Much archaeological and documentary evidence establishes the continuous history of Kazakhstan from the Late Paleolithic era. In the late Bronze Age (end of the second to the beginning of the first millenia B.C. ) the inhabitants of the steppe region began practicing nomadic animal husbandry, mining, and the production of bronze wares. More than 100 settlements dating to the Bronze Age, with foundaries for the fusion of metals and the manufacture of weapons, tools, and ornaments, have been discovered. In the following period (roughly from the first millenium B.C. to the Christian Era) the nomadic tribes of Kazakhstan began to consolidate into larger units—the Saks (Scythians) tribal union in southern (Semirechie), eastern, and central Kazakhstan, and the Savromat Confederacy to the west and partly to the north. Ideologically, the cults of the sun and fire dominated worship of the goddess-guardian of the domestic hearth and of fertility and totemism, and magical practices were retained. The well-known Scythian-Saksian style flourished, renowned to this day for its artistry and expressivity. Subsequently, new, more powerful tribal unities developed, these showing early signs of centralized state power: Usuni, and Kangyugi (in southern Kazakhstan the Semirechie), which maintained contacts with Bactria and the empires of Kushan, Panthia, and China.
In the second 500 years of the first millennium A.D. a process of feudalization took place. Powerful feudal states such as the Old Turkish, Tyurgesh, Karluk, Oguz, Kumak, and Kipchak ruled the region, with each tending to replace the next. In 1219-1220 Mongol Tatars conquered the region; their rule restricted cultural and economic development. The emergence of the Kazakhs as a distinct ethnic group occurred in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with the rise of the Kazakh Khanate. There were three powerful entities called zhuz (Russian: orda): the Old Zhuz in southern Kazakhstan and the Semirechie, the Middle Zhuz in central and northern Kazakhstan, and the Young Zhuz in western Kazakhstan. At the start of the nineteenth century the Bukeev Zhuz broke away from the Young Zhuz and occupied the Pre-Caspian steppe between the Volga and Ural rivers. Each of the zhuzes consisted of a number of tribes, which were further subdivided into smaller tribes and clans within the tribes. The clans were unified internally by common ancestry.
During the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries the "traditional" culture of the Kazakhs was established, including house type, furnishings, utensils, clothing, food, rituals, art, and oral tradition. All customs and beliefs were strongly influenced by the nomadic and seminomadic animal husbandry that was the basis of Kazakh life.
In the first quarter of the eighteenth century the survival of the Kazakhs was threatened by invasions of the Jungans from the east in 1713, 1718, and 1722-1723, a period known as "the years of the great disaster." The Jungans seized a significant amount of Kazakh land, and some Kazakh tribes and clans fled west and established protective ties with the Russians. In 1731 the Kazakhs of the Young Zhuz (Khan Abulkhair) and some from the Middle Zhuz accepted Russian citizenship. The unification of Kazakhstan with Russia was completed by the 1860s, and, as a result, the Kazakh steppe was ringed by Russian military lines and fortifications, which served to strengthen the Russian Empire. The basic military force was drawn from Cossack settlements, to which were given over 67 million hectares of the best Kazakh land. During the unification process the power of the Kazakh khans was weakened (the Young Zhuz in 1824 and the Nukeev Zhuz in 1845), and a new administrative system based on the rule of the czar was introduced. The new system delineated the following territories: West-Siberian, later Steppe (with the Akmolinsk and Semipalatinsk regions); Orenburg, with its Ural and Tungai provinces; Turkestan territory, with its Syr-Dal'in and Semirechie provinces. In turn the provinces ( oblasts ) were subdivided into regions ( uezds ) and the regions into districts ( volosts ) . Kazakh lands were declared to be state property and granted for usufruct without a time limit.
During this period, the Kazakh economy also changed markedly. Trade increased, agriculture developed, and the first industrial enterprises, mainly devoted to the processing of agricultural raw materials, were developed. The territory was also settled by large numbers of peasants from European Russia, and Kazakhstan became a multicultural region. The presence of the Russians affected the Kazakhs in a variety of ways. On the one hand, they lost large tracts of the best pasturage because this land was allotted to the settlers. On the other hand, the settlers were involved in the development of Kazakh agriculture and the emergence of a Kazakh ethnic consciousness. A Kazakh bourgeoisie was born, and a working class began to emerge—both entirely new social groupings for the Kazakhs.
During World War I large numbers of Kazakhs were mobilized for rear-echelon work. In 1916 an anticolonial movement flared up, only to be harshly suppressed; 300,000 Kazakhs were forced to migrate beyond the boundaries of Russia, some to China and Mongolia. During the 1917 Revolution and the civil war and in subsequent periods, the Kazakhs shared the same fate as other peoples of the USSR. On the one hand, a backward, agrarian region was transformed into an agricultural, industrialized republic. As a result, a high culture emerged, characterized by literature, art, science, and technology. These years, however, were also marked by cruel famines, especially during the years of massive collectivization, which for the pastoral Kazakhs was accompanied by enforced settlement, epidemics, and many Stalinist repressions that killed millions of people. For example, during the famines of the 1930s the populations of entire villages perished—hundreds of thousands of Kazakh families. Those who survived left their property and herds behind and set off for Siberia, Central Asia, and other regions. Approximately 1 million Kazakhs dispersed in China, Mongolia, Afghanistan, and other countries. Nearly 200,000 of these returned in 1934; the rest remained abroad. During the 1930s, mass purges and campaigns against "enemies of the people" were carried out among the Kazakhs, as among the other peoples of the USSR. As a result of all these tragic events, 1.75 million Kazakhs perished—nearly 40 percent of the total population.
