Kazakhstan as a single entity with defined boundaries was an invention of the Soviet regime in the 1920s. Before that, the great bulk of this territory was part of the domain of nomadic horseback animal herders that stretched right across the Eurasian steppe. At times some of its various peoples fell under the sway of regional or continental potentates; at other times they were left to sort themselves out. From around the 9th century AD the far south came within the ambit of the settled Silk Road civilisations of Transoxiana (the area between the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers). A people who can be identified as Kazakhs first emerged in southeastern Kazakhstan in the 15th century. Over time they came to cover a territory roughly approximating modern Kazakhstan, though some of this continued to be governed periodically from elsewhere and/or occupied by other peoples. The borders of Soviet Kazakhstan excluded some Kazakh-populated areas and included some areas with non-Kazakh populations.

Early Peoples

Kazakhstan's early history is a shadowy procession of nomadic peoples, most of whom moved in from the east and left few records. By around 500 BC southern Kazakhstan was inhabited by the Saka, part of the vast network of nomadic Scythian cultures that stretched across the steppes from the Altay to Ukraine. The Saka left many burial mounds, in some of which fabulous hoards of gold jewellery, often with animal motifs, have been found (many examples can be seen in Kazakhstan's museums). Most splendid of all is the 'Golden Man', a warrior’s costume that has become a Kazakhstan national symbol.

From 200 BC the Huns, followed by various Turkic peoples, arrived from what are now Mongolia and northern China. The early Turks left totemlike carved stones known as balbals, bearing the images of honoured chiefs, at sacred and burial sites, and these too can be seen in many Kazakhstan museums. From about AD 550 to 750 the southern half of Kazakhstan was the western extremity of the Manchuria-based Kök (Blue) Turk empire.

The far south was within the sphere of the Bukhara-based Samanid dynasty from the mid-9th century, and here cities such as Otrar and Yasy (Turkestan) developed on the back of agriculture and Silk Road trade. The Karakhanid Turks from the southern Kazakh steppe ousted the Samanids in the late 10th century, taking up the Samanids’ settled ways (and Islam) and constructing some of Kazakhstan’s earliest surviving buildings (in and around Taraz).

Chinggis (Genghis) Khan

Around AD 1130 the Karakhanids were displaced by the Khitans, a Buddhist people driven out of Mongolia and northern China. The Khitan state, known as the Karakitay empire, stretched from Xinjiang to Transoxiana, but in the early 13th century it became prey to rising powers at both extremities. To the west, based in Khorezm, south of the Aral Sea, was the Khorezmshah empire, which took Transoxiana in 1210. To the east was Chinggis Khan, who sent an army to crush the Karakitay in 1218, then turned to the Khorezmshah empire, which had misguidedly murdered 450 of his merchants at Otrar. The biggest-ever Mongol army (200,000 or so) sacked the Khorezmian cities of Otrar, Bukhara and Samarkand, then swept on towards Europe and the Middle East. Central Asia became part of the Mongol empire.

On Chinggis Khan’s death in 1227, his enormous empire was divided between his sons. The lands furthest from the Mongol heartland – north and west of the Aral Sea – went to the descendants of his eldest son Jochi and became known as the Golden Horde. Southeastern Kazakhstan was part of the Chaghatai khanate, the lands that went to Chinggis’ second son Chaghatai. In the late 14th century far southern Kazakhstan was conquered by Timur from Samarkand, who constructed Kazakhstan's one great surviving Silk Road building, the Yasaui Mausoleum at Turkestan.

The Kazakhs

The story of the Kazakhs starts with the Uzbeks, a group of Islamised Mongols named after leader Özbeg (Uzbek), who were left in control of most of the Kazakh steppe as the Golden Horde disintegrated in the 15th century.

In 1468 an internal feud split the Uzbeks into two groups. Those who ended up south of the Syr-Darya ruled from Bukhara as the Shaybanid dynasty and ultimately gave their name to modern Uzbekistan. Those who stayed north remained nomadic and became the Kazakhs, taking their name from a Turkic word meaning 'free rider' or 'adventurer'. The Kazakh khanate that resulted was a confederation of nomadic peoples that by the 18th century stretched over most of southern, western and central Kazakhstan, descendants of the Mongols and earlier Turkic inhabitants.

The Kazakhs grouped into three ‘hordes’ (zhuz), with which Kazakhs today still identify: the Great Horde in the south, the Middle Horde in the centre, north and east, and the Little Horde in the west. Each was ruled by a khan and comprised a number of clans whose leaders held the title axial, bi or batyr.

