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The term Kirgiz was first used in the eighth century in reference to the tribes occupying the upper reaches of the Yenisey River. Historians disagree on the early history of the Kirgiz; but in the tenth century they apparently began migrating south searching for new pastures or driven by other people--particularly the Mongols in the thirteenth century--until they settled in the present-day Kirgiz Republic. By the early sixteenth century, they were the area's predominant people. Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, the Kirgiz people alternated between periods of tribal independence and foreign conquest. They were overrun by the Kalmyks late in the seventeenth century, the Manchus in the mid-eighteenth century, and the Kokand Khanate in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Russian conquest of the Kirgiz began in the mid-nineteenth century, and by 1876 they were absorbed into the Russian Empire. Kirgizia became a major area of Russian colonization, with Russians and other Slavs given the best land to settle, reducing considerably the grazing lands used by the Kirgiz nomads. Kirgiz resentment against Russian colonization policies and conscription for noncombatant duties in the army led to a major revolt throughout Russia's Central Asian territory, including Kirgizia. Casualties were high on both sides, and thousands of Kirgiz fled with their flocks to Afghanistan and China.

The tsarist government did not recognize the Kirgiz as a separate national entity or political unit. Kirgizia, along with other Turkic nations of Central Asia, was included in Russian Turkestan, created in 1867. At first the Bolshevik attitude toward the Kirgiz was equally unenlightened. Having defeated the nationalists, the White armies (see Glossary), and foreign interventionists in Kirgizia by 1919, the Bolsheviks included it in the newly established Turkestan Autonomous Republic. In 1924 the Kara-Kirgiz Autonomous Oblast was created (called Kara-Kirgiz to distinguish it from the Kazakh Autonomous Republic, which was named the Kirgiz Autonomous Republic). In 1925 it was renamed the Kirgiz Autonomous Oblast and in 1926 the Kirgiz Autonomous Republic. In 1936 it became a union republic.

In the first years of their rule, Soviet authorities continued the colonization policies of the tsarist regime. The Soviet government mitigated its policy, however, after the Basmachi Rebellion, a popular Turkic nationalist movement that swept former Turkestan from 1918 to 1924 and recurred periodically until 1931. In the mid-1920s, the Soviet government permitted traditional Kirgiz culture to flourish. It also promoted the creation of native leadership and slowed the influx of Slavs into the region. In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, these policies were replaced by Stalin's program of forced denomadization and collectivization and replacement of the Kirgiz intelligentsia and leadership with an ideologically acceptable Stalinist elite. Some Kirgiz protested by slaughtering their herds or driving them into China. Nevertheless, by 1933 about 67 percent of the nomads were collectivized. The Kirgiz intelligentsia was decimated. Many Kirgiz members of the CPSU in the republic were purged. Despite the turmoil, the Kirgiz subsequently achieved some industrialization, a higher standard of living, and substantial achievements in education.

According to the 1989 census, slightly more than 2.5 million Kirgiz lived in the Soviet Union, 88 percent of them in the Kirgiz Republic. About 175,000 Kirgiz also resided in the Uzbek Republic.

According to the 1989 census, the Kirgiz, with 52 percent of the population, for the first time in decades constituted a majority within their own republic. Russians, with almost 22 percent of the population, were second. Other large minorities included the Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Germans, and Tatars. Like other Muslim groups in the Soviet Union, the Kirgiz showed a phenomenal population growth between 1959 and 1979. While the population of the Soviet Union grew by 15.8 percent between 1959 and 1970, the Kirgiz increased by 49.8 percent. As a result, the proportion of the Kirgiz in the republic has been steadily increasing, while the Russian share of the population has been declining despite their continuous immigration into the republic.

The Kirgiz language, which belongs to the Turkic group of languages prevalent in Soviet Central Asia, has three regional dialects. A Kirgiz literary language was not fully developed until the Soviet period. It merges all three dialects and incorporates Iranian, Arabic, and Russian elements. Like other Turkic languages of Soviet Central Asia, the Kirgiz language first used an Arabic script, which later was replaced by a Latin script in 1928 and finally by a Cyrillic one in the early 1940s. According to the 1989 census, Kirgiz was spoken as a native language by about 97.8 percent of all Kirgiz in the Soviet Union and 99.5 percent of those living in the Kirgiz Republic.

The Kirgiz were the least urbanized major nationality in the Soviet Union. During the 1970s, only 14.5 percent of the Kirgiz lived in urban areas. In the Kirgiz Republic, they constituted less than one-fifth of the republic's urban population. Russians residing in the republic were the most urbanized segment of the population, with over half of them living in towns and cities. In 1989 the Kirgiz Republic was the second least urbanized republic in the Soviet Union, with 40 percent of its population residing in urban areas. Frunze, the capital and largest city, had a population of 616,000, and Osh had over 200,000; but only one other city had a population of more than 50,000.

In the 1970s, the Kirgiz were eighth among the seventeen major nationalities in number of students attending institutions of higher education and fourteenth in the number of scientific workers per thousand. In 1987 the Kirgiz Republic ranked eleventh among the fifteen union republics in number of individuals with higher or secondary education per thousand residents.

In the 1980s, the Kirgiz ranked eleventh in CPSU membership corresponding to their share of the population. The Kirgiz Republic ranked twelfth among Soviet republics in the percentage of its citizens belonging to the CPSU, but Russians residing in the republic were clearly overrepresented.

Data as of May 1989

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