14 September 2022
I have arrived into the ninth largest country in the world. One would think I might know something about its culture and history. I know little. Its geography situates it in a little-known, and even less understood, part of the globe. I’m here to learn more about Kazakhstan and its people.
The Republic of Kazakhstan is not all vast landscapes of savannas, steppe and desert. Though landlocked, it does have access to the Caspian Sea and includes the landscapes of Lake Balkhash, canyons, and boreal forests. Its size lends itself to one of the lowest population densities in the world at fewer than 15 people per square mile. Sharing borders with Russia and China, politics are a balancing act between east and west. Considered to be in Central Asia, the country’s furthest western parts are considered European.
The Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake, is a pittance of its old self. Over 1,000 islands dotted this “Sea of Islands” which acted as an important drainage basin for much of this part of Central Asia, including all of the Five Stans. Tragically, it has shrunk at an alarming rate as a result of the Russians having diverted many of its feeder rivers for irrigation projects. It currently is less than 10% of its original size with parts of its basin completely dried up and reclassified as “desert.” UNESCO rightfully calls this an “environmental tragedy.” Today, the sea freezes over and locals cross its ice aboard their camels.
As a Californian, this situation reminds me of our own Lake Mead, currently drying up and revealing its long-held secrets. These not only include old boats and cars but a few bodies. It appears to have been a favorite dumping ground for the Las Vegas mob bosses.
Here, predominant ethnicity is Kazakhs (65%) while other major ethnic groups are Russian, Uzbeks, Ukrainian, German and a few Tatars and Uyghurs. Kazakh is a Turkic language and is widely spoken. Islam is the largest religion (70%) followed by Orthodox Christianity (26%). While Kazakh is the state language, Russian is used in all official capacities. Slowly, the country is replacing Cyrillic with the Latin alphabet (but I am practicing my Cyrillic.) With a 99.5% literacy rate, it is a highly educated country. After years of religious and cultural suppression by the Soviets, as soon as the oppressors were tossed out, the faithful returned and churches and mosques were rebuilt.
Historically, Kazakhstan has been inhabited by nomads and conquering emperors from the Scythians and Persians to Turks, Mongols (think Genghis Khan), and finally the ever-present Russians lurking on their border. After the 1917 Russian Revolution and civil war, Kazakhstan struggled for autonomy, including a time as the Kirghiz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic, before becoming slurped into the Soviet Union in 1936. There it remained until 25 October 1990 when it declared sovereignty and then independence in December 1991.
Early Kazakhs were wanderers and warriors. There have been people inhabiting this land since the Stone Age over 3 million years ago. Its history, culture and architecture reflect countless travelers along the Silk Road which witnessed the passage of personages from Genghis Khan to Alexander the Great. It is believed it was here that the horse was first domesticated.
Kazakh, referring to people who live in Kazakhstan (same origin as “Cossack”), comes from an ancient Turkic/Uyghur term for “to wander” and reflects its nomadic culture. The Persian (now Iran) word for “land” is -stan. So, one would translate this country as the land of the wanderers. The Kazakhs had a highly developed culture based on their nomadic, pastoral economy. They enjoyed a long equestrian heritage. Islam came with the arrival of the Arabs in the 8th century and was further spread amongst the tribes by the Golden Horde in the 1300s by the Mongols and Batu Khan’s dynasty.
The Bolsheviks arrived hoping to beat this culture into submission through repression and murder. For a time, it was used as a destination of exile and resettlement, especially for almost a half million Volga Germans. It was home to some of the largest Gulags in the Soviet Union. In 1941, when Germans threatened Soviet industry, Stalin moved his industrial plants into remote Central Asia. Kazakhstan alone received over 140 production facilities. This history is touched upon in the Soviet section upstairs in the Central State Museum.
By late 1986, Kazakhs had had enough and serious protests began. Though repressed, a kernel was sown and could not be stopped. Gorbachev’s Glasnost was out of the bottle within the republics of the Soviet Union. There was no stuffing it back inside.
Soviets packed their bags, pretty much removed anything of value they could carry, and went home. Kazakhstan declared independence on 16 December 1991, the last of the Soviet republics to do so. (Ten days later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.)
The Soviets left behind famine, deprivation, a fractured ethnic population, and the remains of their first nuclear bomb test followed by hundreds more. Wisely, the nuclear arsenal was sent packing along with the Soviets. Environmental consequences continue to effect Kazakhstan.
Officially a democratic, secular state and a constitutional republic, Kazakhstan GDP is considered the largest and strongest economy in Central Asia. Sixty percent of their GDP is oil and gas. Kazakhstan repaid its debt to the International Monetary Fund – 7 years early! It is also the top exporter of uranium. Agriculture is just 5% of their GDP, mostly grain, potatoes (think vodka), grapes, vegetables and livestock. I am told Kazakhs love lots of meat. It is thought the apple originated on its steppes. Even so, considering its reliance on oil and gas, their economy is tenuous.
When it comes to politics, Kazakhstan looks like the good guys. In 2014, Kazakhstan gave Ukraine humanitarian aid during the conflict with Russian-backed rebels, saying “We are firmly convinced that there is no alternative to peace negotiations as a way to resolve the crisis in south-eastern Ukraine.” In 2018, Kazakhstan signed the UN treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Kazakhstan announced it will send officers to support UN Peacekeeping forces in Haiti, Western Sahara, Ivory Coast and Liberia. All good. However…
Kazakhstan is ranked very high in levels of corruption, on the level of Libya and Angola. Some corruption is a result of the bribery investigations in the US where officials believed funds were paid to Kazakhstan officials in exchange for oil rights. Why is this not a surprise (think the filthy hand of Exxon/Mobile and Eagle Scout Rex Tillerson)?
The Kazakhs’ first president, Nazarbayev, was characterized as an authoritarian who had a poor human rights record, restricting freedom of speech and religion. It doesn’t appear to have improved a lot since the 1990s and there continues to be need for improvement. In 2015, Human Rights Watch reported Kazakhstan “heavily restricts freedom of assembly, speech, and religion.” Earlier, authorities closed newspapers, jailed or fined dozens of people after peaceful but unsanctioned protests, and fined or detained worshipers for practicing religion outside state controls. Torture may be common in jails. Homosexuality has been legal in Kazakhstan since 1997 but discrimination against the LGBT community is widespread.
Tourism is still a small part of the Kazakhstan economy, less than 3%; by 2016, 5 million visitors annually were discovering this land. Its infrastructure is racing to catch up to its potential. China is more than willing to invest and increase its influence. Beautiful photos and advertisements encourage travelers to come our way.
I plan to do so. Kazakhstan has hosted world travelers for centuries along their Silk Road. I will be one of them. However, I may draw the line at their national drink, fermented mare’s milk.