Under Russian and Soviet rule

The inflow of settlers from other parts of the Russian Empire deprived the Kazakhs of much pastureland, making it increasingly difficult to sustain the nomadic way of life. Industry, and especially mining, developed. Russian and European culture began to influence Kazakh society. A new Kazakh literature and intelligentsia appeared. The first Kazakh writer of modern times was the jadid or "enlightener" Shokan Valikhanov (1835-65).


In 1916, during World War I, Czarist forces suppressed an uprising against conscription. Thousands of Kazakhs fled with their livestock to China. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, a Kazakh nationalist movement called Alash Orda (named after Alash) proclaimed a short-lived independent republic. Civil war continued until 1920, when the Kazakh lands were brought under the firm control of Soviet Russia.

Kazakh SSR
The flag of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (public source)

The flag of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic

The Soviet regime at first gave the Kazakhs an autonomous republic within Russia. It was not until 1936 that the Kazakh Autonomous Republic became the Kazakh SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic.)

Soviet repression

Between 1929 and 1932, Stalin forced the Kazakhs to give up the nomadic life and join collective farms. Many resisted and were imprisoned or shot. Famine ensued. Many more refugees fled to China. In the course of the 1930s, over 40% of Kazakhs died from starvation, epidemics, and executions.

Inflow of Non-Kazakhs

In their place came millions of non-Kazakhs. Stalin used Kazakhstan as the destination for deported Russian and Ukrainian kulaks (well-to-do peasants) as well as for peoples he deported during the Second World War—Chechens, ethnic Germans from the Volga region, and Koreans from the Russian Far East. Later, at the time of Khrushchev's Virgin Lands’ campaign, a new wave of Russian-speaking migrants came to cultivate the Kazakh steppe. The share of Kazakhs in the population fell from 57% in 1926 to 30% in 1959.

Kazakhstan used for nuclear and chemical weapons testing
IAEA radiological assessment team, Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, June 2010 (Photo: G. Proehl/IAEA)

IAEA radiological assessment team, Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, June 2010 (Photo: G. Proehl/IAEA)

A nuclear weapons test site was set up near Semipalatinsk, with dire effects on the health of the local inhabitants. Semipalatinsk was the site of 456 nuclear tests - 116 atmospheric and 340 underground - from 1949 to 1989. The region's high frequency of diseases, now affecting a third generation, is primarily due to fallout. Twenty years after its closure, the International Atomic Energy Agency was calling for cordoning off the most highly contaminated areas of the site. 

A series of U.S.-Russian-Kazakh joint projects over the 1996-2012 period and costing $150 million mostly funded by the U.S. secured plutonium located at the site.

Chemical weapons were also tested near the River Emba in western Kazakhstan.

One of the Soviet Union's two space centers (cosmodromes) was built at Baikonur in southern Kazakhstan.