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By Dina Zhansagimova
Bravo LtdCopyright © 2016 Dina Zhansagimova
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LAND & PEOPLE
Kazakhstan is a vast area of land in the heart of Eurasia, stretching nearly two thousand miles (3,000 km) from west to east, with a south–north range of more than a thousand miles (1,600 km). This huge territory is chiefly flat, covered in grass and shrubs, and is usually referred to as the Kazakh Steppe — a word of Russian derivation that can be defined as "terrain between forest and desert." Much of the Kazakh Steppe is semi-desert, and it gradually turns into desert farther south. The country is bordered by Russia's Ural Mountains in the northwest and a string of mighty mountain ranges along the south and east. The highest peak, Mount Khan Tengri ("Ruler of the Sky"), reaches nearly 23,000 feet (7,010 m). To the west lies the Caspian Sea, the largest lake on Earth, and the source of 90 percent of the world's caviar.
As many visitors to Kazakhstan can confirm, the size of the country really does matter, and not just from the traveling point of view. It is central to understanding the history of this place and its people. Endless grassland reaching the skyline, without a soul to be seen for many miles, is the essence of everything Kazakh. The territory is a staggering 1 million square miles (2.7 million sq. km) — about the size of Western Europe — with a mere sixteen million inhabitants (2009 census), most of whom live in the larger cities. Away from the towns it is not unusual to drive for hours without meeting anyone. This is especially true for the least-populated central and southwestern areas of the country.
Kazakhstan is not as monotonous as it may sound, however. In fact, the country features an exceptional variety of landscapes that often contrast with one another. The steppe itself, primarily in the center of the country, can take you by surprise with its many fresh and saltwater lakes, which attract a great variety of waterfowl, and hilly areas that reach up to 4,900 feet (1500 m) in height. Southern Kazakhstan, which was once crossed by an important branch of the Silk Road, boasts the well-watered and forested Karatau Mountains (Black Mountains), an area rich in plant life and home to many rare birds.
In the north the steppe suddenly turns into a delightful and diverse region full of rivers, lakes, hills, and forests. These are some of the most photographed places in the country, famous among vacationers from other regions and neighboring Russia. However, the most stunning views are to be found in and around the high Tien Shan, the mountain range in the southeast, and the Altai Mountains in the northeast. These two huge massifs are the main attraction — apart from the Caspian oil and gas industry — for most visitors who come to Kazakhstan.
The largest cities in Kazakhstan are Almaty in the southeast (the busiest and most developed in infrastructure), the entrepreneurial and trading city of Shymkent in the south, and the industrial town of Karaganda in central Kazakhstan. No less important are the new showcase capital of Astana in the north and Atyrau in the west — home to a large expatriate community working in the oil sector.
Apart from its size, another distinctive feature of Kazakhstan is its distance from the sea in all directions: it is as landlocked as it is possible to be. The country's only coastlines lie on closed seas — the Caspian and the Aral — which are, in fact, classified as lakes. This distance from the sea means that the country's climate is generally described as acutely continental, with hot, dry summers, very cold winters, and low precipitation. In the north the summer temperatures average 68°F (20°C) and winter temperatures average -4°F (-20°C). Extremes are not unusual: 104°F (40°C) in summer, and winter temperatures of -40°F (-40°C) are far from rare, especially in the central steppe and in the northeast. The ground is covered by snow for nearly six months, from late October to early April. Winds, including the occasional buran — the strong snowy wind from the northeast — are typical.
In the south the climate is milder, with less contrast, though summers are hot. In Almaty, the average temperature in July and August is 79°F (26°C), and by Kazakhstan standards the winters here are not as harsh as in the north, though temperatures occasionally fall to -4°F (-20°C). However, the high humidity levels typical of the area of Almaty, sheltered by the Tien Shan range, ensure that you feel the cold down to your bones. Sensitivity toward both the humidity and the outside temperature are different for local people and western travelers, so it is not always helpful to assume that what the natives are wearing is an indication of the temperature.
There are some winter hazards common to the larger towns and cities that you should be aware of. One is ice on the sidewalks — broken bones and sprained ankles are not unusual, even for ice-savvy locals. A second is that icicles fall from multistory apartment blocks; injuries from these are rare, but they can potentially kill. A third hazard is the marble floors in some new buildings, which can be extremely slippery when wet.
