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Kazakhstan is a huge country - bigger than all of Western Europe put together, and the ninth largest country in the world overall. It's pretty empty, though, with less than 15 people per square mile on average.
The vast majority of Kazakhstan lies in Asia, but a small corner in the west is on the western bank of the Ural river, putting it in Europe. This is very important for the Kazakhs, as it entitles the country to participate in European projects, receive European funding and enter its football team in the more prestigous European competitions. Culturally it is unmistakeably Central Asia, however...
During most of its history the land that is now Kazakhstan has been inhabited by nomadic tribes. Many tribes that invaded Europe, namely the Scythians, the Huns and the Mongols, passed through the Kazakh steppes first. The various tribes left their mark on the genetic and cultural portrait of the local population. By the 15th century the majority of modern Kazakhstan was inhabited by nomadic tribes who spoke a Turkic language with some Persian and Mongolian influences, believed in Sunni Islam (although not as devoutly as Middle-Easterners) and were ruled by an aristocracy that consisted almost entirely of Genghis Khan's patrilinear descendants. There were very few cities and they were mostly concentrated in the south, where there were fewer nomads. Some of these cities (e.g. Turkestan, Taraz and Shymkent) still exist.
The Kazakh nation was born in mid-15th century, after several tribes led by Janibek Khan and Kerey Khan protested against the allegedly unjust rule of Abu'l-Khayr Khan and his Khanate of Nomadic Uzbeks (only partially related to modern Uzbeks). These tribes seceded from his Khanate, migrated away from his territory (they were nomads, so it was easy to do) and formed their own Kazakh Khanate that was divided into three Hordes, the Greater, the Middle and the Lesser. The Kazakhs fought a long war against Abu'l-Khayr and his heirs and eventually succeeded in conquering most of northern Central Asia and driving the Uzbeks to the south. However, the "federal government" of the Khanate was unable to reign in the three Hordes and for most of its existence the Hordes were de facto independent.
In the 17th century the Kazakh lands were invaded repeatedly by Dzungars from the east. Kazakhs took heavy losses, so the ruler of the Lesser Horde Abul Khair Khan (no relation to the aforementioned Uzbek Khan) asked the Russian Empire for a defensive alliance. The Russians, falsely believing that Abul Khair represents all Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, construed his request as a plead to join the Russian Empire. They almost immediately set about taking control of the Lesser Horde and by the 1820s all three Hordes were under their control. In the documents of the time Kazakhs are referred to by Russians as the "Kirghiz-Kaisaks", or just "Kirghiz" for short, while the actual Kyrgyz were dubbed "Kara-Kirghiz", or "the Black Kyrgyz". The imperial days for Kazakhstan were characterised by intensive construction of forts and towns, settlement by Russian and Ukrainian peasants and Cossacks, as well as occasional native rebellions, caused by land disputes, taxation and (during World War I) conscription.
After the Russian revolutions Alash-Orda, a party of Kazakh secular nationalists, tried to organise a national government, but they were opposed both by local Bolshevik-sympathisers and Russian monarchists, most of whom were Cossacks. Eventually Kazakhstan became part of Soviet Russia and in 1936 it became a Soviet republic in its own right. Major events in Kazakhstan during Stalin's rule included the collectivisation which resulted in a massive famine around the same time as Ukraine's Holodomor, construction of major GULAG labour camps, as well as the evacuation of many people and factories from European Russia to Kazakhstan during World War II. Some of these factories remained, contirbuting to the industrialisation of this formerly agricultural economy. Also, around the middle of the 20th century huge deposits of fossil fuels, metals and other mineral resources were discovered in the country. From then on Kazakhs boast that their land contains all the elements of the periodic table (and no, not just potassium).
During Khrushchev's time Kazakhstan was the subject of the infamous "Virgin Lands" campaign, in which the Soviet government encouraged Russians, Ukrainians and other people of the Soviet Union to emigrate to large empty areas such as the steppes of Kazakhstan and start farming them. In fact, by independence, incomers outnumbered Kazakhs - though most of the Russians went home afterwards. Nevertheless, ethnic Russians still comprise about 20% of the population, and the percentage of people whose primary language is Russian could be anywhere up to a half of the total population. That number would include nearly all the Ukrainians, Jews, Germans and Koreans in the country, most of whom lost their respective languages, as well as a large number of urban Kazakhs.