Despite these horrific human losses, the national economy of Kazakhstan nevertheless developed steadily. In the prewar years, 200 large-scale industrial enterprises were established, land-tenure regulations for the former Kazakh nomads and seminomads were implemented, and livestock raising and agriculture were improved.
World War II interrupted the peaceful development of the Kazakh Republic. More than 1.2 million citizens of Kazakhstan were drafted into military service and participated in the defense of the USSR. According to data from 1946, 96,638 Kazakh veterans received decorations and medals of distinction.
During the war the Kazakh homeland also played a vital role in the country's economy, providing coal, oil, and various metals and furnishing the army with food products. Also during the war, Kazakhstan accommodated more than 1 million Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, and other peoples of the Soviet Union evacuated from frontline areas.
In the postwar period, the Kazakhs endured several unfortunate events. In the mid-1950s, there was a mass "opening up" of the virgin steppe lands. With the help of 640,000 immigrant workers who arrived to aid the Kazakhs, more than 1.8 million hectares of land were plowed and sown—that is, approximately 60 percent of the total area of the country's newly opened land. In 1956 Kazakhstan provided the state with more than 1 billion puds (36 billion lbs/16.38 billion kg) of bread. This was more than in the eleven preceding years combined. The virgin land epic was ill-conceived, however. Over a huge area the most fertile layer of soil (humus) was destroyed by erosion. In addition, the lands previously used for pasture, the best ones, were reduced, which seriously undermined the basis of the Kazakhs' traditional occupation, livestock raising. The ecological situation in Kazakhstan deteriorated, as the plowing up of the steppes resulted in a reduction of the number of livestock and the stocks of wild animals and birds and the drying up of the rivers and lakes.
In the rural areas, less than one-half of all children are provided with preschool institutions; most medical facilities are ill-equipped, lacking medicine and medical supplies; and hospital beds are poorly distributed. The homes of rural Kazakhs, as a rule, lack running water and sewer systems; more than 700 settlements use imported water. Many cities, including large ones, are experiencing a severe shortage of water. In remote districts, where mainly Kazakhs dwell, a low standard of living remains: there is a high infant and maternal mortality rate and a high rate of disease in general.
Not every aspect of the development of industry was well received. Although Kazakhstan is an industrially developed country, the structure of the national economy is one-sided: the principle emphasis has been on the attainment and initial processing of raw materials. All of these factors led to serious socioeconomic complications and to a shortage of industrial goods and food products.
To this one must add the irreparable changes in the ecosystem as a result of 40 years of systematic nuclear testing in the Semipalatinsk region. The air, earth, rivers, and lakes of the once-blossoming region were contaminated with radioactivity in a large area around the testing ground; the people, especially the children, as well as the animals and plants are suffering from the effects of these acts.
An ecological tragedy is coming about with the unprecedented drying up of the Aral Sea. Because of the shortage of water, the dispersal of poisonous chemical fertilizers, and the general contamination of the land and water, everyone living within a few kilometers of the Aral Sea is perishing. The tragedy affects not only Kazakhs but other peoples as well—the Turkmens, the Uzbeks, and the Karakalpaks who live in the basin of the Aral Sea.
The events outlined above have led to an exacerbation of socioeconomic and political problems and to dissatisfaction manifesting itself in various ways. On 17 December 1986 student disturbances broke out in the capital of Kazakhstan, Alma-Ata. As a result of provocation, clashes between youths and the militia flared up, causing numerous casualties. Nearly 1,700 people were injured and more than 8,000 arrested and detained, many of whom were convicted. At the present time these events have been reappraised as struggles for democratic freedom. December 17 has been proclaimed Kazakhstan's Day of Democracy.
In June 1989 long unresolved social problems in the city of Novyi Uzen' (Mangyshlak Peninsula) led to interethnic conflicts—members of seventy ethnic groups, many from the Caucasus, live in the city alongside Kazakhs. As a result of the riots, lives were lost and strikes were held repeatedly at the mines of the Karagandin coal basin.
The modern political life of the Kazakhs is very active. Legislators are passing a series of laws that are fundamentally changing the lives of the people of Kazakhstan. The president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, was popularly elected and enjoys the support of most of the population, especially the Kazakhs. In September 1991, the Communist party of Kazakhstan was renamed the Socialist party. Other parties have arisen, including the Social Democratic party, the Alash Party of National Independence, and the Republican party, along with many social movements. Testing at the atomic proving ground of Semipalatinsk Oblast has been discontinued. The Aral Sea Basin has been declared a zone of ecological disaster, and measures are being taken to rectify the aftereffects of this catastrophe. Among the laws adopted by the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan, notable are the laws connected with the development of the culture and language of the Kazakh people as well as those of other ethnic groups living in the territory of Kazakhstan. The Kazakh language has become the state language, although Russian continues to be the language of international relations. Legislation about teaching and record keeping in the languages of other nationalities in areas where they live in dense concentration has also been passed.
Fundamental economic changes have come about. Joint-stock companies, cooperative works, and the privatization of businesses have been authorized. The number of farm-based economies is growing. Land is given to farmers for unlimited use, including the right to inherit it. On collective and state farms, leases are receiving widespread distribution; anyone may rent a portion of land to cultivate crops, in return for a portion of the harvest but is entitled to sell the remainder at market price. Since 1992, in Kazakhstan as in many other republics of the former USSR, free prices for food and industrial products have been introduced, with the exception of products of primary necessity. In short, a market economy is being developed.