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The Kazakhs were a nomad people, descended - like the Kirghiz, the Turkmen and the Uzbeks - from Turkic invaders from the north-east, who overran Central Asia in the sixth century. This was warrior stock, which eventually provided the backbone of the Mongolian army that Genghiz Khan led to conquests on a scale unheard of before his time and scarcely imitated since. The Chinese had their own theory for the origins of these fearsome tribes, believing them to be a branch of the Hsiung-nu, who were traditional adversaries from the mountainous region north of the Gobi desert. According to this mythology the Turks had been wiped out in some obscurely ancient time by an unspecified enemy. The sole survivor was a ten-year-old boy, left to die with his feet cut off but nourished back to health by a she-wolf. Eventually the two had intercourse and, having impregnated the wolf, the boy disappears from the tale. The wolf took refuge in the Tien Shan and there produced a litter of ten males, which she reared to maturity. Each married a human, multiplied and dispersed. One of them founded the line which after several generations became the Turks.

This fable is as serviceable as any that might be concocted, for there is no written record of anything in Central Asia until two centuries after the Turkic invasion is believed to have occurred. The genealogy of the Kazakhs does not become much less hazy until it is possible to identify them with the Kypchalc tribes, a sub-species of Turk who were part of the Mongolian army which marched on Russia early in the thirteenth century and held it in thrall from 1240 to 1480. This was the supremacy of the Golden Horde, which was initially imposed by Genghiz Khan's grandson Batu, whose army besieged Kiev - seat of the Russian grand prince and also of the Orthodox metropolitan - and reduced it to rubble within a few days. 

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse

Present-day Kazakhstan is the result of centuries-long emerging and fading of tribes and states in the vast steppe between the Altai and the Volga. The development of separate statehood was long delayed, due both to the nomadic lifestyle of the tribes living on the territory and to frequent incursions from outside, ethnic migration movements and, last but not least, due to everlasting inner struggles for power among Kazakh tribal associations.

Kazakhstan as a single entity with defined boundaries was an invention of the Soviet regime in the 1920s. Before that, this territory – apart from the far south, which was within the ambit of the settled Silk Road civilisations of Transoxiana – was part of the domain of nomadic horseback animal herders that stretched right across the Asian steppe and into eastern Europe. Some of the various peoples here at times fell under the sway of regional or continental potentates; at other times they were left to sort themselves out.

A people who can be identified as Kazakhs emerged in southeastern Kazakhstan in the 15th century. Over time they came to cover a territory roughly approximating modern Kazakhstan, though some of this territory continued to be governed periodically from elsewhere and/or occupied by other peoples. The borders of Kazakhstan established by its Soviet rulers excluded some Kazakh-populated areas and included some areas with non-Kazakh populations.