Humans have inhabited present-day Kazakhstan since the earliest Stone Age, generally pursuing the nomadic pastoralism for which the region's climate and terrain are best suited. Prehistoric Bronze Age cultures that extended onto Kazakh territory include the Srubna culture, the Afanasevo culture and the Andronovo culture. Between 500 BC and 500 AD, Kazakhstan was home to the early nomadic warrior cultures: the Saka and the Huns.
In the late 9h century, the Qarluq state was destroyed by invaders who established the large Qarakhanid state, which occupied a region known as Transoxiana, the area north and east of the Oxus River (the present-day Amu Darya), extending into what is now China. Beginning in the early 11th century, the Qarakhanids fought constantly among themselves and with the Seljuk Turks to the south. In the course of these conflicts, parts of present-day Kazakhstan shifted back and forth between the combatants. The Qarakhanids, who accepted Islam and the authority of the Arab Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad during their dominant period, were conquered in the 1130s by the Karakitai, a Mongol confederation from eastern Mongolia. In the mid-12th century, an independent state of Khorazm along the Oxus River broke away from the weakening Karakitai, but the bulk of the Karakitai state lasted until the Mongol invasion of Genghis Khan in 1219-1221.
After the Mongol capture of the Karakitai state, Kazakhstan fell under the control of a succession of rulers of the Mongolian Golden Horde, the western branch of the Mongol Empire. (The horde, or zhuz, is the precursor of the present-day clan. By the early 15th century, the ruling structure had split into several large groups known as khanates, including the Nogai Horde and the Uzbek Khanate.
Kazakh Khanate was founded in 1456 on the banks of Zhetisu (seven rivers) in the south eastern part of present Republic of Kazakhstan by Janybek Khan and Kerei Khan. During the reign of Kasym Khan (1511-1523), the Kazakh Khanate expanded considerably.
Kasym Khan instituted the first Kazakh code of laws in 1520, called "Qasym Khannyn Qasqa Zholy" (Bright Road of Kasym Khan).
Kazakh Khanate did not always have a unified government. The Kazakhs were traditionally divided into three parts - Senior Zhuz, Middle Zhuz, and Lesser Zhuz. All zhuzes had to agree in order to have a common khan. In particular, in 1731 there was no strong Kazakh leadership, and the three zhuzes were incorporated into the Russian Empire one by one. At that point, the Kazakh Khanate ceased to exist.
Kazakh Khanate is described in historical texts such as the Tarikh-i-Rashidi (1541-1545) by Muhammad Haidar Dughlat, and Zhamigi-at-Tavarikh (1598-1599) by Kadyrgali Kosynuli Zhalayir.
Russian traders and soldiers began to appear on the northwestern edge of Kazakh territory in the 17th century, when Cossacks established the forts that later became the cities of Oral (Ural'sk) and Atyrau (Gur'yev). Russians were able to seize Kazakh territory because the khanates were preoccupied by Kalmyks (Oirats, Dzungars), who in the late 16th century had begun to move into Kazakh territory from the east. Forced westward in what they call their Great Retreat, the Kazakhs were increasingly caught between the Kalmyks and the Russians. Two of Kazakh Hordes were depend of Oirat Huntaiji. In 1730 Abul Khayr, one of the khans of the Lesser Horde, sought Russian assistance. Although Abul Khayr's intent had been to form a temporary alliance against the stronger Kalmyks, the Russians gained permanent control of the Lesser Horde as a result of his decision. The Russians conquered the Middle Horde by 1798, but the Great Horde managed to remain independent until the 1820s, when the expanding Kokand Khanate to the south forced the Great Horde khans to choose Russian protection, which seemed to them the lesser of two evils.
In 1863, Russian Empire elaborated a new imperial policy, announced in the Gorchakov Circular, asserting the right to annex "troublesome" areas on the empire's borders. This policy led immediately to the Russian conquest of the rest of Central Asia and the creation of two administrative districts, the General-Gubernatorstvo (Governor-Generalship) of Russian Turkestan and that of the Steppe. Most of present-day Kazakhstan was in the Steppe District, and parts of present-day southern Kazakhstan, including Almaty (Verny), were in the Governor-Generalship.
