perform labor to make up for the droves of Russian peasants who had left their land to fight. The Russian government increased the tax burden by five percent and further exacerbated social tensions.

As the Russian war effort deteriorated in 1916, the tsar demanded that all men aged eighteen to forty-three from Russian-controlled Central Asia fight in the imperial army. At the same time that the understaffed and undersupplied Russian army was deteriorating at the front, violence against Russians was becoming a serious issue in Central Asia. The demand for manpower was immediately met with violence. The Russian army needed nearly 700,000 men from Central Asia, but poor routes of communication slowed dissemination of the Russian proclamation (ukaz) and revolution ran rampant. Russian officials relied on local leadership to spread their messages from the front; they expected Muslim leaders (mullahs) would explain the ukaz to their mosque congregations. The mullahs were also tasked with drawing up conscription lists for the Russians. Not surprisingly, local officials often omitted family members from conscription lists while settling old scores by signing their enemies up for military service. Social unrest also placed pressure on local officials; many officials were among the first victims of the popular violence caused by the ukaz. The persecution of local officials foreshadowed the brutality the rebels would inflict upon Russian officials.

Desperate to maintain some sort of stability, the Russian government called for rebellions across Central Asia to cease and placed stiff penalties on those who attacked Russian officials. But Russian decrees only served to strengthen the will to resist. Detachments from the Russian army were sent to battle the insurgents. Coordinated guerilla Kazakh attacks against telegraph and postal stations were devastating and the insurgents threatened Russian control over local railroads. After two months of fighting, the Russians sent reinforcements from the imperial army and seven detachments of Cossacks to try and regain control. A brutal new approach that involved burning yurts, the traditional tents of Central Asian nomads, forced many Kazakhs to flee to China with what was left of their families and possessions. By the end of October 1916, thousands were dead and the land was ravaged. Resistance continued until Russian efforts finally succeeded in November 1916. With only around 6,000 men left, the rebels fled to the remote areas of the steppe. On February 27, 1917, just days before Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, Russian forces were recalled from Central Asia.

Most sources seem to argue that economic devastation was the major cause of the 1916 Uprising. The strongest resistance stemmed from regions that had suffered the most at the hands of the Russians and had few economic resources left. For example, large numbers of Russian settlers moved into the Merkes region of the Syr Darya oblast and pushed the locals off their land and into the mountains and deserts. The resistance of these impoverished farmers who could no longer feed their livestock was particularly fierce as the alternative to resistance was starvation. In an effort to hamper the travel of Kazakh nomads, Russians often settled near irrigation canals and blocked nomadic groups from using their traditional water sources. While official Russian settlement of Kazakhstan ended after the First World War, Russia continued its efforts to acquire more Kazakh land.

The Muslim clergy also played an integral role in inciting revolution. The mullahs used the anger directed at the Christian community, who were superior by law to other religious groups, to stir up desire for bloody revolution. The mullahs’ message touched the sedentary farmers who had lost their land to Christians and the devout Kazakhs of southern Kazakhstan alike. Furthermore, the Kazakhs did not wish to fight for Russia against Turkey; fighting against their Muslim brethren with their Christian overlords was unfathomable. The Kazakhs considered their effort against Russia to be a holy war (jihad) and the mullahs promised that all who died in the effort would be faith martyrs. Most importantly, the struggle against Russia had united all areas of Kazak society, from the mullahs to the impoverished farmers. But the toll the revolution took on Kazakh society was immense. Beyond the loss of life directly caused by the 1916 Uprising, emigration and subsequent famine caused the population of some oblasts to decline by almost seventy percent.  It is estimated that some 500,000 Kazakhs fled to China, but many thousands of them died on the way and thousands more soon returned to the steppe after finding China inhospitable.

The treaty that the Russians imposed on the Kazakhs in the aftermath of the rebellion clearly favored Russia. The treaty forced thousands of Kazakhs to resettle in hilly, arid areas that made farming nearly impossible; the Russians strove to push the Kazakhs further off their arable and irrigated farmland. The Russians justified their treaty by insisting that the Russian and native populations should be segregated for their own good and that the natives had been resettled to areas that they were “fit to use”. The treaty was decidedly punitive; disloyalty to the Russian government would not be tolerated. Fines were levied against nomadic groups in an effort to recruit clan leaders to control their clansmen. The Russian government sentenced three hundred and forty-seven Kazakh leaders to death in front of a tribunal in February 1917, though only fifty one were executed before the February Revolution. After the Revolution, the remainder had their sentences commuted to either hard labor or imprisonment. The 1916 Uprising was overwhelmingly unsuccessful. The rebellion itself and the ensuing treaty only further decimated the Kazakh economy. The Kazakhs grew to hate the Russians even more, but their religious and tribal leaders were incapable of leading them to victory against Russia.