The Zhungars (Oyrats), a warlike Mongol clan, subjugated eastern Kazakhstan between 1690 and 1720 in what Kazakhs call the Great Disaster. Abylay Khan, a Middle Horde leader who tried to unify Kazakh resistance to the Zhungars after 1720, was eventually elected khan of all three hordes in 1771, but by that time they were well on the way to becoming Russian vassals.

The Russians Arrive

Russia’s expansion across Siberia ran up against the Zhungars, against whom they built a line of forts along the Kazakhs’ northern border. The Kazakhs sought tsarist protection from the Zhungars, and the khans of all three hordes swore loyalty to the Russian crown between 1731 and 1742. Russia gradually extended its ‘protection’ of the khanates to their annexation and abolition, despite repeated Kazakh uprisings. By some estimates one million of the four million Kazakhs died in revolts and famines before 1870. Meanwhile, the abolition of serfdom in Russia and Ukraine in 1861 stimulated peasant settlers to move into Kazakhstan.

Communist Takeover & 'Development'

In the chaos following the Russian Revolution of 1917, a Kazakh nationalist party, Alash Orda, tried to establish an independent government, based in Semey. As the Russian Civil War raged across Kazakhstan, Alash Orda eventually sided with the Bolsheviks, who emerged victorious in 1920 – only for Alash members soon to be purged from the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (CPK). Meanwhile, several hundred thousand Kazakhs fled to China and elsewhere.

The next disaster to befall the Kazakhs was denomadisation, between 1929 and 1933. Under Soviet government, the world’s biggest group of seminomadic people was pushed one step up the Marxist evolutionary ladder to become settled farmers in new collectives. Unused to agriculture and with the land not suited to intensive farming, they died in their hundreds of thousands from famine and disease.

In the 1930s and ’40s more and more people from other parts of the USSR – prisoners and others – were sent to work in labour camps and new industrial towns in Kazakhstan. They included entire peoples deported en masse from western areas of the USSR around the time of WWII. Kazakhstan was only second to Siberia in terms of gulag notoriety. A further 800,000 migrants arrived in the 1950s when Nikita Khrushchev decided to plough up 250,000 sq km of north Kazakhstan steppe to grow wheat in the Virgin Lands scheme.

The labour camps were wound down in the mid-1950s, but many survivors stayed on, and yet more Russians, Ukrainians and other Soviet nationalities arrived to mine and process Kazakhstan’s coal, iron and oil. The proportion of Kazakhs in Kazakhstan's population fell below 30%.

During the Cold War the USSR decided Kazakhstan was ‘empty’ and ‘remote’ enough to use for its chief nuclear-bomb testing ground (the Semipalatinsk Polygon). In 1989 Kazakhstan produced the first great popular protest movement the USSR had seen: the Nevada-Semey (Semipalatinsk) Movement, which forced an end to nuclear tests in Kazakhstan.

Independent Kazakhstan

Nursultan Nazarbayev began to rise up the CPK ranks in the 1970s. He became the party's first secretary in 1989 and has ruled Kazakhstan ever since. In 1991 Nazarbayev did not welcome the breakup of the USSR, and Kazakhstan was the last Soviet republic to declare independence. Multiparty elections in 1994 returned a parliament that obstructed Nazarbayev's free-market economic reforms, and he dissolved it in 1995, with new elections returning an assembly favourable to him. Soon afterwards an overwhelming referendum majority extended his presidential term until 2000.

In 1997 Nazarbayev moved Kazakhstan’s capital from Almaty to Nur-Sultan, then a medium-sized northern city, citing Nur-Sultan’s more central and less earthquake-prone location, and greater proximity to Russia. Nur-Sultan has been transformed into a capital for the 21st century with some spectacular new buildings and is a key symbol of Nazarbayev’s vision of Kazakhstan as a Eurasian economic and political hub, though some decry it as a shining monument to clanism and nepotism.

Nazarbayev's economic program was based on developing Kazakhstan's vast mineral resources. Western companies paid huge amounts to get a slice of Kazakhstan’s large oil and gas reserves, and by the dawn of the 21st century the country was posting 9% to 10% economic growth year after year, which kept Nazarbayev popular enough and helped maintain ethnic harmony too.

In 1999 Nazarbayev was assured of victory in new presidential elections after the main opposition leader, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, was barred from standing. Nazarbayev won new seven-year presidential terms in 2005, and then in 2011, both with over 90% of the vote. His political rivals and critics were frequently sacked, jailed or even, in two cases in 2005 and 2006, found shot dead. The government denied any involvement in the deaths.