In the early 19th century, the construction of Russian forts began to have a destructive effect on the Kazakh traditional economy by limiting the once-vast territory over which the nomadic tribes could drive their herds and flocks. The final disruption of nomadism began in the 1890s, when many Russian settlers were introduced into the fertile lands of northern and eastern Kazakhstan. In 1906, the Trans-Aral Railway between Orenburg and Tashkent was completed, further facilitating Russian colonisation of the fertile lands of Semirechie. Between 1906 and 1912, more than a half-million Russian farms were started as part of the reforms of Russian minister of the interior Petr Stolypin, putting immense pressure on the traditional Kazakh way of life by occupying grazing land and using scarce water resources.
Starving and displaced, many Kazakhs joined in the general Central Asian Revolt against conscription into the Russian imperial army, which the tsar ordered in July 1916 as part of the effort against Germany in World War I. In late 1916, Russian forces brutally suppressed the widespread-armed resistance to the taking of land and conscription of Central Asians. Thousands of Kazakhs were killed, and thousands of others fled to China and Mongolia.
In 1917 a group of secular nationalists called the Alash Orda Horde of Alash, named for a legendary founder of the Kazakh people, attempted to set up an independent national government - the Alash Autonomy. This state lasted just over two years (December 13 1917 to August 26 1920) before surrendering to the Bolshevik authorities, who then sought to preserve Russian control under a new political system.
The Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was set up in 1920 and was renamed the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1925 when the Kazakhs were differentiated officially from the Kyrgyz. The Russian Empire recognized the ethnic difference between the two groups; it called them both Kyrgyz to avoid confusion between the terms Kazakh and Cossack (both names originating from Turkic "free man".)
In 1925, the autonomous republic's original capital, Orenburg possibly from Horn-(meaning corner) and Burg- (meaning Castle), was reincorporated into Russian territory. Almaty (called Alma-Ata during the Soviet period), a provincial city in the far southeast, became the new capital. In 1936 the territory was made a full Soviet republic, the Kazakh SSR, also called Kazakhstan. With an area of 2,717,300 km² (1,063,200 square miles), the Kazakh SSR was the second largest constituent republic of the Soviet Union. From 1929 to 1934, during the period when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was trying to collectivize agriculture, Kazakhstan endured repeated famines, similar to the Holodomor in Ukraine, because peasants had slaughtered their livestock in protest against Soviet agricultural policy. In that period, at least 1.5 million Kazakhs and 80 percent of the republic's livestock died. Thousands more Kazakhs tried to escape to China, although most starved in the attempt.
Many European Soviet citizens and much of Russia's industry were relocated to Kazakhstan during World War II, when Nazi armies threatened to capture all the European industrial centers of the Soviet Union. Groups of Crimean Tatars, Germans and Muslims from the North Caucasus region were deported to Kazakhstan during the war because it was feared that they would collaborate with the enemy. Most Poles (about a million) from Eastern Poland invaded by USSR in 1939 were deported to Kazakhstan. Half of them died there. Local people became famous for sharing their meager food with the starving strangers. Many more non-Kazakhs arrived in the years 1953-1965, during the so-called Virgin Lands Campaign of Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev (in office from 1956 to 1964). Under that program, huge tracts of Kazakh grazing land were put to the plow for the cultivation of wheat and other cereal grains. Still more settlers came in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the government paid handsome bonuses to workers participating in a program to relocate Soviet industry close to the extensive coal, gas, and oil deposits of Central Asia. One consequence of the decimation of the nomadic Kazakh population and the in-migration of non-Kazakhs was that by the 1970s Kazakhstan was the only Soviet republic in which the eponymous nationality was a minority in its own republic.
Within the centrally controlled structure of the Soviet system, Kazakhstan played a vital industrial and agricultural role; the vast coal deposits discovered in Kazakhstani territory in the twentieth century promised to replace the depleted fuel reserves in the European territories of the union. The vast distances between the European industrial centers and coalfields in Kazakhstan presented a formidable problem that was only partially solved by Soviet efforts to industrialize Central Asia. That endeavor left the newly independent Republic of Kazakhstan a mixed legacy: a population that includes nearly as many Russians as Kazakhs; the presence of a dominating class of Russian technocrats, who are necessary to economic progress but ethnically unassimilated; and a well-developed energy industry, based mainly on coal and oil, whose efficiency is inhibited by major infrastructural deficiencies.