Kazakhstan was also the site of much of the USSR's nuclear and space programmes, with Baikonur Cosmodrome being perhaps the best-known. The Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site is still an unsafe area and there are still many children born with genetic disorders. Another major environmental disaster in Soviet-era Kazakhstan was the destruction of the Aral Sea. The Soviet leadership decided that the arid regions of Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan should become cotton-growing regions. This required a lot of irrigation, for which the two rivers that flow into the Aral Sea were used. As a result, the amount of water reaching the sea dropped with every succesive year. This development was even encouraged by some Soviet officials, who claimed that the Aral Sea had to disappear for the sake of progress. Not only did this destroy the region's traditional fishing industry, it also caused major dust storms as the salt from the exposed bottom of the sea was seized by the wind.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan found itself as one of the world's largest nuclear powers by dint of having lots of missiles based there. They quickly boxed them up and sent them back to Russia. However, as part of the agreement by which the Russian Federation would still be allowed to use Baikonur Cosmodrome (at a rent cost disputed by both countries), the Kazakhs were given their Buran space shuttles - which were promptly left to rust away. Despite the massive environmental impact of the Cosmodrome, the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and the Aral Sea, as well as the social impact of the population transfers, several major GULAG camps, the destruction of the traditional nomadic lifestyle and the pervasive neglect of Kazakh-language education in the Soviet times, most Kazakhs hold no grudges against the Russians and have a neutral-to-positive view of their Soviet past. This is due in part to the pivotal Soviet role in the formation of a national entity based along the Kazakh ethnic group, along with the region's first literacy and industrialization programs (mirroring those that appeared elsewhere in Soviet Central Asia), alongside the promotion of the first ethnically-Kazakh politicians to the highest seats of government since the region's annexation by the Romanov Monarchy, like Saktagan Baishev (before the Soviet period, all leaders were ethnic Slavs appointed by the Imperial court).
Ultimately, Kazakhstan was the last Soviet Republic to secede from the Union, on the 16th of December, 1991. Since then it has been led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose internal authoritarian policies, tolerance of widespread corruption and rampant election fraud in every election ever held make him resemble a less Ax Crazy Saparmurat Niyazov (unlike Niyazov's isolationism, for instance, Nazarbayev's foreign policy is based on having good relations with the USA and Russia). Despite the administrative inefficiency, corruption and usual social issues that accompanied The Great Politics Mess-Up (poverty and the like), Kazakhstan's economy has grown more or less steadily since, largely due to its natural reserves and oil exports, but it took a big hit from the 2008-2009 global economic unpleasantness. The government has also taken successful steps towards restoring its side of the Aral Sea, unlike Uzbekistan.
Kazakhstan in Media
- Borat: Cultural learnings of America for make benefit great nation of Kazakhstan, though this has very little to do with the real country. The numbers of Western tourists visiting Kazakhstan predictably skyrocketed; it must be said that the majority of these didn't believe the film to be an accurate portrayal but it inspired them to go and discover what Kazakhstan is really like.
- When England recently played the country in a football match, fans were told that wearing a mankini would get them arrested. (And we're all very grateful that we hadn't to break out the Brain Bleach.)
- The final part of The Zahir, one of the "pilgrimage novels" by the Brazilian author Paolo Coelho, is set in Kazakhstan. Coelho spent some time in Kazakhstan doing the research, so the depiction of the country in this 2005 novel is more accurate than it is in the above movie.
- The GURPS worldbook Transhuman Space portrays 22nd century Kazakhstan as a nightmarish Police State similar to North Korea.
- H/Allelujah Haptism, one of the four (technically five) major characters of Mobile Suit Gundam 00, is Kazakh.
- Roza Rymbaeva is a pop singer from Kazakhstan who sings in both Russian and Kazakh.
- Timur Bekmambetov, director of Wanted and Night Watch films and co-producer of Nine.
- The first stage of Strider is set in a futuristic (but still communist) Kazakhstan, complete with Soviet robots doing That Russian Squat Dance.
- Ghost Recon 2: Summit Strike takes place in Kazakhstan where the Ghosts must stop terrorists from taking control of the country.
- GhostRecon: Shadow Wars is also set there.
- The Needle: Viktor Tsoi movie set in Almaty and on an Aral Sea "coast".