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The origins of the Kazakh people and their name itself are matters of historical debate. First emerging as an identifiable group in the fifteenth century, they were a mix of indigenous Turkic tribes, which had been in the area since the eighth century, and nomadic Mongols, who invaded the area in the thirteenth century. Originally they differed little from their Turkic neighbors--the Uzbeks, the Kirgiz, and the Karakalpaks--but political divisions and different economic development caused them to enter the nineteenth century as distinctly different from the other three peoples.

Russians had limited and intermittent contacts with the Kazakhs between the mid-sixteenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century, when Russia began to exert control over them. Harassed by their neighbors, particularly the Kalmyks, in 1731 the nomadic Kazakhs placed themselves under the protection of the much more powerful Russian state. Afterward, Russian penetration into Kazakhstan was unremitting and included building a network of forts and settling the land with Russian peasants. Despite a series of Kazakh rebellions against them, Russian expansion continued, and by the second half of the nineteenth century Kazakhstan was firmly under Russian control. The tsarist policy of ending Kazakh nomadism and of settling the land with Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews continued. The new settlers received huge portions of the most fertile land. An almost exclusively non-Kazakh class of workers began to appear, and a budding industry, operated by the new immigrants, began to grow. These developments threatened to destroy the traditional form of existence of the Kazakh pastoral nomads.

The indigenous population's resentment against the settlers, as well as against conscription of Muslims into the military, erupted as a major rebellion in 1916 and, although quickly suppressed, set the stage for the nationalist movement in Kazakhstan following the February Revolution of 1917. Kazakh nationalists established a national government and engaged in an armed struggle against both pro- and anti-Bolshevik Russian forces. By mid-1919, however, weakened by the struggle, Kazakh nationalists sought accommodation with the Bolsheviks. In August 1920, the Kirgiz Autonomous Republic was established for the Kazakhs (until the mid-1920s Russians called them Kirgiz) within the Russian Republic. In 1925 it was renamed the Kazakh Autonomous Republic and became a union republic in 1936.

The Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War that followed further disrupted the traditional life of the Kazakhs. Many Kazakhs left with their herds for China and Afghanistan. Almost a million died from starvation in the famine of 1921-22. The rest were soon faced with forced collectivization, and a continuous influx of Russians and other people gradually reduced the Kazakhs to a minority in their own land. Kazakh leaders, even Kazakh communists, who protested these policies were purged or executed, first in the late 1920s and then during the purges of the Great Terror in the 1930s.

In 1989 the 8.1 million Kazakhs constituted the fifth most populous nationality in the Soviet Union. Over 6.5 million, or 80 percent of the Kazakhs, lived in the Kazakh Republic, by far the largest of the five Soviet Central Asian republics. In fact, after the Russian Republic, it was the second largest republic and had a territory of over 2.7 million square kilometers. It was also the least homogeneous of all the union republics. No nationality constituted a majority of the 16.5 million people in the Kazakh Republic. The Kazakhs, with nearly 40 percent of the population, did not even have a plurality. Russians, with about 38 percent, were the second most populous nationality in the Kazakh Republic. From 1959 to 1989, however, the Kazakhs have shown a steady increase in their share of the republic's population. Simultaneously, the percentage of Russians in the total population has declined. Ukrainians and Germans, the next two largest national minorities, whose individual shares made up about 5 percent and 6 percent of the population, respectively, also declined from 1959 to 1989. More than 1.5 million Kazakhs lived in other parts of the Soviet Union, with the largest concentrations in the Uzbek and Russian republics.

The language of the Kazakhs belongs to the same family of Turkic languages as the languages of the Kirgiz, the Uzbeks, and the Turkmens. Kazakh, a mix of spoken Kazakh with Arabic and Tatar elements, became a literary language in the 1860s. Until 1926, Kazakh had an Arabic script; from 1926 until 1940, it had a Latin alphabet; and since 1940, it has had a Cyrillic alphabet. In spite of the significant numbers of Russians and other nationalities in the republic, the Kazakhs have retained very high usage of their own language. In 1989 about 98 percent of the Kazakhs living in the republic regarded Kazakh as their native tongue. Of the non-Kazakh residents of the Kazakh Republic, only 1 percent could converse fluently in the Kazakh language.

In 1987 the great majority of the Kazakhs lived in rural areas. Nevertheless, because of the large numbers of urban Russians and other nationalities, 58 percent of the Kazakh Republic's population was urban. Many large cities were scattered throughout the republic. The capital city of Alma-Ata, for example, had a population of over 1.1 million in 1989. Other large cities included Karaganda (about 650,000) and five others having populations over 300,000.

In the 1980s, the Kazakh Republic ranked ninth among the fifteen union republics in the educational level of its residents. But the educational achievements of Russians residing in the republic were considerably higher than those of the indigenous Kazakhs. In 1970 forty-two Russians for every thirty-one Kazakhs studied in institutions of higher learning; and in special secondary schools the ratio was eighty-six Russians to thirty-six Kazakhs. Kazakhs ranked sixth among all nationalities in the number of students in higher education institutions and thirteenth in the number of scientific workers per thousand.

Between 1969 and 1989, Kazakh membership in the CPSU was considerably below their share of the country's population. In the Kazakh Republic, however, their membership in the party was somewhat higher than their share of the republic's population. Kazakhs also held a relatively high percentage of the leadership positions in the republic's party organization, with Russians or other Slavs generally acting as their deputies. Kazakh representation in the CPSU Central Committee nearly equaled their share of the population in the Soviet Union.

Data as of May 1989

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