In keeping with practices in other republics at that time, the parliament had named Nazarbayev its chairman, and then, soon afterward, it had converted the chairmanship to the presidency of the republic. In contrast to the presidents of the other republics, especially those in the independence-minded Baltic states, Nazarbayev remained strongly committed to the perpetuation of the Soviet Union throughout the spring and summer of 1991. He took this position largely because he considered the republics too interdependent economically to survive separation. At the same time, however, Nazarbayev fought hard to secure republic control of Kazakhstan's enormous mineral wealth and industrial potential. This objective became particularly important after 1990, when it was learned that Gorbachev had negotiated an agreement with Chevron, an American oil company, to develop Kazakhstan's Tengiz oil fields. Gorbachev did not consult Nazarbayev until talks were nearly complete. At Nazarbayev's insistence, Moscow surrendered control of the republic's mineral resources in June 1991. Gorbachev's authority crumbled rapidly throughout 1991. Nazarbayev, however, continued to support him, persistently urging other republic leaders to sign the revised Union Treaty, which Gorbachev had put forward in a last attempt to hold the Soviet Union together.
Because of the coup attempted by Moscow hard-liners against the Gorbachev government in August 1991, the Union Treaty never was signed. Ambivalent about the removal of Gorbachev, Nazarbayev did not condemn the coup attempt until its second day. However, once the incompetence of the plotters became clear, Nazarbayev threw his weight solidly behind Gorbachev and continuation of some form of union, largely because of his conviction that independence would be economic suicide.
At the same time, however, Nazarbayev pragmatically began preparing his republic for much greater freedom, if not for actual independence. He appointed professional economists and managers to high posts, and he began to seek the advice of foreign development and business experts. The outlawing of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (CPK), which followed the attempted coup, also permitted Nazarbayev to take virtually complete control of the republic's economy, more than 90% of which had been under the partial or complete direction of the central Soviet government until late 1991. Nazarbayev solidified his position by winning an uncontested election for president in December 1991.
A week after the election, Nazarbayev became the president of an independent state when the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus signed documents dissolving the Soviet Union. Nazarbayev quickly convened a meeting of the leaders of the five Central Asian states, thus effectively raising the specter of a "Turkic" confederation of former republics as a counterweight to the "Slavic" states (Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) in whatever federation might succeed the Soviet Union. This move persuaded the three Slavic presidents to include Kazakhstan among the signatories to a recast document of dissolution. Thus, the capital of Kazakhstan lent its name to the Alma-Ata Declaration, in which eleven of the fifteen Soviet republics announced the expansion of the thirteen-day-old CIS. On December 16, 1991, just five days before that declaration, Kazakhstan had become the last of the republics to proclaim its independence.
Kazakhstan has followed the same general political pattern as the other four Central Asian states. After declaring independence from the Soviet political structure completely dominated by Moscow and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) until 1991, Kazakhstan retained the basic governmental structure and, in fact, most of the same leadership that had occupied the top levels of power in 1990. Nursultan Nazarbayev, first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (CPK) beginning in 1989, was elected president of the republic in 1991 and remained in undisputed power five years later. Nazarbayev took several effective steps to ensure his position. The constitution of 1993 made the prime minister and the Council of Ministers responsible solely to the president, and in 1995 a new constitution reinforced that relationship. Furthermore, opposition parties were severely limited by legal restrictions on their activities. Within that rigid framework, Nazarbayev gained substantial popularity by limiting the economic shock of separation from the security of the Soviet Union and by maintaining ethnic harmony in the highly diverse country with more than 100 different nationalities.
In the mid-1990s, Russia remained the most important sponsor of Kazakhstan in economic and national security matters, but in such matters Nazarbayev also backed the strengthening of the multinational structures of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose confederation that succeeded the Soviet Union. As sensitive ethnic, national security, and economic issues cooled relations with Russia in the 1990s, Nazarbayev cultivated relations with the People's Republic of China, the other Central Asian nations, and the West. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan remains principally dependent on Russia.
Current issues include: resolving ethnic differences; speeding up market reforms; establishing stable relations with Russia, China, and other foreign powers; and developing and expanding the country's abundant energy resources.
Mike Edwards: "Kazakhstan - Facing the nightmare" National Geographic Magazine March 1993