Identification. Kazakhs are a Central Asian people who live mainly in Kazakhstan, formerly the Kazakh SSR. The so-called Kirghiz SSR was established as part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic in 1920 and renamed the Kazakh SSR in 1926. In 1991 it declared its sovereignty and independence and began to be called the Republic of Kazakhstan. Toward the end of 1991 it voluntarily joined the other states that formed the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Republic of Kazakhstan is a multicultural state, with members of numerous different ethnic groups living there. A significant portion of the population is Slavic, mainly Russians and Ukrainians, who constitute nearly half the population in some northern areas. Also living in Kazakhstan are Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmens, Uighur, Tatars, Dungans, Germans, Koreans, Greeks, Kurds, Turks, Mordvins, and many peoples from the Caucasus, especially the northern Caucasus.
The self-name of the Kazakh people—"Kazakh" or "Kazak"—has existed, according to written sources, since the seventeenth century and was generally known to neighboring peoples by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Russians, who called them "Kazakhs" or "the Kazatskaye" (or also "Kazattskaya"), subsequently began to call them "Kyrgyz" (although the actual Kyrgyz are the Karakyrgyz or Will Stone Kyrgyz), "Kazak-Kyrgyz," "Kyrgyz-Kaisak," and "Kyrgyz-Kazakh." This occurred because the Russians sought to differentiate the Kazakhs from the Russian Cossacks who had settled in neighboring regions of Siberia at the beginning of the eighteenth century, or in Kazakh territory itself. Only in 1926, when the Kazakhs gained national autonomy, was the name of the Kirghiz ASSR changed to Kazakh and did the Kazakhs regain the use of their traditional name.
Location. The territory of the Kazakhs, known as Kazakhstan, is quite large. It stretches from the Balkhash Lowlands in the east to the Ural River in the west (about 3,000 kilometers) and from the Syr Darya and Chu river systems and the Tobol River in the south to the Imum and the Irtysh rivers in the north (about 2,000 kilometers). Basically the region consists of steppe, desert, and semidesert lands, which in the east and southeast are bounded by the Altai and Tianshan massifs. In the extreme northwest are the southern marshes of the Common Syrt; in the south the wide, flat Pre-Caspian Lowlands and, further on, the desert peninsula of Mangyshlak. The Ural River flows almost all the way across the Common Syrt and the Pre-Caspian Lowlands, emptying into the Caspian Sea. To the west, Europe begins at the Ural Mountains, and Asia is to the east.
The Mangyshlak Peninsula, along with the low mountain ridges of the Aktar and Karatar, is distinguished by deep hollows, the deepest of which—Karagie—is 132 meters below sea level. To the east from Mangyshlak there extends the desert plateau of Ust Urt. Both of these places are now used by the Kazakhs for winter pasturage. To the northeast lie the Pre-Caspian Lowlands bordering the spurs of the Urals and the low mountain massif of Mugogzhari. Further east lie the Turgay plateau and, south of it, the Tuvan Lowlands filled by the desert of Kyzylkum. To the north of the Aral Sea are the sandy massifs of the great and small Balger. The desert of the Pre-Aral Kanakum is north of the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea has recently become well known, as it is gradually growing shallow and creating an ecological crisis. Since ancient times, the Kazakhs have used this region for winter pasturage for their cattle.
Further to the east, the Kazakhs occupy the southern region of the western Siberian plain, to the south of which spreads the fine summer pasturage that the Kazakhs affectionately call the Sary-Arka. Yet further to the south is the desert of Betpak-Dala. The Chu River, its waters flowing from the west, separates the southern part of Betpak-Dala from the sands of Muyunkum. From the southeast to the northwest the land is framed by the mountain ridges of the Karatay. To the east of the Betpak-Dala Desert lies Lake Balkhash and, to the south of the lake, the well-known province of Gernirechye, or, as the Kazakhs call it, Jetys.
The wide variation in the landscape and variable distances from the oceans have led to a climate that is basically continental but with marked regional variation. In the north the winters are cold and long, with temperatures dipping to as low as -45° C. In the central regions winters are moderate, and in the south they are gentle and short, almost without snow. Summers are dry and range from warm in the north to hot in the south.
Precipitation is rare almost everywhere other than the mountains, and especially so in the desert regions, where it is less than 10 centimeters per year. Only in the foothills and mountains is rainfall plentiful, ranging from 40 to 160 centimeters per year. Winds blow across the entire region; in the steppe lands these winds turn into severe snowstorms ( buran ) in the winter, and in the fall (and less often in the summer) into dust storms. The variations in topogaphy and climate have also produced marked variation in the distribution of water sources. Although there are about 85,000 lakes, many are in the mountains in the north, with hardly any in the desert and semidesert regions. The water level in lakes and rivers rises and falls markedly with the seasons, and during droughts some dry up completely in the summer months. The water in the great majority of lakes is saline. Fresh water is found only in the steppe lands and the mountains and in the flatland along the major rivers and lakes. The two seas—the Caspian and Aral—and the largest lakes, including Balkhash, are isolated basins. Only major rivers such as the Ishim, Irtysh, and Tobal cross the Kazakh region and extend into other regions.
The flora is diverse. Many varieties of grain (feather grass, wormwood, and tipchak —an oatlike grass that grows in steppes and deserts) flourish in the steppe in the north; the main summer pasturage is found here. Wormwood and grasses predominate in semidesert regions. Most of Kazakh territory is desert covered by drought-resistant bushes, small brush, and different grasses called salt grass ( solyanka ) . In the sandy deserts are sand wormwood, sage, acacias, and haloxyon ( saksaul ) . In the flatland are tugainye woods, and around the lakes reeds are found in abundance. The foothills are covered with poppies and tulips. Higher up in the mountains are bushes and mixed woods of aspen and birch and, even higher, coniferous forests. In the forest belt, fed by the glacial streams, are alpine and subalpine meadows with a rich variety of flora. The soil in Kazakhstan is mostly fertile. In the north it is chernozem, to the south chermits soils are most common, and in the desert regions there is a mix of red-brown, grey-brown, and sandy soils. Agriculture in the desert regions requires irrigation.
As with the flora, there is also a rich variety of fauna including 155 varieties of mammals, 480 of birds, 49 of reptiles, 11 of amphibians, 150 of fish, and many invertebrates.
Demography. According to the 1989 census, there were 8,136,000 Kazakhs in the lands of the Soviet Union, with 6,535,000 in Kazakhstan. Kazakhs also live in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in Central Asia and in Russia. Over 1 million live in other countries, mainly China, Mongolia, and Turkey, and in Europe.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Kazakh language belongs to the Northwest or Kipchak Group of Turkish languages of the Ural-Altaic Family. Together with Karakalpak and Nogay it forms the Kipchak-Nogay Subgroup of the Kipchak languages. Kazakh has three dialects—Western, North-Eastern, and Southern.