The largest, most powerful nation in Central Asia, Kazakhstan features a history that bridges empires while retaining its own unique, nomadic culture.
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- Capital: Astana
- Largest City: Almaty
- Population (2017): 17,926,500 (63rd)
- Total Area: 2,724,900 km² (9th)
- Official Languages: Kazakh, Russian
- Currency: Kazakhstani tenge (₸) (KZT)
History of Kazakhstan
While human habitation in Kazakhstan goes back thousands of years, it’s not until around the 11th century when we can begin to paint a picture. During an age of migration and Mongol invasions, the Kazakh Khanate emerged to preside over a vast steppe-land of nomads. For centuries, the Kazakh people ruled themselves, struggling against powerful neighbours such as the Persians. Just as damaging as these prolonged struggles, in the 16th and 17th centuries European powers began to circumvent the trade routes which filled Kazakh coffers, opting instead to sail to the far east. The diminished importance of the overland trade route weakened the Khanate. By the 19th century, the country was ripe for the taking.
During a period known as the ‘Great Game’, Russia and Britain fought for dominance amongst Afghanistan and Central Asia. In the case of Kazakhstan, it fell under the purview of the Russian tsars, who began to import Russian ideals and culture to the region – in addition to a large amount of settlers. This set off a struggle for land, which bred resentment against the Russian Empire in Kazakhstan – particularly during the Central Asian Revolt in 1916. After the collapse of the tsars, Kazakhstan found itself under communist rule by 1919.
Communism and the Soviet Union
Integrated into the communist world as an autonomous republic, Stalin’s rule was tough for Kazakhstan – with famine, widespread purges, unrest, and deportations. The country was important to the Soviet Union during the war effort (WWII) for holding prisoners of war and exiles, as well as supplying materials and minerals (the latter of which helped start some form of industrialization).
During the latter years of the Soviet Union, widespread discontent began to reach a fever pitch. Despite the efforts of Soviet troops to keep order, this feeling only became more entrenched. After declaring sovereignty in 1990, Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991 – the last Soviet republic to do so.
Independence and Modern Era
Kazakhstan’s former communist ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, led the independent government. His regime presided over a large boost in the country’s economic fortunes – much of it down to oil. Today he remains President – with no elections since independence considered free and fair. While there have been recent signs from the authoritarian government that some powers will be delegated to other parties and the parliament, the scope of this remains to be seen.
Prior to the ‘Russification’ of Kazakhstan, the culture was based primarily around the nomadic existence as well as the influx of Islam. Today, many of these nomadic customs persevere in one way or the other, alongside more Russian and Soviet elements.
Cuisine in Kazakhstan is based primarily around livestock and bread, while milk-based drinks are popular. Dinners are often served with many appetizers while main courses such as pilaf and beshbarmak are commonplace. Fermented mare’s milk serves as the national beverage.
Flag of Kazakhstan
Adopted following independence, the Kazakh flag consists of a sky blue background with a gold ornamental pattern on the left (horns of the ram) with a sun and soaring eagle in the centre. These images represent the sky, freedom, and the importance of grain.
Sports in Kazakhstan
There are a wide variety of sports popular throughout Kazakhstan including, but not limited to: martial arts, boxing, skiing, gymnastics, horse riding, ice hockey, weightlifting, bandy, and chess. Though not a major force in the world of soccer, the country is weighing up a bid for the 2026 World Cup.
Geography of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is a large landlocked country that rests in both Europe and Asia (using the Ural River as a divider). Within its borders you’ll stumble on massive dry steppes, vast plains, mountains, and more. There are sand dunes as well as large bodies of water including the Aral Sea and the Caspian Sea (which it borders).
Cities in Kazakhstan
Though no longer the capital, Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan with a population over 1.7 million. Located in the foothills of large mountains, it remains the cultural and commercial heart of the country. The capital is now Astana, much of which is a planned city despite its founding in the early 1800’s. While smaller than Almaty, it’s still home to almost 1 million people.
Facts about Kazakhstan
- It has one of the world’s lowest population densities
- Kazakhs were the first to domesticate and ride horses
- Whistling a song indoors will make you poor for the rest of your life
- Kazakhstan maintains a navy on the Caspian Sea, despite being landlocked
- Travelling from one side to the other is akin to travelling from London to Istanbul
- There are around 120 different ethnicities and nationalities in Kazakhstan
- The world’s largest chimney is here at 419.7 feet tall
- Almaty translates as “place full of apples”
From nomads through the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has always maintained a rich tradition and proud culture.
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