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The People of Kazakhstan, Way of Life

kokpar, opium poppies, collective farms, shabat, nomadic people

Kazakhs were once an exclusively nomadic people who herded livestock on the vast steppes of northern Kazakhstan. This nomadic way of life continued until the late 1920s, when the Kazakhs were forced to settle. However, Kazakhs continue to identify with their nomadic ancestry. Today, some Kazakhs are seminomadic shabans (shepherds), working as employees of the state and of collective farms. For part of each year they reside in the steppes and mountain areas in portable, felt-covered dwellings called yurts, while they watch over their grazing herds. Kazakhs who reside in cities are more likely to demonstrate a mix of Kazakh and Russian cultural influences because of their interaction with the large urban Russian populations.

In Kazakhstan’s cities, residents eat both Russian and Kazakh dishes. In rural areas, the typical diet is similar to that of the early Kazakh nomads. The daily diet consists mainly of meat (especially mutton, beef, and qazy, or horse meat), served with rice or noodles, many types of milk products, and large loaves of unleavened bread. Smoked sausages made of qazy are a Kazakh specialty. Tea is served several times a day, while qymyz (fermented mare’s milk) and shabat (fermented camel’s milk) are prepared for special festivities.

Kazakhs wear both Western-style and traditional clothing. Men may wear a European suit with a Kazakh-style felt hat. Most villagers live in brick homes with electricity but without running water. While some city residents live in houses, most live in small apartments built during the Soviet period. Kazakhs enjoy many family-centered social activities, such as visiting relatives and attending family celebrations. Popular spectator sports include soccer, wrestling, and horse racing. Kazakhs also play traditional horseback games that are said to date from the 13th century. In one such game, called kokpar, two teams of players compete to drag a goat carcass into a goal.

Living standards have deteriorated for most people in Kazakhstan since the republic became independent in 1991. This deterioration is largely a result of economic reforms aimed at developing a free-market system. Crime (especially theft) and unemployment have risen considerably, and many people, especially the rural poor and the elderly, are finding it difficult to make ends meet. In 1995, for example, the prices of essential commodities rose sharply, while wages decreased. Rural populations attempting to offset falling incomes have increased cultivation of crops used to produce illegal drugs, such as opium poppies; the government has appealed to the United Nations (UN) to help combat this problem. Former Communist officials are the most privileged group in Kazakhstan. They form a small wealthy elite that has benefited from privatization (the transfer of enterprises from the public to the private sector). The country’s economic elite also includes entrepreneurs who import consumer goods on a large scale.

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