Until the 19th century, this region was largely untouched except by Kazakh nomads and their herds. As Russia’s hand stretched southwards, Russian and Ukrainian settlers came to farm the steppe – a million or more by 1900. In Soviet times, the Kazakhs were forced into collective farms, and industrial cities such as Karaganda and Kostanay sprouted to exploit coal, iron ore and other minerals, while over a million political prisoners suffered in the huge KarLag labour-camp complex around Karaganda. In the 1950s vast areas of steppe were turned over to wheat in Nikita Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands scheme, bringing in yet more settlers, though the scheme never came to fruition.
In the 1950s most of the labour camps were closed, but a lot of survivors stayed. After the Soviet collapse many ethnic Germans, Russians and Ukrainians emigrated, but Kazakhs still number less than one-third in several areas.