Further south, in the region bordering Uzbekistan, winters are much milder, with temperatures averaging 30°F (-1°C).
Historically this land was populated by a Turkic people called the Kazakhs, meaning, in their language, free warriors or wanderers. They now comprise 63 percent of the country's population of more than sixteen million. The remainder is a mixture of nationalities that migrated or were forced to move to Kazakhstan as the price of coexistence with Russia's tsarist and Soviet regimes. The country's Slavic population is dominated by Russians (24 percent of the total population, or about 3.8 million people) and includes Ukrainians (330,000 people), Belarusians (70,000), and Poles (34,000). Other major groups include ethnic Uzbeks (nearly half a million), Uighurs (225,000), Tatars (around 200,000), Germans (nearly 180,000), and Koreans (more than 100,000). Turks (Meskhetian), Kurds, Greeks, Jews, Gypsies, and some of the North and South Caucasus ethnic groups are less distinguishable yet have long been part of Kazakhstan's history.
There is no formal or clear division of territories populated by one ethnic group or another, though southern parts are dominated by Turkic and Muslim groups (Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Uighurs, Chinese Muslim Dungans, Turks, and others) while the northern areas are largely settled by Slavic and German peoples. Culturally, however, there is no great distinction between the communities, due to the long shared history and common usage of the Russian language. In towns and cities the division is even less noticeable. Kazakhs are truly proud of the fact that since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 there has been no noteworthy tension between the various nationality groups as in other parts of Central Asia. Some give credit to the traditional Kazakh values of tolerance and respect, and some to President Nazarbayev's success in restraining any outbreaks of nationalism.
Economically, Kazakhstanis are considered to be far better off than their Central Asian neighbors. Officially in 2010 there were just over a million people (6.5 percent of the total population) living below the minimum subsistence level. This figure was nearly five times lower than that for 2000. Government reforms of pensions and social welfare provision have succeeded in their attempt to address poverty in a comprehensive way. The official 2010 unemployment rate was 5.8 percent, half that of 2000.
These figures, however, do not reflect the disparity among social groups or the contrast between rural and urban life. In 2010 the top 10 percent had official incomes that were nearly six times greater than the bottom 10 percent. The actual gap is believed to be much greater. As in the other parts of the former Soviet Union, "the rich" are a relatively new class that emerged in the 1990s. Most are businessmen, who hugely benefited from early market reforms and privatization, and senior civil servants with power and connections to large business.
The poorest groups are to be found in the countryside, where nearly half of Kazakhstan's population lives. The rural poverty level is three times higher than that in towns and cities. You don't need to travel far into the heart of Kazakhstan's steppe to realize that the rural economy is in a submarginal state. The outskirts of the country's brand new capital, Astana, are a grim reminder of the fact that Kazakhstan is still a country in transition, with a long way to go to achieve prosperity for all its people.
If, however, you are in the heart of one of the bigger cities, like Almaty, Astana, or Atyrau, you are most likely to encounter the well-educated and fairly prosperous middle class. These are people who have adapted well to recent economic changes. The younger they are, the more likely they are to be progressive thinkers, free from the Soviet legacy, and eager to get the most out of their lives.
The Kazakhs are the dominant ethnic group in the country, but this wasn't always the case. Russia's imperial and then Soviet policy led to sharp falls in the Kazakh population during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many fled from new administrative changes and taxes imposed by the tsarist government, and many more died or were killed during the years of starvation and genocide of the 1930s Stalinist era. By 1939 there were fewer than 2.5 million Kazakhs left in the country. The picture changed after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, when many of Kazakhstan's Russians, Germans, and other ethnic groups that had either been forcibly settled in the country or had immigrated willingly in recent centuries chose to move back to their historic lands, while ethnic Kazakh communities living abroad started to settle back in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhs are generally perceived by fellow and neighboring nations as a very tolerant and open people who value two main things above all: peace, and their guests. Nomadic in the past, the Kazakhs have kept their friendliness and tradition of care toward travelers and newcomers, whether these visitors feel overwhelmed by the grasslands or just alone and awkward in an unfamiliar place.