Alash Orda FlagNews of the February Revolution gave many Kazakhs hope that the new government would sympathize with Kazakh grievances. Young intellectuals banded together to form a Kazakh nationalist party, the Alash Orda, to represent Kazakh interests in Petrograd. When the Bolsheviks overthrew the short-lived Provisional Government and abolished its democratically-elected constitutional government, the Kazakh hopes for more representation were dashed. The Kazakhs chose to create the Alash Orda autonomous government instead of supporting the Bolsheviks; Kazakh nationalists fought for the White Army against the Bolsheviks from December 1917 to mid-1919. As the White forces began to lose momentum in late 1918, many Kazakh nationalists chose to seek a place in the Bolshevik ranks and by late 1919, most areas of Kazakh society had accepted the Bolshevik regime, though few were ardent communists.

In the early days of the new regime, Bolshevik presence in Central Asia was limited. To combat the presence and autonomy of Alash Orda, the Bolsheviks threw their support behind Ush Zhuz to drum up Kazakh support for communism and to draw voters away from Alash Orda. Ush Zhuz was a short-lived party as they were soon attacked for being a pawn of the Bolsheviks, but Petrograd subsequently supported a series of other parties to try and shake Alash Orda’s autonomy. Starting in November 1917 and continuing throughout the following year, the Bolsheviks seized control of Kazakh cities, though the Kazakhs did not welcome their presence. In many cities, both Bolsheviks and Alash Orda claimed to be in control. When the Bolsheviks took measures to nationalize land and livestock in southern Kazakhstan in March 1918, the people of the steppe instantly gave their support to Alash Orda. Bolshevik efforts at nationalization gave rise to provisional governments with such names as the “Turkestan Union for the Struggle with Bolshevism”. The names of these provisional governments highlight that defeating the Bolsheviks was their first priority. Cossacks and Russian peasants, equally angered by nationalization efforts, joined with Kazakhs to defeat Bolshevism.

The Cossack leaders of these anti-Bolshevik forces had little interest in preserving Kazakh autonomy; their ultimate goal was to defeat the Red troops. As both Cossacks and Kazakhs shared a common enemy, the Bolsheviks, they felt it necessary to tolerate each other. Alash Orda was left alone, for the time being, to govern the Kazakhs. Alash Orda tried unsuccessfully to develop a system for raising tax revenue and to build up a Kazakh militia. On principle, Alash Orda rejected Bolshevik rule because it rejected parliamentary democracy. Eager to legitimize Bolshevik rule in Kazakhstan, Lenin and Stalin invited members of Alash Orda to come to Moscow for negotiations. From Stalin’s letters, it can be discerned that the Bolsheviks promised the Alash Orda representatives that they were committed on principle to national self-determination and that the Kazakhs could have autonomy within the confines of Soviet rule. On their way back to Kazakhstan, the representatives were arrested as thieves and counterrevolutionaries, which discredited the Alash Orda leadership.

In the spring and summer of 1918, White forces and Cossacks established strongholds in northern Kazakhstan and managed to drive back Bolshevik forces at every turn. Alash Orda asked the White forces to help arm the Kazakhs in the hopes of creating a Kazakh-led militia to defend Kazakh autonomy. Beginning in May 1918, Alash Orda representatives and local Cossack leaders signed as series of accords that provided White military aid to Kazakh militias and coordinated joint Kazakh-White military ventures. Through 1919, Cossacks and Kazakhs fought Bolshevik forces side by side, but the White forces gave no thought to granting the Kazakhs autonomy or to what part the indigenous population should play should Bolshevism be defeated. But the White Guard chose not to interfere in Alash Orda’s affairs throughout the Civil War in the steppe, thus Alash Orda maintained its authority through most of 1918. In 1918, it seemed as though Alash Orda was succeeding in maintaining its political stability. But the Bolsheviks soon opened up an Eastern Front and this new military threat heavily burdened Alash Orda. Unable to bridge ideological differences, the White forces could not consolidate to form one cohesive anti-Bolshevik party. The Civil War exacerbated the already dire economic conditions in Kazakhstan. The Soviets collectivized land and kept prices artificially low in the zones they controlled, further impoverishing the indigenous people. The Soviets demanded grain and winter clothes of the populace and forced army conscription of all men who had become eligible in 1915. A terrible famine struck and the Soviets could do nothing but watch the indigenous population starve. Bolshevik failure to provide for the Kazakhs led to some White Guard military victories in August 1918. Through March 1919, territories were conquered and reconquered by opposing forces, with neither side able to save the starving locals.

Moscow did not consider attempting to stem the extent of famine in Kazakhstan more important than defeating the White forces. Kazakh-White relations, always strained at best, worsened when White leaders called for Alash Orda to submit entirely to White authority and Russian supremacy, thus surrendering their autonomy. The Kazakhs would not forget this great insult to their pride and the White military collapse in late 1919 was a product of this lack of internal cooperation. Unable to trust the Whites, the Kazakhs began to accept the possibility of cooperation with the Bolsheviks. Quickly gaining momentum, the Bolsheviks established a full draft and forced laborers to provide food for the army. By January 1920, the Bolsheviks had defeated the White Army in Kazakh territory. That same month, Moscow declared Alash Orda to be null and void and endorsed the principle of Kazakh national self-determination. That spring, the Bolsheviks began seizing grain, livestock, and clothing. Soviet rule was now firmly entrenched in Kazakhstan.

