Thursday, November 28, 2019

Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, Two Nations Very Similar and Very Different

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 24 – Of all of Stalin’s acts of ethnic engineering, the one that seems the most perverse to many is his division of the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, two formerly nomadic Muslim peoples who speak mutually intelligible Turkic languages, especially because in tsarist times, the Kazakhs were called Kyrgyz and the Kyrgyz, Kara-Kyrgyz.

            The rest of the territorial delimitation of Central Asia makes more or less sense. The two sedentary peoples, the Uzbek and the Tajik, were at least in principle divided by language, the first being Turkic and the second Persian-speaking. The Turkmens, a nomadic Turkic group, were south of these two.  But the situation to the north seems unnecessary.

            In fact, as the Central Asia page on the Yandex media makes clear, that division makes complete sense, a reflection of the fact that the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are two nations that at one and the same time are very similar and very different (

            As far as language and culture are concerned, the page says, the two are beyond doubt close fraternal peoples and historically interacted in ways that reflected that fact. But with regard to origins, political history and the nature of their nomadic life, the two peoples are very, very different.

            The Kyrgyz are one of the oldest Turkic peoples, with a history of having their own state extending back to the second century BCE.  They originated in the Yenisei valley, with some of their descendants becoming the Khakass, the Chulym, and the Shors after the Kyrgyz themselves moved to their current location.

            The Kazakhs, in contrast, are “a relatively new people who arose as the eastern part of the Kipchaks who united under the power of the Golden Horde but at the time of its disintegration did not want to subordinate themselves to the Uzbek khans. We even know the exact date when they received independence,” the page says, 1465. 

            Both the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs were nomadic for most of their history, until forcibly sedentarized by the Soviets. But they were very different nomads: The Kyrgyz moved relatively short distances up and down the mountains with their flocks, while the Kazakhs travelled long distances.

            As a result, the Kyrgyz identity was based on patrilineal descent; and Kyrgyz to this day are able to list their seven direct male ancestors in order to determine their links with other Kyrgyz. The Kazakhs in contrast formed three zhus or tribal confederations, another historic identity that remains powerful even now.  

                Genetically they are also somewhat different: the Kazakhs are “more European,” while the Kyrgyz are “more Eastern Asiatic,” the page says, a reflection of their contacts with Europeans and Asians in the past. But what is perhaps most important for these fraternal peoples now is that they have never had any major military conflicts.

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