Alternative names: Kirghiz (until 1925)
Location: Kazakhstan (Central Asia), other parts of the USSR, China, Mongolia, Afghanistan
Population: 6.6 million (USSR census 1979), 8 million (est. 1989)
% of population: 2.5% (1979), 2.8% (est. 1989)
Religion: Sunni Muslim
Language: Kazakh

The Kazakhs have the dubious distinction of being the only nationality in the USSR to constitute a minority in its native Union Republic (although demographic trends and a heightened sensitivity to European migration may soon redress this). The second largest Soviet Republic (after the RSFSR) it covers an area almost the size of Western Europe. Despite having the most Europeanized and secularized of the Muslim elites in Central Asia, the Kazakhs are experiencing a revival of Islamic awareness.

History and background

A mixture of Turkic and Mongol peoples, the Kazakhs led a nomadic existence until recent times. From the late fifteenth century they were organized into three great zhuz (hordes): the Greater, Middle and Lesser Hordes. The latter two hordes came under Russian protection as early as the 1730s, but the Greater Horde was not incorporated into the Empire until the 1860s. After some fierce resistance from local nationalists, Cossacks and White Army detachments, Soviet power was finally established in 1920, and the Kirghiz Autonomous Republic was admitted to the RSFSR. In 1925 it was renamed as the Kazakh ASSR (the people now known as Kirghiz were then called the Karakirghiz) and in 1936 it became the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.

In the 1930s the still largely nomadic Kazakhs were subjected to a brutal campaign of sedentarization. Nonetheless, elements of their tribal organization appear to have survived and many Kazakhs still identify first with their horde, then their tribe and only then with a nationality.

The area of Central Asia with the longest exposure to Russian colonization, Kazakhstan has long been recognized as an area of strategic importance. It has been the site of some of the Soviet Union’s most grandiose industrial (Turkestan-Siberian Railroad in the 1920s) and agricultural (the Virgin Lands scheme of the 1950s) projects, as well as the launch pad for the Soviet space programme (Baikonur) and the dumping-ground for deported nationalities (notably the Volga Germans and Koreans).

Constitution and law

In theory the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (population 16.5 million in 1989) is a sovereign state that has freely joined the USSR federation. In reality Kazakhstan hitherto has been a constituent part of the USSR, which controls its foreign affairs, military formations, economic and commercial relations in a highly centralized fashion. Although the Soviet Constitution of 1977 allows Kazakhstan to elect its own legislative (Supreme Soviet), executive (Council of Ministers) and judiciary (Supreme Court), control is exercised by the centralized and Russian-dominated Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). As part of the USSR federation, Kazakhstan elects 11 deputies to the Council of Nationalities and 14 to the Council of the Union in the 542-member Supreme Soviet of the USSR (every five years).

The Constitution also allows each Union Republic to secede from the USSR, but the primacy of All-Union legislation effectively renders this right invalid. Similarly, the constitutional provision that all citizens of the USSR of different races and nationalities have equal rights has been severely compromised by the domination in the USSR of Slavic (essentially Russian) political, cultural and economic norms.

Recent developments in political, economic and social rights

The most obvious benefit to the Kazakhs of Soviet power has been the spread of literacy. This has risen amongst the population in the nine to 49 age range from 8.1% in 1897 to 99.8% in 1979. However, there is little evidence of the long-advocated “drawing together” of Kazakh and Russian peoples. According to the 1979 census, only 131,000 (2%) of Kazakhs recognized Russian as their native language, although a further 52.3% claimed to speak it well. In contrast, only 353 out of the six million Russians in Kazakhstan (0.01%) named Kazakh as their native language and a mere 40,000 (0.66%) could speak it proficiently.

Although the Kazakhs have shown a greater propensity than their Turkic neighbours to migrate to Russia (500,000 or 7.9%), fully 91.9% of Kazakhs live in their native republic or Central Asia. Moreover, essentially all Kazakhs are Muslims and, together with their co-religionists of other Turkic nationalities, certainly already constitute a majority within the Republic. (The 1989 census will most probably reveal that the Kazakhs have overtaken the Russians as the most numerous nationality in Kazakhstan.)

The secularization of the Kazakh elite is reflected in the fact that there are almost as many Kazakhs (344,000 1982) in the CPSU as the far more numerous Uzbeks (411,000) although, at 1.9% of the overall membership, the Kazakhs are still under-represented. One of their number, Dinmukhamed Kunaev, served in the CPSU Politburo from 1972 until 1986 and his replacement by a Russian, Gennady Kolbin, sparked off ethnic violence in the capital, Alma Ata. Since then several senior Kazakh Party and state officials have been removed for corruption. In June 1989 there were serious clashes between Kazakhs and migrants from the Caucasus in the oil town of Novy Uzen on the Mangyshlak Peninsula, which resulted in five deaths and 50 injuries.

Minorities in Kazakhstan

Even if the Kazakhs have finally overtaken the Russians as the largest nationality in the Republic, Kazakhstan still has the biggest Russian population (6 million in 1979) outside the RSFSR and the Ukraine. The Russians tend to be concentrated in the Northern, Eastern and Central Regions, while the Kazakhs predominate in the South and West. Any attempts by the indigenous population to make Kazakh the official language of the Republic would clearly be resisted by the Russians who would claim that it is the lingua franca of all Soviet peoples.

The third largest national group in Kazakhstan are the Germans of whom there are 900,000 (6.1% 1979). The vast majority of these are Volga Germans deported from their autonomous republic in 1941 and still seeking to return to their homeland or, increasingly, to emigrate to West Germany. Another deported nationality in the Republic are the Koreans (92,000 or 0.6%) originally from the Soviet Far East.

There are also small minorities of Turkic Uigurs (148,000 or 1%) and Tibetan Dungans (22,500 or 0.2%) who have migrated from neighbouring China.