With peace achieved, the Bolsheviks began legitimizing their authority in Kazakhstan. Kazakh loyalty was necessary to maintaining stability, but the Bolsheviks were also determined to stay true to their ideology of radical social and economic change. The Kazakhs were initially resentful; from colonial policy, they had come to expect that the interests of Russians would be placed above indigenous interests. Theoretically, the Bolsheviks, as internationalists, could not appear to favor Russians over any other group in their empire. But most Bolshevik leaders were Russian and knew very little about Kazakhstan and many Bolsheviks had their own preconceived ideas about Kazakh culture. The Communist Party was hardly prepared to deal with an economic crisis in a region they knew nothing about. The Kazakhs felt increasingly ignored by the Bolsheviks. The Civil War had further impoverished the Kazakhs; the situation needed a remedy quickly. The Bolsheviks decided against land redistribution that would have returned land to Kazakh farmers. From 1920 to 1925, at the height of the New Economic Plan (NEP), the Bolsheviks took very little action at all to improve the Kazakh economy. Some land redistribution and irrigation projects took place, but Kazakh economic recovery was mostly a by-product of allowing life to return to normal. Bolshevik power simply formed an umbrella over the existing Kazakh political institutions; Kazakhs played a major role in local government. The Kazakh population grew more trusting as it appeared as though Moscow had a hands-off governing policy. But Moscow had every intention that Kazakhstan follow the Soviet revolutionary path; much had to be sacrificed for rapid industrialization. The Communist Party mortgaged the Kazakh countryside and took measures to make agriculture more productive. Many Kazakh Communists protested in the interests of Kazakh farmers and were swiftly dismissed from their posts.

The campaigns of 1928 saw the Communist Party seize livestock and grain and Kazakh peasants could only stand by helplessly. The Soviets successfully took control of local government institutions, and they had by the 1930s. In 1929, Kazakh land was mostly in private hands. In his anniversary speech of November 1929, Stalin called for collectivization of all agricultural land. Collective farms produced very little revenue for the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. They were often established as labor farms for deported kulaks on land with poor soil. Agricultural products sold at prices far below free market rates lowered revenue from collective farms even further. The first Five-Year Plan was short of its goals within its first year of existence. By October 1929, only 7.4% of Kazakh agricultural land had collectivized (Olcott, 178). Clearly, the populace did not voluntarily collectivize. Forcible requisition of grain to meet Soviet quotas had made the local authorities quite unpopular and Kazakhs were unwilling to take part in Bolsheviks plans for modernization. Rapid industrialization would be nearly impossible without building trust. Despite resistance, Moscow insisted that collectivization was the future of Soviet agriculture. Stalin was convinced that collectivization would make Kazakhstan a bread basket for the empire.

The next attempt at creating a bread basket out of Kazakhstan took place in 1953 under Khrushchev. The “Virgin Land” of Kazakhstan was “Virgin” only according to Moscow; the Kazakhs had been farmers and herders for centuries. The Kazakh economy had to adapt to the interests of Moscow yet again. Kazakhs were relocated to livestock-breeding “state farms” (sovkhozy) to engage in a new “scientific” way of livestock breeding. After the Kazakhs were relocated, Europeans moved in to staff grain sovkhozy. To ensure the success of their plans, Moscow replaced the Kazakh Communist leadership with men they trusted. The party was still largely staffed by Kazakhs who understood the inner workings of their country. The administrations of Khrushchev and Brezhnev saw more economic and political integration between Moscow and Kazakhstan. Khrushchev’s Virgin Land Policy was furthered by Brezhnev’s desire to modernize agricultural processes; they sped up the process Stalin had begun.

During Brezhnev’s rule, a considerable amount of power had transferred from the core to the periphery, resulting in falling productivity and industrial shortages as peripheral interests became more important. When Yuri Andropov succeeded Brezhnev in November 1982, he saw the necessity of economic reorganization. In 1983, many party officials were dismissed throughout the USSR. When Gorbachev took power in March 1985, he forced a large personnel turnover in the Kazakh Communist Party. Swept up in the wave of republics demanding independence, Kazakhstan declared its sovereignty as a republic in October 1990 (Wikipedia). On September 16, 1991, Kazakhstan became the last of the republics to declare independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Wikipedia).


Works Cited:

  • Martha Brill Olcott, The Kazakhs (Hoover Institution Press, 1987).
  • ________, The Kazakhs (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1995), p. 4, 72-73
  • James S. Olson,  An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of the Russian and Soviet Empires (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994).
  • Hooman Peimani, Conflict and Security in Central Asia and the Caucasus. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO LLC, 2009), pp. 122-124
  • Wikipedia, Kazakhstan.
  • Wikipedia, “Khanate of Kokand.” Last modified March 25, 2012. Accessed April 5, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khanate_of_Kokand.