Norman Davies

How Russia lost Kazakhstan

Almaty (photo: iStock)

Prior to Russia’s invasion in February 2022, few westerners knew much about Ukraine, and even less about Kazakhstan. We all suffer from Moscow-centred perceptions and the bad habit of equating the Soviet Union with Russia. 

But now we know that Putin is driven by spurious historical theories, in which Ukraine has no right to exist, one needs to ask how they might apply to other ex-Russian provinces. Nowhere is more affected than European Russia’s eastern neighbour, Kazakhstan, which separates Muscovy from China, in the same way that Ukraine and Belarus divide it from the EU and Nato.  

Ukraine is half as big again as France or Germany. But ‘KZ’ dwarfs it. From end to end, Kazakhstan covers the same space as from Portugal to Poland. Yet this vast land contains only 19 to 20 million people. 

Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan has a turbulent and tragic history. The part of Central Asia yet to be called Kazakhstan was conquered by Tsarist Russia in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Like the North American ‘frontier’, it was dominated by a network of military forts and cavalry trails. But, unlike the mid-West or Canada, it was not settled by overwhelming numbers of Europeans. A grand assortment of largely Turkic-speaking, Asiatic nomads roamed the steppe, living in yurts and tending their herds of sheep and horses. The Kazakhs were but the largest group amongst Kirghiz, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Nogay, Tatars, and many others.  

The mountains of Kazakhstan, 1935 (image: Alamy)

After the revolutions of 1917, Central Asia broke free, as did all of the empire’s non-Russian regions. In December 1917, a regime was set up under the misleading title of the ‘Alash Autonomy’, whose ruling Alash party had been recognised by Russian Provisional Government. Based in Orenburg on the Ural – the original Cossack stronghold for the conquest of Central Asia – it was in fact independent, since the Bolsheviks were otherwise engaged.

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