Monthly Archives: August 2009

Kazakhstan: Thousands of Ethnic Groups in Exile

Making Connections in Kazakhstan

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Zhibek Zholy, the main pedestrian mall in Kazakhstan’s largest city of Almaty, is bustling with activity on a sweltering August afternoon.

Zhibek Zholy

Korean telecommunications giant LG sponsored the entrance to Almaty's main shopping district of Zhibek Zholy.

Under the large neon sign for LG, the Korean telecommunications company, stalls sell clothing, food and drinks and cellphone plans. The Silk Way City Mall beckons shoppers, where several floors are packed with tourist wares made in China, only 322 km (200 mi) away.

Oil Paintings on Zhibek Zholy in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Oil Paintings on Zhibek Zholy in Almaty, Kazakhstan

One street vendor hawks allegedly authentic Soviet-era pins out of a briefcase, deftly replacing the set from his pocket after each sale. Homemade oil paintings line one block, portraying small yurts amid green valleys and snowcapped mountains.

On one corner is the 4A Coffee Shop, which beats Starbucks for its great coffee, western-style desserts (the carrot cake is delicious!) and sandwiches and low-key atmosphere. Owner Alan Draper moved here in 2005 after marrying a Kazakhstani woman, and opened the coffee shop in 2007. Despite challenges in importing coffee beans, the coffee quality is superb. The shop is popular for international travelers.

Alan Draper, 4A Coffee in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Alan Draper, an American from Texas who married a Kazakh woman, opened 4A Coffee Shop in February 2007. The Western-style cafe is a popular storefront on Zhibek Zholy, the main shopping district in Almaty.

What is most striking to me is the diversity of the shoppers: Central Asian Kazakhs with darker features, East Asians and whites with blond hair and green eyes — who could be of Russian, Polish or German ethnicity. But most people appear to be some mix. In a country of 16 million people, there are more than 120 ethnicities, and residents say intermarriage has become more common in the past 10 years.

The country has more than 2,000 religious groups, according to the Kazakhstan President’s Foreign Investors’ Council. More than half the country are largely-secular Muslims, and about 40 percent are Eastern-Orthodox Russians, and there is a small but long-standing Jewish community.

Russian settlers in Kazakhstan, 1911.

Russian settlers in Kazakhstan, 1911. / Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

But they did not wind up in the steppes of Central Asia by accident. Rather, most Kazakhstanis were sent here in exile by the Soviet government.

“In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution began a process of nation building,” said New York University Prof. in a lecture in April 2009. “The USSR government was terrified with the Muslim concentration, so they wanted to break them up. During World War II when Jews evacuated Europe, many came to Kazakhstan.”

Hundreds of thousands of Russians came in three different time periods: during industrialization in the 1920s, forced here during World War II, and during the Virgin Lands Campaign to farm the land in the 1950s, according to the BBC.

Korean soldiers in Far East Russia, c. 1930  / Koryo Saram

Korean soldiers in Far East Russia, c. 1930 / Koryo Saram

In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin forced nearly 200,000 Koreans from Far Eastern USSR to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, according to Koryo Saram, who co-directed the film “The Unreliable People” (2007) about the Korean exodus to the country.

Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev at an Almaty ministerial meeting of UNESCAP in 2007.

Despite the potential for ethnic tension, especially during the Georgia-Russia conflict in 2008, the country has remained “in a delicate ethnic balance,” Estriakh says.

Residents say the main reason is that unlike strict Muslim governments in nearby countries like Uzbekistan, the secular Kazakhstani government allows everyone to celebrate their religious holidays. There has also been government stability, with President Nursultan Nazarbayev in power since independence in 1991. •

Kazakhstan: Geography: From the Silk Road to Skiing

Making Connections in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan: Geography: From the Silk Road to Skiing
This is Part 2 of the Skyline Stories series “Making Connections in Kazakhstan.”
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ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Stepping off the Aerosvitt jet at the Almaty International Airport at dawn, I was struck by the natural beauty of the region — it looked like a painting, with the snowcapped Tian Shan Mountains and forests stretching along the horizon. Elsewhere in the country are forests, lakes, canyons and prehistoric glaciers, the Times reports.

Almaty International Airport, Kazakhstan

Stepping off the plane at Almaty International Airport, roughly at dawn. Air Astana is a Kazakhstani airline, Astana is the country's capital. The snowcapped mountains in the background are probably the Tian Shan mountain range.

Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth-largest nation by size, and Saudi Aramco World says it’s five times the size of France:

“It stretches about 3000 kilometers (1875 mi) from the Altai Mountains in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west, and about 2000 kilometers (1250 mi) from the southern Ural Mountains in the north to the Tien Shan Mountains in the south.”

Map of Kazakhstan

Map of Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan was also an important part of the Silk Road that linked China to Europe, the New York Times says, and the country has “museum-quality ruins and architecture from the Middle Ages.”


The history of civilization in Kazakhstan goes as far back as the Iron Age, writes the magazine Saudi Aramco World. The earliest finds of archeologists indicate settlements in the steppe in the Neolithic and Late Neolithic periods (8000-2000 BC).

A significant number of the ancient caravan routes that linked China with the countries of the Near East and Europe, collectively known today as the Silk Roads, crossed Central Asia at various times from the third century BC all the way to the 19th century of our era.

All along the Silk Roads, towns and cities developed in whose noisy and colorful markets the din of dozens of languages could be heard. Archeologists in Kazakhstan continue to discover today coins, statues, vases, textiles, decorations and other artifacts that originated in India, Byzantium, Persia and China.

The first Kazakh state emerged in the 15th and 16th centuries, on the ruins of the Mongol empire.

In the colonial era, the great natural wealth of raw materials in the Kazakh lands attracted the Russian Empire. Kazakhstan, in addition, represented a tremendous market for Russian manufactured goods, offered “empty” territories for expansion, and lay on the route to the wealth of Samarkand and Bukhara and further to the India of legend.

Western visitors came in the 19th century, per the Times:
“William Moorcroft of the British East India Company, one of the first Westerners to visit the region in the 19th century, found the steppes exotic and lawless. His Russian rival, Mehkti Rafailov, had been escorted by a troop of Cossacks when he explored here.”

Now the visitors are businesspeople, who ski or explore the nature preserves on the outskirts of Almaty, the Times continues.