Kazakhstan — History and Culture
Kazakhstan’s history is characterized by great conflict, first between competing nomadic tribes and then against the Soviet powers. Today, the country is relatively prosperous but suffers from political strife. Kazakh culture strongly reflects the country’s past in terms of nomadic and immigrant influences.
Kazakhstan’s history began in the 13th century with the migration of Mongols and Turkic nomads to the region. Conflict characterized the locals’ relationship with the Mongol forces, namely Genghis Khan and his fierce army, who looted and pillaged towns in an attempt to gain land.
Russian powers took control of the Kazakh region in the 18th century, but not without a fight. While initially native Kazakhs were aligned with the Russians to seek protection, they began to loosen ties as Russia’s intentions for domination were made clear. Several rebellions were staged, most notably in 1916 and then again in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution, an attempt to prevent complete annexation. These efforts failed as the Russian forces brutally suppressed the uprisings and Kazakhstan became a republic of the Soviet Union.
Under Soviet rule, Kazakhstan became the center for nuclear development and space exploration. The Baikonur Cosmodrome was the site of the first ever space operation, manned by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Today, visitors can tour the historic site and even witness actual launches.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991 and joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, a regional organization comprised of countries formerly belonging to Soviet forces. Nursultan Nazarbayev, once the only Kazakh member of the Russian parliament, and his People’s Unity Party were voted into power in 1991.
Today, the Kazakh government is characterized by nepotism and corruption although, thankfully, not the brutal authoritarianism of the past. The country has a wealth of unexploited resources, oil being the largest, and if used smartly, these assets could make Kazakhstan an economical powerhouse in the years to come.
Kazakhstan’s culture is largely influenced by the country’s history of nomadic migration. From the Turkic people to the Russian emigrants, and the introduction of Islam in the 7th century, the country has a diverse and eclectic past which can be seen in the local cuisine, music and religion.
Kazak cuisine is centered heavily on meat, which means that vegetarians may face a challenge. Horse and lamb are the most popular. Cooking techniques are reminiscent of the nomadic lifestyle of preservation, including the boiling, slating and drying of meats. Favorite dishes include shuzhuk (sausages made of horsemeat) and pilaf (meat and vegetables served on rice).
Traditional Kazakh music is based strongly on folklore which has been influenced more by the nomadic tribes than the Russian immigrants. Folkloric music is comprised mainly of vocals and traditional instruments. Russian musical influences can be seen in the orchestral traditions in the country. Most of the concert halls and opera houses were established during the Soviet era and remain a piece of history today.