In appearance, Kazakhs have Asian features, but there are distinctions between the browner southerners and the fairer-skinned northerly type; manners, language, and general conduct, however, really show the difference. Northern Kazakhs tend to regard the southerners as unintellectual and boastful, but respect their business sense; Southerners regard most of their northerly compatriots as being too slow in making decisions and generally boring. The most arrogant of all may be the inhabitants of Almaty — Kazakh or of any other nationality — who regard themselves as much more sophisticated because of the city's historic capital status.
As mentioned above, many Kazakh families that had fled the country in the early twentieth century are returning to settle there. Since independence, nearly half a million ethnic Kazakhs have been repatriated to various parts of Kazakhstan. They are called oralmans (returnees), and they form a new and unique group in modern Kazakh society. They managed to preserve the Kazakh language and customs while living abroad, and are also bringing back aspects of other cultures. While much has been done to support them in their resettlement, their economic and social integration remains a significant challenge. They are one of the most vulnerable groups living in the country, lacking the means and the skills to prosper in their new environment. Some have successfully integrated, but many have chosen to return to the regions from which they originally came. It is sad that local Kazakhs who had previously demonstrated remarkable tolerance toward newcomers from various backgrounds in the earlier periods of history are showing a less welcoming attitude toward those returning.
Russians are the second-largest ethnic group living in the country. They dominated the population during the years of the Soviet Union, but millions migrated to Russia in fear of economic depression and discrimination after the Union's breakup in 1991. Their fears did not materialize, and some of those who left in the early days of independence have since returned, but their status as citizens of independent Kazakhstan has changed.
Even though Russians still represent nearly a quarter of the country's population, their current representation in the government is minimal in comparison to the earlier Soviet period, when Russians were not just an ethnic majority but were also the political and social elite. At independence the Kazakh language became the official "state" language, and although Russian was given special status, remaining the main language used in the public sector, the change was hard for the non-Kazakh population, especially those in middle age. During the Soviet era Russian was introduced as the official language, and the general policy was that knowing Kazakh was not necessary. As a result, many Kazakh families, especially those in the bigger cities, lost their knowledge of their language. Official use of Kazakh is still quite limited, and learning it is not yet the norm.
The younger generation of Russians has adapted well to living in the newly created state. Russians nowadays are the bedrock of the country's urban middle class, owning small and medium-sized businesses in the manufacturing, trade, transport, communication, IT, and service sectors. However, wealthier Russian families try to send their children to study at Russian or Western European universities, preparing the ground for their smooth relocation in the future.
On an individual level there is a strongly sympathetic attitude, across all levels of society, toward Russians, who are regarded as honest, hardworking, and conscientious. Intermarriage between Russians and other nationality groups is still not common, but lifelong friendships are often made.
A small percentage of the population are neither Kazakh nor Russian. Most of these people were settled under a number of forced Soviet migration campaigns before and following the outbreak of the Second World War. Then, in the 1950s, many more immigrated willingly as part of the Virgin Lands campaign to cultivate cereals in the steppe. Some ethnic communities, such as the Uzbeks and the Dungans, had settled in Kazakhstan long before the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1917 for reasons of trade, business, and agriculture.
Most of these long-settled immigrants live in the southeast and south, the most fertile areas of the country, in distinct communities with their own subcultures and traditions. The main sources of income are agriculture — especially the growing of fruit and vegetables — and trade. The younger generation, notably Koreans and Azeris, are increasingly working in the bigger cities, in business, the financial sector, and banking.
Kazakhstan is a bilingual country. The dominant language used across all strata of society, especially in towns and cities, is still Russian, in which, according to the 2009 census, 85 percent of the population are fluent. Russian has special status as a language that can be used alongside Kazakh in government and public institutions.
Kazakh is the state or national language, and is promoted as a priority language to be used by government institutions and in Parliament. Its actual use by politicians is limited, however, due to the large number of Russian-speaking civil servants who do not know it well enough. It is widely used at an informal level, but less so during official meetings or in correspondence. However, it is the dominant language among the rural population, and about 60 percent of Kazakhstanis are fluent in Kazakh.
There is growing criticism over the constitutional status of Russian from some parts of the Kazakh community, who see it as the main obstacle to the development of Kazakh as the first language in the country. On the other hand, there are fears that stripping Russian of its official status may lead to another wave of emigration by Russian and other Slavic communities.
Excerpted from Kazakhstan by Dina Zhansagimova. Copyright © 2016 Dina Zhansagimova. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
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